COLUMBIA FALLS – When Scott Gaiser has a little free time, he likes to squeeze in a 110-mile bike ride, run 15 miles and swim for a couple of hours.
But free time is hard to come by for the busy Columbia Falls High School principal, so he finds it where he can. That means waking up at 4 a.m. for a swim and fitting in a run sometime in the evening after a long school day. Then on the weekend, in between faithfully attending school events, he tries to set aside enough time for those long bike rides he loves so much.
At 50 years old, Gaiser qualified for his fourth Ironman World Championship by placing second out of 184 entries in the 50-54 age division at the June 24 Ironman Couer d’Alene triathlon. He finished 151st overall out of more than 2,500 competitors, biking 112 miles, running 26.2 and swimming another 2.4 in 10 hours, 38 minutes and 43 seconds.
Gaiser is one of only about 1,800 hardcore endurance athletes from around the world to qualify for the Oct. 13 Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. He also competed in the world championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Brian Frank, founder and owner of Hammer Nutrition, the Whitefish-based company sponsoring Gaiser’s athletic pursuits, said he’s amazed at Gaiser’s ability to juggle school, family and training obligations.
“Personally, I don’t know how he does it,” Frank said. “He manages to lead a full life and train for Ironman and then go out and be successful on race day.”
“He’s just an exemplary athlete and member of the community,” he added. “He’s a selfless, tireless family man.”
As someone who is undeterred by 140.6 miles of land and water standing between him and a distant finish line, Gaiser is accustomed to conquering daunting challenges. And now, he has taken on an entirely new challenge this fall, in its own way more daunting and rewarding than a triathlon: improving the health of a community and its children.
Beginning this school year, Gaiser has teamed up with local elementary school physical education teachers to establish a fitness program called Ironcats, using his own Ironman experience to inspire fitness enthusiasm. It is a response to the flood of distressing reports coming out on childhood obesity and diabetes, a situation that many medical professionals call an “epidemic.”
“The idea is for these kids to create a habit of exercise,” Gaiser said. “We’re telling them, ‘It makes you happy. It makes your life better. It’s fun.’”
Ironcats is an extracurricular program that promotes active lives outside of school. When families sign up, the kids are given a sheet to take home. Every time they complete a “unit” of exercise – 30 minutes of activity – they mark it on their sheet.
A unit of exercise can be broadly defined: a half-hour of bike riding, soccer, walking the dog, jumping on a trampoline, playing with friends – essentially anything that’s active and doesn’t require sitting in front of an electronic device. Family activities are strongly encouraged and kids are rewarded for accumulated units. Gaiser’s goal is to reach out to kids of all interests, not just the jocks.
Gaiser has made several recent trips to Ruder and Glacier Gateway elementary schools, accompanied by senior high school students, to introduce the Ironcats program. The seniors speak about the benefits of exercise in their lives, a message that resonates with elementary school kids who look up to the older high school students.
“It’s been a real blessing for me to be able to go over there with these kids and interact with them,” Gaiser said.
Jessie Schaeffer, P.E. teacher at Glacier Gateway Elementary School, said the vast majority of kids at his school – first through fifth grade – and their families are excited about the program.
“Ultimately our goal is to promote activity in a positive way for these kids,” Schaeffer said. “The nice thing about it is there’s no competition. It’s for yourself. Any kid can complete it. They’re not singled out.”
“We want to help these kids get to be a little more aware of their bodies,” he added.
Robyn Kehr, P.E. teacher at Ruder Elementary School, said the kids at her school are enthused as well. She sees Ironcats as an important step in addressing childhood health concerns, a step that she hopes is followed up by a more focused push toward proper food choices and nutrition among families.
“Obesity is getting huge,” she said. “You have all of these latchkey kids and their parents are both working, so the kids stay in the house until the parents get home. They turn on the electronics and they aren’t active.”
Schaeffer, who is also the Columbia Falls High School head wrestling coach, said the kids watched a video about the Ironman triathlon – a thrilling sight for many of them, especially after they were told that Gaiser was an Ironman.
“Having someone in our valley who’s doing this, that’s an inspiration itself,” Schaeffer said. “We’re talking worldwide, there are only 1,800 contestants who make it.”
But you would be hard pressed to get Gaiser to call himself an inspiration. Frank describes him as “very quiet and humble.” Even with Ironcats, Gaiser is quick to distinguish himself as the “dreamer” and Kehr and Schaeffer as the “doers.”
“He’s not the loud, brash athlete that you find sometimes, but he’s quite good at what he does,” Frank said. “In a general sense, he’s the kind of guy who speaks softly and carries a big stick. He lets his performance speak for itself.”
“He’s so nice and imminently approachable,” he added, “that he’s always got time to talk to people and he’s very helpful in giving advice to his fellow athletes.”
Given Frank’s description, it should be no surprise that Gaiser understates his athletic achievements.
“It feels good to be old and bald,” Gaiser said, “but still be in pretty good shape.”
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