It all started with a football player who wanted to play water polo.
Back in 2007, high school math teacher Brandon Dorman agreed to teach one of his students, Dustin, how to play water polo. Dustin was a natural athlete, and quickly picked up the sport.
But he wanted a bigger challenge. Soon, student and teacher were competing in a triathlon (a first for the teacher, by the way). Dorman ended up recruiting other students to take part in the three-sports-in-one event, and soon found there were enough students to form a team of sorts.
By 2009, Dorman had launched Tri-This, a Fresno, Calif.-based nonprofit that recruits middle and high school students to take part in triathlons and similar events.
Unlike Dustin, many of the students aren't necessarily natural athletes, but Tri-This offers them a way to stay in shape and learn to compete.
"They're individual sports, but in a team atmosphere," Dorman says of the triathlon, which includes a bike ride, a swim and a run. "You're riding by yourself, but you're riding as a team."
Participants sign up for specific events and train for them, with some kids taking part in relay races or events focusing on a specific part of the triathlon, such as biking. Other students compete in full triathlons.
The students are often athletic novices, so Dorman and his coaching staff teach them how to swim, bike and run. Since many of the students are often low-income and many cannot afford running shoes or bicycles, the nonprofit provides them with the equipment. Students are taught how to maintain their bicycle, so they can use it to bike to school or train in their own time.
Tri-This also pays for the bulk of the event fees, which can get pretty expensive.
And along with coaching the students on the track, on the trail and in the pool, Tri-This provides nutrition lessons so the athletes learn how to provide their bodies with the right sort of fuel.
"They learn really quickly that if they drink a soda before a bike ride, it’s not going to be good," Dorman says.
Almost 100 students have taken part in the program since it launched a few years ago, with nearly 70 of them doing a full triathlon, Dorman says. But Tri-This isn't just helping students compete in races; it's also working to help young people compete in the classroom.
Nearly all of the kids who join Tri-This do better in school, with some students registering a 25 percent increase in their grade point average. Many of the participants end up becoming college-bound.
"We tell them, 'Hey, we're looking for improvement,'" Dorman says. "They have a community of kids that are encouraging them to keep their grades up, and we're encouraging them to keep their grades up… It’s a real powerful motivator."
One of the motivating factors for students could be the perks of being part of the program. Tri-This often takes students on camping trips during mountain bicycle training, which is the first time many of them have ever left the city, Dorman says. "It’s just a little treat for them. They're all from the inner city, and their parents don’t have a car," he adds.
After graduation, many of the students continue to take part in triathlons, with some even returning to the program to become coaches, Dorman says. And even the younger participants are motivating grown-ups to get into shape.
Dorman now teaches at a middle school, where some Tri-This participants ride their bikes to school each morning. "They're inspiring the kitchen staff and some of the other teachers to ride their bikes, too," Dorman says.
As it turns out, taking part in triathlons inspired Dorman in more ways than one. The teacher who hadn't "run more than a mile or two" before launching Tri-This is now doing triathlons regularly and has run at least three half marathons.
Dorman also met his wife on the triathlon circuit.