‘It’s like magic:’ 3rd annual triathlon success for local club

Badgers Triathlon Club generates $3,500 for local veteran-operated charity

Daniel Vecchio, Roger McCurdy, Fred Schwindt and Stephanie Callaghan smile after completing the triathlon. (Anthony J. Mazziotti III/The Sun)

The badger is known for persistence, confidence, strong will and determination. They are usually solitary animals. The triathlon club based out of Williamstown that uses the same animal as its namesake would add a few other features: they would be more welcoming than the average badger, proud and giving.

The Williamstown Badgers Triathlon Club hosted its third annual triathlon at Autumn Lake Winery on Aug. 4. Representatives from 11 states, as far west as Texas and as far south as South Carolina, were there. President of the Badgers, Lou Burgese, said 85 of his 250 members participated in the home race.

For example, Elizabeth McGrath a first-year Badger who’s been racing for five years and joined because of a recommendation from member Tom Gratton, said helping set up the race made it special.

“You can tell how much time and thought go into every little detail. This club really takes it to the next level, I think, compared to some races I’ve seen,” McGrath said.

Gratton also said setting up the race gives the racers ownership to the course. He built on the family atmosphere the club provides its members and outsiders.

“When people ask me about the club I say it’s a no-pressure club. We’re competitive, but not crazy competitive,” he described. “If you want to ride with somebody, run with somebody, swim with somebody, to have somebody to train with, there’s always somebody willing to do that. That’s what it’s about. It’s a supportive group bringing new athletes in.”

Tom Dinzeo, another Badger with a few years of triathlon experience, expanded on Gratton’s thought.

“They’re very open to people who are new to the sport, they’re very supportive,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, coach Lori Beck helped with swimming, I got a lot of feedback and support. There’s a lot of support and people around who know what they’re doing who don’t mind helping bring the next generation in.”

Second-year Badger Rachel Vidovich joined the group because she lost a lot of weight and wanted to stay healthy. The group motivates her to stay in shape.

“Everybody comes together and supports you, it’s like a second family. I’m getting goosebumps as I’m telling you. Just the fellowship and having people to lean on and encourage; it’s an amazing experience.”

Triathletes like Roger McCurdy are living testimonies of that fellowship. McCurdy, a five-year Badger, brought his son’s friend, Daniel Vecchio, to his first triathlon this year.

Vecchio enjoyed his inaugural race. After finishing, he said he would be interested in running another.

“The community, everybody is super friendly,” he noticed. “The course is beautiful. It’s a great community and race.”

McCurdy spoke about hosting the race.

“This is my home race. I’ve traveled all over the tri-state area doing races, but this is one race I won’t miss,” he said. “One of the things I like about triathlon is it is for everybody. Anywhere from 15-year-olds to a 74-year-old, people of all athletic ability and it doesn’t matter if you’re coming in first or last, the community cheers for you along the way.”

Each year the Badgers donate a portion of the proceeds to local charity. This year they chose Franklinville’s “Operation Safe Haven,” a tiny house community for veterans to provide hope for veterans and first responders.

Donnie Davis, founder of Operation Safe Haven, said he started the organization for people like himself. Davis, a veteran and former police officer diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder, is looking out for other veterans and first responders by offering physical therapy, peer-to-peer counseling, job training or job placement, he looks to provide hope for first responders.

“I know I needed help, and conventional things like the VA weren’t working, so we looked for unconventional, alternative ways,” he described. “For example, I have a service dog for my PTSD, worked with horses for equine therapy. All things I started doing for myself I actually implemented into this program.”

He said his community is open to veterans and first responders of all ages – noting he currently houses a 40-year-old and an 87-year-old.

“There’s a brotherhood when it comes to vets and cops. We don’t leave a man or woman behind,” he said.

The Badgers donated $3,500 to the organization. Davis said 100 percent of donations are given back to Operation Safe Haven, there’s no overhead.

“That’s how we survive,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

After a tour of the grounds, Burgese knew it was a perfect fit.

“It’s an amazing charity, right here in Franklinville, right down the street from Williamstown. We couldn’t be happier. Last year was Honor Flight, also a veterans charity. We have a lot of veterans in our club and we like to give back,” Burgese said.

While charity is one of the cornerstones of the annual Autumn Lake Triathlon, one-third of proceeds go to charity, two-thirds go to putting the race together, providing an excellent race is important to Burgese as well.

Burgese said they send a survey to all racers after the race to receive feedback on how they can improve the course. This past year, he added more carpet on the transition to the road to ensure safety as well as adding another water station to the run.

“We read it and make improvements based on that,” he said.

At the end of the day, Burgese had his board to thank for ensuring the third annual event went off without a hitch.

“Our crew is amazing – we put a lot of work into this all year. To see it come together like this, nobody got hurt, our board members are amazing. We work well together. We make it happen; it’s like magic.”