GH triathlon class pushing students to the limit

At Sunday's Seahorse Challenge Triathlon in Kalamazoo, a group of 39 students from Grand Haven High School will compete in sprint or Olympic distances of swimming, biking and running. Many will be experiencing the sporting event - considered a grueling test of mental and physical stamina - for the first time. The remaining nine who are enrolled in Grand Haven High School's triathlon class and unable to participate in the Seahorse Challenge will instead compete in later triathlons such as Bear Lake or Grand Rapids.
Nate Thompson
May 25, 2011

The triathlons stand as the first and final exam for the students. Once they line up at the starting line and at least attempt to complete the test, they’ll receive an ‘A’ in the second-year course, which is instructed by physical education teacher Derek Warner.

“It’s an easy ‘A’,” admitted senior Adam Winebarger, a second-year student in the class, who may benefit greatly since he’ll soon enlist in the United States Army after graduation.

The class is believed to be the first of its kind at the high school level in Michigan, and it’s rewards are so much more than boosting one’s grade point average.
Warner said he’s been amazed at the progression he’s seen athletically from every one of his students since the 12-week course began at the start of Grand Haven High School’s trimester.

“Honestly, I’m at the races, and I can’t control my emotions,” he said. “I’m crying watching these kids, because you’re seeing them overcome their fears and accomplish something that some of them never would have attempted just a few weeks ago.”

Warner, an experienced triathlete himself,  said courage has been a substantial trait of his students, as has dedication. The class meets five days a week and mixes in different training specified for the three stages of a triathlon.

“We run Monday, Wednesday, swim on Tuesdays and bike on Thursdays,” said junior Riley Missel, who along with her younger sister Chase, are students in the class. “Then on Fridays we do ‘Brick Fridays,’ which is biking and running. We call it that because our feet feel like bricks afterward.”

“And when it was colder outside, we did P-90 X workout tapes,” Chase added.

The duo have been influenced heavily by their father, Jerry Missel, an experienced triathlete.

Warner said he was blown away on Sunday, when he invited his class to an optional run-through of the Seahorse Challenge course, which includes a swim in the tiny Blue Lake, and a bike and run course that sends competitors through Cold Brook County Park in Climax.

“I’m an educator first, but I’m also a realist, so I wasn’t expecting many to show up at 7:45 a.m. on a Sunday,” Warner said. “But I ended up having 25 kids show up. We car pooled to the race site.”

When the class started in the winter, Warner said he let students join either A, B, and C groups for biking, running and swimming. Those in the A group would be challenged to longer, more difficult training than the other groups. Although the athletic skills vary in the class, Warner has yet to meet a student who doesn’t struggle in at least one of the three disciplines of a triathlon.

“We’ve got Joe Duff in this class (an all-state cross country and track runner),” Warner said. “He’s obviously an A runner, but a C swimmer. Once he gets out of the water, he’ll be fine (on Sunday).

“He didn’t have to come to this class and show everyone his weaknesses, but he’s continually gotten better. That’s what you look for.”

Brothers Doug and Tommy Zelenka said the physical demands of the class are greater than a typical hockey practice, a sport in which they flourished for the Bucs this winter. Along with Winegarber, they’ll be the only three in the class who will test themselves in the Olympic distance at the Seahorse Challenge.

“Our uncle (Tim Zelenka) got us into triathlons about 10 years ago, and we’ve kept doing them,” said Doug, who currently plays on the Bucs’ baseball team. “I’m nervous, but I’m more focused on just beating my time.”

Not everyone in the class is an experienced varsity athlete. Some will be just thrilled just to finish, including junior Victoria Thomas, who hopes to prove an older, doubting sibling wrong.

“My older sister (Sophia) ran cross and she told me she didn’t think I could do this,” Thomas said. “I’m out to prove her wrong.

“It’s a good workout and it’s fun because I’ve gotten to know a lot of new people,” she added. “Honestly, I don’t know what to expect, but I really hope to finish (on Sunday). It will be good to have everyone there cheering you on.”

The students’ ability to push themselves to new limits athletically is what Warner believes is the biggest benefit of the class and what separates it from a typical gym class.

“I’m a little unbiased, but I think this beats a more traditional PE class,” he said. “These kids are developing skills they can use outside of high school.”

The message appears to be spreading throughout GHHS. Warner said  there’s already 71 requests for next year’s class.

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