Teacher uses Ironman race to show local students ‘anything is possible’

When Roy Riley was signing up to race in the Wisconsin Ironman, he only took two minutes to fill out a quick optional essay about the Ironman motto, “anything is possible.”

The 26-year-old physical education teacher had no idea that short essay about the students he works with at the Gerber School, of Cunningham Children’s Home, would change his life.

He later received two phone calls. The first from the Wisconsin Ironman, telling him he won a spot to compete in Wisconsin. The other came a few days later, asking him to would forgo his Wisconsin race to be featured at the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 8.

“I thought somebody was playing a huge joke on me,” Riley said. “Things like this don’t happen to me very often. I just don’t get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. These don’t happen.”

Riley had never even completed an Ironman before, let alone qualified for the World Championships, but his story earned him a spot through the contest. He has since had a fast track to fame, with organizations calling for interviews every day and NBC planning to air a live broadcast of his story in December.

“It is the most nerve-wracking experience ever,” Riley said. “These national TV cameras shining in front of me, these big bright lights, powdering my face for the interview, it’s exciting, but intense.”

Riley said he owes his instant stardom to the students he works with, students who have had rough upbringings and go to school at Cunningham because they can’t live at home. They are troubled children who have experienced abuse or neglect or have behavioral and emotional disabilities. These are issues Riley has never had to deal with, having had a “perfect life with amazing parents,” he said.

The lessons learned from his students are what Riley wrote about and how their struggles motivate him to take on a challenge.

“(The Ironman) is the closest I can come to a challenge that some of my students have dealt with their entire life,” Riley said.

He has been working to help his students learn more about the Ironman, making it everybody’s challenge.

“They’ve been reading up about it and how difficult it is and how inspiration is so big,” Riley said. “I’m trying to inspire them and they are inspiring me at the same time.”

Riley knows the Ironman is going to be hard, the race consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and then, a full 26.2-mile marathon.

“Roy is the perfect representative for what the triathlon is all about, in terms of pushing yourself to do something challenging,” said Shawna Scherer, principal of Gerber School. “He loves what he does and the kids respond really well to him.”

Riley said every step is going to be rough and he’s going to want to quit. However it’s his lifelong dream to compete at the Championships in Hawaii, and his goal is to finish.

“Roy shows the kids at Cunningham that if you really have a dream and you’re dedicated to that dream, the dream can come true,” said Cloydia Larrimore, vice president for advancement at Cunningham.

During the race, Riley will wear a visor signed by every one of his students.

“Maybe they’ll be able to feel some sort of pride when I finish and they see that finishing photo and it’s broadcast on TV,” Riley said. “They’ll see that hat I’m wearing with their names on it and feel pride or a sense that they accomplished this as well.”

The entire Cunningham community will send Roy “positive energy, good vibes and prayers of strength and courage to make it through,” Larrimore said.

And Riley believes it will be the students who helped push him that one more step further, to the finish line.