National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Miles to Go for Life


August 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/5/08 at 1:22 PM


Plenty of people can run a competitive marathon. Precious few can accomplish the feat after completing a 112-mile bike race in the blazing sun and a 2 ½-mile swim in a natural body of water. And of the 2,500 or so super-athletes who do start and finish Ironman triathlons, only a fraction compete in more than two or three per year.

Michael Hennessey of San Antonio, Texas, is a member of that highly exclusive “club.” In fact, he’s out to break the Guinness World Record for Ironman triathlons in a calendar year — 14. As of July 20 he had racked up nine worldwide. He’s aiming for 20 by the end of 2008.

Hennessey is driven, all right, but not for personal glory. As head of the Ironman for Kids Foundation, this Catholic husband and father of six is on a mission to bring attention to families of babies born with Trisomy 13 and 18.

Trisomy is a chromosomal disorder that results in multiple abnormalities. Many Trisomy newborns survive only a short while after birth. The standard pre-birth medical recommendation is abortion.

For Hennessey and his wife Janelle, that wasn’t even a whisper of an option.

“The whole idea of the triathlons is to spread awareness of Trisomy,” says Hennessey, “and [to spotlight] the families who are living such heroic lives, choosing life and fighting for basic medical care for their children.”

“For a year it’s our little family mission,” adds Janelle. “Our children are learning the value of life and how to be for others. What they’re learning on the spiritual level hopefully sits in their hearts as they see the sacrifices their dad is making.”

The uniqueness of the mission doesn’t surprise Father John Waiss, an author and Opus Dei priest in New Rochelle, N.Y., who knows Hennessey. “Michael has always been a natural entrepreneur type, doing things no one else has done,” says Father Waiss. “He likes to use all his talents in serving God and pro-life causes.”

Marian Mandate

The decision to support a worthwhile cause by doing a succession of Ironman events wasn’t a quick one.

It all started two years ago, when Janelle came upon a website, The Trisomy-abortion connection leapt out at them: Here was a potent way to promote the sanctity of life by countering a common medical misdirection.

The Hennesseys prayed about Michael’s notion while on pilgrimage at a Marian shrine. “We’re both very close to Our Lady, and Michael entrusted his idea to her,” explains Janelle. “Then it was a leap of faith.”

A year of prayer for guidance led to Team TRIsomy and the commitment to the string of competitions.

ThereseAnn Siegle of Huntington Beach, Calif., became an early fan. As founder of the site and mother of four, she marvels at what Michael is doing.

“What Trisomy families strive for, and what Michael is helping to do, is bring awareness,” says Siegle. “Some of these kids can survive if given medical care a typical child would normally get.”

Siegle knows whereof she speaks. She had to fight to get medical attention for her own daughter Natalia, now 8 years old. Earlier Siegle endured pre-natal testing that can give false positives for Trisomy, followed by immediate counseling for abortion. She refused and gave birth to a normal son.

“In some way our mission is one race at a time,” says Hennessey.

Because Trisomy support is not a glamorous cause, sponsorships have not materialized, says Hennessey. Never mind that what he’s attempting deserves widespread coverage if only for the athletic achievement of it. A few modest donations have come in, but the Hennesseys are absorbing most of the expenses themselves.

God opens other kinds of doors, says Michael, pointing out that he has met many warm and welcoming families along the way who’ve offered, or helped him find, a place to stay.

He adds: “Differently-abled children and teenagers I’ve come in contact with providentially remind me why I’m doing this.”

Witnessing to the World

Hennessey says he’s frequently asked if he and Janelle are themselves parents of a Trisomy baby. “No, we’re not,” he answers. “This is about helping people in need and promoting the beauty of all life. We’re just trying to live the Gospel here. ”

Now 42, Hennessey says God blessed him with a durable body and a passion for using Ironmans for God’s glory. “The three sports remind me of the Trinity,” Michael adds. “It’s a spiritual experience.”

He’s now trying to qualify for the Oct. 11 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The exposure would be huge, he says, for the Trisomy message.

“We want to get that message out there,” says Janelle, “so that someone in the world with that diagnosis will remember that crazy guy and choose life.”

Staff writer Joseph

Pronechen is based

in Trumbull, Connecticut.

INFORMATION Ironman for Kids Foundation
(210) 792-3602