Javier's shot at the title
by Jeff Henderson
published in the Finger Lakes Times

To get to Castle Heights, the pinnacle of the community, you have to go through lower Castle Street. Sagging, dirty houses crowd the cracked, uneven sidewalk for a block or two, before the plastic toys and cigarette butts give way to manicured lawns and touch-me-not porches, set well back from the immaculate sidewalks.

Blink and you'll miss it, and that's what most people do.

The unmentioned part of town between downtown and Castle Heights is home to the poor people of Geneva, the blacks, Hispanics, and white folk making up the 60% of this community that are below the poverty line. It is home to the only street sign in town written in two languages: Zona escolar libre de drogas ("School zone: no drugs"). On Friday nights, there are usually police cars.

Where Castle Street hovers at the edge of downtown is The Boys & Girls Club of Geneva, created to address the problems poverty breeds. Each day at 3 pm you'll find kids working math problems, some right around the corner from relatives dealing drugs. The drugs, the violence, the instability of the street permeate every aspect of their existence, and these often unstoppable forces drive many away from the math books. On this day in June, Javier is working long division.

His future might not be in math. It is doubtful his future will be in the sport of triathlon, either - though Javier can swim, bike, and run, his family cannot afford to fix their refrigerator, much less pay $60 for a race entry. And were he to show up at one, he would not suffer to outlast the uneasy feeling from being a stranger in a strange land - the 2005 Ironman Arizona had 21 individuals named Mike and three named Javier.

A sport that demands an excess of income and leisure time naturally excludes much of the population from taking part.

The Musselman Triathlon takes place this coming weekend in Geneva. In its third year, the race now has 1,100 registrants, but in its first year only twelve of the participants came from from Geneva. The run goes down Castle Street, but not the section through either the dilapidated flats or the stately oaks. In efforts to tie the race into the community, Dave Soule, a fifth grade teacher at North Street Elementary, decided to start Team Mussel in the early spring of last year. The goal was to take a group of fifth graders and guide them to the starting line of the MusselKids race. Along the way, it was hoped that triathlon would embrace a new segment of the population all around us.

The socio-economic mumbo-jumbo was beyond the kids, but racing wasn't. The first stab at a team included two Jorge's, two Javier's, and two Jomar's, but no girls. Ruthie, a quiet but stubborn 11-year-old, decided girls should be allowed to take part, too, so she harassed Mr. Soule for the better part of two weeks until a spot on the team was granted.

On certain Fridays Team Mussel ventures down to the park at the foot of the lake, where bikes can go without fear of traffic. Helmets are set atop heads and scowls follow - "Why do I have to wear a helmet? I bike all the time and I never wear one." Tires are filled with air, handlebars are straightened, and water bottles are filled.

I came along one day as we snaked out of the parking lot in single file, adult at the front and adult at the back. It was probably the first bike ride they had ever taken covered by an insurance policy and governed by liability waivers. I was at the front and pulled up to the first stop sign. "Stopping!" I yelled as I held my hand out and slowed.

Behind me mind-piercing screams of "stopping" echoed one-by-one down the line, complete with backward glances and swerving into fences and curbs. Three kids ran into each other; one chain came off. At the next stop sign, we did a little better.

We rode through town like Robert McCloskey's ducklings entering Boston's Public Gardens. Beaming mothers watched us go by; middle-aged men outside the bars said, "What the &#$?" As we neared the center of town, I could hear Alex, four bikes back, belting out "She'll be coming 'round the mountain!" at the top off his lungs.

Time, patience, and attention. That's all these kids require at age 11. We passed a section of the lakeside park where an old pier had once stood; all that remain are wooden posts and some eroded concrete. The kids call it "Puerto Rican Point" - go down there on a hot day and you'll find out why. A half mile further is the sandy beach and the Spray Park. We stopped at Puerto Rican Point for a swim and I watched the brown water of Castle Creek empty into the lake.

On the last day of school Team Mussel met outside North Street Elementary for its final practice. The squad biked down to the park, jumped in the lake at Puerto Rican Point, and had ice cream cones at the streetside stand. Each kid was given a finisher medal; another one was promised if they came to the race. After practice, I biked with Charlie to his home, far on the outskirts of Geneva.

The medal swung back and forth wildly as he pedaled along; he wore the medal the whole way home. Before we arrived to mom and his sisters in the trailer park, we had to meet his uncle on Exchange Street, some cousins on West Street, and friends on Main. To each of them he held out the small medal, glimmering in the sun. That's nice, they all said indifferently; but he didn't hear them.

I think he wore it to bed that night.

The kids we work with each Friday afternoon have a spirit sometimes missing from their counterparts on the other side of the white picket fence. They roam the streets at night, ride across town without shirt or helmet, and go swimming where lifeguards never watch. And if they make it to the starting line on July 16th, they're going to be all right. The hardest part will be getting them there.