Triathlon hit home for former Irish football players

BOB WIENEKE
South Bend Tribune

The best way to describe what it feels like to tackle the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon? How about letting one of those daring enough to do it explain.

“You basically take a ferry out to Alcatraz Island, they drop you off 10 meters from the shore, and it’s go time,” said former Notre Dame football player Mike Anello, who last month completed his third Escape. “There’s no turning back. There’s no land. You see water in front of you and you see San Francisco and you have to find a way to get there.”

That’s just the first leg.

Get out of the water after the 7:30 a.m. swim in San Francisco Bay and it’s time for an 18-mile bike ride. Then it’s an eight-mile run, and San Francisco, if you weren’t aware, has an incline or two.

Anello, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship at Notre Dame as a special teams dynamo from 2005-09, again ran Alcatraz to raise money and awareness for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which fights childhood cancer.

Anello, however, also competed with extra inspiration. He was part of a six-man team, which included former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley and other friends from Notre Dame who competed to honor former Irish football player Asaph Schwapp, who died in May 2013 at age 26 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Inspiration came at various times, such as when the alarm clock would blast to get Anello going for 4:30 a.m. workouts. It came after Anello got out of the San Francisco Bay with what, for him, was a poor swim time. It came during stages two and three of the triathlon, when fatigue wanted to visit, but he wouldn’t let it.

“I consistently told myself, ‘We’re doing this for Ace this year. I can’t let him down,’” said Anello, who finished 132nd overall, and 21st in his 25-29 age division, with a time of 2 hours, 41 minutes, 56 seconds. “That’s what got me up in the mornings and on the bike. I thought of him and, especially the run, I just really dug deep and said I’ve got to push this hard, and really got after it.”

After finishing around 950th out of roughly 2,000 entrants in the swim, Anello posted a time that ranked around 140th in the bike and somewhere between 70th and 80th in the run.

Throughout, his thoughts swept back to Schwapp, a muscular Irish fullback who played during the Charlie Weis Era.

“I can’t believe the biggest, strongest, toughest guy succumbed to such a terrible disease, and it’s disheartening because of the quality of person that he was, and the impact he could have had in this world,” Anello said. “That’s why I think a lot of my teammates — when I reached out — were more than happy and willing to say, ‘Whatever I can do to help your cause, let us know.’”

For four of them, including Sharpley, it was their first triathlon. Sharpley did the Alcatraz without a lot of training. In fact, the only two times he trained for the race in terms of swimming were the two days before the event. All he’d done as far as biking was a four-mile ride. And running? He’d done a 5K.

But when Anello approached him, Sharpley was sold. In a hurry.

“I wouldn’t have said yes to do it if it wasn’t for Ace. I probably would have been a little more hesitant,” said Sharpley, who owns Sharpley Training in Elkhart. “I know Ace was out there helping us.”

And in turn the team helped the St. Baldrick’s cause. Anello estimated they raised approximately $43,000 from the race. An event they held in San Francisco brought in another $5,000.

Anello, who started working with St. Baldrick’s during the latter stages of college, estimated approximately $300,000 has been raised in that time.

He’s not done. Anello will hold an event July 26 in Chicago (for more information go to st.baldricks.org/participants/anello), with the goal to push this year’s total over $100,000.

“I think that’s a bit of a stretch,” Anello said, “but we shall see.”

Anello, 27, is seeing different parts of the country as he continues his professional life. He worked at a venture capital firm in Boston for three years, spent time in Portland, Ore., and is now taking a few months off before heading to graduate school to earn his MBA at Harvard.

The severe leg injury he suffered at USC in 2008, which required a metal rod to be inserted, is doing well. The rod is gone, and Anello still plays football and soccer.

“I try to be as active as I can,” he said.

If it seems like it’s non-stop energy, it is. And Anello’s reasoning is simple.

“Life’s too short,” he said.

BWieneke@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @BobWienekeNDI

Former Notre Dame football players Mike Anello, left, and Evan Sharpley pose after competing in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco last month. (Photo provided)
A group of comptetitors recently participated in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon to honor former Notre Dame fullback Asaph Schwapp, who died of cancer last year. (SBT File Photo)