Spirit of inclusion surrounds student-athletes at annual Pat Grzenda Triathlon

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Students who participated in Lawrence Public Schools’ adaptive triathlon on Wednesday agreed the cheers they received from their supporters made all their hard work worth it.

Free State High School junior Legacy Sheldon crossed the finish line feeling great. The best part was the cheers from fellow Firebirds she heard while she swam, pedaled and ran. The exercise came second.

“I love to walk and run,” Legacy said.

Named after retired teacher Patricia “Pat” Grzenda, the triathlon challenges Lawrence school district secondary students to swim, bike and make their way around a quarter-mile track. The fifth edition of the triathlon was held Wednesday at Lawrence High School.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Free State junior Legacy Sheldon stands on the podium after receiving a medal during the fifth Pat Grzenda Triathlon.

Student-athletes are encouraged by their teachers, paraprofessionals, family members, peers and volunteers to swim two to four laps, pedal a stationary bike for eight minutes and make one to four laps around the track. Some participants partake in all three events, while others participate in fewer.

LHS freshman Louis Antoine, Siċaƞġu Lak̇ot̄a Oyat̄e (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), proved to be a crowd favorite in his first district triathlon. He finished the event with a big smile, high-fives and fist bumps. Louis loved hyping up the crowd and swimming.

“It was fun,” Louis said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrence High freshman Louis Antoine, Siċaƞġu Lak̇ot̄a Oyat̄e (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), nears the finish line.

Brad Stoll and Tiffany Russell, adaptive P.E. teachers for K-12 students with disabilities across the district, held bullhorns as they hyped up student-athletes and the crowd. The event was started by Stoll and former adaptive P.E. teacher Jayme Savage, who still teaches P.E. in the district. They named it after their mentor, Grzenda, who retired in 2011.

The home team exited their main gym to a raucous “Stand Up and Cheer” by the LHS Marching Lions. Educators and fellow students, along with Spirit Squad members, cheered on the Chesty Lions as they joined the district’s other five secondary schools in the west gym. Quail Run Elementary students attended the event in support.

Family members also attended the triathlon. Jenson Carr, a seventh grader at Billy Mills Middle School, received support from his grandparents, Kathy and Dick Carr, of Hillsboro; parents Tera and Tim Carr; and sister Hayden Carr, a sophomore at LHS. They wore blue for autism awareness and acceptance. Jenson’s grandfather Dick Carr wore a T-shirt that read, “The world needs all kinds of minds.”

Tera described the triathlon as incredible and an event that made her feel emotional.

“Stuff like this is really what keeps families like us going with this kind of support,” the mother said. “It’s the highlight of the year for us, for families like us.”

Tera said seeing so many students supporting their peers of all abilities felt inspiring and provided an opportunity to see her “son shine in this moment.” She and Jenson’s grandmother, Kathy Carr, had tears in their eyes.

“I like coming and seeing Jensen with his teachers,” Kathy said.

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BMMS eighth grader Connor Lee biked and ran during the triathlon.

Connor said the highlight of his day was spending time with his friends.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Billy Mills Middle School eighth grader Connor Lee takes a lap around the Lawrence High School track on May 8, 2024.

After lunch, participants were recognized individually. Grzenda hung a medal around each athlete’s neck. They also received a T-shirt and lots of cheers, fist bumps and high-fives.

Grzenda taught adaptive P.E. for 34 years in Lawrence Public Schools. She also coached swimming and diving for LHS and FSHS and was inducted into the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s Class of 2023 Hall of Fame. In 2004, she was named a Kansas Master Teacher. The awards program shared this snippet from Grzenda’s nomination: “Pat knows the development level of each student and works to push him or her just a little farther,” a colleague wrote. “By modeling positive attitudes as she taught the students how to enjoy community activities and pursue leisure activities, she helped create a more accepting atmosphere for special needs students in the community.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Patricia “Pat” Grzenda

Grzenda, 71, said on Wednesday she and her husband, Joe, looked forward to the triathlon every year.

“It’s just the best day ever,” Grzenda said. “… It’s so special for me, but I think it’s the best day ever for the kids and teachers and the volunteers and then the glorious weather like this.”

Grzenda said she “never, ever dreamed” that Stoll and Savage, her former colleagues, would organize and launch an event in her honor.

“I really can’t even articulate what that means to me … it’s just beyond kind that someone would think that,” Grzenda said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Pat Grzenda and Jayme Savage cheer on triathlon participants on May 8, 2024.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times District adaptive P.E. teacher Brad Stoll is celebrated by Denise Johnson, assistant director of health and wellness for Lawrence Public Schools.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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