On a pleasant summer Saturday, Jana Ireijo wore a banana suit and dove into the water off Compo Beach.
Ireijo is an artist, but she was not in the banana suit for some avant garde art project. Ireijo is a volunteer with the local chapter of myTeamTriumph, and the neoprene banana suit was worn in preparation of a race.
The next race is a triathlon, scheduled for Sept. 8. In this race, as in all myTeamTriumph races, the participants are people with disabilities, and Ireijo and her fellow volunteers give them “the feeling of the finish line,” as she said.
“A lot of our captains aren't allowed on their school teams,” Ireijo said. “In this race they are equal to everybody else.”
The captains — as the racers are called — are often wheelchair bound. Many are nonverbal. They are young and old, veterans and students and others, who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience an endurance race.
So Ireijo and her colleagues run behind, pushing the racing wheelchairs ahead. They dive into the Long Island Sound (wearing a banana suit, in Ireijo’s case) and pull rafts, all so the captains can be involved.
“They can swim a little bit,” Ireijo said. “The captains will get out of the chair in sight of the finish line. To feel that the amazing feeling of the finish line — and also that group effort. To also do it in the midst of a community event. They’re competing alongside everyone else in the community.”
Some participants are able to be more directly involved. Ireijo recalled one nonverbal young captain last year who saw the others race in their red shirts, and was encouraged to take part. His father came to Ireijo and said “My son wants to be with his teammates.”
“He looked at me and he started to run,” Ireijo said. “He held my hand, and he totally was racing.”
Westport’s Curtis Lueker founded the local chapter. He met Ireijo met at a local gym, Ireijo looking for classes in weight training.
Eventually, she was drawn into volunteering with myTeamTriumph, which she called “an amazing way to make the community smaller and more inclusive.”
“As an artist and anyone who is an endurance athlete, you spend a lot of time alone,” she said. “It looks like we are helping others but every single one of us can’t wait to wake up on race morning.”