by J.B. Hyppolite
Dr. Jonathan Wilkerson, 42, a veterinarian at the Mt. Airy Animal Hospital for more than eight years, is used to saving the lives of four-legged creatures. “A couple months ago Dr. Wilkerson operated on our Maltese, Angel, who is almost 15 years old,” said Local Life editor Len Lear, a Mt. Airy resident. “Angel had a tumor that had been growing for more than a year. It was gigantic, literally the size of a baseball, and she is only 12 pounds.
“We put off taking her in for surgery because we were afraid she might not even survive the general anesthesia. Finally, we had no choice because the tumor was so huge. Dr. Wilkerson was very reassuring, though, and his surgery was absolutely amazing. It was a 100 percent success, and we are so grateful to Dr. Wilkerson. Angel is now as healthy as a dog her age could possibly be.”
Now it is not exactly stop-the-presses for a veterinarian to save the life of a dog or cat. But Dr. Wilkerson also invests an incalculable amount of his time, effort and passion in trying to save the lives — or at least the health — of human children. He is the co-founder (with his wife, Kerri) of the TriYouthalon, which aims to fight childhood obesity via exercise in swimming, bicycling and running. All of these activities give opportunities for families to set goals and support each other as they continue their personal journey towards a healthier lifestyle.
“Six years ago my wife and I started doing triathlons,” he explained. “By the end of our first season, our children turned to us and said, ‘You get to do all these races; when do we get to do one?’” Jonathan and his wife did their due diligence and found that the nearest children’s triathlons typically took place about an hour-and-a-half outside of Philadelphia. As a result, Jonathan and Kerri created “TriYouthalon” to provide these physical challenges for children in Philadelphia.
After one year, Jonathan and Kerri were approached by Philadelphia’s program director of Parks & Recreation Terri Kerwawich, and they were asked to partner with the city. “From that, TriYouthalon sort of was born,” said Jonathan, adding that TriYouthalon has now been partnered with Philadelphia for four years.
It is no secret that most adults in America are overweight, and as many as a third are obese, which means at least 50 pounds overweight. In addition, there is an epidemic of childhood obesity, which is entirely preventable with good nutrition and regular, vigorous physical exercise. “We live in a day and age where kids get less and less activity,” said Jonathan. “They spend more time in front of television; they spend more time playing video games and less time outside playing.”
Jonathan and Kerri prefer triathlons because they incorporate multiple activities. Swimming, running, and biking are the three main avenues of exercise in each TriYouthalon. “Not every kid is going to be a great runner,” said Jonathan. “Not every kid is going to be a great cyclist. By using triathlons, though, kids are outdoors doing multiple types of sports, and it gets them active. In our particular case, what we also like about it is that it becomes a family activity.”
Parents can go outdoors and train with their children, which is another key attraction of TriYouthalon. This year family participation is encouraged with two events taking place. Family triathlons and duathlons will take place July 20 in Fairmount Park and Aug. 3 in Hunting Park. (TriYouthalon has used other parks in the past including Cobbs Creek and Pennypack.) The two age groups for these events are 7 to 11 and 12 to adult, respectively. “Kids will race first, but there’s an adult race that follows it,” said Jonathan. The events will include a 75-yard swim, 2.5-mile bike ride and 1/2-mile run for 7 to 11 year-olds; and a 150-meter swim, 5-mile bike ride and one-mile run for 12 to adult.
This year those who finish the races will get “finisher medals” for the first time. There are no first, second and third prizes for a particular reason. “We really want everyone to have a sense of accomplishment,” said Jonathan. “Right now our focus is not on winning but on helping kids to be active and to participate. That participation in itself will constitute success.”
Jonathan and Kerri have a website that provides an abundance of information about how to properly train for triathlons. Several books are recommended, and information is provided about proper equipment use. Jonathan is also collaborating with Brian Hackford, owner of Keswick Cycle in Glenside, to provide information about bike training and safety.
Dr. Wilkerson has a BS in chemistry with minors in math and biology from Hobart College in Geneva, NY. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but his family moved to Philadelphia when he was a small child because his father, a pediatric neurologist, took a position at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (He is now at Bryn Mawr Hospital.) Jonathan and Kerri live in center city with son Billy, 12, and daughter Sonya, 9.