NEWTOWN, Conn. – Chase Kowalski loved to run, bike and swim. Most of all he loved to race.
The summer before he was killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School with 25 other students and staff, the 7 year old competed in his first triathlon.
Wearing swim shoes and riding his red "Lightning McQueen" bicycle inspired by the speedy character from the movie "Cars," Chase competed in a 20-yard swim, a half-mile ride and a third-of-a-mile run. He finished first in his age group.
Now Chase's family has started a foundation in his memory that will help other children experience the thrill of the race.
"He swam and he biked and he ran every day, that was the essence of who he was," his mother Rebecca said. "How could we not honor him in this way?"
The Chase Kowalski Memorial Fund is teaming with the Greater Waterbury YMCA to support that organization's existing triathlon program for kids, and work to spread the program across the country.
Chase ran competitively for the first time when he was just 2½ years old, earning ribbons and Popsicles for his races. He ran three that day, begging his mother to let him do longer distances after each race. Rebecca Kowalski cried as she described how a 5-year-old friend — wearing the race number 26 — went back to hold hands with Chase and help him cross the finish line after his first 400-yard race.
Chase got his first bike when he was 4, and taught himself to swim in his backyard pool by watching Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte on television at the Olympics.
At 6 years old, Chase asked if he could do one of those races where he could combine all three events.
"Stephen and I busted out laughing," Rebecca Kowalski said, referring to her husband. "We said, 'Dude that's called a triathlon, maybe when you're 16.'"
After much cajoling from her son, Kowalski went on line to research whether anyone offered triathlons for kids. She found one scheduled for a week later in Mansfield, about 90 minutes away.
The YMCA project, now called the Race4Chase Kid's Triathlon Program, will train children for six weeks during the summer in the fundamentals of swimming, racing and bicycling, culminating with a short-course triathlon, where the kids will earn medals.
"Self-esteem is a big part of this," said Jim O'Rourke, the executive director of the Greater Waterbury YMCA. "When you see a kid who could not even swim six weeks before complete this event, and see that look on their face. It lets them know that they can achieve."
The foundation is working with the YMCA to create protocols and a package that will allow other organizations across the country to set up similar Race4Chase triathlons, Rebecca Kowalski said. Two other Connecticut YMCAs are in talks to have races as early as next summer.
A Race4Chase triathlon is being planned for Newtown-area kids next July in Monroe, where Sandy Hook kids are currently attending school.
A lot of the funding is coming from athletes. The Kowalskis' fireplace is covered with medals that have been sent to them, some anonymously, by marathoners, triathletes, and others who have heard Chase's story.
Many raise money by collecting pledges for the miles they complete, logging them on the foundation website. The goal is to get to 1 million miles. Runners have tallied a little over 5,000 miles so far.
One of Stephen's childhood friends, Kevin Bresnahan of Colchester, Conn., recently completed 1,000 miles for Race4Chase, beginning the last leg of his endeavor at the high school where Chase ran his first races. There he left one of two batons he created with Chase's name on them.
"I left a note inside about paying it forward, taking the baton and doing something athletic with it, and passing it on," he said.
An 11-year-old girl, Alexis Garrity, took the baton to Florida, where she completed her first 5K in October. She had never run a mile before joining the group that helped Bresnahan finish his run.
"It was way harder than I thought it would be," she said. "I had to keep going I had to finish and not let anybody down especially Chase's family."
She has passed the baton to a family friend, who had lost a son at a young age. That woman plans to run a race on Dec. 14 in St. Augustine, Fla., and then pass the baton.
Rebecca Kowalski said that is the kind of thing she and her husband, Stephen, had hoped for when she started Race4Chase.
"It keeps his spirit alive," she said. "It's hard, but it makes me feel good that he inspires people to just go and do things, and inspires families to do things together."