Mercer Island triathlon coach lends a hand for a good cause

Jenn White on her bike during a Team Challenge triathlon practice. - Contributed photo
Jenn White on her bike during a Team Challenge triathlon practice.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Longtime Mercer Island triathlon coach and Club Emerald owner Ginny Pietila just happened to be in the right place at the right time earlier this year. When Barb Wodzin, the Team Challenge manager in Seattle, stopped by the club looking for a triathlon coach, Pietila was there.

“I’m not here a lot in the afternoons, some random Friday, I happened to be here, it was probably 2:30 in the afternoon and I don’t even know what I was doing here.  Barb walks in and she had been over at Veloce Velo saying they were looking for a coach and do you know any tri-coaches. They know me and sent her over here and I happened to be here and happened to be standing at the front desk,” said the coach.

What Wodzin wanted to know, was if Pietila was interested in helping out a local charity, and raising awareness for a good cause by coaching a triathlon team which would compete in San Diego later this year. Team Challenge is a fundraising program through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. The group raises money and awareness about the diseases which affect millions in the United State. Team Challenge brings together local athletes and patients looking for a way to be active and give back at the same time by participating in an event, either a half marathon or triathlon, while raising money for CCFA.

“She told me about the program, I thought about it and talked with my family about the commitment because it would really be my seventh day of the week commitment so it would affect my family a little bit, but I couldn’t say no,” said Pietila. “It’s such an amazing cause. It’s a great way to give back to a sport that I love and have been involved in for the last 15 years, and helps others get involved in the sport and more importantly to help raise awareness and funds for the CCFA. There needs to be funding and we need to find a cure. It was something I couldn’t say no to.”

Pietila has coached triathlon teams for the last 15 years, including the team based out of Club Emerald on Mercer Island. The Team Challenge group will travel to San Diego in September for the Tri-Rock event.

The team from the Northwest Chapter of the CCFA is about 20 strong, said Wodzin, which is smaller than some of the other teams in the Western U.S., but it’s only the second year the chapter has participated. Team members are from around the greater Pacific Northwest, including a mother from Montana, a father son team from Poulsbo and others from the greater Seattle area. The group hopes to raise $95,000 for the CCFA this season.

Pietila said the team’s experience levels range from having done triathlons in the past, to people who aren’t comfortable swimming.

“It’s everything,” she said. “Some people who day one in the pool really didn’t know how to swim, to like Stuart who had just done the Lake Sammamish Triathlon and everything in between. Some people are strong swimmers, but possibly not so great on the bike. Some people come in with a running background and just need to buy a bike.” The team’s ages range from 16 to in their 40s.

With the wide variety of experience levels, the Mercer Island coach said her challenge is finding the right balance and helping everyone achieve their goals.

“My challenge is just that, being able to cover the full range, having three lanes of swimmers and yet everyone from someone who is still working on stroke basics to an accomplished swimmer who is trying to keep going with their workout and not have it interrupted,” said the coach. “It’s just being able to manage the different ability levels and different goals. I do have my team, my Club Emerald team, has been immensely helpful in coming out and helping me when I need extra coaches and when I haven’t been able to be at practice. They’ve been very helpful in just facilitating a smooth practice. It’s so rewarding.”

Because there is an overarching mission behind the team, Pietila said each practice – there are two team practices a week – the team has a mission moment, encouraging team members with one of the diseases or a family member to speak about their experience.

“We try to do a mission moment each practice, whether it’s having someone come and speak  from outside the group or someone on the team speak about how they’ve dealt with the disease,” said Pietila. “When the lady from Montana came her son spoke about Camp Oasis. We try to keep it ever present, why we’re doing this.”

Wodzin said about five team members this season are patients with the disease, and two have children suffering. Another three or four came to the cause simply looking for a way to get active and give back.

“We have a really strong mission oriented team,” said Wodzin. “I think there are only a couple who came in who are doing it because they want to a triathlon for a good cause.”

While Pietila said many people get scared away from triathlons because of the swim or the equipment, she is there every step of the way, calming nerves and anxiety. Throughout the season they practice each step, eventually stringing the three pieces together. Each team member has a personalized training program, allowing them to get better at their strong points, and work on weaknesses.

“What scares off 90 percent of people from triathlons is the swim. It’s just absolutely does, it terrifies people,” said the coach. “Then to take it a step farther I come across this a lot, they are great in the pool and can swim circles around other people, they are terrified of the open water. You add another level of anxiety. You lose the walls, the black line on the bottom, you lose the bottom and you add in temperatures of the lake, winds, weeds, boats, things growing the lake. That brings a whole different level of anxiety.. It’s something I’ve dealt with for 15 years with my triathletes. It’s very common and I try to assure people that they aren’t the only one and that they will be fine. We take it step by step.”

All while training for the event, team members raise money for the cause, doing things like Bingo for Bowels, as the team member from Montana did earlier this summer. Others, such as a dentist in Bellevue, is offering a cleaning, exam and x-rays at his practice for $100 which will be donated back.

“I think the most successful fundraisers are the ones who tie into what their passion or their business is,” said Pietila.

Pietila said she’s been surprised through the experience so far, is how much the diseases affect those who have it.

“I don’t think I recognized how debilitating it can be, and surgeries and infusions and really how life altering Crohn’s or colitis can be. Hearing Jen give her mission moment just this last week about the surgeries she’s been through and the years and years of medications really trying to find what was right. It just disrupts their lives completely,” she said. Another aspect, Pietila said, is that few people talk much about it, though there are a lot of people who are affected.

“I was down at the beach club for the 4th of July and I was explaining Team Challenge and they were like oh yeah so and so just had surgeries and it was like oh my gosh. Very few people talk about it,” she said. “I’m really learning how broad it is and how many people it affects and how it disrupts those lives. I’m thrilled to do my small little part to help find a cure.”

Come September, the team will have done 16 weeks of hard work to cross the finish line in San Diego. That in and of itself is one of the most exciting parts for both Wodzin and Pietila.

“I’m excited to watch them cross that finish line. I know from past experiences how powerful that finish line is. They’ve worked so hard for this,” said the coach.

“It’s just so exciting, especially for the people who have never done anything like this before,” said Wodzin. “We’ve definitely had people make amazing progress, especially in the pool. They’ll doubt themselves, but once everyone gets down there and the adrenaline kicks in. And then they are on such a high, they ask when’s the next one.”

Learn more

To learn more about the CCFA or Team Challenge, visit the Northwest Chapter’s website at

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