The Greatway: UNO alumni, swimming and diving coach team up to empower young girls


Cassie Wade

In the effort to promote positivity and trust surrounding journalism, the Gateway aims to write a series of good news stories throughout the year. Titled “the Greatway,” we hope to establish a foundation of service and pride in the UNO community. If you know anyone doing something great on campus, drop us a line at our Facebook page!

Graphic by Okina Tran/The Gateway

On Sunday, Sept. 9, 160 girls between the ages of eight and 14 gathered on College of St. Mary’s campus to participate in the inaugural Ironhawk Juniors Triathlon.

The triathlon capped off the 12-week Ironhawk Juniors Tri Club training program, which was created after KETV reporter Michelle Bandur received a dollar bill and note from a viewer criticizing her appearance, according to a article titled “Young triathletes learn to overcome fears, challenges in a new club created from a bully’s $1.”

The article says the dollar sent by Bandur’s bully became thousands of dollars in donations, which were used to start the club with the goal of empowering young women through triathlon training.

While Ironhawk Juniors’ practices and the triathlon took place on the College of St. Mary’s campus, the event has a connection to the University of Nebraska at Omaha as well.

This connection stems from UNO alumnus Brad Hildebrandt, a retired firefighter and founder of Irownhawk Endurance, an event management and endurance athlete coaching business.

Ironhawk Endurance played a key role in providing training to the young triathletes, which supported the company’s goal of introducing young people to triathlons.

“We see triathlons as a vehicle to get people moving at a young age and exposed to swimming, cycling, running and better nutrition and different types of training,” Hildebrandt said.

In order to secure a place for the young triathletes to practice, Hildebrandt said the Ironhawk Juniors Tri Club approached the College of St. Mary.

“It fit into their mission of serving women and young people and giving young girls opportunities that will enhance their lives,” Hildebrandt said. “They really bought into the idea and were super supportive. They donated all their facilities we were able to use, which was a huge help.”

Photo courtesy of Brad Hildebrandt

With a place to practice, equipment–including bikes, bike helmets and water bottles–was secured through donations.

“If people needed bikes, we found them bikes,” Hildebrandt said. “If someone needed a bike helmet, we found them a helmet. I think we ended up giving away 70 bikes, close to 80 [to] 85 helmets and hundreds of water bottles.”

Volunteers, including Todd Samland, UNO’s head swimming and diving coach, worked with the girls at weekly practices to train them for each component of the race.

Samland helped critique each girl’s swimming ability, teach technique work and organize the swimming part of the triathlon the day of the event. Overall, Samland said volunteering was a positive experience.

“You just get energized by young people wanting to see what they can do,” Samland said. “Maybe they never considered doing this and suddenly they’re swimming and biking and running.”

Hildebrandt said UNO alumna Erin Sullivan also played a key role in organizing and coaching the Ironhawk Juniors. Hildebrandt said plans are in the works for next year’s triathlon.