The Girl Gang: one step, one pedal push and one stroke at a time01/31/2024 12:47PM ● By Richard Gaw
At first, it was the outlandishly stunning colors of the jerseys – a funky swatch of paisley purples, pinks, turquoise and lime green -- that first attracted Suzanne Muench of East Fallowfield Township to the members of West Chester Women’s Multisport (WCWMS).
“It was July of 2017, and I attended an open water swimming event held at Marsh Creek,” Muench said. “There was this group of women there and they all had these cool hoodies and looked like they were all having fun in the camaraderie of each other. I went home and googled ‘West Chester Women’s Multisport’ and thought, this could potentially become a group I could be involved in.”
After speaking with WCWMS co-founders Sam Bowman and Melissa Slifer, Muench attended a swimming training session, where upon arrival she saw a small group of women of all sizes and ages and abilities -- from ironman athletes to those who were new to swimming.
This is a group for everyone, she thought. She has been a member ever since.
“West Chester Women’s Multisport is an amazing group of women where everyone is celebrated, and the things that we have been able to do and the ways that we have been able to support each other is beyond what I thought could ever happen,” Muench said. “The group shows up for each other not just for training sessions and competitions but for life events that have elated us and life events that have broken us down.
“I belong to a group of women who empower other women to be the best they can for their jobs, for their families and for themselves.”
Formed in 2016 by Bowman and Slifer as an LLC that operates like a non-profit, grassroots organization, WCWMS is dedicated to women who are involved as participants in cycling, running and swimming and Ironman and triathlon events throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. In any given year, the size of the group varies between 75 and 100 and is made up of women from their 20s to their 70s who live in Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties, as well as those who have moved to other states and continue their membership. During any given year, they can be found running through trail races, swimming in pools and lakes and cycling along the backroads of the county.
On Feb. 3 and 4, Muench will join 35 other WCWMS members at the Frozen Frogman swimming competition at the Hockessin Athletic Club (HAC). The annual event will bring individuals and groups from the tri-state area together to compete at the HAC’s outdoor pool in 5K swims, 1-mile swims and challenge competitions that include a 500-yard swim, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and a 1.5-mile run.
Begun in 2016, Frozen Frogman has raised nearly $200,000 for the Travis Manion Foundation in honor of families of veterans who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country. WCWMS has also participated in charity events that have raised funds for dozens of other charitable organizations throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.
‘A sisterhood of believers’
The story that eventually became the West Chester Women’s Multisport started with Bowman’s and Slifer’s mutual pursuit of triathlons, that saw them train together as members of the Mullica Hill Women’s Tri Club in New Jersey, which operated for ten years before ending last year.
“Getting to Mullica Hill was taking us more than an hour each way from our homes in West Chester, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we create our own club?’” Bowman said. “Because Melissa is also a professional graphic designer, she soon handed me a newly designed t-shirt that had ‘West Chester Women’s Multisport’ emblazoned on it, and that’s when I told her that now that we have a t-shirt, there is no turning back.”
For Bowman, the original mission of the group quickly morphed from a mere forum for training and competition to one that inspired her personal growth and resilience – a sisterhood of believers, she calls them.
“Before we formed West Chester Women’s Multisport, I had participated in sprint level triathlons, and then my fellow members lifted me up and encouraged me to do things I never thought were possible, to the point where I participated in and completed an ironman competition in Lake Placid, N.Y. and then another event that saw me ‘escape’ from Alcatraz and swim back to the shore of San Francisco,” she said.
Often, the degree of that sisterhood does not involve bicycling, running or swimming, she said.
“I see a huge heart in the club for each other, from a flurry of encouraging cards that suddenly appear in a mailbox to other selfless acts of kindness,” Bowman said. “One of our sisters was coping with breast cancer last year, and the rest of us coordinated her meal delivery until she was in a place where she could do these things on her own.”
Selecting which event to participate in is generated from WCWMS members themselves, and often, the ideas are infectious, Bowman said.
“Somebody told us several years ago that she was interested in participating in something called ‘Frozen Frogman’ at the Hockessin Athletic Club, and that she would jump in the water outside and swim and raise money for the Travis Manion Foundation,” she said. “We had a team sign-up calendar, and the response from others was along the lines of, ‘Yeah, that sounds crazy. What time do we meet?’
“To me, it is a distinct privilege to participate in the lives of these women who trust Melissa and I with their goals and their aspirations and their lives,” Bowman added. “It makes us so proud watching women achieve goals they never thought possible and seeing the relationships that have developed on and off the race course. No matter how many times we’ve been told ‘Thank you for starting this club, it’s changed my life,’ we honestly feel that our lives have been positively impacted 100 times more. The women of WCWMS are the friends we never knew we needed, but now feel blessed to know we have. Our relationships are an invaluable treasure.”
‘Stop typing and get on your bike’
During a recent frigid weekend, Muench posted a note on the WCWMS social media page, stating that she was having difficulty motivating herself to get her bike from her basement and then train in the cold weather.
“Within ten minutes, I heard responses from other members ranging from those who told me that they feel my pain to those who said, ‘Stop typing and get on your bike,’” she said. “The support and encouragement that we give each other on those days when it’s hard is important. There is always somebody who is willing to be a cheerleader.
“They are my friends. They are my sisters. They are my girl gang.”
To learn more about West Chester Women’s Multisport visit www.wcwms.com.
To learn more about the 2024 Frozen Frogman event at the Hockessin Athletic Club on Feb. 3 and 4, visit www.hachealthclub.com/frozenfrogman
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].