BIG CYPRESS — More than 650 people came from every reservation and every generation, from elders to infants, to compete and connect at the 20th annual Rez Rally on Jan. 11 in Big Cypress.
The breezy, cool weather at the platinum edition of Rez Rally couldn’t have been better. The theme, “Seminole Strong,” was taken literally as the invigorated participants ran, walked or were wheeled through the 3-mile or 1-mile course.
“I do it for my health,” said President Mitchell Cypress, who has walked in every Rez Rally. “I have diabetes and the medication helps, but you have to exercise and help yourself as well.”
Sponsored by the Integrative Health program, Rez Rally promotes healthy lifestyle choices such as nutrition and exercise.
An additional purpose of the popular event is to encourage people to remain active, have some fun and enjoy the camaraderie of the day.
“The ultimate goal is to create a community of health with everybody working together towards wellness,” said Suzanne Davis, Integrative Health program manager. “It is a way for people to come together to support each other and build relationships to go forward on their wellness journey.”
Before the race began, the crowd gathered in the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena to hear from Tribal leaders and to get their blood moving with some warm-up exercises led by the fitness department.
“We all enjoy getting together at these events,” said Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. “Even though we are in teams of our reservations, remember we are all Seminole Tribal members. Do your best every day of your life from here on out.”
Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster has been involved with Rez Rally since it began in 2000.
“The years pass so quickly,” Rep. Buster said. “Diabetes is our biggest problem, besides drugs and alcoholism. We all need to take care of ourselves to maintain our lives. Start working on your nutrition and exercise, which helps control type 2 diabetes.”
For all its health benefits, Rez Rally is also a time for socializing. Steve Osceola has participated in about 70 percent of the events and loves seeing people he rarely gets a chance to see.
“The family reunion of Rez Rally is the best part,” Osceola said. “It’s the biggest get together we have and it’s great to see everyone from different reservations. It’s really hard to get together like this.”
Sisters Marissa and Angelina Osceola, of Naples, have been running together for a few months. They crossed the finish line in unison.
“We are training for a 10K race in April,” said Marissa Osceola, who had a baby just four months ago. “We sprint at the end of every race we do.”
Alexis Aguilar, of Immokalee, had one goal in mind for Rez Rally: to finish better than she did last year.
“I kept the pace until the second mile,” Aguilar said. “But then I had nothing left.”
Olivia Cypress was also pleased to have finished better this year.
“I wasn’t last, so I’m getting better. I used to be the last one to come in,” said Cypress, who did Rez Rally for the third time.
Bonnie Motlow, who has been in recovery for 20 years, does Rez Rally for her health.
“I’m trying to stay healthy and this is good for my stamina,” Motlow said. “I was a lot heavier. I walk a lot, sometimes 20 miles a week, and I do yoga.”
For Esther Gopher, of Big Cypress, Rez Rally was a family affair. She walked with her daughters Chelsea Mountain and Kristen Billie and four grandchildren.
Together they crossed the finish line well ahead of Gopher’s husband, John Billie Jr.
“He didn’t keep up,” said Gopher, of the Snake Clan. “He was the caboose.”
Not all seniors opted to walk the “senior mile” course, some raced through the entire 3-mile course at full speed.
“I ran all the way,” said Ronnie Billie Sr., of Big Cypress. “I’ve been doing it off and on and I try to stay in shape. I lift weights and do push-ups. I always run at Rez Rally.”
Rez Rally is such a popular event that, for some, even illness didn’t stop them from hitting the course.
Rosie Grant walked the senior mile for the second time and was determined to finish it, despite battling a cold.
Kaleb Thomas, of Brighton, was clearly under the weather before the start of the race, but pushed himself to run the full course. His efforts paid off with a third place finish in the 18 to 36-year-old category.
“I was the fourth one in,” Thomas said. “I almost stayed in bed this morning and didn’t expect to do so well.”
After the race, a festive atmosphere filled the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena as competitors finished the race and enjoyed a healthy brunch.
As the winning times were being tallied, Moses Jumper Jr. read a poem he wrote specifically for the 20th Rez Rally and named it after the theme of the day, “Seminole Strong.”
Connie Whidden, Edna McDuffie and Davis were recognized for their part in making Rez Rally happen 20 years ago. McDuffie was presented with a commemorative trophy for her service.
“I don’t do this by myself,” McDuffie said. “Let’s keep this up and stay healthy.”
Karen Two Shoes, health clinic nutrition coordinator, mentioned all the programs available to help Tribal members, including the Center for Behavioral Health.
“What I love about our Tribe is that we take care of each other,” she said. “This helps us stay unconquered and stay ‘Seminole Strong.’”
Medals were given out to walkers, runners, wheelchairs and strollers who placed first, second and third in every age category.
Each person was congratulated with a hearty handshake from council members and board representatives.
The medals were presented on beaded necklaces made by Linda Beletso and her daughters Lorraine Posada and Lenora Roberts, of Immokalee.
The trio couldn’t start working on the necklaces until the medals and beads arrived, just before Christmas. That left them a few short weeks to get them done.
“We were really pushing it and were in a real time crunch,” Posada said. “We worked every moment we could get. It was almost like sweatshop conditions. But it was worth it, I think they came out beautiful.”
The 113 beaded necklaces was the largest order they had ever done. They used a technique Beletso taught her daughters; the beads sit side by side and create a flat necklace.
“When I was running I thought I better place because I want one for myself,” Posada said. “I made second place and Lenora got third so we earned our beads back.”
Immokalee won as the Reservation with the highest Tribal percentage participating and took home the large basket trophy, which was also made by Beletso.
Hollywood’s crowd of 199 won the Reservation trophy for most participants overall.