The pride behind the beanie

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2003

Pride wouldn't have been the first thing that came to mind to anyone who saw John Steckel Monday at the Tsalteshi Trails Triathlon.

Goofy? A little. Clownish? Definitely. But pride? Nah.

Steckel is the race director of the triathlon, and in order to stand out as he patrolled the ground with his bullhorn, he chose not an orange vest, but a multicolored beanie with a propeller on top.

A tall, slender man who still swims regularly, Steckel stuck out and looked anything but prideful as the propeller spun wildly in even the slightest breeze.

But, contrary to looks, Steckel does have an immense amount of pride. The evidence Monday was all around him.

He volunteered to be race director of the triathlon at the beginning of the year. Problem was, it had been three years since there had been a Tsalteshi Trails Triathlon.

In 1999, the triathlon was in its ninth year and fast becoming a local fixture.

In 2000, the event was not held due to road construction around Tsalteshi Trails. That year, there was a buzz in the community when the event was canceled.

But as the years went by, the event receded further and further into the collective conscious of the public, meaning it would be harder and harder to revive.

Steckel not only took up the task this year, but he made his project even harder by making some major changes to an event that was already successful.

Under the old format, road bicycles were used and competitors rode courses that took them miles from Tsalteshi Trails.

Steckel set out to change that. He wanted an event that catered to local families, and he didn't see too many local families with road bikes. Road bikes, he said, catered to top triathletes in the cycling clubs in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Under Steckel's new format, mountain bikes would be used and trails around Skyview High School would be traveled on race day in order to keep the competitors closer to spectators.

Changing to mountain bikes, as well as other quirks like allowing swimmers to use fins, rattled some triathlon traditionalists.

And a month before the event, the number of entries appeared to indicate Steckel had gone too far.

On May 8, 2 1/2 weeks before race day, Steckel had only about 20 entries. This was a shockingly small number considering Steckel had made presentations about the triathlon in elementary, middle and high schools from Homer to Sterling.

Entrants had to get their registrations postmarked before or on May 16 in order to dodge a late fee. In the week before that deadline, the number of entries swelled to 160.

Thanks to a rush of late entries, 235 people were registered on race day a massive number considering there were 168 finishers when the race was last held in 1999.

Thanks to some 45 volunteers and a rare, nonexistent winter that made trail conditions Monday perfect, the race went off without a major hitch. Steckel had not only revived the Tsalteshi Triathlon, but he had done it in his own mold.

So why had Steckel, who had retired from over 20 years of being a physical education teacher in area schools four years ago, put himself through this? Why did he spend the countless hours presenting in schools? Why did he personally challenge area athletes to compete? Why did he profusely push the event on radio and in print?

"It was a pride thing," Steckel said. "I wanted to start the thing up again. I think the triathlon is a real test of skill and endurance, and that it would be a lot fun to see it started again."

Since the success Monday, Steckel has set about thanking the countless people that made the event happen.

But the community should also be thanking Steckel and his pride. Steckel's countless hours of volunteer work and his vision for the triathlon benefited the community immensely.

Steckel made a gutsy and commendable decision in aiming the event not at the high-level triathlete, but at the average family.

America has more than enough high-level athletes and too many overweight and obese people that sit around and watch these high-level athletes.

A national survey called the 2001 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System pegged 63 percent of Alaska adults as either overweight or obese. The upswing in obesity also is hitting children.

Community events revolving around physical fitness aimed at the general populace, like the one staged by Steckel and his volunteers, are invaluable to fighting this problem.

"The nicest words I kept hearing at this event is 'next year,'" said Steckel, who plans to stay on as race director. "Kids are saying, 'Hey, next year we can do this and we can do that.'

"Now that it's started again, it can be successful. The word's out."

Suddenly, that propeller beanie doesn't look so goofy.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to

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