Para-Athlete Team to Compete in Duathlon 13-year-old Salem Triathlete overcomes challenges to compete in Salem Rotary Multi-Sport Riverfest

By Keenan Emery, VanNatta PR

Competing in a triathlon can be too daunting a task for even the most motivated athletes. However, a team of three inspiring young women will compete in the duathlon at the Salem Rotary Multi-Sport Riverfest on Sept. 15. The experienced para-athletes will complete the running/biking/running event.

Salem’s Emmy Pfankuch will lead the run in a track racing (wheeled) chair. Hadassah Benson, a visually impaired senior from Wilsonville high school, will complete the bicycle leg of the race on a tandem bike. Kayla Bolnick, a Clackamas Community College freshman, will complete the final portion of the race also using a track racing chair. The team was assembled by Emmy and her mother, Jill Pfankuch.

Thirteen-year-old Emmy is not like most teens. In fact, despite being born with spina bifida and using a wheelchair, she has completed over ten triathlons, though many courses did not have proper accommodations for para-athletes. This included, at times, racing uphill on grass.

Her path to competition was inspired by her parents; both triathletes. Sadly, her father passed away in 2015 and her mother, Jill, developed serious health problems. After competing in several triathlons, in 2013, Jill was diagnosed with cancer and had to have half of her left lung removed.

“I was told I would not be able to compete after I had surgery,” she said. “[The doctors] said my lung capacity would be too diminished. I wouldn’t be able to endure a triathlon.”

However, Jill, like her daughter Emmy, was stubborn and refused to be told she couldn’t do something. She continued training after her surgery and eventually completed an Olympic distance triathlon. Because of the intensive training, her lung capacity returned to 100% normal, even though she was missing a significant portion of it.

Inspired by her mom’s tenacity, Emmy decided she wanted to compete as well, and made it her goal to join the local swim team. She saved up and paid for swimming lessons with her own birthday and Christmas money. She learned how to swim at the West Salem Courthouse, and eventually made the Battlecreek Courthouse swim team.

“I wanted to show everyone that even though I was paralyzed, that I could actually swim instead of sitting around and doing nothing,” said Emmy.

Emmy, along with her friends and mother, is an incredible example of the powers of perseverance and self-belief. Come out to Salem’s Riverfront Park to watch her race on September 15.

Keenan Emery works at VanNatta Public Relations, a PR, event planning, and consulting firm in Salem, Oregon.

Registration Opens for Salem’s Multi-Sport Riverfest: Run, bike, swim events on Sept. 15

(Salem, Oregon) July 18, 2019:   Athletes and sports enthusiasts of all levels can run, bike, or swim–or do all three–at the Salem Rotary Multi-sport Riverfest, Sept. 15. Experience a course like no other, featuring three parks, two bridges and the Willamette River. 

Salem Riverfest has four multi-sport events, available for individuals or teams.  There will be Olympic and sprint distance triathlons (swim/bike/run) and duathlons (run/bike/run). 

Runners of all levels can enjoy some of the most scenic trails in Minto-Brown Island Park with the 5K or 10K events. For families and pets (on a leash), the Family Fun Run/Walk in Riverfront Park will take everyone on a 1km journey past the Peter Courtney Bridge and around the Eco-earth Globe. 

“I’m signing up for the 5K with a bunch of friends,” said Salem resident Jill Tucker. “We’re going to call our group The Strollers!”

Event organizers also hope people use this event to challenge themselves.  “Swimming in the Willamette River can be demanding yet it is a great opportunity to have a unique athletic experience,” said Race Chair Robert Chandler.  He encourages swimmers to give it a try first.  Mediterra Swim and Run is offering practice swim clinics in the Willamette. The schedule can be found at

Registration fees vary and increase after July 31.

  • Triathlon and duathlon: $95 for individuals/$55 per person for team members. 
  • 10K run: $40 ($20 if 18 and under)
  • 5K run: $30 ($15 if 18 and under)
  • 1K Family Fun Run: $15. 

The event is presented as a community service by the Rotary Clubs of Salem and South Salem. Proceeds will be used to support Rotary’s community and international service projects that promote peace, fight disease, provide clean water, support education and grow local economies.

For more information about the event or to register, go to: