It was a rainy, cool morning in September, but 13-year-old Cornelius resident Malia Ellington will never forget the Ramblin Rose triathlon.
That morning, she posted her initial first-place finish in a competition with more than just kids.
It won't be her last.
It was the first time an athlete under 15 took first place overall. At a time of 42:30, Ellington also had the fastest finish for all of the Charlotte Ramblin Rose races so far.
In the under-15 category this year, 36 athletes registered to complete the 250-meter swim, the 9-mile bike ride and the 2-mile run, making up 12 percent of the 1,250 participants.
What Ellington accomplished so young is impressive, especially considering she ran her first competitive race on a whim just three years ago. Her younger brother and sister have adopted the sport as well.
"It just happened," explained Malia's mother, Nancy Ellington. "Malia and her sister, Hannah, 12, are both Girl Scouts. Their troop was doing the Davidson Land Conservancy fun run/walk and at the last second Malia said she wanted to run the 5k."
Though Malia had never run before, she finished in 32 minutes and discovered she really liked running.
"She started running in the neighborhood," said Nancy.
Soon Hannah, and their 10-year-old brother, Brandon, joined Malia in the neighborhood workouts. On Memorial Day weekend 2008, after running around the neighborhood, the Ellingtons grabbed their bikes and rode a little, then went swimming. It was an impromptu triathlon.
"They heard about the Huntersville Aquatic Center kids triathlon series, and it really sparked their interest," said Nancy.
In 2009, the Ellingtons started competing in Huntersville kids triathlons, and Malia competed in the Winston-Salem's Ramblin Rose. She finished 60th, with a time of 1:00:15. In September, she competed in Charlotte's Ramblin Rose, where she finished 48th. With her first big competitions under her belt, Malia and her siblings set their sights on new territory: open water competition and the IronKids.
"There was a flyer for the IronKids in my first race bag," said Malia. "And I saw one of the races was offered in Raleigh. I really wanted to do it."
The races are aimed at children ages 6-15 and each have a junior, intermediate and senior division.
The IronKids Raleigh was this past June, and the Ellingtons each qualified for the IronKids National Championship.
Then, the Ellingtons set new goals. They trained throughout the summer, riding in a velodrome in Michigan while visiting family, running with the Community School of Davidson cross-country team during summer workouts and competing in more races.
Each found motivation to continue.
"I like the swimming," said Hannah. "I love the water and it just feels great. I could stay in it all day."
Both Hannah and Malia now swim for the Community School of Davidson's new swim team.
On the cross-country team this season, Malia took first place in all of the middle-school races. She finished first place in the Western Piedmont Athletic Association conference meet.
"I love the running," said Malia. "I look forward to it when I get off the bike. Running's the fun part."
For Brandon, who also loves to run, his motivation is competitive.
"I want to beat my sister's times," he said.
In August, Malia signed up for the Lake Norman YMCA triathlon. She finished the 750-meter swim, 17-mile bike ride, and 5k run in 1:37:26, third place overall in the Sunday novice division.
In September, she and Hannah competed in the Ramblin Rose. Hannah finished 45th in a time of 51:50. Just a week later, at the IronKids National Championships in St. Peterburg, Fla., among kids from 30 states and five countries, Brandon finished ninth, Hannah finished 13th and Malia finished first.
For next year, each of the three has their sights on the IronKids competition. It's clear they are already in training.
At the FootLocker South Regional Cross Country Championships at the McAlpine Greenway on Nov. 27, Brandon took seventh place in the 10-and-under 3000-meter race. Hannah finished 32nd in the 11- and 12-year-old 3000-meter race, and in the 13- and 14-year-old division, Malia finished second.