WOONSOCKET -- Triathlon athlete Skylar Plante of Woonsocket has been training hard over the past week, working out under the watchful eye of her doting grandparents who moved the furniture around in their parlor so Plante could practice her sprinting in between episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants.
On Saturday, Plante’s training didn’t exactly pay off – she came in last place in the Autumnfest Kids Challenge’s Wee Race, a challenge event for younger kids ages 3-6 – but it hardly mattered.
The little red-headed three-year-old got a medal anyway and the big grin on her face meant only one thing: she was having a blast.
More than 100 young athletes ages 3 to 15 took part in the popular Autumnfest Kids Challenge at World War II Veterans Memorial State Park during the city’s Columbus Day weekend festival on Saturday where partly sunny skies and cool breezes provided the perfect backdrop for lots of crawling, running and cycling.
Sponsored by The Call, Simon Chevrolet and the Blackstone River Federal Credit Union at Monument Square, the Autumnfest Kids Challenge, which kicked off just after yesterday’s Autumnfest opening ceremonies, gets bigger and bigger every year.
“This is one of the best events Autumnfest has for the kids and the community and it’s the perfect kickoff event for the weekend-long festival,” said Call Publisher Mary Lynn Bosiak, who was on hand Saturday to help out at the registration table and coordinate the races. “It gets more popular every year and we hope to have it for many more years to come.”
Also on hand was race coordinator Nancy Phillips, a Woonsocket School Department physical education teacher; her husband, state Rep. Robert Phillips; volunteers Kathy Lanctot, Richard Savaria and Christopher Pawlina; Wayne Lima from the Kings Row band; and a slew of volunteer helpers from The Call, Simon Chevrolet and the Blackstone River Federal Credit Union.
The Wee Race began the day’s competition with the 3- and 4-year-olds crawling under an obstacle course on the beach and then a little run before hitting the finish line. The Autumnfest Kids Challenge Mini Triathlon for the older kids started out on the beach with the same run-crawl through the obstacle course, but from there made its way out to East School Street for a half-mile run. The competitors then returned to the entrance of the park for a transition to bicycles for a half-mile bike ride on the same East School Street course.
“I’ve been coming to Autumnfest for years and it’s great to finally see something for the kids, especially the real young ones,” says Skylar’s grandmother.
Matthew Allanne of North Providence signed up for the Wee Race and was patiently awaiting the start of the race along with his grandparents, Cathy and Paul Allanne, and her aunt, Michelle Allanne, all of Lincoln.
“He’s been training at home all week,” says Cathy. “We set up an obstacle course just like this one in the backyard.”
Matthew likes to run and will be joining his Aunt Michelle at the Monster Dash in Providence on Oct. 27, where Michelle will run in the 5K and Matthew will run in the Monster Kids youth race.
“We’ve been training together for the Monster Dash and we thought the Autumnfest Kids Challenge would be a good opportunity to get in some running before that,” says Michelle.
“And I’m going to win!” Matthew shouts.
Four-year-old Adam Soucy came down for the Kids Challenge to show off his athletic prowess.
“We come to Autumnfest every year usually to go on the rides, but this year we saw the information about the Kids Challenge in the newspaper and thought we’d give it a try,” says Adam’s grandfather, Bob Thivierge. “Adam can’t run that fast, but he sure can crawl.”
No. 59 contestant Jose Ponce, 8, of Woonsocket, was the first place winner in the full competition distance mini-triathlon for the 7- to 9-year olds. Last year, he came in second place in the same event.
“Awesome!” he yells, as he cycles across the finish line.
An awards ceremony with trophies for the first-place winner followed the end of the last race, and the competitors all took home a race T-shirt and a pin or medallion for their participation.
When the race is over, everyone is smiling, even after all their work, and that is what keeps Kids Challenge coordinator Nancy Phillips involved each year.
“I enjoy seeing all children I know from school in the race and it’s always a family event,” she said. “It can be exhausting but it is also fun.”
Autumnfest, which continues today and tomorrow, began in 1977 as an opportunity for residents and non-residents alike to enjoy the spirit of Woonsocket. Held at World War II Veteran's Memorial State Park, the Autumnfest features a food court with lots of local favorites, midway rides for the kids, arts and crafts booths, fireworks and lots of entertainment at the band stand.
Acacia Griffin, 14, and her friends, Kalie Eldridge, 13, and Aaliyah Tilson, 14, all of Woonsocket, couldn’t wait for the start of the 35th annual edition of Autumnfest this year and were found in line at World War II Veterans Memorial State Park Friday night waiting to buy the discount wrist bands for the Fanelli Brothers Amusement rides.
“I want to try all of them because I like the rides, Griffin said.
Eldridge said the girls went to the park to get the wrist bands in time for the start of the rides at 6 p.m. and were excited about the night ahead. “We like to have fun,” she said. The amusement area had plenty of rides to choose from such at the Cliff Hanger, the YoYo, the Zipper and the Skymaster.
“I like coming here, it’s fun,” Tilson said. “I came here last year and always like the rides,” she said. Tilson said she planned to try both the Zipper and the Skymaster rides Friday night.
A short distance away on the midway near the World War II Park beach, Jerry and Linda Fontaine, both retired city workers, were waiting with their three grandchildren, Nathan and Logan, 13-year-old twins, and Kyle, 10, for the start of the night’s fun. Jerry, retired from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, remembers working at Autumnfest himself but now just goes down to the park with Linda and the rest of the family to enjoy the fun.
This year appears destined to be a great Autumnfest given the late improvement in the weather forecast, according to Fontaine.
“It was supposed to rain and now it is going to be beautiful all weekend,” he said.
“It is a good night out and we come with all of our grand kids,” he said. The biggest day of the weekend will probably be Monday when all the people watching the Autumnfest Parade make their way down to the park after it ends, according to Fontaine. “You can walk on their heads, there are so many people,” he said. “It will take you an hour to walk from one side of the park to the other,” he added.
Judy McLaren of North Smithfield was found trailing her daughter Isabella, 11, and her friends as they waited to get on the rides and said her daughter would get an hour to enjoy the park.
“I think it is a wonderful way to bring people to Woonsocket to see it is still a nice place and an event like Autumnfest does that,” McLaren, a retired teacher and former city resident, said.
Kids do need to be supervised when they come down to the festival, she said, and parents shouldn’t just let their teenagers go on their own. “Spoken like a true teacher, huh,” she said with a laugh.
Out near the now filled park pond, Steven Burns, 17, a Woonsocket High School student and Junior ROTC member, was found walking toward the rides with his sister Laura, 14, and friends Maxwell Cirelli and Hailee Rodriguez. “We are just looking around and will be back again over the next few days,” he said. Burns added that he hopes to march in the Autumnfest Parade on Monday with the ROTC group.
“The Fanelli doughboys over at the midway, that’s the best,” he said.
Casey O’Connor of Woonsocket brings her son Cassius, 7, to Autumnfest every year where Cassius looks forward to the rides, a candy apple and some cotton candy.
“It’s a good time,” says O’Connor. “We just like walking around, looking at the sights. It’s something we look forward to every year.”
Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7