Hovering over children at the starting line, standing a little stooped but sturdy, Bob Powers waved his arm signaling “go” to the youngest triathletes in the country.
Between gentle reminders to put on their goggles and do their best, Powers encouraged each heat of kids to pledge a lifelong commitment to health and fitness. As the nation’s oldest triathlete, Powers, a 91-year-old Marine Corps veteran, truly embodies that message.
“Exercise is not only fun, but it gives you skills you can use throughout your entire life,” said Powers, of White Bear Lake. “The Lord gave us a good mind and body, so lets not desecrate it.”
He was the guest of honor at CycleHealth’s second annual BreakAway Kids Tri held Saturday morning at Lake Elmo Park Reserve. The three-time Purple Heart recipient survived two wars and several painful injuries and began competing in triathlons in his mid-60s. The grueling sport tests competitors’ skills in swimming, biking and running.
Saturday’s event, which drew several hundred athletes ranging in age from 7 to 17, was a fundraiser for pediatric cancer patients. Kids were split up by age and gender, then tasked to complete the three disciplines with some added obstacles, like a bubbly water slide. Younger competitors completed a 100-yard swim, 3-mile bike ride and half-mile run, while teens tested a more advanced course.
“Our whole goal is to spark a love of sweat and service,” said event co-founder Betsy Grams. “This isn’t just a one-day activity, this is the beginning of a love affair with [exercise] for kids.”
Powers had planned to compete alongside the 7-year-olds Saturday but was recovering from a hip injury after winning his age group at a national triathlon championship in Milwaukee two weeks earlier.
But staying out of the pool didn’t keep him out of the limelight. Young attendees flocked to Powers after they crossed the finish line, begging for photos with the man who’d run hundreds of rigorous races and had the determination to continue doing so.
Many thanked him for his 20 years of service in the military — training that Powers attributes to his athletic success, although he frequently jokes that his goal is simply to “make it to the finish line.”
Parents more than 50 years his junior promised to try running some of their own races, saying he had motivated them to get active. It’s never too late, he comforted them. In October, he plans to do another triathlon in Oklahoma City.
“He’s old enough to be everyone’s great-grandfather,” said Tony Schiller, event co-founder and world-class triathlete. “He’s so courageous and just keeps going.”
Daniel Stauffer, of Woodbury, made sure to thank Powers for being such a good role model to his 8-year-old son, Aiden, who competed for the second year in a row.
“[Aiden] is inspiring him,” Stauffer said, pointing to his youngest son. “And Bob is inspiring the rest of us.”