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Lake Saint Louis Triathlon sets stage for memorable win

Members of Team Gracie and Team Zach are (from left) Jimmy Vollmer, Jim Vollmer, Gracie Gibson and Natalie Blakemore.

Members of Team Gracie and Team Zach are (from left) Jimmy Vollmer, Jim Vollmer, Gracie Gibson and Natalie Blakemore.

Mother Nature may have washed out Gracie Gibson’s chance to complete the Lake Saint Louis Triathlon, but she did win one race – against a friendly rival before a monsoon-like rain shut down the event.

Gracie, 16, was competing in her first triathlon on Aug. 22, an event that includes swimming, bicycling and running. The annual Lake Saint Louis competition draws hundreds of participants, but Gracie, born with cerebral palsy, isn’t its typical athlete.

“She’s basically a quadriplegic in the sense that she can’t control her arms and legs,” explained her father, Ron. “She also has difficulty speaking. She has to be fed and can’t walk.” But that hasn’t stopped Gracie from doing a variety of things ranging from kayaking and rock wall climbing, to dancing and even joining a choir.

“She can’t sing a lick,” Gibson said. “But she’s part of it and she’s very proud.”

In all her activities, Gracie is proudly encouraged by her parents, Ron and Kimmy.

Pride was at stake at the Lake Saint Louis Triathlon as well. “Team Gracie” was competing against “Team Zach” for something akin to bragging rights.

Zachary Blakemore, 15, has Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, a rare genetic central nervous system condition that confines him to a wheelchair or walking device. But, like Gracie, that hasn’t kept him from enjoying life or kept him out of the triathlon. In fact, this year’s event marked the third time he has participated.

He and his parents, Todd and Natalie Blakemore, are accustomed to meeting challenges head-on when it comes to Zachary. Natalie co-founded nonprofit Unlimited Play in 2003 to help raise money to build a special all-inclusive playground in Lake Saint Louis. Named Zachary’s Playground, it is located in Hawk Ridge Park off Orf Road. Through Unlimited Play, Natalie  continues to work with clients around the country to build similar playgrounds.

Of the triathlon, Natalie said: “Zachary wanted the same experience. He watched my dad and myself do it for years,” she said. “And every single year, he asked when he could do it. He never thought he couldn’t.”

But how could he? The triathlon includes a 1-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride, and a 6-mile run. But Blakemore said, there is a category for challenged athletes.

“We’ve taken it to the next level,” Natalie said, noting that if athletes can’t complete the triathlon as outlined, “there is still a way to participate.”

In order for Gracie and Zachary to participate, a swimmer must literally tow them in an inflatable raft. A bicyclist then tows them in a special two-wheeled cart, that is then converted into a vehicle that can be pushed by a runner.

Natalie was the swimmer, and Jim Vollmer was the bicyclist on Team Zach. Unfortunately, the running portion of the race was rained out.

On Team Gracie, Natalie’s mother, Joan Mackey, was the swimmer, and Lake Saint Louis Fire Protection District Chief Chris Fay the bicyclist.

“It’s a good opportunity for kids who really don’t have any other opportunity to compete without our help and the resources we can provide,” Fay said.

Fay set up a special account for donations to raise money to buy the special needs trailer he would tow.

He raised about $300 that, along with other donations, allowed him to purchase the $1,000 trailer, which was donated to Unlimited Play and is now available free of charge for others who want to participate in a racing event.

A father came up to team members at the event and said his daughter and others would love to participate in the event. The desire is there, Natalie said.

“After the bike race, Zach was freezing. He was soaked so we have him in the clubhouse wrapped in a blanket and he’s chattering, and the first thing he says to me is: “Mom, when are we going to start running?’ I said, ‘Zach, we’re not going to start running. It’s lightening and storming outside.’ And he was so sad we were not running,” Natalie said. “It means that much to them, to be able to participate in any way they can. They’re just as excited as everybody else that gets to that line.”

Getting to the starting line meant being ready at 6 a.m. for an early morning swim. Mackey for Team Gracie turned out to be the winner. Natalie, however, suffered equipment failure.

“I sure did have a rope malfunction,” Natalie said. “The rope came off my waist, I had to swim back. (But Gracie) was extremely happy, no excuses.”

Ron said Gracie enjoyed the race.

Unfortunately, just after the bicycling portion of the triathlon started, the skies opened up and heavy rain fell.

What the rain could not diminish, though, was Gracie’s and Zachary’s zest for life.

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