As 8-year-old Parker Seward swung around the final lap in Able Academy's first-ever "Try-Athlon," he punched the air victoriously. Behind him, nearly a dozen other children would soon do the same.
At Seward's side, local triathlete Melanie Bocock kept pace with the crowd of heavily breathing kids, offering support as they ran, hopped and wheeled (the three activities selected in place of the traditional swim, biken and run combo) their way around the Able Academy driveway.
One by one, they cruised past the finish line. Some jumped for joy, others got high-fives from their teachers. Everyone, however, felt that overwhelming sense of accomplishment—that feeling of "Wow, I did it."
In that moment it was obvious: the school's first-ever "Try-Athlon" was a hit. Offering up a trifecta of fun, charitable giving and teachable moments, the event covered all the bases that its organizers had hoped it would. More than that, however, the race was the culmination of a lifelong friendship, and a reminder that through good friends all things are possible.
Like a triathlon, this story has many moving parts, so let's start at the beginning.
The year was 1986. Melanie Bocock and Colleen Cornwall were students at East Naples Middle School. Naples was still a tiny town, and the two became fast friends. A few years later, they'd each depart for different high schools, but they would always remain close. The men who would eventually become their husbands were childhood best friends and as such, Cornwall and Bocock couldn't help but to be best friends too.
"I would support Melanie in anything she did," swears Cornwall, CEO and founder of the Able Academy, a school for children with autism and other developmental needs. Bocock insists that she feels the same way about Cornwall.
This year, Bocock decided to complete an Ironman triathlon on her 40th birthday. Once she picked her race, she knew she wanted to turn her 140.6-mile journey into a fundraiser—to make meeting her goal about more than just her own ability to suffer for hours on end.
"I needed to make it more than just about me. Triathlon is kind of a selfish sport, so I didn't want it to be all about me," she said.
Immediately the Able Academy came to mind. She'd watched her dear friend build the small school from an idea to a single classroom to the beloved community institution it is now. She knew that as a nonprofit school, money—especially for scholarships—could be tight. And she knew that her struggles to finish her own race were dwarfed by the challenges that many of Able Academy's students face each day.
On her fundraising page hosted on the Able Academy website, she describes her decision to raise money for the Able Academy like this:
"Some mornings, at 4:30a.m., it takes every fiber of my being in order for me to will myself out of bed, into the car and to the pool or onto the bike or out the door to run. I am not naturally a morning person. In fact, before triathlon, I was a night owl whose idea of an early start was 7 a.m. On the difficult days, I really need reasons beyond a $5 medal and bragging rights to get this done. My challenge is nothing compared to the challenges being faced by families dealing with autism. There is no finish line for them. Their endurance event is lifelong."
But she also wanted to support her friend—whose friendship to her has been lifelong.
"We were in each other's weddings," explains Cornwall, adding, "I've been called to referee when Melanie and her husband have a disagreement. We've both always just encouraged each other, it's such a unique friendship; it's like a DNA strand the way it's continued to unfurl throughout our adult lives."
In the latest unraveling of the strand, Bocock committed to raising $5,000 for the school Cornwall started. As Bocock started her training, however, she quickly learned that the only thing harder than training for a full-length Ironman is trying to raise $5,000 in a down economy. With 100 or so days to go before Bocock's race, fundraising efforts were stalled at about the $1,000 mark.
Like any good friend, when Cornwall saw that Bocock needed help, she didn't hesitate to step in. The DNA strand unfurled a bit more and the Able Academy "Try-Athlon" was conceived.
"I thought, we should work this into an instructional unit. We've been recently working with the students on what it means to be giving, so this was a good fit."The school distributed pledge sheets to each student. The students took them around to their families and friends collecting donations for their own "Try-Athlon" efforts. The pledges would be added to Bocock's total, helping her inch toward her $5,000 goal.
But first the students had to complete their own race.
"We chose these things based on what we know our students are capable of doing and what they enjoy doing," said Cornwall. "The idea was how do we involve the kids and get them to understand what Melanie is doing for them?"
The day of the race turned out to be a beautiful one. Sunny and warm, the kids could hardly wait to get outside and start their race.
"How many things are we going to do?" Asked Cornwall.
"Three!" shouted the assembled group.
Pre-race festivities included a meet-and-greet with Bocock—who came decked with medals she's earned at other triathlons. When she walked into the classroom bearing all that heavy metal, it was like a rock star had entered. The kids could barely wait to ask her questions about what it's like to do a "real" triathlon.
After the medals had been passed around and dozens of questions asked, the first group of kids to race bounded outside and into the bright Florida sunshine. Cornwall explained that to keep things from getting too chaotic, the students would race in three groups. Each group would be timed as a team, so they weren't racing against the other kids so much as they were racing the other two teams.
"So if someone next to you falls down, do you keep going or do you stop to help them?" she asked the first group. The group solemnly promised to help their fellow classmates. Yet when she called "Go!" the race was on.
Kids bolted forward from the starting line, throttling up to top speed in a matter of footfalls. Around the driveway they charged, racing for home where their bikes, trikes and scooters were waiting.
"He's been talking about this triathlon for days," said Maria Farber, watching her son Dylan from the sidelines. According to Farber, Dylan had woken up the morning of the race concerned that his bike tires needed to be filled—luckily for Dylan, his mother had already seen to that.
"I loved watching him do the different activities today," said Farber, adding, "He's not always real coordinated, but he did great!"
And that was the point of the whole event. It wasn't about raising the most money or going the fastest or doing the most laps. Instead, it was about everyone doing their best. And it was about setting Bocock on her way with the support of the Able Academy behind her.
From now until March, Bocock will log hundreds of miles of running, biking and swimming. There will be 4 a.m. pool sessions and 100-plus mile bike rides. There will be sunburns and stomach cramps and weird tan lines. There will be a fair amount of begging for donations too. Bocock, however, has a new secret weapon.
At the end of the race, Cornwall asked her students if there was anything they wanted to tell Ms. Melanie. What followed was a chorus of confidences.
One kid blurted out: "I believe you can do it!"
Another added: "Yeah, you can do it!"
A third said: "You're awesome!"
Come race day, as Bocock finishes her 112-mile bike ride and starts the full-length marathon portion of her Ironman, these three sentences will be in her back pocket. The unwaveringly confident words of three children just may be the mantra that gets her to the finish line—and earns Able Academy some much needed funds.
"I have to finish now," admitted Bocock at the end of the Try-Athlon event. "I have a responsibility to them to finish."