Roy Riley ’07 of Champaign, Ill., has completed the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, inspiring his students at the Gerber School of Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, Ill., to reach for their dreams.
Seeking to compete in the Wisconsin Ironman, Riley wrote an optional application essay about his students’ embodiment of the Ironman motto, “anything is possible.”
The triathlon officials were so impressed with his essay and story that he was placed in the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, last October instead of Wisconsin.
“As a triathlete, the Ironman World Championship is a lifetime goal, so to say I was shocked is a complete understatement,” Riley says. “Good luck like this rarely happens to me and I was hit with the best luck any triathlete can have.”
The Kona triathlon consisted of a 2.4-mile swim in the ocean and a 112-mile bike ride, topped with a 26.2-mile marathon run; a daunting challenge for someone who has never competed in an Ironman triathlon before.
Riley set a goal just to finish, but he completed the race with an overall time of 11 hours, 47 minutes and 46 seconds, finishing 1,290th out of 1,855 competitors from around the world.
During the race, Riley wore a white visor signed by each of his students to share his experience with them.
“I am the first person any of these students have known personally who has been on national television. I thought it might boost their self-esteem if they were able to see their signatures on TV. Anything to give my students a little more hope is all I can ask for,” Riley says.
The Gerber School where Riley teaches is a residential facility for children and other residents who have mental, emotional or behavioral issues, or are born into a home that either cannot or will not support them.
Riley admits that, coming from a loving family, he has no firsthand experience with many of the hardships his students have seen, but he still wanted to show them that any challenge can be overcome.
“I wanted my students to know that I also look up to them everyday,” he says. “I will never be able to experience what they have. My family has always been my support, and I wanted my students to know they can help support as well. All of the encouragement they showed leading up to the race meant the world to me.”
Riley taught his students what the Ironman challenge was and what it takes to complete the race.
“I want my students to understand that even if something is hard you take one more step,” he says. “Our students are forced to reach further than most for higher education, so just guiding them to fill out one more application or correct one more mistake may give them a better chance at success.”
It was Riley’s hope that his students would feel “pride” when they saw him cross the finish line. He hoped they would also feel that they had accomplished something as well.
“Never giving up is my theme this year with my students,” Riley says. “I was never going to quit that race. If I had to stop running in the marathon portion, I walked. If I could not walk anymore, I would have crawled until I finished. That is what I wanted my students to understand.”
Riley's dedication to his students created a stir that thrust the unassuming teacher into the spotlight. NBC named Riley their feature athlete for the world championship, sending a camera crew to his parents’ home in Decatur and to the Gerber School in Urbana to film and interview him for a news feature that aired in December of last year.
Life in the spotlight was a challenge of its own.
“I have never been nervous in my life,” Riley says, “so this was something new. I quickly became ‘the face of Cunningham’ due to the buzz around campus.”
But as exciting as the cameras were, they weren’t his motivation for completing the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. He did it for his students.
Their struggles motivated Riley to write the essay that placed him in the World Championship. They helped make his dream come true, and he hopes his success will inspire them to reach for dreams of their own.
by Jackson Lewis '13