They weren't close friends. They didn't all know one another. But four working moms in the same South Jersey town shared a love of triathlons. They met for breakfast and decided to start something, a revolution, really - the Mullica Hill Women's Triathlon Club!
In its fourth year, the club has 675 members, the largest all-women triathlon club in America.
Colleen Fossett, 43, a founder, conceived the motto: "No Nuts, Just Guts."
The club really isn't about triathlons. It's about transformation.
"I believe I can do anything," said Tricia Stefanelli, 41, of Williamstown. "This club has made me a better mom. I'm healthier, happier. I'm in the best shape of my life. I'd much rather swim, bike or run than go shopping or get my nails done."
Says Fossett: "The e-mails I get on a daily basis from women in the club put a smile on my face every night before I go to bed."
A few stories:
Colleen McCauley, 40, from Salem County, was 348 pounds. Her doctor wouldn't consider gastric bypass surgery until she lost weight. She couldn't ride a bike five miles, but the club welcomed her. She lost 35 pounds, had surgery - then did five triathlons in 2012, finishing dead last in three of them. Women from the club who had already finished would run the three-mile leg a second time, with her, so she didn't have to run alone.
"I'm now 172 pounds!" McCauley said. "Last week, I had an appendectomy. My heart rate was 44. They told me I have the heart of an athlete!"
In August, 120 women in the club entered the Wildwood Triathlon, the first time competing in the ocean for many. The weather was gray and cold, and the ocean swelled. As the women stood in the surf, waiting to start, "tears were being shed, many many tears," recalled Fossett.
The club's top two triathletes, Jennifer McCarthy and Jayne Gandy, swam out with the first wave of competitors. But they abandoned their own ambitions, and waited for the throng of pink-suited club members to enter the water, and spent the next 30 minutes calming and comforting teammates as they swam the third of a mile.
"They were like swim angels," said Michelle Powell, 46, a second founder.
Two years ago, Amanda O'Loughlin, 26, of Woolwich was getting her Ph.D. in physical therapy at Temple University when a friend asked her to do a triathlon. Amanda asked her mother, Carleen, 50, to help with gear.
"I didn't even know what a triathlon was," Carleen says now. "I saw one rider get a flat, and all these pink people came up and changed her tire. I thought, 'Who are these pink ladies?' "
After the race, Carleen found out they were from nearby Mullica Hill. Mother and daughter joined.
"I entered three triathlons last year and three 5Ks," Carleen said. Two weeks ago she jumped off the Cape May Ferry but needed a little help swimming ashore in the Escape the Cape Triathlon. "I never thought at age 50 I would start something like this," she said.
They have fun, make jokes. She was practicing in a lake with a teammate when she brushed against something in the water. "Oh my God, was that seaweed?" Carleen asked. "No. I just didn't shave my legs," the woman said.
"My daughter has her friends in the group and I have mine," Carleen said. "And yet we can do this together. I lost 40 pounds. I still have a ways to go, but it has changed my life. I have new goals. I want to do a half marathon next year. I'm doing the MS ride in the fall. And at 65, my husband did his first 5K. We even motivated him."
Mullica Hill is 25 miles south of Center City, but the club draws women from all over the region.
"I tell my patients about this," said Karen Scoles, 56, a physician from Havertown, at the "No Shower Happy Hour" after a recent Wednesday bike ride. Easily 120 women, mostly in pink, the club's color, imbibed in a barn behind Rode's Fireside Restaurant in Swedesboro . "Feel the energy in this room," Scoles said. "How can you not love this?"
For the record, a triathlon is a race with three parts - the swim, bike, and run. It is now an Olympic sport: a 1.5-kilometer swim (0.93 of a mile), 40K bike (25 miles), and 10K run (6.2 miles).
A shorter, popular event is a sprint triathlon, typically a 1/3-mile swim, 10- to 15-mile ride, and 3-mile run.
For the most ambitious, including some in Mullica Hill, there is the Ironman - a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride, 26.2-mile run.
USA Triathlon says it has 560,000 members, up from 130,000 in 2003. The fastest-growing age groups are 35 to 39 and 40 to 44. The percentage of women rose from 27 in 2000 to 37 in 2012.
A USA Triathlon spokesman said America has 900 clubs and Mullica Hill is among the 20 largest. The only women's club of comparable size is also in New Jersey, in Belmar, Jersey Girls StayStrong Multisport Club.
Philadelphia's biggest event is next weekend, the TriRock Philadelphia Triathlon, with a sprint race Saturday and Olympic distance Sunday. Swims are in the Schuylkill.
"We're used to swimming in cedar lakes around Mullica Hill," said Powell. "You get into the Schuylkill and actually it feels clean, which who would have thought?"
The Mullica Hill club's signature event is the Queen of the Hill, on June 29. With 375 slots, it sold out immediately.
"We have special touches like violins and a trumpet serenading women as they enter the water," said Fossett. "We have a hair-braiding station prior to the swim, complete with pink bows!" Top age-group finishers get tiaras, and the winner, the queen, "will be appointed to her throne," Colleen said. "The queen's court will also get spoiled silly!"
Within three days of their first meeting, these four women had a mission statement, website, and Facebook page.
"It's like all four of us had a baby together," said Maureen Brigham, 51, a third founder.
The club grew in ways they never imagined. Dina Strachan, 43, of Mantua, created Girls on the GLOW, now with 100 girls in Grades 1 to 6. They meet weekly to learn about nutrition or sunscreen, and then paint their faces and run a 5K.
Each year the club adopts a cause to raise awareness. The first year it was autism, then ovarian cancer, melanoma, and this year ending the stigma of mental illness.
At a meeting with 80 people, one member revealed: "I lost my dad to suicide. I have never spoken those words out loud."
"It's really, really cool to see the ripple effect around the community, other people getting help," said Lydia DelRosso, 37, the fourth founder.
Fossett and DelRosso work in pharmaceutical sales from their homes. Brigham is a nurse and Powell works part time at Gloucester County College.
On top of jobs and families, and their own training, and all the events they run, they call one another five and 10 times a day to talk about everything from fabrics for new club apparel to porta-potties for the 5K.
"We are four women who put our entire heart and soul into this club," said Fossett. "The key to success is finding a few women, in our case four, to dedicate their time to the club. They need to create it, grow it, and love it like we have.
"We are probably a bit over the top with everything we offer," she added, "but we want the sport to be a positive experience for everyone involved. Nobody wants to show up to a dark, murky lake and creep in alone, but if they see 120 other women in pink tri suits smiling, scared, nervous, laughing, and talking, they are more likely to jump in."
Finally, the club is for women, but Wednesday-night rides are BYOM, Bring Your Own Man. And Jackie Lott's husband, Tom, was voted hubby of the year because he's always around to fix flats and replace chains.
Fossett's husband has also been canonized. "A bunch of my neighbors call him 'Saint Stu' but not really to his face," Fossett said. "They see the craziness that goes on in and out of my house and they know he is a really good person to put up with it."
Last week the club held a 5K race in her neighborhood with 300 runners and 200 spectators. "I casually mentioned this number to Stu and the fact that they are coming back for a post-party in our backyard," Fossett added, " and he doesn't even blink or put up one objection. He just said, 'Make sure you have enough margaritas.' "
Contact Michael Vitez at email@example.com or 215-854-5639. On Twitter @michaelvitez.