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18 years of celebration

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

When the Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life Triathlon hosted its inaugural event in 1995, it boasted 13 participants and raised a net income of $45.

Since then, the event has exploded, becoming a September staple in Nevada County with nearly 400 participants each year and an expected net of more than $30,000 toward battling breast cancer in 2012.

This year’s edition marks the 18th year of the Barbara Schmidt Millar Triathlon and the emergence of a new event director in Nancy Avilla.



Before becoming event director, Avilla volunteered in several different aspects of the triathlon as well as participated in it for the past 12 years.

“I’ve had my hands in a lot of the pre-involvement aspects,” she said. “I’ve never had my hands involved in the race day aspects. I’ve learned so much this year, and there’s still going to be a lot I’m going to learn come race day.”




In her first year as event director, Avilla said the biggest hurdle to jump was organization.

“We have a small number of people that do an awful lot,” she said. “We need to spread out the tasks and create team lead roles. A lot of people don’t realize how much effort goes into this year after year.”

In this year’s triathlon, Avilla said she has seen an increase in younger women registering, as well as women who are in their 60s.

Avilla said this year’s oldest triathlete will be 68-year-old Bobbie Heard.

“She’ll finish with a great time too,” Avilla said.

Avilla attributes the emergence of such a diverse group of participants to triathletes getting older but continuing to participate and the younger women wanting to get involved in such a good cause.

A family affair

The Barbara Schmidt Millar triathlon has been running and growing for 18 years and now has several mother and daughter pairs that compete. And in some cases, grandmother, mother and daughter groups that compete together.

When Christina Zydonis, 21, first experienced the Celebration of Life Triathlon, she was a 7-year-old handing out T-shirts at the event. Fourteen years later, she will be competing in her fifth triathlon along with her mother Jamie Zydonis and her grandmother Charlene Chehock.

All three generations have been competing together for the past decade, said Jaime.

“We’re a very close family anyway,” Jaime said. “But this is an awesome bonding experience.”

Jaime is a sweeper for the event, basically making sure no triathlete gets left behind.

“I make sure that I’m last,” she said. “Isn’t that great? We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re last.”

Charlene will also act as a sweeper for this year’s event.

Christina, who has missed only one Barbara Schmidt Millar Ttriathlon over the past 14 years, is home from Santa Barbara City College to compete.

“I always want to do it,” Christina said. “It’s a good cause and it helps the community.”

For Christina the event has been so rewarding she is also looking to get her younger niece and step-sister involved in future Barbara Schmidt Millar triathlons.

Teaching new triathletes

This year the Gold Country Triathlon Club offered an eight-week course helping first-timers to the Celebration of Life Triathlon.

Grass Valley resident Heather McNeilly said she joined the training program to overcome a bad experience with a triathlon she had attempted in the past.

“They were absolutely amazing,” McNeilly said of her experience training with the Gold Country Triathlon Club. “They made me feel like I could do it, like it was possible.”

Gold Country Triathlon Club president Tiana Rockwell said the training program started in July and has met twice a week since to work on all aspects of the triathlon but with a special emphasis on the swimming aspect.

Rockwell, who competed in her first Celebration of Life Triathlon three years ago, said the swimming part of the triathlon is the hardest to get used to.

Swimming in open water surrounded by hundreds of other people can cause panic, she said. So, the training included a day at Scotts Flat Lake each week where tips and advice was given to help new competitors cope with the stress of the swimming portion.

First time competitor and trainee Vanessa Hale said the Gold Country Triathlon Club has been amazing and instrumental in her getting to the point where she feels confident in her ability to finish.

Rockwell, who started the club last year, said helping others prepare for the race has been rewarding and inspiring.

“This is the reason the club exists for me,” Rockwell said. “They are all so inspiring. All the beginners are dedicated and will do really well.”

To contact Sports Writer Walter Ford call (530) 477-4232 or email him at wford@theunion.com


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