Last Sunday was the Miami Man 70.3 Triathlon. It was held at Larry & Penny Thompson Park adjacent to Miami’s Metro Zoo. Like many triathletes headed towards the start, jitters, goggles and swim cap in hand, I too was walking over. I was looking for two friends who were about to compete in their first Half Ironman. As if the challenge of completing a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run wasn’t enough, my friend would complete it with a human in tow.
That human is Brett Atwood, 28, born with cerebral palsy. He has managed walking short distances with the help of a walker but he has generally relied on the wheelchair to get around the majority of his life. Though he is a an active young man that goes to the gym on a weekly basis, he and his mom Sheri, never imagined they’d find him at the starting line of a 70.3 half iron-distance triathlon.
The crazy, enormously-hearted, human making Brett’s race possible is Maricarmen Saleta. She is a mother, a swim instructor, synchronized swimmer, psychologist, sister, friend and incredible human who you will hopefully get to know a little better by the end of this race report.
To the dismay and disbelief of so many with puzzled looks at the start of Sunday’s Half Ironman, I witnessed first-hand a labor of love, a testament to will-power, and a glimpse of a world that should be.
I had the honor to swim next to Brett’s raft as Mari pulled him for 1.2 miles. Brett and I splashed a few times throughout the race. Though I was out of breath for most of the swim, I managed to keep up with them and we made it through faster than expected, with a 38 minute final swim time.
We then biked along with Team Brett’s entourage for 56 miles listening to Bon Jovi – his request. Brett would lift his speakers up when we asked him to raise the volume. We were all half in a daze, physically exhausted, but emotionally unwilling to give up. Upon bike finish, we then ran for 13.1 miles throughout the bumpy course that wound through the Miami Zoo towards the race finish.
At the awards ceremony after the race, the announcer asked: "How many people does it take to complete a half ironman?”
We all just smiled, because we all knew that it was far more than we could explain. But let me attempt. Just like in life, the greatest accomplishments are a testament to the team of people you surround yourself with, your TRIBE if you will.
This race took people who were committed to the journey. A cast that ranged from Brett’s mom, who took him to the practices, Maricarmen’s boss, Miren Oca, who would encourage her to keep at it, to Mack Cycle who sponsored their entry to the race. Even Mari’s brother, Carlos, who unconditionally supports her training by hanging out with his nephew so his sister can finish her training sessions.
To get through the actual race it took people cheering, and stepping in from the sidelines to help move Brett and his raft through transition. It takes a whole group to assemble and prepare the trailer for the bike ride. Throughout the course it took the encouragement of other competitiors with words and simple gestures, thumbs upping as they road by. When the wind was getting tough or the miles were starting to tax the body, it took a team of friends riding together to make it through to the finish.
On the run, it took the company of friends whose words of affirmation would help defeat the challenging voices in our heads as well as friends that would move mountains to help us avoid any obstacles physically on the course in front of us.
It took volunteers, along the course, to provide us with water and fuel that not only refreshed our body, but our spirit as well. It took a race director like Andre Quirino, who demonstrated how he valued every finisher being “taken care of" even if it meant having Bon Jovi “It’s My Life” play as Brett and the team crossed the finish line. Seeing Brett’s smile and exclaim "we did it!' created a moment that will live in all of our hearts forever.
But most importantly, it takes a person with a heart of gold who’s lived a lifetime with a champion’s mindset. See, the thing is that my friend, racing her first half ironman, is no ordinary athlete (or person for that matter). She is a person who has lived a life where pushing limits, setting records, and bringing life to the world around her is the standard. I'm so excited to get to sneak in a little bio of her life into this race report...
Since the age of 4, Maricarmen has been swimming and maybe even racing. Her two older siblings, Gina and Carlos, were swimmers, so as she came into the world, she seamlessly took up her role as the mermaid she would always be. By the time she was 11 years old, she had transitioned to synchronized swimming. At the time synchronized swimming was new to the Dominican Republic. Maricarmen and her sister,Gina, began to give the new sport a name on the map. The two would go on to compete on the Dominican Republic’s National Synchronized Swimming Team. They competed in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, August 1999 placing 7th which qualified the two to compete in the Qualify Open for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, one of her life's proudest achievements in the sport. Later Maricarmen competed again with a different partner, Claudia Cueli, in the Pan American Games hosted by the Dominican Republic in August of 2003 where they placed 7th in the world once again.
By the age of 23, she had earned the title as the #1 Soloist and the Top Duet (with her sister, Gina) Synchonized Swimmers in the country.
In the meantime, she had also maintained a high GPA as a collegiate student and was juggling the life of a full time athlete and student. When she decided to leave the National Team, she began to pursue another passion of hers, education. In her first class, there was a little girl with autism, Matilde. That is where she got the opportunity to begin working with children with special needs. The parents of that very special little girl had a connection with CARD.
CARD stands for the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities. Our center, based at the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University, is one of seven state-funded, university-based outreach and support centers in Florida dedicated to optimizing the potential of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), dual sensory impairment, sensory impairments with other disabling conditions, and related disabilities. READ MORE
Mari continued to teach and swim, as a retired synchronized swimmer. She decided to take a stab at open water swimming. Shortly after her transition, this mermaid became the first woman in Dominican Republic’s history to cross the Bahia de Samana, an 11-12 kilometers race in the first organized competition across the Samana Bay. After crossing the Bay, along with her many previous accomplishments, she was thrusted into celebrity status now being named among the top 10 most influential women in Dominican Republic.
Life’s opportunities brought Mari from the shores of Dominican Republic to the beaches of Miami where she first worked for Veteran’s Hospital and then transitioned into working a UM’s CARD.
At some point, while working towards goals aimed at bringing joy to families of children with disabilities and helping children with autism optimize their lives to reach their full potential, she started to make the transition from swimmer to triathlete. The transition seemed seamless to an athlete who had lived her life competing, training, and performing on global stages.
The last couple years she has developed a passion for cycling and all things bikes. She has become a competitive, well known, and loved triathlete in the South Florida community, who always has a smile and a contagious spirit to share.
Now she works at Ocaquatics Swim School whose mission is to teach families to love swimming and to become safer, more comfortable and more responsible around the water. She shares her passion for water and for infusing joy into the lives of others every day. She continues to perform in synchronized swimming performances with the Aqualillies team and is an integral member of the ThumbsUP Organization.
ThumbsUp is a nonprofit organization co-founded by Kerry Gruson and Crisitna Ramirez who's mission is to expand life's possibilities. It accomplished this by connecting people across all abilities to conquer athletic challenges together. Follow THUMBSUP on Facebook for MORE INFORMATION.
Like her brother says, all of us who know her are amazed with her spirit and attitude towards life. She is an exemplary mother, hardworking professional, and dedicated athelte who lives all out.
So to answer the question that the announcer posed last week on the stage while he awarded Maricarmen and Brett their first place award for their finish: “How many people does it take to complete a Half Ironman?”
Well in this particular case...It took numerous kind-hearted humans putting thousands of hours of planning, training, and working, as well as a very special individual with a lifetime of dedication to living life with whole-hearted purpose.
Congratulations Maricarmen and Brett on your first HalfIronman! The world needs more of this! Thank you for letting me witness and share this very special experience.
Here are a few more pictures for you all to enjoy:
And here are a few of Maricarmen's Synchonized Swimming days....