Fourth-grade students at Miami Country Day School got a taste of their first triathlon on a recent weekday as they swam three laps, biked eight times around a 400-meter track and ran a mile on their school’s grounds, all during first period. They also learned firsthand how nothing, even a disability, should prevent someone from living out his or her dreams.
During the first leg of the mini triathlon, the 9- and 10-year-old students swam and raced in the underground rectangular pool that sits in their school’s courtyard. Parents and teachers cheered for the kids but the students in the stands were rooting for their heroine. “Let’s go Kerry, let’s go! Let’s go Kerry, let’s go!” they chanted, as Kerry Gruson, who has no use of her legs and very limited use of her arms, glided across the pool at their Miami Shores school.
Gruson, 67, sat fastened in an inflatable kayak as Caryn Lubetsky, a triathlete and mother of three students at the school, swam in front, pulling the kayak with a strap tied around her waist. The duo will be competing in this weekend’s 140.6-mile Ironman triathlon in Panama City Beach, Fla., and have enlisted the school’s students as their training and support team.
Jasha Singh, 9, participated in all three races at the school. “I thought it was a good chance to learn to push your limits,” he said of the event. Of Gruson and Lubetsky he remarked, “They wouldn’t give up no matter how tired they were. I learned to take risks and to never give up.”
Gruson was strangled and left for dead in 1974, when, as a young reporter covering the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, she interviewed a former Green Beret soldier in a Hawaii hotel room. He had a flashback, mistook her for a Viet Cong soldier, and nearly killed her.
Though paralyzed, her intellect is intact, as is her will to compete in the world’s longest race, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race, and a 26.2-mile run, all within a 17-hour deadline. She says it’s her dream to complete it, and with help from Lubetsky and the dozen or so students, parents and teachers who will be flying or driving 10 hours to support them, she thinks she and her partner can do it.
(Lubetsky will fasten Gruson’s kayak to her waist during the swim in the Gulf of Mexico, then will attach Gruson’s recumbent trike to her bike during cycling, before pushing Gruson in her trike for the run.)
When the private school’s lower grade level director, Jenny Knight, saw Lubetsky pull Gruson through a nine-mile open water swim to Alligator Lighthouse in a race off of Islamorada, she invited them to speak to the students. Since last spring, the fourth-graders have been learning about triathlons, how anything is possible and the importance of not judging others based on physical appearances or disabilities.
“We wanted a grade level that was a little bit older, obviously the 3 year olds don’t tend to go this far, so that’s why we chose the fourth grade,” Knight said. “The powerful message that we learned from this is that it’s the way you see life. If you see it as being filled with possibilities, then that’s the way you live your life. They’re a role model for us.”
Lubetsky remembers asking students on their first day of school, three months ago, how many of them think they can do a triathlon. They unanimously said, “no way!” She then asked how many thought Gruson could do a triathlon. Replies of “no way – never!” rang through the room.
The fourth graders have been parallel training with the duo since the start of the school year, with Gruson and Lubetsky coming twice a week to work out with them in the pool and on the running and biking track. The school even purchased bikes for the students to train on.
“When she comes to campus, it’s like Taylor Swift is there,” said Lubetsky, of the kids’ reaction when Gruson arrives.”It’s all about spreading the message that anything is possible — there are no limits, as long as you dream big, plan smart, and try your hardest. That’s what we want to show these students.”
John Davies, principal of the school, says the most important message students, faculty and parents got out of this event: “That we’re not defined by our disability. It’s so apparent when they have the opportunity to witness what Karen and Kerry are doing.”
The fourth graders, over 80 in total, could choose which leg of the mini triathlon they wanted to participate in, or if they wanted, to go for all three. The kids also came up with ideas to make Gruson’s three-wheeled recumbent trike more aerodynamic so that Lubetsky could pull or push her with less effort at a faster speed.
Lyndsey Cooper, mother of Olivia Cooper, who ran the one-mile loop on the school’s campus, says the kids didn’t anticipate just how trying the race would be. “They came off the track saying, ‘I can’t move my legs, oh my God.’ ... What this may turn into is her doing more running, maybe joining cross-country, getting on a bike, taking swimming lessons. I think it’s really great for them — in a society where the kids sit at home on their phones all day.”
She added: “What’s really amazing about this event is not only the athleticism that these kids are showing, but that they learned about disabilities. Olivia would have never even understood that type of disability or limitation, so to know that you can still achieve what you want to do, is really great for them to learn at such a young age.”
“All throughout we used it as a life lesson — the lesson of, when something looks difficult or impossible, if you stop and make a plan, anything is possible,” Lubetsky said. She says the other point she and Gruson focused on is not judging a person by their looks. “Everyone has a disability, it’s just some of them you can see, and some you can’t.”
A few weeks ago, Lubetsky’s son had to have surgery on his elbow. When he returned to school a few days later with a cast, he came home and told his mom how all of his peers encouraged him. “Instead of saying, ‘Sorry you hurt your elbow, you can’t do the triathlon,’ they said, ‘We have this idea of how you can do it ... we have that idea ... can I pull you?’” recalled Lubetsky.
“Their entire attitude has changed. Instead of looking at it and saying ‘Oh, you’ve got a problem,’ they look at it and they problem-solve,” she said. “They really don’t see things as obstacles as they otherwise would have.”
“It was such an inspiration seeing those kids push themselves. It gives me hope. I know there’s a reason for all the pain,” said Gruson, who can talk no louder than a whisper. “It is a culmination of all the dreams in my life. The goal of Ironman is making the impossible possible. That is also my life’s message.”
Track Gruson and Lubetsky’s progress during Ironman on Saturday, Nov. 7, by visiting www.ironman.com, then select “triathlon,” choose the location (Panama City Beach, FL.), click the “results” tab, and type in or search alphabetically for their names.