John Cornelius wiped away a mixture of sweat and tears, took a moment to collect himself, and landed on a smile.
“I’m the luckiest dad in the world,” he said.
For one day, a community got to share in his revelry.
The 35th anniversary of the SLO Triathlon held Sunday brought together about 1,000 athletes and just as many spectators in support of the event’s vision that promotes a family-first atmosphere over just the final standings.
No further proof was needed once Cornelius, his 20-year-old son Joseph and the rest of their yellow-clad Team Joseph caravan jogged down the gated chute at sun-baked Sinsheimer Park with a sea of cheers carrying them to the finish line.
Joseph Cornelius, unable to walk or talk because of severe cerebral palsy, sat in a covered wheelchair being pushed by his father, who waved to the crowd and pointed to the sky as the duo completed the 5K run and near 19-mile course.
“I don’t feel tired at all, I really don’t,” John said after the race. “As soon as we got into the run, I felt like I could do a marathon. I just felt so proud and so energetic.”
The pair from Los Osos had embarked on more than a hundred distance races, including a few marathons, but had never been able to tackle a triathlon because of the swim logistics.
That is until three Cal Poly engineering students designed a flotation device tailored for Joseph that allowed him to glide through the SLO Swim Center pool, his feet dangling in the water, with someone pulling a few feet ahead.
John and four other members of Team Joseph — Michael Lara, Jesse Perez, Paul Sands and William Walters — alternated tugging the 6-foot raft for the 36 pool lengths that made up the half-mile swim.
As Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” pumped through the speakers, the poolside spectators — many in their own yellow Team Joseph shirts — catalogued the event with their phones or cameras while offering words of encouragement.
“Here’s a young man who is 20 and can’t walk or talk; how is he bringing together all these people? How’s he bringing a university in?” John Cornelius said. “There’s something within him. I can’t even explain it. He just has a heart and a spirit that people get.”
Because of the sheer volume of participants and the size of the pool and streets, the half-mile swim, 15.3-mile bike and 3.1-mile run went in groups of 40, starting at 6:30 a.m.
The first group produced the eventual winner, as Scott Kolofer took advantage of the early morning conditions to blister through the course at a pace none were able to duplicate.
“Perfect racing weather,” said Kolofer, a recent Cal Poly graduate and triathlon runner who works at the event’s title sponsor, Art’s Cyclery. “You don’t get too hot, and you’re able to stay in your own zone.”
Kolofer finished in 1 hour, 5 minutes and 15 seconds, just more than a minute back of seven-time champion Chris Stehula’s 2011 record mark of 1:04:05.
“I wanted to give Chris Stehula a run for his money, but a 1:05, I’m happy with that,” Kolofer said. “I gave it a good effort, and that’s all I’m really thinking about.”
The Salinas native was running the SLO Triathlon for just the second time, but was more than familiar with the course and knew where to conserve and where to exert.
“I train out on Orcutt Road almost every day,” he said. “It’s just super fun going up and down those hills. It plays to my strengths, so I knew I could push it on the hills for a good day.”
From the time Kolofer left the first transition to when the final jogger made it to the baseball stadium finish line, the crowd never stopped urging the participants on.
Some held signs. Others shook cowbells.
Watching without a prop or noisemaker, the rest just plain shouted.
There was also a spectator who thought the best way to offer support was wear nothing but a head-to-toe neon orange body suit with a blue headband and bike shorts.
“It is a cool event, because it’s more about just completing it rather than who wins,” said Meg Evans, a 25-year volunteer who logged every racer at the finish line with her husband, Keith. “You’ve got people who come from all different places and different age groups.”
The ages ranged the entire spectrum: From 74-year-old Arby Kitzman of Morro Bay to the seemingly endless supply of children wearing Team SLO & Steady shirts and accompanying a member of the Borland family down the stretch.
While the majority came from San Luis Obispo County and its surrounding areas — including the fastest female finisher in 1:17:48, San Luis Obispo’s Kaori Funahashi — states such as Georgia, Virginia and Utah were also represented.
“The bike ride was a lot of fun,” said Mike Blades, who came from Bozeman, Mont., to compete with a co-worker. “The rolling hills are really nice; you can maintain a quick speed.”
Plenty took the time to savor the moment near the finish when the announcer read their names aloud to the crowd.
Rather than worry about a final time, former Cal Poly student Devon Carlstrom showed off her cartwheel. Peter Acutt, who had slowed to a walk before the final turn, broke back into a jog and thanked the masses as they cheered him in.
But the biggest applause came when Bib No. 234, pinned to the shirt of Joseph Cornelius, concluded its journey in 2:56:58.
It had endured water for the first time and a few flat tires along the way, but the inspiration never deflated.
“Once you open up your heart to him, you find what a spirit he has and what an amazing young man he is,” John Cornelius said. “He can’t say anything or do a lot of things, but once you see him for what he is, he’s unbelievable.”
When asked what’s next for the duo, the single dad who works as a store manager at Rite Aid took another deep breath and wondered.
“I take it one day at a time with Joe,” he said, “but it’s hard not to look into the future and say to him, ‘What do you want to do now?’ ”