i-tri: Empowering Sag Harbor Girls One Triathlon at a Time

Thane Sullivan, left, and Eleana Merola work together to identify photos in magazines that have been retouched with computer software during an i-tri "empowerment session." Christine Sampson photos
Thane Sullivan, left, and Eleana Merola work together to identify photos in magazines that have been retouched with computer software during an i-tri “empowerment session.” Christine Sampson photos

By Christine Sampson

Twenty-five girls from Pierson Middle School tore through about a dozen different fashion and culture magazines on Tuesday, looking for examples of women portrayed in positive and negative ways and gluing those examples to separate poster-boards when they found them.

From the cacophonous chatter that accompanied the activity, it was possible for a listener to discern the lessons learned as they tried to identify what images had been retouched via computer imaging, versus what photos hadn’t been edited.

“Her eyebrows are so real!” one student exclaimed.

“But look at her cheekbones,” said another.

Their lesson in deconstructing unrealistic beauty standards comprised the “empowerment session” of Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of i-tri, a local organization that trains young women to complete a triathlon at the end of the school year, and offers them leadership skills and life lessons along the way. Now in its eighth year, i-tri is enjoying its largest-ever participation rate, with 100 middle school students from Sag Harbor, Springs, East Hampton, Montauk, and Southampton and 35 more from the William Floyd School District. All sixth-grade girls get invited into the program, and some older students return to take part as mentors.

“The race is the goal. We say we train our mind, our body and our spirit for this goal,” said Theresa Roden, i-tri’s founder. “The girls get together on Saturdays for the specific physical training. But it’s in the empowerment sessions that we train our mind and our spirit, which is probably just as or more important than training our bodies.”

If anyone remained skeptical about how a lesson on identifying altered photographs in magazines was empowering, all doubts were surely erased when Ms. Roden asked the girls if they felt they had any power to change the practice in magazines. Most said yes.

“If we’re feeling powerless, what’s one easy thing to do?” Ms. Roden asked.

“Don’t buy the products in the ads!” one student shouted.

“Can they trick Sag Harbor i-tri girls anymore?” Ms. Roden said. “No! You’ve just made a change. You have power.”

Following their empowerment session, the group took a few deep breaths for focus and jumped into an hour-long physical workout. The weekday workouts differ each time the i-tri girls get together – it might be a Zumba lesson, yoga or pilates, dance, or, in this case, a self-defense class.

Jocelyn Armus, center, and her daughter Ellen, right, had a frank discussion with the i-tri girls about self-defense before actually showing them some self-defense moves.

Jocelyn Armus, a social worker who also teaches martial arts, led Tuesday’s activity. She and her daughter, Ellen, herself an alumna of the i-tri program, showed the students a handful of simple self-defense moves and how to combine them. But more importantly than knowing the moves, Ms. Armus said, was knowing how important it is to be aware of your surroundings.

“Even before it gets to kicking and punching, there’s a lot that happens. … It’s about avoidance from the very beginning,” she said.

Ultimately, Ms. Armus concluded by telling the girls to “use your voice” as a self-defense tool, and told them, “You’re really all stronger than you might think.”

The i-tri program focuses on self-respect, self-confidence, leadership, positive body image, self-empowerment and healthy lifestyle choices for adolescent girls. They will race in the Hamptons Youth Triathlon on July 13, which is for girls and boys ages 10 to 17. Hampton Jitney is currently supporting i-tri by providing transportation for the students to their training and events, and the organization has a campaign via the local crowd-funding platform GoodCircle to fund the rest of the training, which amounts to about $11,700 total.

Training Sag Harbor’s i-tri group is program leader Alyssa Channin, a triathlon enthusiast herself, who says she loves seeing the program’s alumni become leaders.

“Working with the girls is the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “There are so many things about the job I find rewarding, like girls who were afraid to get in the water and end up swimming like pros at the end of the season. Or kids who couldn’t ride a bike day one riding seven miles with ease, and girls who hated to run finishing the race with a smile on their face.”

Visit itrigirls.org for more information.

Rachel McKelvey executes a self-defense move she learned from Jocelyn Armus and her daughter Ellen during a workout with i-tri.