My Journey to becoming an Ironman Pro Triathlete

And how a small band of incredibly caring and somewhat crazy individuals helped to shape the course of my life.

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On January 26, 2018, I had the incredible honor of being inducted into the Mid Maryland Tri Club (MMTC) Hall of Fame. This was my acceptance speech. My attempt to express in words the immeasurable depth of my gratitude to the group of caring individuals that have supported me, encouraged me, and made the dream of becoming a professional athlete possible. The best way, I concluded, to help them understand the pivotal role they had played in my life, would be to share my journey of becoming an Ironman athlete and the role that endurance sports has played in helping me to overcome the tragedy, struggle, injustice and heartache that is life. I would not be where I am today without this club.

To be inducted in the MMTC Hall of Fame is an incredible honor and a privilege, especially when I think of so many in the club that are deserving of this award. To even think of following in the footsteps of recent inductees Bryan McMillan, Mark Yost, Dean Siedlecki, and Sadj Bartolo is beyond an honor – they truly have been such incredible leaders, comrades, and sources of inspiration. The Mid Maryland Tri Club has meant so much to me – I consider all of you to not only be friends, but family, supporters, and sources of inspiration. I love following you all via social media and at races, and experiencing your struggles and your triumphs.

Triathletes are very special people. ‘Special’ in that we don’t even blink at wearing spandex into the supermarket, or puking on our bikes while racing, or at working out several times a day. The dedication and commitment to the sport is admirable. Never underestimate the impact that you make on others while training day in and day out, at the gym, the pool, the track, or out on the roads running or riding. Others are watching. You have no idea how much you inspire.

Triathlon is special in that it requires some unique skill sets – not only swimming, biking, and running, but reacting to situations as they arise, and staying the day or night. Triathlon requires perseverance. It is about believing in something bigger than yourself. That impossible is nothing. That you are capable of anything you put your mind to. And that you have a village of athletes, family, friends, and Sherpas to help get you there.

Ironman is not about the finish line, but about the journey. And it is a transformative one. I wanted to share a few of the experiences that stand out on my journey to become a part of this very special club and that have led to my present day position where I have been lucky enough to make triathlon my profession.

My entry into endurance sports started when I was a junior in high school. I was playing team sports at the time. I had a whole lot of fun, but zero talent. I was the number one bench warmer on the field hockey team.

And that year, my younger brother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer – Hodgekin’s Lymphoma. We caught it at a late stage. I watched his battle, I watched his hair fall out, I watched him slipping away. Our family life was forever altered. He and my mother lived at the hospital. It was my dad and I at home. I was the child that never cried, the strong one, the protector of our family.

And I couldn’t save him.

So I started running. On the treadmill after school. I found relief from the anguish, the sorrow, and the nightmare, in running and endurance sports. I found peace, escape, and a deep relief pounding away on the treadmill. I remember when I made it to 1 mile for the first time. I was so impressed with myself.

After the Doctors exhausted the chemo option, they switched to radiation. After round after round of radiation, something happened. The cancer cleared up and went away. My brother survived and has been in remission since, for which we are beyond grateful. But his life was forever altered, and so was ours.

Then my senior year of high school, I was involved in a horrific accident. My first memories after the accident start with being wheeled out of the ICU, I had tubes coming out of me, my left lung had collapsed and I was on a ventilator. I had burst fractured my spine in several places. Literally blew it to pieces. I was told that I would likely never walk again. I was told that life as I knew it was over – that I wouldn’t graduate high school with my peers, I wouldn’t go off to college in the fall, I could forget running for a University team. It was a dark time. Being confined to a hospital bed, unable to move, and in unbearable pain, watching the clock tick by and waiting for the next dose of medication, and enduring, suffering, not for minutes, but hours, days, weeks, and months. As I was lying in bed late one night watching the clock and also mindlessly the TV, a re-run of the Ironman World Championships came on. I was enthralled, totally and completely. This was 2001. It may have been the Iron War and Dave Scott racing in a Speedo.

I listened to the stories of Ironman, of the athletes that had overcome enormous odds and incredible obstacles, and were there in Hawaii, competing in this grueling and unthinkable race. I said “one day, I’m going to do that.” It wasn’t a plan. I wasn’t determined to go jump on a bike. I didn’t even own a bike. It was a calm acceptance of my destiny and an acknowledgement that as bad as things seemed, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. That there were better things to come and that my life was not over, if I had the courage to fight for it.

First there were baby steps – learning to stand again, and balance on two legs, and then eventually to walk, to climb stairs, and nearly a year later, to be able to bend over and tie my shoes. I learned a lot of important lessons. And when I could finally run again, I ran with joy and gratitude. I know what it is like to be wheeled around in a wheelchair and to not have the ability to do basic tasks for yourself.

I graduated high school, and I went to college in the fall. I studied economic development. I traveled to Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. I worked with famers in the fields under grueling conditions, implementing systems of diversified agriculture. My dream was to join the Peace Corps. I spoke with volunteers. And I realized the reality of the situation was that as a woman, I was powerless to work with local male dominated governments to implement water and sanitation systems. My voice would never be taken seriously. The best I could hope for was a teaching position.

In Costa Rica, I started teaching English. And I found that it was unsafe and unsuitable to run. A friend lent me their bike and soon the men in the town were teaching me basic mountain biking skills – to balance, to shift gears, to go over obstacles, and how to ride clipped into the pedals. I would best describe the experience as blood, sweat, and tears. But I was determined to keep up and ride with them. And there I found my voice for change. Riding through the town on a mountain bike with the men sent shockwaves that reverberated throughout the community. I was the only female in our group. Children watched as I passed and yelled out both taunts and encouragement. The men in the group had daughters whom they taught to ride and encouraged to begin mountain bike racing. I’ve since sent their daughters water bottles, uniforms, shoes and equipment for support – and this club has sent down several boxes. And I and the community are so grateful.

I discovered the Mid Maryland Tri Club in 2012 when I returned to the states and was thinking it would be fun to compete in the Xterra series mountain bike triathlons. I didn’t own a road bike at that point and Ironman in my opinion just seemed distant – untouchable. I found the club the way we find anything nowadays – via google search. Through the support, encouragement, and resources of the club, including mentorship by Hector Garcia, Mark Yost and others, as well as the club holding nutrition clinics, transition clinics, and Run-Bike-Run workouts – I was able to progress and learn about triathlon. I realized that triathlon is a complicated sport requiring A LOT of fancy equipment. They helped me with both the knowledge and the gear. I started racing Xterra and thanks to Hector Garcia’s mentorship and lending me equipment I couldn’t afford, I was lucky enough to place 2nd at Nationals and go to World Championships my first year. I was intrigued however, by club members who had gone to Kona and spoke about their Ironman experiences.

Then in 2013 two things happened. I read Chrissy Wellington’s book and was completely inspired by her story and journey. And my father was diagnosed with cancer. An incurable lymphoma. My world once again shattered and would never be the same. And that’s when I knew, my time to undertake Ironman had come. The final piece of the Kona Journey fell into place. Once again, I turned to endurance sports to escape the pain and the turmoil. I remember driving to Cambridge on the Eastern Shore to train, and biking the Eagleman course – twice through. By myself. On my road bike with aerobars attached to the handlebars (really uncomfortable). I remember sobbing my heart out as I rode. Doing an Ironman was the best way I could think of to honor my father’s battle with cancer and to deal with the emotional pain and anguish. Through training, I would go out and beat out the pain, the sense of injustice, sadness and loss. And return, exhausted and at peace. Ready to be strong – to face the world and support my family. Through training, I discovered my inner emotional strength. I raced my first Ironman, Ironman Louisville that year in honor of my father. I completed the Ironman, and in fact, just missed a Kona slot. I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. Something positive in a world that felt ruled by grief and ciaos. I was inspired to work harder and continue.

I was lucky enough to qualify for Kona the following year – it was at Eagleman. I remember Bryan McMillan, and Doug and Ayumi Smith being there among others, and I celebrated with the club. I was beside myself with joy and cannot tell you the messages and outflowing of support I received from club members. I had done something special, in fact, remarkable.

That year at Kona was brutal. I raced with my hero, the unstoppable Pat Macnabb. I honestly wasn’t prepared. But I learned a lot. And I returned to Kona the following year, 2015, ready to race. That was the year that Dean Siedlecki and Mark Yost also raced. Sharing that Kona experience with Dean and Mark – and landing on the podium in my age group and having them there at the awards ceremony was one of the most special experiences of my life. One that I will never forget.

It is an incredibly special memory to have shared Kona with Dean, to witness him realize one of his lifelong dreams – to cross the Kona finish line, shortly before he passed away, due to cancer.

Kona to me is extremely special. It is not necessarily about Ironman or the World Championships. It is about overcoming the odds and returning to life when you wake up in a hospital bed and are told that your hopes and dreams are over. To stand on the podium in 2015 with Mark and Dean was one of the best experiences of my life and it wouldn’t have happened without this club. To now have turned professional, and to be hoping to return to Kona in the pro field is beyond my wildest dreams. My life has come full circle.  And none of this would have happened without this club and without the people in this room.

Studies have shown that there is one key indicator in a person’s potential for success in life — whether in the career of their choice, athletics, or academics, and that factor transcends early opportunities that are provided during childhood, social class, and economic status. That factor is resilience. A person’s ability to bounce back, to rise above, to keep moving despite life’s challenges, and to let nothing stand in their way. To refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.

Things happen in life that you can’t control. But you always have a choice. You can let the horrible experiences take you down and crush you. Or you can rise above. You can be an Eeyore or a Tigger. You can discover your inner strength, demonstrate your resilience, and reach out to the people and resources around you to support you.

I am a product of this club. I became a triathlete, and then an Ironman triathlete, and now a Pro Triathlete, through the knowledge, resources, and mentorship provided by MMTC. I would not be in the position I am today, if it weren’t for all of you. I cannot tell you how I am reminded of that every day and filled with gratitude that you helped make the opportunity and lifelong dream of becoming a pro athlete, possible.

You all changed my life in the most positive way. Thank you.

 

I wish that there was so much more that I could do in return and to thank the club and to inspire future athletes. I’ve realized that at this moment though that just training and making a living as a pro athlete is a struggle, every day. But I do not forget those that have helped me in life and I look forward to the day when I can adequately return the favor and start a scholarship fund or provide resources or coaching for athletes aspiring to make the impossible, possible. For now, I encourage all of you to follow your dreams, to let nothing stand in your way, and to know that you have a rowdy & crazy triathlon family that has your back. We are in this together. I look forward to following your training and racing adventures!


6 thoughts on “My Journey to becoming an Ironman Pro Triathlete

  1. Being a fellow MMTC member and following your story (somewhat) from afar…you inspire so many. Not just b/c of your athletic accomplishments but b/c of the amazing person you seem to be. Thank you for being so amazing for us all! Congrats on all of the accomplishments you have earned.

    Like

  2. I’m just finally reading this! Think you could make me cry anymore?!?! You’re a strong ass woman Nicole! Keep up the good work. You are so amazing and truly an inspiration!

    Like

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