More than 10 years after the Sandy Hook school shooting, the family of one of the young victims is rejoicing in his legacy. The Kowalskis are celebrating 10 years of Race 4 Chase, the kids’ triathlon that honors Chase Kowalski.
Chase loved to run and bike, and he taught himself how to swim. It was his dream to complete a triathlon. He did indeed cross the finish line, the summer before the 7-year-old was killed.
In the decade since he’s been gone, thousands of Connecticut kids ages six to 12 have also learned to bike, swim and run through the six-week triathlon training program Race 4 Chase.
“It’s amazing, it's so emotional,” Rebecca Kowalski, Chase’s mom, said. “10 years ago, when we started this, I didn't know what to expect. And now it's grown. It's huge.”
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The Kowalski family feels the loss of Chase every day, but Thursday they had big smiles as they celebrated 10 years of Race 4 Chase during a luncheon at the Newtown Community Center.
“All of the kids that have come through the program, year after year after year, I think he'd be very, very proud,” Kowalski said.
During the luncheon, 29 YMCAs in Connecticut and other states signed agreements to host the triathlon this year.
“We may be hitting over 5,000 athletes going through the race program,” Jim O’Rourke, Greater YMCA CEO, said about the total number of kids participating.
The Greater Waterbury YMCA was one of the first three locations to host Race 4 Chase in 2013.
“The impact has been incredible,” O’Rourke said. “It's interesting because some of the kids have actually now come back, and now they're coaches.”
Kristin Mabrouk has been working or volunteering for the event all 10 years.
“I feel like I miss Chase even though I never met him,” O’Rourke said. “I'm sure that my experience of feeling like I know Chase and I carry him with me is not unique to the thousands of people who have been involved.”
Coach Brandon Riollano, who has been involved with Race 4 Chase for eight years, says it is not only teaching kids new fitness skills that’s so empowering, but also sharing Chase’s memory.
“If I could choose one word, it's magic,” Riollano said. “You see Chase in every single one of those little kids’ smiles. He's there when it's at the hardest. And he’s there at the easiest. He's there as you're running through the finish line.”
Chase's 18th birthday would have been this upcoming Halloween. To honor the legacy of the little athlete, the Kowalski family is inviting the community to a fitness challenge.
“People that aren't used to working out or being fit can go out and walk or cycle or run, whatever they want, where they can accumulate mileage, a minimum of 18 miles a month, for 10 months,” Kowalski said. “We're at 170 participants."
Anyone who takes on that “Turn Your Life Around” challenge is raising money for the CMAK Foundation that funds Race 4 Chase.
“Seeing Chase’s legacy grow has just been a really life-altering,” Kowalski said.
Keeping the young triathlete’s spirit alive through the determination of thousands of other young athletes.
“I didn't get to see Chase grow up, and I've got to see a lot of these kids grow up,” Kowalski said. “That is so special. So proud.”