While competing in triathlons back in 2020, Mark Brandt noticed a paucity of diversity at many of the competitions, which include a swim, bike race and run.
“I was seeing a lot of white males in many of the races, so I began to think, ‘We need to get more diversity into this sport. Why wouldn’t a young person who is ethnically diverse like Asian, Hispanic or African American want to get into this sport?’” Brandt asked himself. “The answer was, of course, they would. They just haven’t been given the opportunity.’”
So, Brandt founded a nonprofit called Kids That Tri (KTT) in October 2020, “right in the middle of COVID,” he says.
Brandt went to the Parker Hannifin YMCA downtown and asked if he could rent out the entire facility for one Saturday a month to help spread the word about his favorite sport.
“So the manager at the time agreed to shut down the entire Y and clean everything,” says Brandt. “We brought our kids in and offered them a three-hour program once a month.”
After about six months, the program started to grow.
“We did have some drop off, but the kids were still showing up,” says Brandt. “Most of my urban kids were from Cleveland and East Cleveland. We found out that transportation was a huge problem, much larger than we had anticipated.”
Still, the kids came down to the Y and the nonprofit got them to run, bike and swim. That first year 30 kids participated in the program. It wasn’t long before the Greater Cleveland YMCA came to Brandt with a proposition. They would like to partner with KTT, and instead of renting out space, allow the nonprofit to use its facilities for free. Practices increased to three days a week instead of just once a month.
“And we ended up getting seven really good coaches, with a lot of diversity on the staff,” says Brandt. “These kids see themselves in our coaches, so they are really taking the message to heart. They realize we care.”
At the end of each program, the kids are encouraged to compete in the Tri CLE Rock Roll Run, a for-profit USA Triathlon Sanctioned Event founded by Brandt that has been held here since August 2021. This year’s event is slated for Aug. 12, starting at the Great Lakes Science Center.
“The first year, we had four kids participate. Last year we had 18. We’re expecting even more this year because the program at the Y attracted more than 50 kids,” says Brandt.
The kids are encouraged to keep competing at one or more other triathlons held throughout the state. But make no mistake, the Tri CLE Rock Roll Run is the culmination of each year’s program, Brandt adds.
“And they are the highlight of the whole event,” Brandt says of his young charges. “We put up a tent at the finish line and their moms, dads, aunts, uncles and teachers come down and root the kids on. And when they come in, you’d think they just won the Olympics.
“It’s not that these kids are such great athletes, although they do win a majority of the medals in their age groups,” adds Brandt. “What is really rewarding is to be able to inspire confidence and create a solid foundation for a healthy and active lifestyle at no cost to the athlete.”