A six-time world champion who has competed in 79 triathlons worldwide told elementary school students how they can change the world by participating in their own races.
Tony Schiller spoke to students at Cambridge Intermediate School on Thursday, May 24, about MiracleKids Triathlon: Kids Racing for Kids Who Can’t.
“We inspire kids to race for someone else, and as a result they get fit,” he said. “Rather than fitness being the focus of it, fitness becomes the result. We really emphasize kids serving kids.”
The annual triathlons for kids are fundraisers put on by the Miracles of Mitch Foundation, which was inspired by 9-year-old Mitch Chepokas to help the families of children battling cancer in Minnesota.
Since its inception in 2003, The Miracles of Mitch Foundation has provided financial and quality-of-life assistance to hundreds of pediatric cancer families.
Each MiracleKid races in honor of a specific Minnesota child who has been treated for cancer, whose name is marked on the racer’s left leg during the triathlon.
“From a fitness standpoint it’s obviously fabulous, but this opens up children to the idea of public service, of serving other kids. It’s just amazing,” Schiller said. “What I’ve found is that when you motivate kids to exercise and you’re goal is to get them to exercise, it’s really, really hard to change a lifestyle, but when you inspire them to do things for someone else, oftentimes they will do that as part of their core belief.”
Miracles of Mitch Foundation founders Becky and Steve Chepokas know what it means to lose a child. They’ve also experienced the financial challenges families face during a long-term or terminal illness.
One of Steve Chepokas’ fondest memories is of his 9-year-old son Mitch’s last Christmas in December 2002. Mitch realized this would probably be his last Christmas, yet he refused to think only of himself. He believed his fellow pediatric cancer patients at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital had needs far greater than his own. Although friends from around the world sent him money to use as he saw fit, his time was running out.
Mitch initiated a random act of kindness to ease their day-to-day burden and help ensure they had a happy holiday season. “Dad, these families need help,” he said. “I want to give them my money.” Steve and Mitch went to the bank and cleaned out his savings account—in denominations of crisp $100 bills. They stuffed the money into envelopes and delivered them anonymously under the doors of the other kids in the hospital, suddenly making their Christmas a little brighter. It’s a memory the family will cherish forever, but it didn’t end there.
Mitch, inspired by the holiday joy he had brought these families, hoped to again help them the next year. However, he immediately realized that he wouldn’t live to see another Christmas. He made Steve “pinky swear” to continue helping these families after he was gone, easing their financial burden so they can enjoy their time together. As a result of this simple gesture, The Miracles of Mitch Foundation was born.
Schiller is the director of MiracleKids Triathlon, one of many programs of the foundation.
When he was in school, Schiller said he was cut from seven different sports teams before he tried track.
“After a while, you stop believing in yourself, and I did,” he said.
In his first race, he finished third, but there were only two other students in the race. Schiller told his coach he was last, expecting to be cut.
“But my coach told me I wasn’t last and he explained something to me,” Schiller said. “Here’s how you get last. There’s two different ways. The first way you get last is if you have ‘DNF’ written next to your name–Did Not Finish. But the one certain way to make you last is if you have ‘DNS’ next to your name–Did Not Start. My coach told me a lot of kids are so afraid to try that they would not start.”
Years later, Schiller has started and finished 79 triathlons worldwide, competing in another eight this summer. With MiracleKids Triathlon, he hopes to inspire kids to help others all while getting fit.
“I’ve raced in triathlons all over the world,” he told students. “Each and every one of you has the incredible opportunity to do amazing things with your life.”