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Upcoming triathlon to benefit YWCA Camp Onyahsa

June 5, 2013
By Scott Kindberg , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

DEWITTVILLE - A group of children walk across the grounds at YMCA Camp Onyahsa on an unseasonably cold, but sunny Sunday morning.

As they do, Jon O'Brian, Onyahsa's director for the last 26 years, smiles. He first came to the camp on the shores of Chautauqua Lake when he was 7 years old and he knows what it means to spend time at a venue that has been serving young people since 1898.

"Our mission has always been to foster the spiritual, intellectual and physical development of young people and bring them together in a sense of community," O'Brian says.

Article Photos

Photo by Scott Kindberg
Members of the Chautauqua Lake Triathlon Coalition, above, will launch the inaugural Big Fish Olympic distance individual and relay triathlon at Camp Onyahsa in Dewittville on June 8. The triathlon will benefit the camp.

He hopes that will continue for another century. Or more.

The Chautauqua Lake Triathlon Coalition is doing its part to help make that happen.

In the fall of 2011, Patricia Gabreski of Bemus Point and a group of like-minded people decided it was time for southern Chautauqua County to host a triathlon, an event that hadn't been held in these parts since the early 1990s.

Gabreski, who has always been a runner, saw the benefit of training for all three Olympic distances, which include a .93-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike and a 6.2-mile run. Furthermore, Camp Onyahsa, which will be the beneficiary of the race proceeds, was deemed a perfect location and a date - June 8, 2013 - was chosen (see more information in a related story on this page).

"This is really a good beginner event," she said. "The distances are challenging, but it's very doable. If (athletes) feel they can't do all three, there is a relay so they can do one. My sense is that if you come here and do one, you're going to say, 'I can do all three, I'll be back and I'm going to do it solo next year."'

To ensure a spot in the event, Gabreski advises interested participants to register as soon as possible at

"It's coming along organizationally," Gabreski said, "but what we need is for the athletes to be signing up. We've got the word out, but (registration) is all on-line and people need to be aware of that.

"We want it to be well-organized, because the emphasis is on making it memorable so that athletes want to come back next year."

The Big Fish Triathlon mission, in part, is "to heighten awareness of our beautiful Chautauqua Lake and YMCA Camp Onyahsa as local resources."

Gabreski knows first-hand how valuable those resources are. All three of her boys - now grown and on their own - spent their summers at Onyahsa.

"It changes kids," she said. "It gives them independence, it teaches them to depend on themselves and it gives them a sense of community. It's things that parents can't teach their children."

Dr. Robert Berke, another committee member, said that when his four children were growing up, they also spent summers at the YMCA camp, which has made a name for itself outside of Chautauqua County. In fact, last year Berke was having dinner with his son in Toronto and the latter mentioned that the apple crisp he was enjoying for dessert tasted just like what he used to enjoy at Onyahsa as a kid.

"At the next table over," Berke said, "a girl, maybe 18, asked, 'Did you say Camp Onyahsa? I go there every summer. I'm from Cleveland."'

As it turned out, the teenager had shared a cabin at the camp with Berke's niece and they were friends.

"It's a very small world," Berke said.

O'Brian said Onyahsa is open 12 months a year and during the summer, it serves close to 1,000 campers.

"Twenty percent of our children come to camp at little or no expense to themselves," O'Brian said. "We have children come from very affluent backgrounds as well ... Fundraisers like the triathlon will help us to build our scholarship program, and we're also engaged in long-term capital development. We have a lakefront facility that is second to none, and we need to keep developing it to serve the needs of our community on a year-round basis."

Only six weeks away, the Big Fish Triathlon preparations are going "really smoothly," Gabreski said.

"For a first-year event," she said, "we want to make sure that we accommodate the athletes and that they have a great experience."

Berke recalled a 20-kilometer road race he was involved with in Quebec years ago. By the second year, there were 400 participants and by the third there were 1,000. And when he returned to the area last year, the race was still going strong.

"Thirty years later," he said, "I walked into a sporting goods shop (in Montreal) and there was a brochure (advertising the race)."

Organizers of the Big Fish Triathlon hope their event will have that kind of staying power, too.



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