Debbie Herr Cornwell – Paying it forward

CAMBRIDGE — Debbie Herr Cornwell and her son Ben were on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry waiting for the start of the “Escape the Cape” Sprint Triathlon. Knowing that his mother was nervous, Ben suggested that they count to three before jumping from the 12-foot high deck. When the gun fired he surprised her by yelling “JUMP!” and before she had time to think, she was in the water swimming.

“I wasn’t always an athlete,” Ms. Herr Cornwell, who is a landscape architect and long-time Cambridge resident, said. “I started running six years ago because my son was running in high school. Since I was encouraging him to push himself, I wanted to show him that I was willing to push myself too.”

Before long, running with her son morphed into doing triathlons together. Like many people who are new to the sport of triathlon, swimming was Ms. Herr Cornwell’s weakest discipline. Although she’d grown up on the Jersey Shore and spent her childhood swimming in the ocean, she hadn’t been taught the techniques that make for effective open water swimming.

She decided to enroll in private swimming lessons at the YMCA. But it wasn’t until she participated in a month-long swim immersion program, also at the YMCA, that the technical aspects of swimming began to click.
During her first triathlon, the water was so cold that every time her face got wet, it took her breath away – a phenomenon called gasp reflex.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I ended up swimming the whole half-mile on my back.” By the time she rounded the turn buoy, she knew she would finish the swim in one piece.

This June, Ms. Herr Cornwell is taking her passion, triathlon, to a whole new level. She will be racing in Eagleman, which is four times as long as any of her previous triathlons. She is one of 15 Team TriMacc athletes supporting the Pauline F. & W. David Robbins Family YMCA’s mission by giving back to the community as part of her training and racing experience.

“The Y has always been important to us as a family,” she said. “Ben learned to swim as a toddler at the Y. And his first job was lifeguarding at the Y. Supporting the Y means that other kids in the community get the same opportunities that Ben had.”

To donate to the YMCA through Team TriMacc, visit

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