Through running, Bob Zollmann is teaching teenagers they can achieve more than they ever thought possible.
Zollmann made a special connection with a group of students by sharing his story when he worked as a custodian at Mattoon Middle School. “I spoke many times in different classrooms about how I went from not being able to run whatsoever to being able to finish four Ironman Triathlons,” he said. “I shared the importance of goal setting and sticking with something in hopes that it would brush over into their lives and it just went over really well.”
Zollmann entered his first triathlon on a whim 10 years ago at the age of 40. “It was brutal to say the least and I finished close to last, but there was something about the people and the atmosphere that made it extremely exciting,” he said. “I loved it and I decided that day that I wanted to continue doing it.” Since then, he has completed 58 triathlons, including four grueling Ironman races that consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
The motivational talks went over so well that students starting approaching Zollmann in the hallways to learn more. “I became a real person to the kids after that and they would ask me questions about my upcoming races,” he said. When the Mattoon Area Family YMCA offered an indoor triathlon in January, Zollmann decided to ask a few kids that he was mentoring if they wanted to give it a try. “I started with four or five kids, but all of a sudden more kids wanted to join,” he said.
Zollmann ended up securing sponsorships and completing the indoor triathlon with 10 kids in January, after training with the group for six weeks. That was the start of the “Misfit Triathlon Club,” a name the kids decided to call themselves because of their varied backgrounds.
“We have kids from one spectrum to the other and some that were active before and some that were not,” said Zollmann’s wife, Chris, who also helps with the group. Since January, the group has blossomed and now include nearly 20 kids in grades six to nine from Mattoon, Charleston and Sullivan. They have completed a second triathlon and two additional running races. The group is currently excited about participating in Sarah Bush Lincoln’s Race for All Paces on Eastern Illinois University’s campus on Saturday, May 11.
“It’s really fun. It’s exciting to see what they can do and to see their true sportsmanship come out. They have gotten more involved with it than I thought they would,” Zollmann said. “I learn so much from these kids too. We have one blind student who has no quit in him. Anything he wants to do, he does it and that’s pretty outstanding.”
Zollmann is looking forward to running the 5K at Races for All Paces with his team, though he has completed the half marathon at the event three times in previous years. “I love the race course at EIU and the family friendly atmosphere,” he said. Zollmann’s wife and the couple’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter also plan to walk or run with club members who want to participate in other races.
To help with expenses, Mrs. Zollmann set up a fundraiser on Facebook, which has exceeded her expectations. “We are able to do so much more now. My daughter designed shirts for the group and we’re able to buy running shoes and swimming googles for the kids as needed,” she said. The group gets together for practices twice a week and usually have pizza afterwards.
Zollmann said he finds the most joy in “seeing the kids complete something that they didn’t think was even possible until just a few months ago – that’s just huge. The kids complete the races and they set goals for themselves now. They are changing their attitudes at home and at school because they want to be here and it’s great.”
“As long as the kids keep showing up, we’ll keep doing it,” he adds.
To register for Races for All Paces, go to www.sarahbush.org. The event on May 11 includes a half marathon, as well as an individual 10K, 5K Run/Walk, 1-Mile Run/Walk, and even races for young children, including a “Toddler Trot” for kids ages 3 to 5 and a “Diaper Dash,” for kids under age 3. T-shirts and medals are guaranteed for all runners registered (excluding Toddler Trot and Diaper Dash). Please note, registration fees are non-refundable and are used to support Healthy Communities programs. Parking is available in the O’Brien Stadium parking lot.