It's not all that common for me to rant. I try not to. But I'm on a roll now.
My niece, Charlotte, completed her first triathlon recently. She's nine. I couldn't be more proud of her. She and a group of friends from school decided to register for the local children's triathlon after a classmate's mother, an experienced triathlete, died of cancer. Her daughter, who is in Charlotte's class, had decided to do her first tri in her mom's memory. Charlotte and the other girls decided to do it, too, to support their friend. So really, I was proud even before she started.
Charlotte and Katie
Charlotte finished dead last. This in itself doesn't upset me, as I have had plenty of last-place finishes in my time, and in a variety of sports. I'm an epically mediocre athlete. The genes were just there, waiting to pounce on Charlotte. Poor kid.
What really got me worked up, though, was the fact that the race had multiple problems, all indicating a lack of accountability - not so much among the organizers, but with the volunteer staff. And these problems interfered not just with one kid's enjoyment of the race, but that of a large group of kids.
The swim went just fine for Charlotte. But she lost ground in the bicycle leg after she stopped to help her friend, whose bike had broken down. A pedal, which had been loose to begin with, came off entirely and threw her off-balance, causing her to fall.
My sister, who had shepherded Charlotte and her friend through training for the race, was not pleased. All parents were required to have their children's bicycles inspected (which was fine), and the inspection was free (also fine). But, apparently, the volunteer doing the inspection wasn't all that attentive.
"This kid's pedal was actually rattling around and loose going into the race, but it passed inspection anyway," said my sister. "Some inspection. Glad that was required."
Charlotte's friend got scrapes and bruises. Charlotte stayed with her until someone arrived to fix the bike and patch up the skinned knees. Then they continued on together until they reached the running segment. As with most kids' triathlons, this race was set up on a closed course to keep the kids out of traffic. Unfortunately, one of the teenagers who was volunteering as a course marshal wandered away from her post to start texting her friends, rather than pointing kids in the direction they were supposed to run. You can probably guess what happened next. A bunch of kids completely missed the turn and were running through the local streets, dodging traffic. It took a local resident to notice and to call police, who came and picked up the kids and drove them back to where they had missed their turn. "No mother," as my sister said, "wants to see her daughter get out of a police car, and particularly not in tears."
When Charlotte finally made it over the finish line, she was flustered and angry. I congratulated her on finishing the tri.
"I finished last," she said.
I tried the obvious lines of encouragement: Finishing was a win. She had shown great character by becoming involved in it to support one friend, and by stopping to help another. Besides, a lot of people wouldn't even have signed up, much less competed.
"Last," she repeated, as though I were stupid enough to have missed the word the first time. I sighed.
It's awfully hard to convince a kid that you're proud of her, and that she didn't fail by being last. It's harder still to convince her that she didn't let anyone down or waste anyone's time. My biggest fear is that she'll let this sour her on registering for next year's triathlon. Adults, after all, would probably sign up for a different race the following year. Kids tend to think the whole experience is bad.
The problem was not with the organization - this one was great. It was with the volunteers who apparently weren't taking their responsibility all that seriously. A children's race is no less important than an adult race. If anything, it takes more care and supervision, so many participants are first-timers, and all are underage.
Organizers need to convince volunteers that even though they're not getting paid, they still have the responsibility of a paid staff member. In this case, a texting teenager and an inattentive bike mechanic fell down on the job. In doing so, they let kids down as well.