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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

My Daughter's First Triathlon Tested Her Body—and My Heart

Sep 03, 2019 12:26PM
By Pam Moore

I scan the sea of people, my eyes resting on each small blonde head before moving on to the next. The last time I saw my daughter she was running, her ponytail bouncing from side to side with every step until she disappeared behind a copse of evergreens. How long can it possibly take a six-year-old to run 400 meters, I wonder.

I’m at the finish line of her first triathlon. Or at least I think I am.
When Charlotte asked me to sign her up for a triathlon, I pretended my heart wasn’t doing the running man inside my chest. With all the coolness I could muster, I said, “Sure.”

A few weeks into my pregnancy, the first thing I bought was not a stroller or a crib, but a treadmill. As an Ironman triathlete and marathoner, I had no intention of quitting my endorphin habit once I became a mom. As an infant, Charlotte would watch from her bouncy seat, transfixed, while I logged mile after stationary mile.

When she was little, I often felt suffocated by her seemingly constant needs. Now, though, I found myself missing being needed. A few days before the race, she’d started first grade. Ignoring her protests, I drove her, instead of letting her ride the bus on the first day of school. After we crossed the parking lot, she turned to face me. With her head cocked to the side, very matter-of-fact, she asked, “What are you still doing here?”

I shrugged my shoulders as a dense ball of longing lodged itself in my throat and tears pricked my eyes.

“Have a great day,” I said, willing my voice not to crack. I crouched down to kiss her, and I swore I felt her rolling her eyes as my lips brushed her smooth, freckled cheek.

It had been four years since she’d announced, “I’m Mama!” while toddling around in a diaper and my red wedge sandals, but it felt like 40. Our connection, once as thick as climbing rope, now felt more like a strand of dental floss.

So when she expressed an interest in my sport I felt like renting a small plane to blast my joy through the sky with a message: I’m still needed. Instead, I did my best to keep my facial expression neutral and googled “kids triathlon.”

 “I don’t think I’ll be good at the swim,” she says. “All you have to do is cross the pool,” I tell her. “You don’t have to be good. You just have to try your best and have fun.” She nods and returns to her puzzle.

On race morning, the crisp late August air announces summer’s end. I imagine Charlotte’s ponytail bobbing as she crosses the finish. I set up her transition area, folding a beach towel in half, meticulously arranging her running shoes and her bike helmet on it. It’s exactly how I’d do it for myself.

At the pool’s edge, I kiss the top of her head, whisper “Good luck” in her ear, then nestle into the crowd of parents. In that huge room, surrounded by kids, Charlotte looks tiny. I watch her brown eyes dart around, taking everything in, the same way she did as a baby.

Now, 20 minutes later, I’m tapping my foot, searching every face, wondering where my baby is.

When I finally see her gap-toothed smile, she’s wearing a finisher’s medal. How did I miss seeing her finish? I want to throw something. Instead, I take a long breath and ask her how it was.

“It was awesome! I don’t know what place I got, but I had fun and I tried my best. That’s what matters, right, Mama?” She looks up at me, her eyes glittering.
Among the crush of people, I feel the energy pulsing off her skin. She practically bounces toward the transition area to retrieve her bike, helmet, and goggles, as I apologize for not being at the finish. In response, she asks what snacks I brought.
A few weeks later, I see Charlotte’s writing journal at back-to-school night. The triathlon entry catches my eye. In her careful, albeit crooked penmanship are the words, “I had fun!”

She had fun. What else could I have wished for her?

Sitting on a child-size chair across from the teacher, I let go of the hollow ache that had filled my chest when I thought of my absence at the finish line. Yes, I would have been thrilled to see my daughter’s face at that moment. But it was never my moment to have. It was hers. 

This article was originally published in The Washington Post.
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