Theresa Roden never considered herself an athlete, in any way. As a child, she was always the last picked for kickball and softball, and hated gym class.
But at age 35, she had a realization, and she did the unthinkable. She ran her first triathlon, and then founded an East Hampton-based organization — Inspirational Triathlon Racing International, or i-tri — to help young girls do the same.
And with her guidance, training and support, they grew stronger physically and mentally, believing in themselves in a way Ms. Roden never did at their age.
On Thursday, June 6, she will accept the 21stCentury Newcomer award from the Business Council for Peace, which recognizes organizations and individuals who are mentoring women forward.
“Bpeace wanted to shine a light on the impact individual leaders can have mentoring women forward in U.S. corporations, much the same way Bpeace volunteers mentor businesswomen forward in economically challenged communities like El Salvador and Guatemala,” CEO Toni Maloney said in a statement. “At Bpeace we recognize and celebrate the power of courageous individuals to advance women, both at home and abroad.”
Earlier this week, Ms. Roden caught up with the Sag Harbor Express to discuss the origin of i-tri, how it differs from other mentoring programs, and where she sees the nonprofit headed.
The Sag Harbor Express: What was your reaction to receiving the 21stCentury Newcomer award?
Theresa Roden: We were really thrilled and surprised that we were selected; I know they had a lot of applicants this year. This award is really one that we’re super proud of because it was about mentoring, so we were able to show that not only do we mentor the girls in our program, but girls who are alumni of our program also come back and mentor the younger girls.
We also lean on women in our community to mentor girls, as well, and several of our board members are actually mentoring me, since they are women who have been leaders and executives in the business world. I am now stepping into more of a leadership and CEO role within i-tri, as we get ready for eventually a national expansion.
What is the origin story behind i-tri?
Roden: In my 30s, my daughter was about 6 years old, we were over in Block Island and we were hanging out when all of a sudden, these crazy lunatics came running down the beach, jumping over sandcastles and everybody was cheering, and the people running had numbers written on their arms in Sharpie.
I looked over at a friend of mine and said, “What are they doing?” and he said, “Oh, they’re doing the Block Island Triathlon,” and he explained to me what that was. And it was one of those crazy light-bulb moments where I thought to myself, “Okay, next year, that’s gonna be me.”
I came home after that summer and told a few of my friends, who were all young moms at the time, and I told them that I had this crazy idea and they decided to train with me.
How long did you train?
Roden: About seven or eight of us trained for a year. We signed up, we pretty much Googled, “How to do a triathlon,” and dove in. We jumped into the pool at the Y, having no idea what we were doing, swam one lap and we were completely out of breath, saying, “How are we ever gonna do this?” But we kept our focus and getting stronger and getting better.
Fast-forward, race day comes and we all are in Block Island and it was amazing. I still say I want to be buried in that ugly yellow race t-shirt from my first triathlon. It was just an incredible moment, crossing the finish line.
What did you take away from your first triathlon?
Roden: After the fact, I came to realize that as great as that finish-line moment was, it was truly the journey to get there that was so transformative. I just look back at how I got there and what it took to get there, and as much of a physical transformation I was going through at the time, I knew that I could never reach that goal if I didn’t work on some internal transformation that needed to happen.
My internal dialogue had always been negative, right? I was always, “I’m can’t do that, I’m not an athlete, I’m too fat, I’m too slow, I’m too whatever.” And I realized very quick that I couldn’t keep that up and ever reach this goal. So I really had to take steps and I learned about affirmations, and changed that inner dialogue to, “I cando it.”
It was really the first time in my whole life that I was ever kind to myself. All of the criticism in the world never, ever helped me to achieve this goal. But just being kind and patient and supportive to myself, that made all the difference. I realized after doing the race that I would never go back to that person who had treated herself like that. And I kept racing.
How did i-tri begin to take shape?
Roden: Three or four years later, when my own daughter — who had watched this transformation happen for me — was about to enter middle school, I was looking at her and thinking about how hard that time in life had been for me. For most girls, it’s a really hard time of life. And I thought, “Wow, if I had learned all of this at her age, instead of waiting until I was in my 30s, what a difference it would have made.”
That’s where the idea for i-tri comes from: “What if we took a group of girls who didn’t necessarily believe they were athletes and gave them all the training and support and equipment they would need to accomplish a really big goal?”
We started with no budget, no idea really how this was going to work, and about 10 girls. And it was just miraculous. Everything worked the way it was supposed to work, and the girls helped to develop the program that is pretty the same now, 10 years later, as it was then.
How has the program grown?
Roden: The following year, they had come back to me in September and said, “This can’t be over. We want every girl who could benefit from this to have a chance to do this. We want to come back and do this again, and find girls just like us and help them to the finish line.”
We had 24 girls the next year. It has just grown from there. We’re now in 10 different schools from Montauk to Mastic. This year we have close to 200 girls participating.
Why is this organization important for girls, particularly right now?
Roden: Now, more than ever, we’re seeing — with the climate that we’re in — girls who have felt very empowered are speaking up and talking about timely issues that they’re watching on the news and it’s becoming really great conversation. We just don’t want them to get discouraged. We want them to believe in themselves and believe that the future is theirs to form.
I look at them and I always say, “I’m not worried about the future because I hear from you guys about your ideas, your vision of what you want to see in the future,” and I know these girls are going to be the ones leading us to that future.
What has been the most rewarding part of leading i-tri?
Roden: Every year, we end up getting more and more girls who are not able to ride a bike, and they’re just so scared and they just don’t believe they can do it. We look at them and say, “We know you’re gonna get there.” It takes us, usually, about two afternoons and by the second afternoon, they are riding and there is nothing like that moment when a girl takes off for the first time, totally unassisted, and feels that feeling of freedom and accomplishment.
We are making that vision of the first girls — where they said that they want every girl, anywhere, who can benefit to have a chance to do this — our big goal, and I’m watching it play out. It’s not gonna happen overnight, but it’s definitely gonna happen.
For more information about i-tri, visit itrigirls.org.