COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Eight U.S. elite triathletes, along with USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris, completed a 483-mile relay ride across the state of Colorado, dubbed “Operation CO>COVID,” Saturday evening, raising $21,568 for those in the sport and local communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event was devised and planned by the Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team, which surpassed its goal of $20,210 that was set in reference to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games that have been postponed to 2021. The USA Triathlon Foundation will distribute proceeds equally between two causes: the USA Triathlon Foundation COVID-19 Relief Fund, which provides grants to members of the multisport community impacted by the pandemic, and the Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado. Donations are still being accepted at usatriathlonfoundation.org.
“Everyone had these amazing rides and the weather was great, and everything went as great as it could have been,” said two-time Paralympian Melissa Stockwell, who planned the ride along with her resident team teammates. “The goal was to beat the sun and we got to the Colorado-Kansas border just as the sun was setting. It was picture perfect. I think everyone is very tired but will be on a high the next couple weeks with the feeling of being able to give back, doing this as a team, doing this together. It was pretty incredible.”
“These are not the easiest times for a lot of people to make donations with so much financial uncertainty, but to believe and put their money behind causes that we feel passionately about, it represents that community aspect of what triathlon is, of what endurance sports is, of what we are as a community and what we feel like we can be as a country,” said Derick Williamson, head coach of the Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team. “I think it really represented how sport can transcend just medals.”
Williamson was the mastermind behind the ride. His team normally trains out of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but the training center’s athletic facilities have been closed since mid-March due to COVID-19.
“When the Games were postponed and things were put into such a flux, I felt like our team needed to work toward some sort of goal because that’s what we do,” he said. “This idea was hatched and I presented it to the team and they were super pumped about doing it. Each person on the team took various responsibilities so we could do it in the time span we were after, and it really came together in such a fantastic way. Between the fundraising side of it, the logistics side of it, making sure riders were safe, making sure riders could complete it, it came together as perfectly as it could, especially when it’s your first time doing it.”
"Operation CO>COVID" started at 6:30 p.m. MT on Friday, June 19, as 2016 Paralympic silver medalist Hailey Danz took off on her bike from the Utah-Colorado state line in Grand Junction, Colorado. She and fellow Paralympic medalists Kendall Gretsch and Stockwell split the first 93.7 miles, with each pull varying based on the terrain, before meeting their second-shift teammates at Turner Toyota in Montrose.
“The dealership opened their doors for all the riders and they had a grill, they had hamburgers, they had drinks,” said Stockwell, a U.S. Army veteran and Team Toyota athlete who won a bronze medal in paratriathlon’s debut at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. “It was so unexpected and so appreciated, so a big shout-out to Turner Toyota.”
The ride was supported by Toyota vehicles, as Williamson and mechanic Joseph Moore followed each rider in a truck and provided in-ear instruction and encouragement.
Paralympic hopeful Kyle Coon, his guide Alex Libin and Olympic hopeful Kevin McDowell were on the second team, while Harris, Junior Paratriathlon Development Program member Jack O’Neil and Olympic hopeful Renée Tomlin comprised the third.
Riders on the current shift rode in a minivan awaiting their turn, while those on the two dormant shifts met their teammates at the next stop via RV.
Covering 483 miles in total distance and gaining nearly 23,000 feet of elevation from the Utah-Colorado state line to the Colorado-Kansas state line at U.S. 40 and CR 57 (near the town of Arapahoe, Colorado), the athletes traveled from the Western Slope up into the Rocky Mountains, cresting Monarch Pass at 11,312 feet of elevation before descending into the Front Range via Colorado Springs and into the Eastern Plains.
“Operation CO>COVID” stopped in Colorado Springs — home to the Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team and USA Triathlon headquarters — to kneel in silence for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, at City Hall in support of the recent anti-racism demonstrations around the country.
“When the idea was first brought up for the ride, it was all about the pandemic. As the weeks went on, things happened in the news and Black Lives Matter became very much a part of the world, as it always should be, but even more poignant now,” Stockwell said. “We decided we wanted to show our support and Derick came up with the idea of stopping in front of city hall, kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to show our support, and then moving on in the ride. There were a few people who were watching there as spectators, and I think it was a pretty powerful moment to have all of us kneeling, our USA gear on. Having Rocky there with us showed the support that USA Triathlon gives as well. My hope is people see that as a stance that we’re out there doing what we can, as much as we know how to support them.”
Athletes maintained a pace of about 19 miles an hour throughout the 25-hour ride. The temperature varied from 25 degrees — during the overnight Monarch Pass climb — to 86 degrees.
Accomplishing their goal of beating the sunset, the athletes crossed the Kansas state border at approximately 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, with all riders joining for the final mile.
The participating riders included:
• Kyle Coon, Tokyo Paralympic Hopeful
• Hailey Danz, Rio 2016 Paralympic Silver Medalist and Tokyo Paralympic Hopeful
• Kendall Gretsch, PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Nordic Skiing Gold Medalist and Tokyo Paralympic Hopeful
• Kevin McDowell, Tokyo Olympic Hopeful
• Jack O'Neil, U.S. Paratriathlon Junior Development Team Member
• Melissa Stockwell, Rio 2016 Paralympic Bronze Medalist and Tokyo Paralympic Hopeful, Team Toyota Athlete
• Renée Tomlin, Tokyo Olympic Hopeful
• Alex Libin, Elite Triathlete and Guide for Kyle Coon
• Rocky Harris, USA Triathlon Chief Executive Officer
About the USA Triathlon Foundation
The USA Triathlon Foundation was created in 2014 by the USA Triathlon Board of Directors as an independent tax-exempt 501(c)(3) entity. Under the leadership of its Trustees and Committee members, the Foundation serves as a means to create a healthier America through triathlon and seeks to transform lives by opening up new pathways to the sport for all, especially those who are otherwise underserved. The USA Triathlon Foundation operates with the belief that every child should have the chance to participate, every paratriathlete should have the opportunity to compete, and every aspiring elite athlete should be able to chase his or her Olympic dream. Since the Foundation’s inception, more than $3 million has been provided to worthy causes and organizations that support its mission. Donations to the USA Triathlon Foundation ensure America's youth are introduced to the benefits and fun of a multisport lifestyle, athletes with disabilities receive the training, support and gear to be able to participate and excel, and the best aspiring young athletes have a chance to pursue their Olympic Dreams. Visit usatriathlonfoundation.org to learn more and donate today.
About USA Triathlon
USA Triathlon is proud to serve as the National Governing Body for triathlon, as well as duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, winter triathlon, off-road triathlon and paratriathlon in the United States. Founded in 1982, USA Triathlon sanctions more than 4,300 events and connects with more than 400,000 members each year, making it the largest multisport organization in the world. In addition to its work at the grassroots level with athletes, coaches, and race directors — as well as the USA Triathlon Foundation — USA Triathlon provides leadership and support to elite athletes competing at international events, including International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Championships, Pan American Games and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. USA Triathlon is a proud member of the ITU and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC).