The coronavirus crisis couldn’t stop this young athlete from tackling his first triathlon
Nine-year-old Jonathan Ponce was so excited about competing in his first sprint triathlon, which was scheduled for June 20 in Clermont. Stuck at home since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the energetic third-grader started training in April for the event. It included a 100-yard swim, a 3.5-mile bike ride, and a half-mile run.
Then, just three days before the triathlon, Jonathan’s dad logged into the event’s website to check out the course details and discovered it was canceled due to the ongoing crisis.
“I had to break the news to him, and he didn’t take it very well,” Diego Ponce says. “He felt like all that training had gone to waste. I said, ‘Let’s figure out another way to do this.’”
And that’s just what they did.
Diego and Jonathan’s mom, Aleesa, organized Jonathan’s very own triathlon in their Winter Springs neighborhood. On race day, he put on his triathlon suit and headed over to their neighborhood community pool to begin the 2020 Ponce Sprint Triathlon.
To make Jonathan’s namesake triathlon feel official, Diego printed out race bibs for his son’s bicycle and helmet and used a permanent marker to write his race number on both shoulders. With his parents and grandparents cheering him on, Jonathan hopped into the pool at 9:00 a.m., and the race began.
To give Jonathan extra incentive, Diego offered him a $30 prize (the refunded cost of the Clermont triathlon) if he beat his best practice time of 24 minutes and 25 seconds.
“It was super fun,” says Jonathan, now a fourth grader at a private school in Maitland. “But I did feel a little pressure on me to get my best time, so I could get the prize.”
After completing the swim portion of the triathlon, Jonathan headed to the poolside bike rack, put on his running shoes and helmet and – with his dad right behind him – started the 3.5-mile bike ride. They biked back toward their house, and then completed three laps around the lake in their backyard.
For the last leg of the race, Jonathan hopped off his bike, took off his helmet, and then ran a half-mile back to his house. The look of exhilaration was all over his face when he broke through the tape at the finish line (which was actually toilet paper attached to a couple of poles, decorated with triathlon banners). Diego had set up an official stopwatch app on his iPad, and it showed that Jonathan had beaten his personal best time with a 23:13 finish.
“I think one of the coolest things was that this was during Father’s Day weekend,” Aleesa says, “because Diego put so much thought and effort into this. I was super proud of both of them, and Jonathan blew me away with how much he improved.”
Jonathan’s athletic ability was evident at a young age. He began playing soccer at just 18 months old and ran his first 5K race at age four. Before the pandemic shut down his extracurricular activities, Jonathan, a straight-A student, had been going to soccer games and practices three-to-four days a week and was also taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes twice a week.
“From the day Aleesa got her first ultrasound, we knew he was going to be high energy,” Diego says. “He wouldn’t stay still.”
Jonathan can often be seen jogging around the neighborhood with his mom, and during quarantine at home this spring, he dusted off his bicycle and began making almost daily trips with his dad to a mountain bike trail at nearby Soldiers Creek Park. Swimming, however, was a different story.
“For most of his life, Jonathan had a strong dislike for learning how to swim,” Diego says. “It didn’t come easy for him. But he loves competition, so I thought if I made it a competition, he’d be willing to learn.”
The strategy worked. Though Diego says his son had a “strange look on his face” when he first suggested training for a triathlon, Jonathan was up for the challenge.
“I knew I had two out of the three [events] in the bag,” says Jonathan, who turns 10 on September 13. “I was thinking, ‘This should be pretty fun.’ I love competition.”
Jonathan worked hard in the pool, which opened back up in early May, and amazed his parents with his rapid improvement.
“When the race was canceled, it hurt me as much as it hurt him because I knew how hard he had worked,” Diego says.
“I wanted him to have another way to show how his hard work really did pay off. I was extremely proud of him. To see his face – he had such a strong sense of accomplishment, and I was thrilled to see he had learned that lesson.”
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