She says she had no choice. She was drawn to Joe Finley’s magnetic personality and found herself asking, “How can I help?” That’s how Katie McLean recalls becoming a champion of Joe’s Team of Calgary, which hosted its first sprint triathlon last summer.
Motivator: Katie McLean helps everyday Joes complete triathlons.
Photo by Joey Podlubny
Finley is known as “Joe” to hundreds of his closest friends – friends he made during a personal challenge to help others feel the sense of accomplishment he felt after completing a lifelong goal in 2006: a triathlon.
McLean met Joe through a mutual friend and neighbour, Norm Lamarche. Well, sort of. McLean trains people for marathons and triathlons – not as a paying job, just a fun pastime. Lamarche completed the New York City marathon about a decade ago with McLean’s help. She assumed they’d start training for it again the following year. Instead, Lamarche told her he wanted to help a
friend who had throat cancer, Joe, raise money for Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital and inspire others to try their first triathlon.
The idea aligned with what McLean did – help people cross finish lines – and she called Joe directly. “When I met Joe, it unlocked this desire,” she says. “The whole thing just hit me so hard that I had to help.” Her desire to help was fuelled by a long-simmering sense of frustration she had harboured since her mother had died of cancer at age 46. “It was this frustration that my mom didn’t get to live her whole life.”
Joe had Stage IV throat cancer that had spread to his lungs. “He did his first triathlon after going through incredibly invasive chemotherapy and radiation,” Cara Finley, Joe’s wife, says. “He was five-foot-11 and he weighed about 120 pounds when he did this.” Joe, his wife, McLean and about 230 of their friends – all shapes and sizes with little or no triathlon experience – participated in a triathlon as “Joe’s Team.” The idea grew and, with a strong leadership team in place, Joe’s Team triathlon became its own event in 2008.
Joe and McLean were part of Joe’s leadership team. They “advertised” mainly by word-of-mouth. “Joe inspired me. I inspire others. And that’s really how it works,” McLean says. The event has become a repeat sell-out event in Muskoka, Ontario.
McLean moved to Calgary with her husband and four kids two years ago. She cares for their children and does some writing, but was uncertain how she wanted to fill her time, with the kids in school. Get a part-time job? Spend more time volunteering in the kids’ schools? Or, bring Joe’s Team to Calgary? “Joe knew he only had a short time and he spent his time giving,” McLean says. She took it as a message and the decision made itself. The first Calgary Joe’s Team sprint triathlon took place on June 19, 2011.
Iron Woman: Training hard is not new to Katie McLean. She competes in Ironman races and major marathons.
Photo by Joey Podlubny
Joe was quite ill by the time McLean got the Joe’s Team Calgary idea rolling, but he was supportive. He even helped pick the triathlon venue. “There are not a lot of lakes in this province!” McLean says with a powerful, two-beat laugh. The bigger obstacle was how few people she knew in her new city, especially since the success of Joe’s Team weighed heavily on word-of-mouth. Luckily, Joe’s Team makes its way into most of her conversations, like at her youngest son’s hockey game. She spoke with a hockey dad who turned out to be an advertising executive and he wound up offering some free advertising space. “Calgarians are entrepreneurial,” McLean says. “Once I figured that out, I started talking to everybody about it, and those people started talking to other people.” She recruited a formidable local leadership team to make it happen.
Calgary’s Joe’s Team triathlon held a launch party in March 2011 which connected McLean with a key guest, John Osler, Chair of Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Board of Trustees. He followed up with McLean a few months later requesting she join the Foundation’s board. She became a board trustee in September 2011.
Joe died in October 2010, leaving grieving friends and uncertainty. The leadership teams, even Joe’s wife Cara, wondered how they could spread Joe’s message without him. “I mean, Joe is the reason people do the triathlon,” she says. Finley and McLean had become friends and worked together on Joe’s Team from the beginning. She learned about McLean’s high-energy and ability to get a group together and truly motivate them. “I think when people hear what Joe’s message is all about, combined with Katie, it’s just a winning combination.”
“I wouldn’t have met all of these wonderful people if I hadn’t done this,” Joe once told McLean. “I didn’t know that all of this would happen.” Recalling his positivity keeps McLean inspired, as does the increasing evidence that obesity is a factor in some cancers. Her family’s actions also prove how the message is reaching people. Her husband participates in the triathlon every year even though he’s not the competitor in the family.
“It’s cool for kids to see their parents cross the finish line,” McLean says. “We spend a lot of time taking our kids to sports and asking them to try new things, but we don’t take chances ourselves. It’s valuable for them to see us put ourselves out there and try something that scares us.”
Her kids have volunteered and raised money for Joe’s Team since its inception. “I’m pretty sure my daughter thinks she started Joe’s Team because she’s been volunteering since she was 11 or 12,” McLean says, recalling the many lemonade stands on their front lawn.
“I couldn’t have done this work without an amazing group of people who are as committed as I am: Joe’s friends and his wife Cara, as well as my new friends in Calgary who’ve formed a strong leadership team. They’ve made Joe’s Team a success.”
Photo by Joey Podlubny
McLean takes pride in the celebratory feel of Joe’s Team events – something she says sets it apart. There’s endless encouragement for the teams to meet a common goal and for first-timers to achieve the unachievable.
“I hate you,” one friend told McLean from the shore before swimming in 2011’s Calgary event. Apparently the swim portion is the scariest part for most competitors. At the finish line, McLean met up with this friend again and was told with a huge smile, “I don’t hate you anymore Katie.” Message received.
- Joe’s Team ran its first sprint triathlon on July 5, 2008 at the CNIB camp on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, Ontario. Roughly 300 competitors raised over $670,000.
- Joe’s Team Calgary ran its first sprint triathlon on June 19, 2011 at Elbow Valley, in Calgary, Alberta. There were approximately 170 participants and the event raised more than $160,000 benefitting the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
- A sprint triathlon consists of a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre bike ride and a five-kilometre run.
- An Ironman triathlon consists of a 3.86-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike ride and a 42.2-kilometre (full marathon) run.
- Both locations of Joe’s Team events offer a duathlon – five-kilometre run, 20-kilomtre bike ride and a 2.5-kilomtre run.
- Joe’s Team Muskoka triathlon sells out each year and must cap its participants around 660 total entries. It raised over $1.4 million in 2011.
- Calgary’s Elbow Valley venue can accommodate 500 participants, so join up!
- Muskoka’s triathlon raises money for Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital for head-and-neck cancer research.
- Calgary’s triathlon raises money for the Alberta Cancer Foundation in support of Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre for head-and-neck research.
- See www.albertacancer.ca/joesteam for information about Calgary’s triathlon.
- See www.joesteam.ca for information about Muskoka’s triathlon.
- Email Katie McLean at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about Joe’s Team.