By Shelby Deering | Photo courtesy of Britt Ecklund
There are few feelings as pure, joyful and exhilarating as finally crossing the finish line of a race. Whether running three miles or a full marathon of 26.2 miles, crossing the finish line leaves a runner feeling that they have really accomplished something great and are strong enough to keep running even when it feels impossible.
National nonprofit organization MyTeam Triumph feels that everyone should be able to experience this feeling, regardless of ability level. And there’s a chapter of this organization here in the Geneva Lake area that aims to make running accessible to people of all abilities.
Across the state of Wisconsin MyTeam Triumph includes several chapters: Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, Madison, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Wausau, Kenosha and, close to home, Lake Geneva. The Lake Geneva chapter started in 2014, with a participant — or “Captain,” in the vernacular of the organization — named Mackenzie Wann, who participated in the Big Foot Triathlon in Lake Geneva. After Wann and her team of volunteers, or “Angels,” completed the event, “we knew that this was an experience that we wanted others to have as well,” says Britt Ecklund, a Crew Member for the Lake Geneva chapter of MyTeam Triumph.
Calling themselves “a team for anybody and everybody,” MyTeam Triumph enriches the wellbeing of individuals with diverse abilities and fosters lifelong friendships through community athletics, as Ecklund puts it.
“One of the biggest challenges that people with disabilities face is social isolation,” she observes. “MyTeam Triumph provides specialized, adaptive equipment and a teamwork approach for people with diverse abilities to be involved in weekly training nights, as well as athletic events ranging from 5K runs, to triathlons, to marathons, to full Ironman-distance triathlons. The result is a more inclusive community.”
Runners of any ability level, from invisible to visible disabilities, are welcome to participate as captains. They can then invite friends and family to be their angels, or they will be paired with volunteers. According to the MyTeam Triumph website, “Angels participate as a team of three, taking turns guiding and encouraging the captain.”
Ecklund says that able-bodied athletes, ages 16 and over, are invited to participate in races as angels.
“We’ve had people as young as 13 participate with parent consent,” she says. Last year, the Lake Geneva chapter participated in seven events and weekly training runs, serving roughly 140 captains throughout the season.
Ecklund has a personal connection to the organization: her twin brother, Christian Jensen, and his wife, Tiffany, who live in Green Bay founded the first Wisconsin chapter of the non-profit organization, inspired by an encounter with a client. “Christian was a personal trainer at the hospital system [there] at the time, and a woman named Mary Cox was interested in having Christian as her personal trainer,” she says. “What Christian didn’t know [prior to the appointment], was that Mary has Muscular Dystrophy. As part of Mary’s therapy, they ran a local 10K race using a friend’s running stroller. The race gave Mary a sense of freedom her body couldn’t. From this moment on, Christian realized the power running had on Mary’s emotional health and also how Mary felt part of the community, as others in the race interacted with Mary in ways she doesn’t normally experience.”
One of the ways that MyTeam Triumph helps their “Captains” achieve these goals is through the aid of specialized racing equipment and peer support. “The captains also benefit from the social connections of the angels, volunteers and others running,” Ecklund says. “The running community is a family, and this is what ties into the ultimate mission of MyTeam Triumph.” She adds that people who participate in these races say they have more self-confidence, a greater sense of self and experience a more inclusive community.
Ecklund says that she initially became involved with the organization as a result of her brother and sister-in- law’s development of the Wisconsin chapter. “At first, I was a fan and supporter who was in awe of the impact the captains and angels were making on the running community and the community as a whole,” she reflects. She points out that participating in the program has inspired her to increase her own running goals as well. “I have been able to complete races that I never imagined possible, such as a marathon, several half-marathons and triathlons, and even a half-Ironman triathlon, all with the inspiring captains and angels that have become my family and friends,” she adds.
She feels that the biggest misconception of MyTeam Triumph is that the able-bodied athletes are helping the athletes with disabilities. “In fact, it is the opposite,” she says.
“Helping other people, especially those who are normally isolated and don’t get to experience the feel of a race, has made such an impact on not just my physical health, but more importantly, my mental health.”
One of the friends she has made through MyTeam Triumph is Emily Fideler, a long time captain in the Lake Geneva region. Ecklund has personally completed several races working as an angel with Fideler, including an Olympic-distance triathlon.
After getting involved with the organization seven years ago, Fideler has completed six triathlons and 5K races, and even got to travel to a 10K race at Walt Disney World in 2019 with one of her angels. She says her favorite part of the triathlon experience is the bike portion because she “likes the speed.”
“MyTeam Triumph makes me feel so happy,” she adds. “I have made so many different friendships, and I have been able to be outdoors during the summer months. It just makes me smile.”
For the 2023 summer season, Lake Geneva’s MyTeam Triumph chapter is participating in the Kringle Krush 5K/10K in Burlington, the Semper Running Half Marathon in Lake Geneva, DAS “Run with Rotary” 5K in Elkhorn, the Demon Triathlon in Burlington and the Burlington Turkey Trot 5K.
Ecklund adds that weekly training runs are held every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Big Foot Beach State Park, and anyone interested in MyTeam Triumph is invited to join. “The community of Lake Geneva has such kind, caring people who love making connections,” she says.
For more information, please visit myteamtriumph-wi.org.