Mother of Sandy Hook victim celebrates impact on children through triathlon program

For the mother of one Sandy Hook elementary school shooting victim, losing a son is something her family feels every single day.

As the rest of the world remembers on Dec. 14, 11 years later, she wants to shift the focus to all the good that has been achieved over the past decade. Through the Kowalski family’s CMAK Foundation, they have impacted thousands of children.

Reflections shimmer in the water at the memorial that honors the 26 Sandy Hook shooting victims, as a mother reflects.

“This is, you know, Chase’s full name, Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski,” Rebecca Kowalski, Chase’s mother, said. “You just never expect to lose a child the way we lost our child.”

It has been more than a decade since she lost her young son. The little boy, Kowalski says, not only spread kindness to everyone around him, but at a young age he also had a passion for life, and athletics. At just six-years-old, Chase completed his first and only triathlon.

“That changed his life. That gave him a self-esteem boost that, I don’t know anything else could have done for him like triathlon did,” Kowalski said.

That is why the summer after losing Chase, the Kowalski family started the CMAK Foundation, and a youth triathlon training program.

“This shows the magnitude of people that were there,” Kowalski said, pointing to one of many photos on her wall that shows dozens of kids participating.

Each summer, the program draws roughly 500 young athletes in Connecticut who train for weeks, then complete the triathlon called Race4Chase.

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Among all those triathletes: Josh Heyel.

“I think was one of the biggest feelings of accomplishment I’ve ever had in my life. That was huge moment. Small race, but it felt absolutely huge to me,” Heyel said.

Heyel joined the camp right after first grade, during its inaugural summer. He returned for a total of six years.

“And I completed 10 triathlons,” Heyel said.

Now a high school junior, standing in a memorial garden to Chase at the Kowalski family home, Heyel said he is grateful to be training the next generation as a coach.

“I think he’d be as amazed as I am, if not more, of how big this program has grown in his memory, being able to allow so many kids to have the same experience that he did,” Heyel said.

Kids like Brandon Fuehrlein, who completed his first CMAK triathlon this summer.

“It was amazing,” he said. “It means a lot to me, because I completed a really hard thing in my life.”

His big sister Lexi is no stranger to the athletic feat: she has medals from three triathlons.

“This is last year’s medal that we got,” she said. “That’s like one of his drawings that he made.”

For her, to cross the finish line is to pay tribute to Chase.

“It’s a spirit of him that makes it fun,” Lexi Fuehrlein said. “It’s stayed alive really well and it makes me happy every time I go to camp.”

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Even the kids’ mom was inspired. Dianna Fuehrlein has completed several races to fundraise for the CMAK Foundation.

“You do it because he can’t, and I think we’re just so lucky,” Dianna Fuehrlein said.

In her home, Rebecca Kowalski frequently takes in all the photos mounted on the wall of races in years past.

“It’s a nice reminder, walking down the hall,” Kowalski said. “We know what we’re doing, and these are, this is our family. You know, this is Chase’s family.”

A family that has grown. As of this year, more than 5,000 children have crossed the finish line.

Now, with Race4Chase 10 years strong, the Kowalski family maintains their mission from day one: to honor Chase.

“These children have fallen in love with Chase, even though they don’t know him physically. They know his spirit. And that, to me is so beautiful,” Kowalski said.

Ten years of turning tragedy into triumph.

“At the age of six, Chase was a winning triathlete, and we focus for the last 10 years trying to give that positive impact to other children,” Kowalski said. “He was always at our forefront. He will always be at the forefront, and with no agenda, other than changing the world through children and families.”

You can learn more about the CMAK Foundation and its work through Race4Chase its website.

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