Throughout my life, I’ve had horrible judgment when it comes to placing athletes on a pedestal. Most of my sports idols have turned out to be frauds or phonies. My childhood bedroom walls looked like the ultimate dishonor roll — tarnished Sports Illustrated covers with Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong, Mark McGwire and so many more.
To think the silicon-enhanced swimsuit issue models were more substantive than the players…
It’s hard picking a worthy sports hero. It’s even harder to become friends with them. The closest I came was a personalized autograph from Hall of Fame baseball player Rod Carew. Elizabeth Harita, 10, has been far more successful. She’s formed a unique bond with two-time defending Wildflower long course champion Heather Jackson, who’s looking to add a third jewel in her crown this Saturday at the 32nd annual edition of the race.
I first learned about Elizabeth through my affiliation with the Wattie Ink. triathlon team, which I share in the interest of full disclosure. But this story transcends team alliances. Elizabeth is the youngest Wattie, having been personally invited recently by Jackson herself after the two began keeping in touch last year. Elizabeth watched a video of Jackson racing an XTERRA series event and read about her in this very magazine. Then, Elizabeth decided to focus on Jackson for her “My Hero” third grade school project in Mission Viejo, Calif.
“I like her because she is a girl triathlete like me,” Elizabeth said. “I also like that she will take time out of her way to talk to people. She also is smart and went to Princeton.”
Elizabeth’s father, fellow Wattie Ink. teammate Adam Harita, sent a copy of the hero report to Jackson. Elizabeth and Jackson have been pen pals ever since, with the younger Harita often sending gifts and charms, including a handmade card on Jackson’s 30th birthday. Jackson reciprocated and gave Elizabeth one of her tri kits, which she proudly wears in races.
That’s right, Elizabeth is an accomplished youth swimmer and triathlete who won the open distance triathlon title at HITS Palm Springs in 2012, the Southern California Youth Tri Series Championship in 2012 and 2013, and won her age group at the Desert Triathlon in Palm Springs this past March.
“Elizabeth is incredible. I am calling future Kona World Champ now!” Jackson said. “She is already swimming faster than I am!”
The closest Jackson came to meeting her sports idol was when she attended an Olympic development program soccer camp and iconic forward Mia Hamm was there. Elizabeth actually got to meet her hero in person though, waiting for Jackson to cross the finish line at Ironman 70.3 California several weeks ago. Jackson said the experience of Elizabeth’s friendship has had a significant impact on her. “You get sucked in to a little bubble as a pro — a very selfish cycle of training, recovery and racing and it is all me, me, me,” Jackson began. “So that reminder of a young athlete that looks up to you it makes you step back and look at the big picture.”
Jackson will be focused on the big prize this Saturday, on a drought-altered course that may work to her favor based on the 2.2 mile run from Harris Creek to the bike transition near the Lake San Antonio boat ramp. “It just so happens that this format is perfect for me,” she said. “Any loss I have in the swim I can potentially get back in the two-mile run back to transition so I’m stoked. I also practice my transition a lot and have a very fast transition so to have an extra transition zone is an even bigger benefit for me.”
Jackson added that she’s feeling less pressure this year though because of her step up to competing at the full Ironman distance. Her top priorities are to fare well later this season in September and October.
While Jackson is potentially gearing up for an Ironman 70.3 World Championship or Ironman World Championship, Elizabeth will follow in Jackson’s speedy footsteps and race the Los Angeles Triathlon this September. In their correspondence, Jackson inspires Elizabeth by telling her to work hard and keep training. The message is resonating. “My goal is when I’m 18 to do my first Ironman and hopefully qualify to go to Kona one day,” she said.
Elizabeth said that when she took finish-line photos with Jackson at Oceanside, one camera quickly turned into 10, “which was super cool!” she added. It’s not inconceivable that before too long, another young fan may stand beside a grown-up Elizabeth Harita for pictures. Years from now, maybe one of those images will wind up hovering in a virtual frame for a young triathlete – serving as inspiration for what might be possible with hard work and more training.