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I Did It — And So Can You!

By Sarah Wassner Flynn

Sarah Wassner Flynn

Photo Credit - Rich Cruse | crusephoto.com

I Did It — And So Can You!

By Sarah Wassner Flynn

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Ten triathletes share their stories about how they broke into the sport.

Jamie Dix“I did it for love.”
Name: Jaime Dix
Age: 37
Resides: Olmsted Falls, Ohio

As a swimmer, a diver, a soccer player through college, Jaime Dix grew up athletic. But she never considered triathlon until her husband, Andrew, suggested that they register for one as a challenge they could train for together. “We ran a marathon prior to that and it didn’t go so well for Andrew,” Dix recalls. “He had an awful time and never wanted to run another marathon, but said, ‘how about a triathlon, instead?’” So the couple — then newlyweds —registered for a local race near their home in Cleveland. “Swimming in Lake Erie is pretty intimidating, especially because I was used to being in a pool,” Dix says. But once the gun went off, “I didn’t care about my time; I wanted to make sure that I savored every moment I could crossing that line,” Dix says.

Fast forward 12 years, and the couple has now completed more than 40 races together — all the way up to the ultra-distance events. And while they compete just for fun and always make sure to high-five one another when they pass on the course, Jaime admits that there is an intense rivalry between them. “The day after a race, Andrew will send me a spreadsheet comparing our splits and transition times” she says. “It’s so funny, but we always joke how we want to beat each other, and honestly trying to beat him is a huge motivation while I’m out there racing.”

The pair has passed their love for triathlon on to their kids, Zachary, 9, and Zoe, 7, who have become budding triathletes themselves. “They’ve grown up watching Andrew and I working together to stay healthy and fit,” Dix says. “Triathlon may be an individual sport, but as a family, we can all do it and have fun together.”

Erin Counihan“I finished last — but felt like I won.”
Name: Erin Counihan
Age: 39
Hometown: Saint Louis, Missouri

At the end of Erin Counihan’s first-ever Olympic-distance triathlon last June, she found herself in a less-than-desirable position: Last place. “I was nauseous, tired, hot and miserable,” Counihan says. “I almost gave up at mile three of the bike.”

After all, Counihan hadn’t raced in 15 years. In that time, she had spinal fusion surgery, took on an all-consuming career as a pastor of a church in St. Louis, and became wrapped up in parenting a teenager. “I was feeling overwhelmed all the time and wasn't taking great care of myself. I needed to take on something that was a bit too big for me, to force myself to train,” she says.

Because of her back injury, Counihan says she doesn’t run much, and the 26-mile bike portion of the race was a bit of a stretch for her. Not to mention that the course is known for its hills. But that didn’t stop her from registering. “It was frightening, but it was also the challenge I was looking for,” says Counihan of the race. “It was a bit out of reach, and kind of scary.”

The race was as tough as expected, but Counihan said she was buoyed by the support of her family, her friends who had driven an hour to come cheer her on as well as fellow competitors she encountered along the course. “A real fit and fast guy passing the other way high-fived me and said to keep it up. A gal lapping me said, ‘You got this, sis,’” she says. “The people with $1,000 watches and $9,000 bikes were cheering on those of us riding in our running shoes.”

Counihan may have finished in 97th out of 97 women, but she says the feeling of crossing that line was worthy of a victory dance. “I had fun. I made friends. A 23-year-old kid in an aero suit told me I looked strong,” she says. “My friends cheered for me. And my family was proud of me. And I felt tough. And I am tough. And that feels amazing.”

MARY-LOUISE-OCONNEL“I finished my first race at 65.”
Name: Mary Louise O’Connell
Age: 65
Hometown: Sarasota, Florida

It all started with a New Year’s resolution. This is the year I’m signing up for a triathlon, Mary Louise O’Connell decided as the calendar flipped from 2016 to 2017. She was also set to turn 65 in a few days’ time and figured there was no time like the present to go after one of her longtime goals. “I hadn’t done any sort of racing since fifth grade, but I knew my competitive spirit was buried deep inside of me,” she says.

But first, there was that pesky little problem of learning how to swim freestyle. “The last time I took a lesson I was probably 7 years old,” O’Connell says. “Normally, if I swam, it was breaststroke and back across the pool a few times.” So she signed up for lessons, and over a few weeks felt more comfortable with her strokes and her breathing. She began to follow a training schedule she found online, started riding her bike up to 30 miles at a time, and in the process finished her first-ever 4-mile running race.

When race day came, feeling prepared but nervous, O’Connell took comfort in meeting several women around her age or older in the transition area. “They had all done triathlons before, and were very kind to this total newbie,” she says. That spirit continued throughout the morning, when she found herself leaning on the support of volunteers on kayaks in the lake when she momentarily panicked in the swim. “Those kayakers never left me, silently behind me, making sure I was OK.”

O’Connell eventually exited the swim and stayed focused on the finish during the run and bike. When she crossed the line, she celebrated with a fist pump. “That feeling is unforgettable,” says O’Connell of her accomplishment. “It’s something I never imagined doing, and now I’m hooked.”  

RON SEARLE“I lost weight — and found a passion.”
Name: Ron Searle
Age: 46
Resides: Schaumburg, Illinois

On any given Saturday or Sunday during triathlon season, you’ll likely find Ron Searle sporting a plaid kilt over a wetsuit, emerging from the water with water dripping from his auburn beard as he bellows supportive cheers for his fellow triathletes in transition before hopping on his bike.

It’s a far cry from the Searle of four years ago, who had never heard of a triathlon, who tipped the scale at 322 pounds and whose “body was literally being torn apart” because of his weight.

Fearful for his future — both of his parents died at the age of 55 — Searle decided to change the course of his life. “I was 32 with two small children,” he says. “My parents never really got a chance to meet their grandkids, and I really want to be around to enjoy mine.” So Searle began to train for the 2014 Chicago Triathlon and, in the process, started shedding pounds.

Pretty soon, Searle was suiting up for his first race, a local sprint, where he says he was a “fat guy in the midst of all of these uber-fit people.” But he didn’t let that bring him down. “The more I was around the sport, the more I realized that [weight] doesn’t matter. Everyone is on the spectrum from newbie to elite, and you can’t judge performance based on looks,” he says.

Searle now uses triathlon as a way to keep off the weight and has since completed Escape from Alcatraz four times as well as three ultra-distance races. And, yes, he often races in a kilt “to give people something to talk about.” If anything, Searle hopes to bring levity to what could be an intense environment — and to show his enthusiasm for the sport that saved him.

“I never thought I could be someone who could inspire others to pick up a healthy lifestyle, but triathlon brings an amazing sense of accomplishment,” he says. “If you are a triathlete, you are an inspiration, no matter how fast you are.”

TAMIEKA SKINNER-THOMASSON“I learned how to swim six months before my first race.”
Name: Tamieka Skinner-Thomasson
Age: 43
Resides: Germantown, Maryland

Last spring, Tamieka Skinner-Thomasson registered for the notoriously tough Savageman triathlon — her first-ever — without knowing how to swim. Bold? Yes, but once Skinner-Thomasson sets her mind on something, there’s not much that’ll stop her.

“I had no prior swim experience, though I could tread water,” says Skinner-Thomasson, a mom of two. “I started lessons in January and the race was in August. Plenty of time, right?”

Though she had fears about open water swimming, Skinner-Thomasson first focused on getting her technique down in the pool. She says that being in a group of adults with the same skill set helped assuage a lot of her nerves and made her more confident in her ability. “There was no pressure and I didn’t have that feeling that I had to be better than anyone else,” she says. “We were all starting from the very beginning.”

Under the guidance of her teacher, Skinner-Thomasson went from simply floating to swimming across the pool to logging laps. Still, she had another major hurdle to clear: The open water swim. When she slipped into the murky waters of Deep Creek Lake for the 750-meter Savageman swim, she repeatedly reminded herself to just finish the swim — no matter what.

“I didn’t care how long it took. My family and kids were there, and I didn’t want them to see me quit,” she says. “Even if it took me three hours to do the swim, even if I had to ask for help from the volunteer kayakers, I knew I’d get it done.”

Skinner-Thomasson did get the swim done — and went on to conquer the hilly bike and run course, too. Afterward, she “slept for hours” and, as the fatigue and muscle soreness set in, she questioned if she was really cut out for the sport. Those doubts only lingered for a day or so, though, and soon, Skinner-Thomasson was already thinking about her next race.

“Triathlon is just such a friendly and welcoming environment,” Skinner-Thomasson says. “And I love the challenge. It’s easy to get hooked.”

MEG SHIPMAN“I beat cancer — and turned to triathlon.”
Name: Meg Shipman
Age: 39
Resides: West Palm Beach, Florida

Life was just “really getting good” for Meg Shipman when things as she knew it came to a screeching halt. At the age of 30, Shipman — a healthy, vibrant and athletic kite-boarder and cycling instructor — was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. Surgery followed, then a relapse. But Shipman vowed to stay one step ahead of her disease. Despite constant doctor’s visits and the question marks surrounding her health, she registered for a half-IRONMAN triathlon, just eight weeks after major surgery.

“I entered the world of triathlon with a whole new definition of 'finish line,’” says Shipman. “The race was an incredible and proud experience — and began my journey to inspire others with my power of positivity and platform of survivorship.”

Shipman continues to spread that positive vibe, whether it’s through coaching cancer survivors to their first 5k, training for her own races, or by sharing her own story. Living life with an optimistic outlook has been essential to her recovery — and she credits triathlon for igniting a fight and resolve that’s made her stronger as a person and as a patient.

“Triathlon is a lot like life. We train and prepare, but you never know what could come your way. It might be some really tough hills or flat tires, be it hard times in life or a cancer diagnosis,” she says. “But if we stay strong and focused and positive, in the end we will make it through.”

JEFF GOMULINSKI“I went from the football field to triathlon.”
Name: Jeff Gomulinski
Age: 33
Resides: Middlebury, Connecticut
*photo courtesy of Marathon-Photos.com

Growing up, football was life for Jeff Gomulinski. A stand-out punter in high school, he went on to become an All-American collegiate player. At that time, triathlon was something he’d never even heard of, yet alone gave thought to trying.

But bright and early one June morning in 2013, Gomulinski woke up to clanging cowbells and cheering outside of his house, which just so happens to sit at mile 9 of the Rev3 Quassy Half triathlon run course. He stepped outside to see what was going on and saw pro triathletes like Mirinda Carfrae and Jesse Thomas racing by. Then, age-groupers began streaming past for what seemed like hours. Watching this parade of uber-fit athletes, the map of exhaustion and grit spread across their faces, Gomulinski was intrigued. “I was in awe of their speed and athleticism,” he says. “I was looking for an outlet for my competitiveness, and I was inspired.”

So much so that Gomulinski headed down to the race expo, bought a wetsuit on the spot, and went for his first lake swim the following day. He hopped on a bike for the first time since middle school and began to log miles on the hilly roads around his home. A month later, he was on the starting line for his first-ever race, the Pat Griskus Sprint Triathlon in Middlebury, Connecticut.

Despite his minimal training — and accidentally swimming some 200 meters off course — Gomulinski triumphed in his triathlon debut, even winning the coveted first-timers division. And he hasn’t slowed down since: Last year, he competed at the ITU World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico. While Gomulinski says his background as a football player has helped him stay focused and stick to a training plan, he admits that triathlon is the most challenging athletic endeavor he’s ever tried.

“Triathlon is a physically challenging and demanding sport, but the rewards are great,” Gomulinski says. “The possibilities are endless and you will surprise yourself at what you can physically accomplish.

MIKE GAFFNEY“I’m as competitive than ever at 74!”
Name: Mike Gaffney
Age: 74
Resides: Oakton, Virginia

Some people take up fishing in their retirement. Others volunteer. But Mike Gaffney chose a decidedly more demanding hobby when he finished his post as a HR manager with the CIA: Triathlon.

“I’ve had the itch to do triathlons since my 40s, but I was always busy with work and my family,” says Gaffney, also a retired Air Force colonel and lifelong runner. So it took until he was in his late 60s to take the plunge, so to speak. And even after a semi-disastrous start to his debut in the sport (“In the swim, thought my arms would fall off and my lungs were exploding, but I finished with smile on my face”), he has kept it up and now races regularly.

It’s not too uncommon for Gaffney to be among the oldest competitors in many triathlons he enters, a position that has actually made him more competitive than ever. He often tops podiums in his age group and recently qualified for the 2017 International Triathlon Union World Championships in the 70-75 age group for the sprint race. These accolades — plus the fact that he can still “beat someone whose age begins with a number less than 7”— have underscored his belief that you can never be “too old” to compete.

“At the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships, there are many triathletes way past my age,” he says. “It’s very inspiring to see the athletes in the very upper age groups out there giving it everything they have, and being very happy doing it.”

Gaffney admits he’s lucky to be in good health and to have avoided major injury so far. And he also credits his wife, Kathleen, for encouraging him to stick with it and being there for him at every finish line. But he insists that age should never stop anyone from giving the sport a try. “Start slow and be patient but persistent,” he offers. “No question, it will be hard work, but your fitness and self-confidence will improve and you will be surprised at how far you’ve come.”

MICHELLE MILLER“I overcame my fear of the swim — to win!”
Name: Michelle Miller
Age: 36
Resides: Damascus, Maryland

In 2011, Michelle Miller found herself in very unfamiliar territory: Gasping for air, freaking out and treading water in the middle of the swim portion of a triathlon. As a competitive cross country and track runner throughout high school and college, Miller usually exuded confidence in races. But here, as she struggled to move forward in one of her very first triathlons, she was anything but.

“The combination of the very cold water and feeling out of place in a group of super swimmers resulted in a full-on panic attack in the water. I had to float in place several times to gain my breath enough to carry on,” she recalls. “I swore to myself if I made it out of the lake alive I would never put myself in such a horrifying position ever again.”

It took five years for Miller to move past that panic. She dabbled in marathon running, then cycling racing, but the fire to test her skills in triathlon never extinguished. It wasn’t until a local swim coach invited her along to one of his workouts that she was willing to test the waters once more. But the process took time. “I had convinced myself I didn't enjoy it because I wasn't getting the hang of it,” she says, adding that she benefitted from the patience of her coach. “His demeanor and insightful instruction was just what I needed to succeed at this sport.”

Recently, Miller challenged herself to her first long-distance event — and won the race outright. Now, she has her sights set on qualifying for the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship. “I went from never wanting to swim again to comfortably swimming 1.2 miles in open water,” she says. “I finally slayed the beast.”  

DAVY DeARMOND“I fine-tuned my fitness — and my life.”
Name: Davy DeArmond
Age: 34
Resides: Annapolis, Maryland

As a professional trumpet player with a resume as long as a symphony, Davy DeArmond could blow people away with his musical prowess. As for his fitness? Well, back in 2005, let’s just say things weren’t quite in tune.

“I won a job to be a professional musician with the United States Naval Academy band,” DeArmond says. “The only problem was that I was 250 pounds and didn’t meet the Navy’s weight standards. I had a couple of months to get into shape.”

Determined to land his dream job, DeArmond began to eat better and work out with a trainer, which lead to him registering for the Annapolis Triathlon. Pretty soon, he was 75 pounds lighter — and completely in love with multisport. What began as a way for him to get fit turned into a dramatic lifestyle change — one that boosted his abilities as a musician, too.

“As a military member, being in shape is part of the job, and military bands have several gigs that require physical activity, like marching,” says DeArmond, who has now completed several triathlons including an IRONMAN. “The worse my cardio base is, the more I’m going to struggle.”

Not to mention that triathlon has made him more mentally sharp. “When I’m training for races and have a training plan, I am forced to plan my days,” he says. “Mentally, I’m more focused across the board.”

About the Author

Sarah Wassner Flynn

Sarah Wassner Flynn regularly writes for USA Triathlon and Triathlete magazine, and has also authored several children’s nonfiction books for National Geographic including the most recent title, “This Book Stinks!: Gross Garbage, Rotten Rubbish, and the Science of Trash.” A triathlete herself, Sarah has twice earned All-American honors from USA Triathlon.