Kyra Adsetts had spent eight weeks attending a training clinic to gear up for her third triathlon. But as she approached the event late last month, she wasn't planning on pushing herself too far. After all, she is only seven years old.
Natalie Adsetts, Kyra's mother, first discovered triathlon events for kids about six years ago when her cousin participated in a Kids of Steel race near the family home in Caledon, Ont. Kids of Steel events, held across the country under the auspices of Triathlon Canada, are designed to give children the chance to try the sport -with swimming, biking and running distances shortened for their little legs.
The event so won over Ms. Adsetts that she was glad to see not only Kyra participate, but also her two younger daughters, aged 2 and 4. "It was the positive atmosphere," she says. "It's not about being the best. It's about being your best."
Triathlon can be one of the most gruelling sports an athlete can try. But in triathlons for children, the events are geared more toward having fun than breaking any records. And as more adults take up the sport, they are bringing children to it as well, promoting not only a good time but fitter, healthier lifestyles.
"We're seeing increases year over year in the Kids of Steel program across the country," says Alan Trivett, executive director of Triathlon Canada.
In 2007, just under 12,000 kids participated. Last year, that number jumped to almost 17,000, Mr. Trivett says.
It's likely that more children are participating in triathlons because their parents are discovering the sport, Mr. Trivett says.
"I think it's a direct correlation of bringing more adults into the sport," he says. "We know that if a parent is committed to an activity or a sport there is a very high probability of them involving their children.
But even parents with no experience in triathlon are bringing their kids to the sport, event organizers say.
The majority of children don't need much prodding to see the appeal, says Barrie Shepley, former president of the Ontario Association of Triathletes and one of the founders of the Kids of Steel program.
"Every kid is a triathlete at heart," he says. They ride bikes, they love to run around, and when they have a chance to swim in a pool or lake, most jump in. "Triathlon is simply an organized way of kids' normal summer activities."
Seeing the sport's growing popularity among children, Tara Melville and her husband, both triathletes, launched the TriKiDs Triathlon Series for kids aged 3 to 15 in Ontario last year.
The five races this year are expected to attract 2,500 kids, Ms. Melville says.
Children aged 3 to 5 will swim one width of a pool, do a 500-metre bike ride and a 100-metre run.
"The parents have to work to keep up with these kids because they're just so determined," Ms. Melville says.
Kim Nelson has been doing triathlons for 18 years and was keen to see her kids, aged 7, 5 and 4, participate in Kids of Steel events.
"It's purely for the fun. They're not competitive with it at all. It's mostly about crossing the finish line and getting a medal," she says.
Many parents are drawn to Kids of Steel and other such events as a way to keep their children active.
"It's pretty much promoting a rounded, healthy lifestyle," Ms. Adsetts says.
While triathlon may seem too difficult a sport for very young children, and though some fear triathlete parents may foist their competitive natures on their children, there are strict guidelines in place to ensure kids are not pushed beyond their comfort zone, says Kristine Chambers, youth development co-ordinator for Triathlon Canada.
"The sport definitely attracts a certain personality, and it's a personality that likes to push themselves a lot. That's one of the biggest reasons we have the standards in Kids of Steel to ensure that distances are short and that everyone who finishes a race gets a medal. The competition is really downplayed until they are in their mid-teens," she says.
Ms. Chambers is the head coach of the Exceleration Multisport Club, which has about 200 members ranging in age from 4 to 19.
"Parents are looking for stuff now that's a bit different, and will keep their kids active and healthy, rather than the competitive part of it," she says.
As well, the fact that triathlon is an individual, rather than a team sport appeals to many children and parents, Ms. Chambers says. "Kids get inspired to get out and do something rather than worry about, 'Oh, I have to be first,' or 'Our team might not win,' or 'We might not get any points.' Everybody gets to the finish line, everybody gets an award, and you feel great for getting out and feeling active."
Of course, parents watching their kids in life jackets, then cruising along a track on their trikes or training wheels, might just enjoy the events more than their kids do.
"With everybody there cheering for these little kids and the smiles on their faces as they were crossing the finish line, it's just fantastic," Ms. Adsetts says.