Emilio Holguin wants to be an ironman.
The 12-year-old Serrano Middle School student has given
himself six years to get ready. At 18, he plans to be
swimming, cycling and running in Kona, Hawaii, in what many
consider to be the world's toughest triathlon.
It might be easy to dismiss Emilio's goal as a fantastic
adolescent's dream. After all, he lives in a blighted area of
San Bernardino where many kids can't even afford a pair of
running shoes, let alone a racing bike.
But Emilio is training under the eye of Cherie Gruenfeld, a
Lake Arrowhead woman and veteran of 10 Hawaiian Ironman races,
where she has won her age group division five times.
Evolution of a team
Gruenfeld is the coach of Cypress Exceeding Expectations.
The team, which began with 12 eager athletes a little more
than a year ago, has doubled in size. Volunteers run the
program largely with donated equipment. They transport the
kids from their homes to practices and events such as the YMCA
Highland Run, which was held Sunday in Highland.
The team was featured during a brief profile of Gruenfeld
that was part of NBC's coverage of the Hawaiian Ironman
competition in November. The program also is highlighted on
the back of the latest Wheaties cereal box.
The team evolved out of one of those
be-careful-what-you-wish-for situations. Greunfeld came to
Cypress Elementary in December 2000 at the request of friend
Jacque Irons, who teaches second grade. Irons wanted the
children to hear about goal-setting and commitment and to see
where those things might take them. Gruenfeld thought she was
giving an hour or two of her time in hopes of inspiring a few
An athlete's offer
She found herself impressed with the response.
"The kids were so excited and asked such good questions,"
Gruenfeld said. "There was this little triathlon coming up and
I said I would help any of them that wanted to do this."
She expected three or four kids might be interested.
Instead, 200 hands went up.
The school held tryouts and 12 students were chosen to be
on the team. None of them knew how to swim and only a couple
of them had bicycles, none of which were racing bikes.
Besides being surprised by the interest of the students,
Gruenfeld soon began to realize that the commitment that lay
ahead of her was more than she anticipated.
"I had no clue that these kids were so on their own," she
said. "I envisioned the parents bringing them somewhere to
train on the weekends."
She found out that if the kids were going to get anywhere,
most were going to have to be picked up and dropped off at
their doorsteps. On a recent Saturday morning it took an hour
just to shuttle the kids and their bikes to Redlands East
Valley High School for a training session. At morning events,
Gruenfeld and other volunteers bring food so the young
athletes get breakfast before they set out.
Donations and volunteers
Finding money for event entry fees and transportation costs
also presented a challenge. But bikes were donated by the
Redlands Bike Club, Inland Inferno Triathlon Club and
individuals. Some race organizers have waived registration
fees for the team. And donations have come in, including
recent grants of $1,000 from TRW and $2,500 from General
Mills. Bags of donated athletic clothes regularly show up at
Gruenfeld has a core of four volunteers and calls in others
when she can.
"There's no way I could do this without these (volunteers),
and I beg my triathlete friends to help me out with this."
On a recent day, four additional volunteers showed up. The
team was taking a practice run at a course it will compete on
in a few weeks. With the team gathered before her, Gruenfeld
explained the day's training. A two-mile run, followed by a
10-mile bike ride. Finally, they'll jump in the pool and do
"After the run, the first thing you do, before you even
touch your bike, is what?" she asks.
"Get your helmet on," the kids chorus.
"You absolutely must stop at every corner," she tells them.
"If there's a car there and it does the wrong thing, even if
you're right, who's going to win? The car, right?"
Ralph Holguin, Emilio's father, was elected team mechanic
early on and says he's happy to help out as much as he can.
Very few parents attend the practices or the races, but Ralph
and his wife Jeanetta Bolton are almost always on hand.
"It's a fun thing for us to do," Holguin said. "And I'm
real proud of him."
Their son's success has rubbed off. Ralph Jr., 16, now is
training and competing in the weekend events. He also is
helping to train first-, second- and third-grade students at
Cypress who want one day to be team members. And his cousin,
who lives with the family, also has begun competing.
Bolton says she credits Emilio's involvement with the team
for much of his scholastic improvement in the past year. While
he used to get C's and D's in class, Bolton says Emilio now
comes home with A's and B's.
"He's more motivated," she said. "He's into school more and
his concentration is better.
"He wants to be like Cherie and do that Ironman," she said.
"I said I was going to stay behind him 100 percent."
Cindy Haigler, a tutor at Cypress, said Emilio is not the
only one whose success on the triathlon course has lapped over
into his academic performance. She pointed out three other
boys who have benefited.
"Their self-esteem is so high," she said. Where before they
were average students, now "they're leaders in their
classrooms. They think they're little rock stars. It's fun."
Haigler is happy to see the students caught up in something
she sees as significant.
"It gives them a lot of incentive and something to work
toward," she said. "I think it means a lot for their future.
The ones that take advantage of that, it can change their
'It's been a miracle'
Irons said that when she invited Gruenfeld to speak at the
school, that very hope was at the back of her mind.
"I've always wanted to find something to change this
community," she said, adding that she has tried other things
in the past. "But this is it. It's been a miracle to watch it
take off like it has. I thought we'd have four or five kids,
but it's been incredible."
She pointed to Emilio's family as an ideal.
"That's what the whole story's about," she said. "Now the
family is connecting with their kids. Everybody's thinking in
Steven Martinez, 12, said he had never even heard of the
Ironman race before he heard Gruenfeld speak.
"I thought that it was cool doing all those things," he
said. And he thought he could do them, too.
He recently had one of his best performances in Hemet's
"I got second place," he said.
"First in your age group," Gruenfeld reminded him.
"Yeah," Steven said, trying to suppress a smile.
That feeling of pride, Gruenfeld said, is what she hopes to
give her athletes.
"These kids need an opportunity," she said. "They wouldn't
have this without somebody, not necessarily me, but somebody
Her goal is "to give as many kids as we can manage the
opportunity to race," she said. "Every time they go to a race,
they see a world they didn't know existed. When they get to
the finish line, they've accomplished something. Every time
they get that, I think they get the idea there's more in life
that they can do than they realized."
Reach Mark Muckenfuss at (909) 890-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org