This is a story by Julie B. Connerley printed in September 2005 in the Gulf Breeze News .
More than 900 athletes are registered to compete in the 10th annual Santa Rosa Island Triathlon this Saturday beginning at 7:30 a.m. on Pensacola Beach. Among them, mostly seasoned amateurs, some world class professionals, and always a new slate of “first timers” including a very special young lady named Lindsey Ellis.
Anyone who participates in triathlons will fondly recall his or her first competition. For Lindsey, 18, this event will be especially memorable because she has cerebral palsy and could not fulfill this dream without the help of many others.
It is Lindsey’s competitive spirit and joy of life that set the wheels in motion after she was introduced to running by her aunt, Wendy Ellis, about five years ago. Ellis, 44, has been teaching physical education in the Escambia County school district for the past 20 years. She has been running competitively for the past nine years and invited Lindsey along one fateful day.
With no use of her legs, and limited use of her arms, Lindsey concentrates on using her abdominal muscles to keep her upper body in the proper position as her aunt pushes the wheelchair along. After that first race, Lindsey was hooked and asked her aunt when was the next race and could they do it faster next time!
Lindsey’s family lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but whenever possible, aunt and niece have raced 5-k runs together. When Wendy was approaching 40, she set a goal of competing in her first triathlon by her birthday. She trained hard and that effort did not go unnoticed by Lindsey who decided she wanted to compete in a triathlon too!
Last year, Lindsey informed her aunt that she had written to Oprah Winfrey asking help to purchase the special equipment needed for them to participate in the event. That letter was an eye opener for Wendy.
“I had no idea how serious she was about wanting to do a triathlon,” said Ellis. “It was so inspiring to hear her determination that I immediately began looking for a source of funding to help us with the expenses.”
She found the financial resources through the BALANCE BAR Grants Program. Started in 1992, the Balance Bar company produces snack-type food bars based on the 40/30/30 nutrition philosophy for providing sustained energy and hunger management.Three years ago the company began a grants program to provide financial assistance ranging from $500 to $10,000 to recognize individuals whose dreams, if realized, would enrich their lives while enhancing their physical health.
From more than 1,000 essays submitted, only nine grants were awarded seven individuals and two teams. In April 2005, “Team Ellis” received the exciting news from Balance Bar that they would receive a $10,000 grant.
Upon hearing that “Team Ellis” has been chosen as one of the recipients, Wendy, recalled, “I was jumping up and down and feeling anxious at the same time. I thought to myself, could I really do this? I hate to swim and now I have to do it pulling an 85-pound person in a boat!
Once I calmed down and remembered that this was not about me but about helping Lindsey get from start to finish, I knew it could and would be done. Lindsey’s excitement was as great as mine, only she had no fears she owned up to she just had bragging rights.
Wendy described her training during the past five months as “trial and error.” Previously, training was always about speed. Now it is about strength, endurance, mixed with some creativity. The specially designed trailer she will be pulling behind her bicycle weighs 31 pounds itself. With 85-pound Lindsey aboard, that means that Wendy will be pulling almost her own body weight.
Because of the four-hour drive to Baton Rouge and Lindsey’s summer camp, “Team Ellis” has not had much opportunity to train together. However, Lindsey has been working with her physical therapist and keeping in touch with her aunt by email and phone calls.
After adjusting to the extra weight of pulling a trailer behind her bicycle, Wendy then began adding weights to simulate Lindsey. “At first I would be training after work, so whatever I had in the back of my car would be placed in the trailer for weight. I received some strange looks from passers-by when I used an ice chest one day. They must have thought it was some party.”
Similarly, training for pulling Lindsey behind her in the Gulf of Mexico posed different challenges. “We really didn’t know exactly how we were going to do the 1/3 mile swim portion of the event. A bright yellow inflatable boat was a necessity. A friend suggested using a line attached to the boat and then to a weightlifter’s belt that Wendy would wear while swimming.
In theory, it sounded fine. But, without a person in the boat who knew? That is when Wendy’s next-door neighbor, JoAnn Mandato, 44, offered her services. “She asked me if I would mind helping her train for the triathlon,” smiled Mandato. Mandato’s “job” was to lie on her back in the inflatable boat during the hot late afternoon hours while Wendy quietly went about the work of swimming.
“One time, JoAnn laughed, “I had fallen asleep and didn’t realize it when Wendy had stopped swimming and had asked me a question.”
Much has happened in the year since a young girl penned her dream to compete in a triathlon on Pensacola Beach. Her letter to Oprah was never answered. The barrier island barely survived the ravages of Hurricane Ivan, only to be assaulted months later by Hurricane Dennis, two tropical storms, and a glancing blow from Hurricane Katrina.
Yet, Pensacola Beach, famous for its “world’s whitest beaches,” is rebuilding. The Santa Rosa Island Authority has pledged to have the storm-related issues resolved so that the triathlon can proceed, and “Team Ellis” is entered in the physically challenged team category.
“I’m just Lindsey’s limbs for this event,” smiled Wendy. “This has been a family effort about giving Lindsey opportunities to truly enrich her life experiences as well as strengthening her self-image. The equipment we were able to purchase through the BALANCE BAR grant will make it possible for Lindsey to participate in several types of family activities throughout the years to come. In fact, we have family members coming from Louisiana and Texas to help cheer her on.”