Tri It For Life helps make improbable become possible

Organization prepares women to compete in and finish a triathlon — and hopefully inspire a lifestyle change

(Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Wolita Belvet didn’t know how to swim 12 weeks ago. Now here she was on a bright Sunday morning, standing at the edge of an outdoor pool at the A.E. Finley YMCA preparing to dive headlong into her doubts.

At the start of a triathlon, no less.

“I went from zero to 60 just like that,” she said. “From doing nothing to doing a triathlon. Can you believe it?”

That’s a question that women of all ages, shapes and sizes from around the state have been asking themselves for the past decade after joining the Tri It For Life program and finishing their first race.

Belvet, a 55-year-old massage and bodywork therapist, was among the newest class of athletes to cross the finish line recently at the Ramblin’ Rose women’s sprint triathlon in Raleigh.

A Tri It For Life competitor walks her bike to the transition area before a practice triathlon in May. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Most of them could never have imagined themselves swimming a quarter mile in the pool, riding a bicycle nine miles around a hilly course or doing a two-mile run/walk — let alone all three one right after the other.

But that’s what Tri It For Life is all about.

A 12-week training course started in 2006 by Charlotte OB-GYN Dr. Alyse Kelly-Jones to help some of her friends and patients become healthier and more active, the group has grown to include nearly 1,000 members with chapters in Charlotte, Raleigh, Huntersville and Charleston, S.C.

Officially, its motto is “Inspiring women to move.” A more appropriate slogan might be “Convincing women that anything is possible … even the seemingly impossible.”

Impossible is how Belvet approached the idea of competing in a triathlon when she was recruited for Tri It For Life by a client, last year’s Raleigh chapter president Sharon Johnson.

“She told me all about it, and my first reaction was, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” Belvet said. “She was like, ‘Yes you can.’ I’d never done a bike race, never did a running race and I couldn’t swim, but she convinced me to go to the informational meeting. I did, and she was so right.”

Kelly-Jones had those same doubts when she decided to do her first triathlon. It was there, in Chapel Hill, that she saw a group of women wearing the race suits and decided to put together a club of her own in Charlotte.

“I just wanted to get people out there and moving,” she said. “But the people that finished the first year were like, ‘We can’t stop.’”

Kelly-Jones had no idea what kind of monster she was about to create.

The Tri It For Life program starts in February and begins with a skill assessment in all three disciplines. The new athletes then attend weekly group training sessions in the pool, on the bike and the run course, with specialized instruction geared to beginners and those with intermediate or advanced ability.

The training is done by Tri It For Life members, known as mentors, that have already completed the program and a triathlon.

“The beauty of it is how many of the women come back to pay it forward to the next group,” current Raleigh chapter president Martha Centeno said. “They realize it impacted their lives, and they can turn around and impact somebody else’s life.”

About three weeks before race day, the athletes do a mock triathlon on the Ramblin’ Rose course before earning their diplomas — or in this case, a medal at the finish line — by competing alongside 200 other women.

“You wonder are we all going to finish this at the end?” Centeno said. “But every single athlete we’ve had come up to the start line has finished. We take care of them.”

As much benefit as its members get from the physical aspect of training, mentoring and competing, there’s also a social aspect to Tri It For Life that keeps its members active and engaged.

“It’s a sisterhood,” said Johanna Outlaw, who did her first Ramblin’ Rose in 2014 and now serves as a mentor and Raleigh chapter board member. “We continue to go and support each other, even when we do other races.”

That support is especially important for athletes such as Outlaw, who is usually one of the last competitors to finish in every race she enters. It’s a status she’s embraced, to the point that she’s written a book about her experiences titled “Power of the Turtle: Tales of Being Dead Last.”

In some events, finishing long after the awards have been given out means coming across the line in virtual anonymity. But that doesn’t happen when the women of Tri It For Life are around.

No matter how long it takes, they wait for the final finisher — doing line dances to music being played over the PA system at a race in Chapel Hill — and cheer her in as though she’d won.

Which, in a way, she has.

As the Tri It For Life mentors tell their new athletes from the first day of the program, each competitor is running her own race. Regardless of what the standings might indicate, victory is achieved simply by finishing.

“It means the world,” Outlaw said of the support she and her teammates give to one another. “You’ve almost died out on the course, but when you come around the corner and they’re still there cheering for you, it gives you the energy to get across the finish. Then you’re already thinking about the next one. You’ve drank the Kool-Aid.”

After finishing in a time of two hours, eight minutes and 48 seconds, Belvet was definitely looking for something cold to drink. But she wasn’t ready to commit to doing the race again.

“I might do it again,” she said. “I’m definitely an advocate for it.”

According to group founder Kelly-Jones, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is only a small part of why so many of Tri It For Life athletes stick with the program and continue training for future triathlons and events such as the MS charity bike rides, 24 Hours of Booty and the Rex Hospital triathlon series.

“Yes, this is about finishing the triathlon, but it’s more about what it will do for the rest of your life,” she said. “It’s also about making the impossible seem possible, because if you can do this, what else can you do? What other thing can you overcome?

“It touches so many lives and as it’s passed on, that is really the gift of Tri It for Life. We don’t lift people up anymore. We kind of drag them down. This organization is about lifting people up and showing them what they’re capable of doing.”