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Women with Will

Note: Women with Will is a loosely-knit support group for women who enjoy running, walking, cycling and swimming at all levels. More information is available at On April 28 an "Excellent Adventure" is planned to encourage current and prospective members to attend the weekly run/walk from the Bloomington Bagel Company, 113 N. Dunn St., Bloomington, at 7:45 a.m. The semi-regular adventures "guarantee fun or your money back."

Women With Will

Women with Will cyclists

One Saturday morning in March, song filled the air at the Bloomington Bagel Company near the Indiana University campus.

A large gathering of tired but chatty women serenaded their friend Emily Ward with "Happy Birthday," only to hear an even louder rendition arise from the nearby table of breakfast regulars singing to one of their own. Not to be outdone, the women belted out another chorus of "Happy Birthday" (by far the loudest), this time for their group, Women with Will, which was celebrating its eighth anniversary. Nearly everyone in the eatery applauded.

That's Women with Will.

Sure, the women's athletic and fitness support group is about swimming, walking, running, cycling, marathons, triathlons, 5Ks and other endeavors. But its most endearing and enduring qualities can be summed up in two words -- "support" and "fun."

"I've met all of my best friends in this club," said Jeannette Heidewald, 42, of Bloomington.

It's more than just exercise, after all. The runs, rides and walks can add up to hours upon hours of conversations. And when the backgrounds, political leanings and experiences of the women vary widely, the conversations can become very interesting -- and useful. During one run this winter, the conversation -- which included input from a local physician -- ranged from movies to bioidentical hormones.

"When you talk while you're working out, it's therapeutic," said Momi Ford, 40, of Bloomington. "It feels like a really safe place to share parts of your life."

This fellowship of motion began when Emily Ward -- now the program director for Aquatics and Informal Sports at IU Bloomington's Division of Campus Recreational Sports -- decided to join the First United Methodist Church. During the membership process, she was asked what gifts she could offer the church. With 12 years of experience as a college women's swim coach, she said she would like to help women in the congregation train for a triathlon that spring. A notice to this effect was put in the church bulletin and five women showed up.

"I told them they didn't need to know anything, that I could teach them all they needed to know," said Ward, who is running the Boston Marathon on Monday (April 16). "Every one of the women said, 'I'm not sure.' I totally expected that."

Women often lack confidence when it comes to physical ventures -- they don't always feel comfortable in their own skin. Ward saw this with her college athletes, and she often sees this in the general population. Her passion, she says, is to help women get beyond this and experience the growth and confidence she saw in her student athletes.

Women With Will

Photo by: Laurie Legocki

Meet the Chilly Beans, a "subset" of Women with Will: Julie Shertzer, Laurie Legocki, Angela Leone and Amanda Tanner. The Chilly Beans participated in the Chili Hilly at IU's Bradford Woods. The winter event involves five races ranging from one to 10 miles, run over 20 hours -- through snow and a stream.

"You can live your whole life and never take a risk, if you really want," she said. "You don't put yourself out there. But when you try physical activity, every time you put yourself out there, you're essentially asking, 'Can I do that today?' When you do it, it's a unique accomplishment. These accomplishments add up."

Kathy Avers, 55, of Bloomington, was one of the five women at that meeting eight years ago. She didn't expect to actually compete in a triathlon -- she showed up to offer Ward support.

"But then I got hooked," she said. "Emily was just so positive."

They all got hooked -- they trained together, competed in their triathlon, and then realized they didn't want the camaraderie to end, thus the beginnings of Women with Will.

"It got me back to exercising," Avers said. "It has changed my self image. I look different, feel better. The women I have met and the friends I've made, they've been tremendous."

Women with Will is a loosely organized group. It requires no fees, has no officers. Members use a listserve to schedule rides, runs and to post swim workouts. Members ask each other for advice on a wide range of topics, from what to do about aggressive dogs that run loose to how to manage exercise-induced asthma. They share racing tips, goals, Internet links to swimming-technique video and musings about what to do when they just don't feel like working out.

Ward said support groups and clubs are available for various interests and sports, and involve degrees of formality. Some require fees, for example, and are more hard core in terms of practices. Universities often have a wide range of clubs that are open to community participation.

When Gisele Phillips, of Bloomington, moved from California to Terre Haute, she had fears of becoming a "couch potato," so she joined the Trained in Terre Haute program sponsored by the Wabash Valley Road Runners Club. TNT trains runners each year for the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis. It also introduced Phillips to the running community in Terre Haute and to people who lived the kind of healthy lifestyle that interested her. She went from running just a few miles at a time to running marathons and half-marathons.

Emily Ward

Emily Ward

"It literally changed my life in many ways," she said.

It was such a positive experience that she searched for a similar group online when she moved to Bloomington, finding her way to Women with Will,

Most women discover Women with Will through word of mouth or the Internet. Many women subscribe to the listserve without even participating in any of the activities, for a variety of reasons, one of which is a fear that they're too slow.

If they showed up for a run or ride they would find, however, that all levels are accommodated, and nobody gets left behind. The faster runners, for example, circle back to run with the slower runners.

"The hills are always better the second time around," a runner joked, recently.

At the Saturday morning runs, they likely would find people who are surprisingly cheerful for such an early hour. When asked whether the runners are always "that nice," Ward said without hesitation that they are.

"Women with Will generally isn't built around the 'have tos.' It's the 'want tos.' You drive to the runs, because you want to be there," Ward said. "It's the happiest run I have all week."