Always an outsider?

Written by TJ Flynn

Written by TJ Flynn

I’m a blow-in, an outsider. I’ve never denied this and it’s been this way for some time. It never bothered me during my time in New York, or San Francisco, or Peace River, Alberta. It never bothered me back home, either, in sweet parochial Ireland, where an offbeat roll of the tongue pinpoints your place of birth with the precision of some modern measuring tool. Accents are strange and beautiful and always revealing. But I digress.

We’ve been in Ontario for going on three years now and we’re not moving anytime soon, if ever. Our nine month old is here, a smiling, happy child of Cambridge, with its leafy summer trees and its grey winter roofs. Maybe it’s this new phase in life that shifts the mindset, but lately, a sense of home, of belonging, has begun to matter. In the old sod I never had to look too far for this. It was there in the shadows of beaten-down football stands, in the easy conversation of ancient pubs. I was there in the twist of my land’s purple mountains that forever feel familiar. I found it, in other words, in people and in places that made sense to me.

Here, in Waterloo Region, that sense of familiarity has slowly revealed itself – in the hills and fields that straddle our diverse community, among the quiet streets of our own neighbourhood. I’ve discovered that it can come from nowhere, too, this sense of belonging, and that’s what happened early last Saturday, along the shores of Pittock Lake, as a summer of triathlon, of all things, was about to begin.

This is my second season swimming, biking and running. Swim, bike, run. Those words don’t do this pursuit real justice and a proper book, a long, loping book, remains to be written to fully explain the hold this complex sport can have, because triathlon is more than the sum of its parts. There’s something simple and unifying in the pursuit of all sports. A common goal. A shared struggle. Competing against one another, but together at the same time.

This is true of triathlon, but here, we’re blessed to have a series such as MultiSport Canada that takes things to a new level. In a nutshell, it’s this large connected family that takes to the roads and highways of Ontario each summer. I was told that you can stop in on this tour as often or as little as you like and you’ll always receive a welcome and on Saturday morning, even as a raw sophomore, it was this sense of familiarity that struck me.

Wandering to the registration table, John Salt, the pioneer of this great Series, came into view. He was organizing, preparing – doing whatever it is he does to ensure a few hundred athletes take home a memorable experience. And as he reached out to say hello, the thought came to me that John forever seems to have a clipboard in hand on race morning. Strange how those little observations draw you in, make you feel as though you belong.

Anyway, other faces emerged as the morning wore on. New friends. Old names. Easy conversations. The day had a new but somehow familiar rhythm.

Out on the bike course, a few kilometres into a windy ride, a massive whirr of wheels approached from behind, passed, then faded into the distance. I recognized the backend of the great Larry Bradley as he sped by. I’ve never met Larry but his reputation precedes him. He is the Ontario duathlon King, the guy they all chase. And as he passed, I realized that all was right with the world, the natural order of things was as it should be.

Later, on the run, I encountered Angela – a new friend and sometime training partner – closing in on her first win of the year. For a second, I was jolted by how much it mattered that she was the leading female athlete.

But that’s sport and the unique experience of this series. That shared experience among companions who push you to be a better athlete, a better person, to lead a fuller life. For me, the race itself was a nice cobweb shaker, a little appetizer for the summer to come. I swam quicker than ever before – thanks mainly to the direction of my coach, Alex VanderLinden – and that’s my main takeaway from the race.

It’s ironic because exactly a year ago, after a shaky start in the waters of Pittock Lake, I was on the edge of backing away from triathlon. Thankfully I didn’t. For some unknown reason I pushed on and drove to Welland two weeks later, dropping in once more on the great travelling series.