By Alex Peterman Special to The Post
WEST PALM BEACH — The Opportunists, a four-member cycling team started by team leader and Juno Beach native Chris Huffman, shattered the all-time speed record in this year’s Race Across America competition.
While setting the record for the age 60-69 mixed category was the first goal for racers Huffman, Kathy Petrillo, Matt Shippee, and Michel Chabot, their second accomplishment was far more rewarding.
The Opportunists raised more than $100,000 for the Opportunity Early Childhood Education and Family Center on Westgate Avenue in West Palm Beach. The center offers preschool educational resources and emotional support for children “from under-resourced households, single-parent households and challenging circumstances.”
That money will go toward supporting both the children’s educational opportunities as well as their family support services, the school’s Executive Director Ali Eger said, making a world of difference in the enrichment they can provide and the number of children they can serve.
As the four racers embarked on their arduous cycling trip from San Francisco to Baltimore, the children at Opportunity followed along online, as well as through videos and calls. The kids had met the cyclists two weeks before race day and learned more about the preparation and effort needed to pull off this feat.
“What was different about the team was, in addition to raising funds, since this was the fourth year — the third year for The Opportunists — I was looking for something else, extra special, to try to achieve and bring even more attention to the fundraising and the school, not for our own edification,” Huffman said.
“I was very confident that we could do it, because of Kathy, and Matt Shippee, and Michael Chabot,” he continued. I’m the slowest guy. I was just hoping I didn’t slow them down enough.”
The team completed the twelve-state, 3,000-mile trek in a matter of six days, 13 hours, and 43 minutes, reaching the finish line at 4:58am on June 26th, crushing the previously record by more than 11 hours.
“Two officials from RAAM came over and one said, ‘hey, you guys just set a new record,’” Huffman recalled. “And we go, ‘yeah, we know, it’s great! The Guths held that record.’ And this older gentleman walks up next to her and goes, ‘we know, we’re the Guths.’ They were at the finish line, and they already knew.”
As the current and former record-holders met in a moment of mutual appreciation of the Opportunists’ feat, joined by two dozen members of the racers’ local communities, the newly-announced winners could begin to tell the stories of their journey.
Adversities challenged them from the very first day, as racers Shippee and Chabot made their way across miles of desert in California and Arizona in record-setting 117 degree heat.
Other problems, logistical and otherwise, arose as the racers and their crew pursued the record — among them, a broken van window that couldn’t be repaired during the race, a phone shattered into a thousand pieces flying off a bike, a spare tire gone careening off the team’s RV.
“RAAM is kind of a microcosm of life in relation to ‘things happen,’” Huffamn said. “You have to overcome adversity in life; we have to overcome adversity in RAAM. And by staying positive about it rather than arguing about it is how you’re going to achieve your goal.”
Petrillo echoed Huffman’s sentiments, crediting the team’s success through adversity to the incredible team support, from the racers and their crew.
And ultimately, behind the sweat and pain of the trek, the team’s will to keep pushing was fueled by the kids back at Opportunity cheering them on, a spirit embodied by Raamsey, a stuffed animal ram mascot shared between members of the team and the kids and staff at Opportunity.
And at every turn, despite the racing accolades, the team turned their focus toward the school, something that Huffman has always done.
“Chris has just been absolutely incredible,” Eger said. “As hard as he trains and rides the bike, he works even harder on getting donations and promoting us.”
The chance to help the local program was one that Petrillo gravitated to, as well, having been involved in special education for years during the course of her career.
“If you think about what these kids go through to be a part of this program, if they’re not taught how to get through the adversities of life that they have no control over, they won’t be successful,” Petrillo said. “And it’s no different than what we’re doing. We’re just doing an adult version on bicycles.”
And in just a few months, the kids will get to do their own, smaller version of the race. The Kid’s RAAM is set for Oct. 15 after the June 2020 event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the children will use tricycles to navigate a parking lot course.