When Maddie Harrison crossed the finish line at the JUST TRYAN IT triathlon – just ahead of her older brother, William – she got quite a bit of attention from some adoring fans. Her 3-year-old sister, Emma; her father, Stuart; and her mom, Margarita Escaler, were joined by Maddie’s teachers and friends in celebration. There were cheers, posters, balloons, a medal, the whole shebang. Maggie Pierce, Maddie’s first-grade teacher at McDougle Elementary School, stood at the finish line and beamed. “I’ve never seen Maddie so happy!” she said.
“Hey!” shouted William to everyone. “I’m the one who pushed her!”
And it’s true. But only during the run. For the swim, he pulled her in a raft, and for the bike, she rode in a trailer as he pedaled for both of them.
While he has done several triathlons on his own, William, a rising fifth-grader at Morris Grove Elementary School, was invested in this one not so much for the physical challenge of racing with Maddie, who is 8 and has cerebral palsy, but, as he puts it, “So I can prove to her that I’m the big brother. And I’m the hero.”
His parents smiled, knowing better than to argue with that, but they do see a bigger picture than just a loving brother and his disabled sister racing together in a charity event.
Putting Kids First
Geographically, that picture is as big as it can get. The family is mindbogglingly international: Stuart is Australian. Margarita is Filipino. William was born in England, Maddie in Boston, and Emma in Singapore, where they lived just before moving to Chapel Hill.
“One of the reasons we moved to the U.S. is because none of the international schools would have been able to educate Maddie,” Margarita says.
“The company wanted me to move to headquarters in Switzerland, where education is very good but not inclusive like it is in the U.S.,” explains Stuart. “The management of my company is very family- focused, so they said I could do the job [here]. Chapel Hill’s school system has been magnificent, and the therapists in the area have been really good, so for us to see what education can be for a disabled child, particularly in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, has been brilliant. We’re really, really happy.”
“Stuart and I have always tried to include her in everything we do,” says Margarita. “Biking, sledding. She’s well-traveled. Australia multiple times, several Asian countries. She’s just a joy to be around. Maddie does Miracle League baseball and summer camps. I try to get her into things that are very inclusive, and there are so many!”
While still in Singapore, Margarita and Stuart discovered YouTube videos of Team Hoyt – the duo of Rick Hoyt, who has cerebral palsy, and his father Dick, who has pushed Rick through many races, including the Boston Marathon. When the family moved here, they used that inspiration to train for an event themselves.
When they found out about a fundraising triathlon just for kids called JUST TRYAN IT, they felt even more motivated. “We liked that the cause was kids with cancer,” Margarita says of the organization’s commitment to providing financial assistance to families of children with cancer. “We don’t have any friends or relatives with pediatric cancer, but we know what it’s like to have a sick kid in the hospital.”
William the Conquerer
The triathlon’s organizers welcomed William and Maddie’s unique approach to the race, and William, whom Margarita describes as a pretty laid-back kid, was up for giving it a go. After all, “That’s what you do at triathlons, you tryyyyy,” he says with a smirk. He and Maddie raised a total of $2,260, making them the second-largest fundraisers for the Chapel Hill triathlon.
Finishing the race proved rough at times, especially the biking course and its sizable hills, which were, of course, plotted for racers without the extra challenge of pulling a sibling in a trailer. And perhaps it’s that reason that JUST TRYAN IT brought out a side of William and Maddie that their parents, teachers and friends don’t usually see.
“I was extremely proud of William. I’ve never seen him try so hard. It was brilliant,” Stuart says.
Margarita says that witnessing her children make such an effort, for such a cause, with so many people there to support them, made her feel, “All emotion. Hearing everyone cheer, I just got choked up. I loved that Maddie’s teachers were there, and her caregiver, and her classmates with their families. Kids with disabilities can and should be able to participate in events like this with other children. We are so fortunate.”
The JUST TRYAN IT Story
JUST TRYAN IT started with a boy named Ryan who was diagnosed with leukemia. The organization grew out of his friend Carrie Norry’s vision to create a community of young people, inspire them to make a difference and unlock their potential to help others. After raising $750,000 to assist families battling childhood cancers in the D.C. area, Carrie brought the race to Chapel Hill this spring. (She and her family now live in Durham.)
The inaugural event at Chapel Hill Country Club featured 207 participants (ages 6 to 16) and raised $80,000 for families at UNC Children’s and Duke Children’s Hospital & Health Center.