TCSD Conversation – What do you do to make the world a better place?

For this edition of TCSD Conversation I asked our members 3 questions.  The focus was on what our members do to make the world a better place.  We have many civic minded people in the TCSD.  I encourage everyone to get more involved by volunteering, whether it be for the TCSD or for a cause you are passionate about.  You’ll be glad you did.  

Craig: Have you ever volunteered to help out at the Challenged Athletes Foundation “Best Day in Tri” or as a Swim Buddy for a local race?  If so, please tell us why that experience was so rewarding. 

John Holman: “Best Day in Tri”: All I could think of when volunteering at La Jolla Cove many years ago was, “If anyone is ever feeling bad about or for themselves, or how they might believe their life sucks, looking at what the participants in this event are accomplishing should shake them back into reality to being thankful for what they now have”. Everyone of those participants is reaching toward a goal that is beyond what many would think possible. “How very blessed and grateful am I to be who I am right now”.

Ron Graham with CAF athlete.

Ron Graham: My experience in volunteering for CAF (Challenged Athletes Foundation) was truly inspirational for me and rewarding. I volunteered to assist in the swim portion of the triathlon and adaptive sports clinic at La Jolla Shores. I am making my volunteer work a priority in my life.

I assisted an 11-year old boy named Tyler who lost his leg to a shark. I asked him if he had been in open water since the attack and he responded that this would be the first time. The waves were bigger than normal and I was a bit concerned in taking him out. I could see in his eyes as he peered out over the ocean that he was ready to go, so I instructed him on how to duck dive under the waves and off we went. Although he is not a strong swimmer, the effort he put in was truly inspiring. Swimming is all about technique and after 400 yards and 68-degree water temperature he was ready to head back in. My worry bringing him back was the waves crashing down on him. A cubic meter of water weigh a metric ton and it can toss you around if you’re not respectful. He kept swimming and we got in safely. I told him how proud I was of him and his parents took photos.

The second person was a 10-year old boy from Ohio who had lost his right arm and left leg. He really could not swim so I took him out in the shallow water, and he would swim between sets. Truly inspiring to see the determination and effort with swimming, no fear, just put his face down in the water and was after it. 

I assisted Pablo who was a single leg amputee and I think he is in his mid-twenties and was swimming without a wet suit. This was more of a challenge because a wet suit helps you float and makes you a better swimmer if you are not a great swimmer (that’s why I wear one.) Pablo would tire quickly and flip over on his back to rest. Again, his perseverance and determination to make it to the 400-yard buoy was inspiring.

The last person did not need any help and I told him it was an honor to meet him. Several days prior to the event I was watching videos on the Ironman Kona and saw videos of the first double amputee to finish Ironman. I recognized him and we talked on the beach for a while. We had fun conversations about the various half and full Ironman events that we both participated in. Just so you know, he completed 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike in a bike where you pedal with your arms, then a 26.2-mile run. He was joyful that he finished 30 minutes under the 17 hours cut off time and I told him I felt like I met someone famous. 

I was in awe of the dozens of athletes that I met at the event and consider them as determined peers. Very rewarding to see how happy these athletes are and their focus and determination. 

Tracy Roth: YES! I have volunteered many times at CAF’s Best Day In Tri. I don’t think I have ever seen a better example of encouragement and enthusiasm as I have seen from able bodied AND challenged athletes, at this event! There is no such thing as, “I can’t,” and every child/teenager/adult FEELS empowered by the support they have surrounded themselves with, during The Best Day In Tri!

Martha Ornelas: Yes, I have volunteered several times as a swim buddy. It is absolutely amazing to see the look in the athletes faces when they complete the swim portion for the first time. The sheer terror that some of them wear in their faces at the start, transforms into a beautiful smile full of accomplishment. My best experience so far had been with team Hoyt at the Mission Bay Triathlon; I had the privilege of escorting the swimmer for the nephew of a dear friend that I had seen grow up severely challenged, that smile on his face while he was being pulled in the water was priceless!

Bob Cunningham: For over a decade I’ve been a Swim Buddy at 90% of local races (that allow Swim Buddies), and when Tom Washington is unable to recruit or lead the group, I’ve been his backup (recently along with Chip Slack).

I never needed a swim buddy myself because over 11 years ago I was brought into triathlon by a swimmer who coached me from Day One, who also brought me to BOWS (Beginning Open Water Swim).  At age 52 I switched from being an asthmatic non-swimmer to become a fish, a truly transformational change for me.  I’ve been trying to pay it forward ever since, including at BOWS.  I’m beyond thankful TCSD has given me so many opportunities to do so.

Bob Cunningham at a BOWS event.  Bob is in the back row in the middle with his head between the 3 trees.

Being a Swim Buddy has its own rewards (including a silly amount of hugs), where our main function is simply to distract swimmers away from their fears, to help them focus on making forward progress and having a great race day.  But I’ll freely admit it’s also a great BOWS and TCSD recruitment opportunity!

Chip Slack:  Ian Kelly and Tom Washington are my swim buddy mentors. 

I did do several “swim buddy” volunteer sessions this year at the local Koz triathlons.  Swim buddy service is the process of accompanying (not coaching or pacing) those anxious, nervous and scared triathlon racers in the swim portion of the race from the start to finish to calm them, keep them relaxed and let them focus on swimming the race course.  These included bay water and ocean water events.  Both are open water, have sea life, and limited water clarity. The ocean events have surf to contend with.  I have been doing swim buddy service for 4 or 5 years.

There are many facets to swim buddy service that motivate me to do it year after year.  Swim buddy volunteer service is frequently the first contact the public has with Triathlon Club San Diego (TCSD) and the triathlon community and so it is a fantastic way to make a monumental first impression.  When I do swim buddy service it is always with 10 to 25 members of TCSD.  This group inclusion gives me unbelievable confidence. I radiate that confidence over and over again to incredibly nervous, anxious even scared triathletes with incredible conviction absolutely knowing and convincing them that everything is going be fantastic all the way to the swim exit ramp.  The act of conveying this confidence and getting them to the swim exit is rewarding beyond words.  The variety of the racers’ stories and experiences are only exceeded by the stories I hear from volunteers after they do their first (and more) swim buddy service.  What a way to change somebody’s life for the positive!

Diane Ridgway: I have “competed” in Best Day in Tri this year and two years ago.  Both those years we also volunteered with packet stuffing and packet pick-up.  Leading up to that we have done two or three escort rides with the wheelchair kids.  This is extremely rewarding and lets us interact with the athletes we are raising money to support.

On our last ride we were escorting a teenager who was taking her first hand cycle ride.  At the 101 & La Costa intersection her brakes failed and she had the presence of mind to just turn the cycle hard and go down before hitting a car.  She was so fearless and anxious to continue the ride.  Don was, with his bike knowledge, able to fix the brakes so we could continue.  She made 18 miles her first outing.  We had the opportunity to meet her again at the Athletes recognition dinner held the Friday before the triathlon.  She has come a long way and is expected to compete in paralymics next year.  This recognition dinner really lets you see what the organization is about and as an able-bodied athlete feel awed by their accomplishments.  This is my favorite organization to help in any way as I feel it is so immediately beneficial; I can see what they get and that gives me gratification. 

Before coming to California, we have ridden for both MS and the American Lung Association but I feel more connected to CAF. I have been fortunate not to have anyone I was close to be affected by these diseases, and can see effects of my volunteering immediately with CAF so lean towards it.

Craig: Have you ever done an endurance event to raise money for a cause?  If so, please tell us why you selected that cause and what this experience meant to you.

John: For the 2007 Ironman in Kona I chose to raise money through the Janus Charity Challenge for the Zero Cancer Organization. This organization provided free prostate cancer screenings in mobile units throughout the United States. On my tri top was imprinted: “Fight Prostate Cancer in Memory of Bill Stephens”. Bill was a friend who died in November of 2004, shortly after I had participated in my first Kona race.

However, in the 2004 race my purpose in racing was not to raise money, but was more important than that. I did that race in memory of my second wife, Harriet, who died of lung cancer in 1999 and in honor of my daughter, Karen, who had breast cancer in 2002. That tri top was imprinted:  In Memory of Harriet, in Honor of Karen, to the Glory of God”. The front read: Memory, Honor, Glory”. There is more to this story than there is time for here. Tears still come to my eyes when I think back to the bike in 2003 Ironman Canada and 2004 Ironman Kona when riding back from Hawi.

The third time in Kona I raised money, again through the Janus Charity Challenge, for the Haiti Endowment Fund. They are a Christian group who work near the town of Hinche. They provide medical care, schooling, teaching locals sustainable farming, and provide hundreds of lunches five days a week. They have been doing this for over twenty years. Some TCSD members may remember when we collected many t-shirts to be sent there after the earthquake in 2010.

An Ironman race is a long, sometimes uncomfortable day and gives a person a lot of time to think about things and talk to one’s self. Training for and doing the race can, in some ways, be a very selfish endeavor. For me racing for someone other than myself, or for a cause has always given me more strength and greater endurance and answers the question: “Why in the ……… am I doing this?” And….at the finish line it so much more rewarding.

Tracy Roth raised over $10,000 for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Tracy’s young friend Joey was her inspiration.

Tracy: In 2011, I raised $10,000(no easy feat) for The Challenged Athletes Foundation. CAF promised me that if I raised the money and rode my bike 620 miles down the coast of California from San Fransisco to San Diego with 100 other cyclists (also, no easy feat), that they would provide a sports wheelchair to a kindergarten boy at my elementary school, who was born with Spina Bifada. Raising the money AND riding 100 miles per day for six days was extremely rewarding, when the entire population of my elementary school came out to see Joey being presented with his sports wheelchair!

Martha Ornelas wearing Padres Pedal the Cause Corporate Team kit and her friend, Tony So, wearing Team in Training kit.

Martha: I have done several events with team in training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and several rides with Padres Pedal the Cause.

I am a cancer researcher myself and I had lost a dear friend to cancer, I am fully aware of the complexity of the challenge. Training and racing for a cause bigger than myself gives me a sense that I am doing all that I can – at work and on my own time – to fight a disease that takes so many in the prime of their lives. 

In Team in Training I’ve found my love for triathlon and my second family, with Pedal the Cause I’ve found an organization that gives 100% back to cancer research in San Diego. Both organizations are working hard to fill the gaps in both research and patient care that we so desperately need if we want to make fast progress in curing these diseases. That to me is more rewarding than any medals or PR’s and I intend to continue contributing to both of them for as long as I can.

Jeff Krebs with his New York City Marathon finisher’s medal.

Jeff Krebs: Being a triathlete is very self-indulgent. We often have long training days that take us away from our families and friends. We watch our diets which often impacts the people around us. We wake up early, even on weekends, in order to train and we miss many social events due to our training and racing schedules. Wanting to do something greater than myself, I decided that racing for a charitable cause would bring me a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment beyond that of just finishing an event. As a physician, I wanted to find a charity that was aligned with my sense of duty to help others.  In 2014, when I registered for my first ever Ironman race, IMAZ, I noticed that Smile Train was the official charity partner for the event.  Smile Train is an international children’s charity that fixes cleft palate and cleft lip for children in need in over 90 Countries, changing their lives forever. I set my goals: Race IMAZ and help children while doing so.  My bond with this great charity has been solid ever since and I raise money in conjunction with every major race that I do. I have raised over $145,000 for Smile Train since 2014. It costs only $250 per cleft surgery so with the money I have raised, over 580 children have received new smiles!  When my training gets difficult and I feel down, I remember the good that I am doing for others. It helps a lot. My involvement with Smile Train gives me purpose and puts my life in perspective. The support that I have received from my family and friends has been extraordinary. I never lose sight of this and the fact that they are a huge part of my journey leading up to each race. 

Monica Sberna finishing Padres Pedal the Cause 2016 in honor of Dan Weisenbach.

Monica Sberna: In 2015, a good friend Dan Weisenbach (who I had trained with for my first century ride), lost his two-year battle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and in his honor, a number of his friends and family formed The Purple TuTu Society.  While I won’t go into the reasons behind the name, this group of 38 individuals successfully raised over $92,000 for Pelotonia 2016, a two-day cycling fundraiser for the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, OH.  Unfortunately, I was not able to make the trip back to Ohio to ride with them, but I vowed to ride 100 miles once again to help honor Dan’s memory and raise money for cancer research.  So in 2016, I participated in San Diego’s own cycling fundraiser, Padres Pedal the Cause, committing to raise $1,000 to benefit local cancer research, all while wearing a purple tutu in Dan’s honor.

This was a particularly meaningful event for me, not only because I was able to honor Dan’s memory, but because I had previously worked at both the UCSD Moores Cancer Center and Rady Children’s Hospital as a clinical research coordinator for the hematology/oncology department and the proceeds from this event directly benefit the patients and families I worked with.  The century ride that year was more mentally and physically grueling than anything I’ve ever done with over 7,151 feet of climbing in just under 10 hours.  In fact, I almost cut the route short (at the official turn-off) in fear I wouldn’t be able to finish before dusk.  My body was tired and part of me wanted to give up, but the one thing I learned that day was you can truly accomplish anything you set your mind to, especially when you have someone to finish for.

Craig: Is there a volunteer activity that you have given at least 10 hours of your time to in the past year?  If so, please tell us what you have done to help that organization.  

John Holman on the right at the scene of a homicide-suicide. 

John: I volunteer with the San Diego Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team. We support the patrol officers and the citizens of San Diego by giving emotional and logistical support to people involved in incidents which, at the time, are beyond their ability to handle. More often than not, we are assisting family and/or friends of someone who has died suddenly or unexpectedly. Death of a loved one is difficult at anytime, more so when unexpected. Our goal is to work with them immediately and to be supportive in any manner they need. Then, to assist them in taking action toward moving through the process of grief and beginning to handle some of the logistical processes needed following the death.

It is so rewarding to be there and witness the strength of people in a most trying time and to help them begin to work their way toward a new normal. 

If anyone has questions about this team, I would be more than glad to speak with them about any aspect of what we do at Crisis Intervention. It is a very wonderful and rewarding experience. We welcome new members who have a heart for helping others.

Naomi Shibata.  Left to Right:  Janice Saruwatari and Naomi in October 2019, at the Backyard Produce Garden in Poway.

Naomi Shibata: I volunteer for two organizations that can be adapted to any location.  The Backyard Produce Garden grows produce that is distributed to families in need.  Harvesters also go to homes to pick fruits from orchards.  The second, Community Food Connection, collects produce from (grocery/Costco, etc.) stores and donated non-foods, including overstocked or non-selling items.  This is sorted and distributed every Monday/Wednesday/Friday from 3PM-6PM at Trinity Church in Poway.

Fontaine Shu on far right.  House and crew leaders selfie before we wrapped up the week in Nashville on House #6.

Fontaine Shu: I recently returned from a Habitat for Humanity build week in Nashville, TN with the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. We spent the week working on 21 new homes alongside 21 wonderful partner families, building community and camaraderie, and reuniting with Habitat friends around the nation. I’ve been volunteering with Habitat since 2004 and this was my 8th Carter Work Project. Habitat’s “hand up, not a hand out” mentality resonates strongly with me, and I am always inspired when I see how empowered Habitat homeowners become through their partnership with the organization. I’ve built locally with San Diego Habitat, with Habitat affiliates in other states around the country, as well as internationally in Thailand, Haiti, Guatemala and Canada. I’m headed to Poland to build next!

Bob: I have over 400 total hours as a volunteer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) tutor at Abraxas High School in Poway, primarily in Math and Engineering.  Not so many hours over the past year due to starting a new job, but I expect to get back to it after the Holidays.

And, yes, I also have over 30 years as a volunteer theater usher for many local venues: The La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe, San Diego Musical Theater, the Cygnet Theater, San Diego Rep, North County Rep, Lambs Players Theater, and the list goes on.  Getting butts in seats is only part of what we do:  Fostering a great theater experience and actively supporting the institution are also key ingredients.  Getting to look good in a black suit is just a side-benefit.

Don Ridgway: Diane and I both volunteer with the San Diego Humane Society Project Wildlife.  The mission is to rehabilitate injured animals and return them to the wild. I seem to have migrated into mostly cage construction, maintenance, and the never ending folding of towels. 

At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park I volunteer as a guest ambassador responsible for helping guests with directions and spreading the Park’s mission of preventing extinction of endangered species. Absolutely rewarding activities.  

I have been volunteering at both places for three and a half years.  We moved to CA from Denver, CO where we lived for twenty years and I was firmly imbedded in a conventional job. Diane and I decided to retire; so we did and sold our house and moved to San Diego to be closer to grandsons all in a couple months.  I needed something structured and these two volunteer jobs fit perfectly.  I work two mornings a week, and carry home some small construction projects. At the Safari Park assisting guests from around the world allows me the opportunity to talk about ending extinction and conserving the wildlife of the planet. And you can hardly believe the satisfaction in letting a family know the location of the nearest restroom or which shop has soft ice cream or where the tigers are or how to see the whole park in one day.  I get the same satisfaction from cleaning the pen of some poor injured duck who really didn’t want to be at Project Wildlife.

Volunteering will definitely make you feel like a better person.  Take my word on that.

Don and Diane Ridgway at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Diane: My fascination with animals has led me to volunteer with both the Safari Park, where I usually am with the gorillas or lions to share information about them and what our organization is doing to end extinction and protect their habitat, or the Project Wildlife arm of the Humane Society where I care for injured or orphaned birds until they can return to the wild.  Ever syringe feed a baby hummingbird?  It’s pretty awesome!

Craig: Thank you everyone!  You absolutely make the world a better place! 

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or