PORTLAND – One-hundred-fifteen and growing. That is the number of participants in the swimming, biking, running and strength-training programs offered by a Portland-based club known as sheJAMs. More than half that number are training for a triathlon and many will compete in the Maine Cancer Foundation’s Tri for a Cure in South Portland on July 20. Many are also survivors of cancer or other illnesses, have done the triathlon multiple times, and have competed in a half or full Ironman.
SheJAMs, founded by women for women, provides a safe, friendly and supportive atmosphere to work out, have fun and share the benefits of an active lifestyle. Gail Frongillo, a sheJAMs member who is participating in the Tri for a Cure triathlon this year can attest to that.
“It’s great to train in a non-threatening space where you are only competitive with yourself,” said Frongillo, “and also doing something good for yourself and other women.”
The club was formed in 2010 by three friends, Julie Marchese, Andrea Brown and Melissa Smith, all certified coaches with USA Triathlon, the governing body of triathlons in the United States. The women shared an interest in an active lifestyle and found training more enjoyable with company and thought other women would, too. The name of the group encompasses the names of the three women – the “JAM” – and women everywhere – the “she.”
In 2011, Coreen Lauren, a coach and longtime runner, joined the business. All of the women find time to coach and manage sheJAM’s operations along with full-time careers.
Lauren was coaching a women’s running group when she met Marchese. A runner for more than 35 years, Lauren was sidelined in 2006 after a fall she had while hiking resulted in a serious brain injury. Her running ability was limited after the injury, but her love for running kept her going.
“I just wanted to run. I thought if I am ever able to achieve this, starting over, I want to coach with the mindset to be strong, you can beat this,” said Lauren. “In Tri for a Cure, a lot of the women are survivors. One of our goals [at sheJAMs] is to let them see that being strong is their biggest support, to be able to say, ‘I can do this because I’m a survivor and I can.’ It’s so remarkable to hear women be able to say that.”
Lauren is not the only person to overcome personal obstacles in the sheJAMs leadership. Tri for a Cure founder Marchese, a breast-cancer survivor, completed in her first triathlon just one year after her diagnosis.
“Julie, my nephew, a co-worker, so many have been affected by cancer,” said Lauren. “I lost a close friend to it. Before my injury I was a competitive runner and thinking of having a running group. I thought I’d be a great coach, changing people’s lives, but it turns out it’s just the opposite of what I thought. Even though I’m the leader, the stories of the people I coach have changed my life.”
While sheJAMs brings women together to train and have fun, the club is also committed to giving back to the community through causes such as Tri for a Cure, acting as a sponsor of the triathlon and partnering with the Maine Cancer Foundation for other events, such as the Twilight 5K, as well. SheJAMs has also partnered with the Cumberland County YMCA, Goodwill and has been a sponsor for the Tri for the Y and Peaks to Portland swim.
According to the club’s website, sheJAMs was created to “tap into the power of women” because “women make such a huge impact when focused on a goal.”
Club members sponsor a family each year for Christmas and participate in a Habitat for Humanity building houses. SheJAMs also makes annual contributions to support women’s causes, the recipients of which members of the club help to select.
But at the heart of the club is the training that takes place throughout the Portland area. Members don’t have to be experienced athletes to join in – there are activities and coaching available for every level of fitness. SheJAMs focuses on swimming, biking, running and strength training to improve general fitness and skills toward each individual’s personal goal. The club also offers social activities including runs that end at local pubs, bowling, bike and ski fittings and cooking demonstrations.
Fitness training encompasses year-round, as well as shorter-term, programs. Lauren, certified to coach by the Roadrunners Club of America, leads a women’s fun run group that trains all year, as well as a short-term program. Indoor running sessions are held at the indoor track facility on the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine.
Andrea Brown is the coach of the club’s biking programs and of the off-season indoor classes run through sheJAMs at various locations, including Fit 212 in Falmouth.
SheJAMs also offers year-round swimming programs, which take place at Greely High School in Cumberland, Crystal Lake in Gray, and at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland depending on the time of year. Swim coach Kelsey Abbott leads the women in all aspects of training.
According to Lauren, all of the sheJAMs coaches work together in triathlon training, especially as the Tri for a Cure event draws closer.
“We take an approach of moderation and share schedules with each other,” said Lauren. “We schedule rest and gradually build up conditioning and resistance to strain. We perfect the practice every week so by the time we get to the event we can do a simulation. We have already gone through the entire triathlon course before race day.”
That practice includes understanding safety techniques, especially with regard to the ocean swim that is part of the Tri for a Cure. Women in training build up to the swim by first training in a pool and then moving to Crystal Lake and then to the ocean. Lauren said all the women wear wetsuits for the outdoor swims.
Whether a sheJAMs member is training for a triathlon or just working to get in better shape, the goal is the same: good training, great support and a safe place to be who you are.
Lauren said the club offers training that can “help women in every aspect of their lives,” along with an opportunity to share their strengths and weakness within a supportive community.
“SheJAMs is a great group, so welcoming,” said Kathrine Smith, a sheJAMs member who is training for her first Tri for a Cure this year. “I don’t know where I’d be without them.”
SheJAMs participants Katie Donnelly, June Usher and Lisa Lamarche take a break on a training ride in South Portland. Members of sheJAMs get ready to dive into Crystal Lake in Gray in early June as part of training for the 2014 Tri for a Cure triathlon. Women support each other during a training session for the swimming leg of a triathlon.