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CENTER LINE - Norwalk's first triathlon full of inspirational stories

bigjoe • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:51 PM

It is a story that has to be told. When just finishing brings tears to a grown man's eyes, you know it is something special.

As I walked away Saturday from the first Fisher-Titus Medical Center Maple City Triathlon, a man looked at me and told me what I already knew. "You have to do a story on Jim Collins."

That was what made the day so great. It was one of many highlights Saturday morning.

On a beautiful day when 191 triathletes paid to compete, Norwalk's first attempt at a triathlon went off without a hitch. I talked to many of the participants and heard nothing but praise. Everyone I talked to said they would be back next year.

It was obvious from the very beginning that some people came to win, while others just came to compete.

Collins was one of them who just wanted to see the finish line.

"It's a real big day," Collins said as he completed the race, long after the winner. "I've been fortunate. The whole city has been fortunate with this event."

As he stepped into the water a couple of hours earlier to start his journey, I took his picture and asked if I could talk to him after the race.

"Don't make this a story about me," Collins said.

I told him I wouldn't. But I lied. It's a story that should be an inspiration to everybody.

Collins weighed 484 pounds when he had gastric bypass surgery on Aug. 6, 2003.

Four years and five days later, he was swimming 800 yards, biking 16 miles and running a 5-K race.

Did he ever envision finishing a race like this?

"Not when I was 484 pounds," he said as he received hugs from his friends and family. There was not a dry eye in the house.

"I don't know if it (the surgery) saved it (my life), but it sure as hell improved my quality of life."

The doors of the Ernsthausen Community Center open each day at 5:30 a.m., and Collins tries to be one of the first ones there. "I don't get there every day," he said.

Collins now weighs 270 pounds. He's still a good-sized man, but almost half of what he used to be.

"The Ernsthausen legacy is tremendous in this town," he said. "That is a great place. The Park and Recreation did a great job with this event. Niki Cross put a lot of time into this. This was well organized. Everybody should be proud of this."

Collins, 53, said he didn't know what to expect. He ran a 5-K last October ... "it was my first ever."

As Collins cooled down, he kept looking up for his buddy, Bob Gentzel, who also was competing. When Gentzel finished, Collins was the first to greet him. More hugs. More pictures. More tears.

Park Board President Patty Arlin-Smith was one of the many volunteers helping run the race. She also is one of Collins' close friends.

"We cried," she said. "It was so emotional and inspiring."

There were many great stories. And from the sounds of things, there will be many more to tell in future years.

"I've had so many people come up to me and say it was a great race," Arlin-Smith said. "They all said they want to come back."

The husband and wife team of Rich and Keri Jubak travel around the state to compete in races. They said it is great to have one in their own backyard.

"It was an awesome event," Keri Jubak said. "It definitely was challenging. It was great with all of the other athletes supporting you. I'll do it again."

The men's overall winner, Shannon Kurek, of Alexandria, owns a company (HFP Racing) that puts on these kinds of events. He had the day off, so he decided to compete.

The 38-year-old has been racing for 19 years and has seen a lot of courses. He had nothing but praise for Norwalk.

"I thought it was great ... fantastic for a first-year race," he said. "I loved the trail run. Most of the time you run on the road. My legs are getting too old for that."

That was the beauty of it. Young and old, they showed up to compete. They showed up to finish.

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