As Jules Lester neared the finish line of her first triathlon, tears of joy began streaming down her face. She hadn’t ridden a bike since she was four, when she’d crashed into a tree. Although she was nervous to get back on one, she didn’t let her fear or her position at the back of the pack intimidate her. The then-sixth-grader was focused on her purpose — completing the race.
“I was so proud of myself,” Jules said. “It was scary to learn how to ride that bike. I wanted to learn, but after a certain point, it’s not even about the triathlon anymore, it’s about the people. In those last steps, I thought back to how far I’d come and it was the most amazing feeling. It was all because of the i-tri team. This has meant everything to me.”
Lester is a member of i-tri girls, an East Hampton-based nonprofit that teaches middle schoolers to believe in themselves through training and completion of a yearly triathlon. The organization was created in 2010 by Hamptons native Theresa Roden, who was inspired by her own experience of realizing the benefits of visualization, nutrition, and the active lifestyle that the sport of triathlon gave her in her 30s.
“I-tri is an empowerment program that uses the sport of triathlon to teach self-reliance, teamwork, and mindfulness to show our girls that nothing can hold them back,” Roden said. “Our girls face adversity and limitation every day, and i-tri is not the solution to every problem, but we want our girls to know that they have a jumping off point. We want them to prove to themselves that they are capable, strong, and worthy.”
On September 12, Roden was recognized with the Women’s Committee Award of Excellence by the International Triathlon Union. She was honored at the ITU Congress in Gold Coast, Australia, ahead of the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final last week.
“On behalf of USA Triathlon and the ITU, I am proud to celebrate Theresa Roden and the incredible impact she has made through i-tri,” said Barry Siff, president of the USA Triathlon board of directors and ITU executive board member. “Not only has Theresa’s transformational program introduced hundreds of girls to multisport at the grassroots level, but her concept is expandable as a model for similar programs nationwide.”
Roden was chosen for the award by a selection committee consisting of three members of the ITU Women’s Committee and two independent experts in the field of women in sports. She is the first American to be honored since Celeste Callahan, former member of USA Triathlon board of directors, who received the inaugural award in 2012.
The accolades followed on the heels of a tragic loss — Roden’s husband, Rob, passed away in mid-August.
I-tri operates a free six-month program that starts in January and features weekly group lessons focused on self-esteem, empowerment, and leadership skills, as well as hands-on nutrition education offered to both participants and their families. The program also includes afterschool fitness activity and triathlon-specific training at local YMCAs. The youth triathlon, a 300-yard swim, seven-mile bike, and 1.5-mile run, takes place in July, and this year was sponsored by Bridgehampton National Bank and held at Long Beach in Sag Harbor.
“We have lights inside of us,” said Lester, who is now in ninth grade. “You can’t let other people dim our light — we have to let it shine bright. Theresa always lets other people’s lights shine.”
Her mother, Rebecca Lester, remembers her daughter coming home from school following one of Roden’s presentations, sharing her enthusiasm to join i-tri. Lester admitted she was nervous, but thought it would be good for her to build connections with other kids.
“She’s a kid who gets something put in her head and she’s going to do it, and accomplish it,” the mother said. “And I learned to never doubt her. She says, ‘Mom, don’t ever doubt me. I can do it.’ She grew confidence, and she grew a voice. She’s been bullied a lot and through learning about perseverance, last year she finally stood up to one of her bullies.”
Roden said while her student has finished all three of her triathlons in the bottom five, it’s stunning to watch her compete, saying all are moved and inspired to watch Lester cross the finish line with pride.
“A small seed was ready to bloom,” Roden said. “She does not listen to those questions of doubt from others. Instead, her own voice sings loudly over those whispers. The beauty of her spirit, her boundless energy, and her fearlessness is palpable. Jules is an i-tri girl.”
Lester said the first time she was called that, she knew she was a part of something she wanted to be connected to for years to come.
“I keep going back because of the people,” she said. “When I went into it I was never expecting to find that second family that I did. It’s just been so amazing. Theresa has given me a confidence I’ve never had. With them, I feel safe — that I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. They made me believe what seemed impossible, was possible.”