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Racing to Belong

December 6, 2023

Most of us know the feeling.

The water splashes around you as you glide through the pool, ripples trailing out behind in your wake. Or maybe the breeze dancing with your hair peaking from beneath a helmet as you cycle along a smooth trail. The rhythmic “pad, pad, pad” of sneakers on asphalt sings out a beat as you pump yourself along a path.

It’s the feeling of being on the go, fulfilling that need to move. And you don’t have to have completed a triathlon to know it.

Last week a few individuals you might not expect were able to experience that feeling.

With a Little Help…

The Ascension St. Vincent YMCA in Westfield caught up with Angie Harmon the day after her son, Justin, participated in the Try Tri Westfield race on Sunday, Sept. 24.

Justin, age 18, is a friendly, curious, and relational young man who has dealt with mental and physical disabilities since birth. These disabilities have prohibited him from engaging in activities others his age take for granted. But even though Justin cannot swim, run, or ride a bicycle, last Sunday, he completed his second triathlon. How did he accomplish this? With a little help from his Guardian Angels.

Trying Tri’s

Ainsley’s Angels was started in 2011, inspired by Ainsley Rossiter, a young lady who was diagnosed with Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy (INAD) when she was not yet 4 years old. Though she passed away in 2016, her memory lives on through the assisted races that others like her enjoy across the country each year.

One such race that Ainsley’s Angels joined was put on last Sunday by RaceMaker Productions. For the Westfield Try Tri, the organization partnered with a group of triathletes based out of Indianapolis, Tri-Loco, led by Josh DeJong.

Josh’s history with Ainsley’s Angels goes back some years. On July 4, 2018 Josh participated in a 4-miles race with none other than – you guessed it – Justin Harmon!

After the race, Josh approached Ainsley’s Angels about doing triathlons. The following year he was the “Angel Runner” in the organization’s proof-of-concept tri. Once everyone got back to racing after the Pandemic, Josh introduced Ainsley’s Angels to Lee O'Connor of RaceMaker Productions, who welcomed them to participate in the Westfield Try Tri last year.

According to Misty Lawson, the lead Guardian Angel in North Central Indiana, RaceMaker Productions allows their riders, called Team Captains, to race in the event free of charge. In addition to this blessing,  Tri-Loco has helped with Ainsley's Angel's fundraising for much of the triathlon equipment and trailer to transport it.

The Wind in Your Face… and Billy Joel

Ainsley’s Angels’ mission statement is: Together, we shall educate, advocate and celebrate inclusive communities while connecting everyone through empowerment and belonging.

Misty shares, “Every time we include, everyone wins. We often say by including those with disabilities in endurance events we gain "miles of smiles" for everyone to enjoy… If you love the wind in your face, the cheers of the crowd, the feeling of belonging with everyone else, then you are an athlete.”

Ainsley’s angel had four teams which consisted of the four Captains. Three teams had one triathlete, or Angel Runner, who did all the leg work. One team had a three-person relay, all pushing or pulling the same Team Captain.

Angie testifies that her son’s participation as a Team Captain at the Westfield Try Tri at the YMCA provides that sense of belonging. Inclusion is paramount for Angie and her husband Rob. With Ainsley’s Angels, through RaceMaker productions, Justin and the other athletes get to do things that anyone else gets to do.

“They get to feel the wind in their face and things they wouldn’t feel otherwise,” Angie says, and laughing, adds, “They know Justin wants to hear Billy Joel when they’re running!”

Safety First

Both Misty and Angie say that the Westfield Washington Schools Aquatic Center managed by the YMCA is perfect. What makes the facility so ideal? It’s so safe for their athletes!

“The pool is amazing with the water level edge and no drop. It makes for a great process to start and finish the swim with our Team Captains safely on the pool deck in the boat,” Misty says.

Angie agrees, citing safety as their “number one thing.”

The Start of a Tradition

Alex Van Winkle, the Aquatics Director at the Ascension St. Vincent YMCA in Westfield, weighs in:

"We are always incredibly excited to work alongside these kids and Tri Athletes as it truly aligns with the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis' mission to create and harness a healthier, more equitable, more connected community for ALL. The ability to provide a space for all athletes to share the fun, excitement, and grit of competition together is one of the many reasons why we are here investing in the Westfield community."

The YMCA is ready for many more years of hosting the swim portion of this triathlon. But what about Justin Harmon?

“The last two years Justin has been asked if he will do it,” Angie says. “And of course, we said yes because he just loves it!”


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