Nov. 08, 2011, 12:08 p.m. (ET)

HANOVER, N.H. — When Sarah Groff was young, she wanted to be an ornithologist, not an Olympian. Then she flew into seventh place at the World Championship Series (WCS) triathlon in London — an Olympic qualifier in early August — and earned the right to add “Olympian” to her resume.

The 29-year-old triathlete finished the 2011 season ranked third overall in the WCS — the best finish by an American in the series’ three-year history — then came home to Hanover, New Hampshire, to recharge.

At downtown Hanover’s Dirt Cowboy Café in early November, Groff, dressed in a flannel shirt and black quilted jacket, resembled the Dartmouth College students ordering cups of Sumatra Mandheling and Guatemalan fair trade coffee. Except she already has a college degree — from Dartmouth rival Middlebury College (class of 2004).

Her triathlon breakthrough was a long time coming, yet she isn’t fluffing her feathers. She is probably more comfortable discussing the global change of ecosystems than talking about her triathlon career.

But it’s worth noting, especially since 10 months ago, she could hardly walk, let alone run.

And next August in the Olympic triathlon, Groff will “not be one of the athletes that just relies on being ‘lucky’ for the race to turn out a certain way,” says her coach Darren Smith. She will have “a good outcome, there is no doubt.”

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Sarah Groff was born in Hanover, the youngest of three. The family soon moved to Cooperstown, New York, a quiet hamlet on Otsego Lake in the Catskill Mountain foothills.

Like her dad, a rheumatologist, Groff loves the outdoors, and she became fascinated by birds at a young age.

“I was a bit different as a kid,” she confessed. “When I was 8, my goal was to be the Jane Goodall of parrots.”

“She was almost a savant with birds,” recalled her sister Lauren, by email. “She knew them by genus and species and birdcall from an insanely young age.”

Sibling rivalry also played a part in Groff’s early life. She wanted to do everything her big sister did. But when Lauren (three years older) started swimming, she insisted that her pesky younger sister wait a year. When she finally did start swimming, young Sarah couldn’t keep up with Lauren.

“It was always my goal to best her,” said Groff, who still thinks Lauren is the better athlete. “If it weren’t for my sister, I may not have been as competitive as I am.”

For her part, Lauren remembers competing with their older brother, Adam — “by far the smartest and savviest of all of us and both an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. from Wharton.”

Lauren Groff is now a well-regarded novelist. Her critically acclaimed first book, The Monsters of Templeton, was released in 2008 and made the New York Times bestseller list. Arcadia will be released in 2012.

While Lauren focused on writing, sports remained a priority for the youngest Groff, who competed in cross-country running and swimming at Cooperstown Central High School and Deerfield Academy, then swam for Middlebury. Senior year, she was part of Middlebury’s 800-meter freestyle relay team that finished third at the NCAA Division III Swimming Championships.

But Middlebury is part of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and NESCAC rules forbid athletes from training out-of-season with coaches. So Groff only swam about four months each year.

“One of the reasons I wanted to keep doing a sport after [college] was I realized that I hadn’t focused on swimming and that I hadn’t focused on any sport enough to see how far I could get,” Groff said.

A conservation biology and studio art major at Middlebury, she graduated cum laude with highest honors in art in 2004 and became a pro triathlete a year later.

“She has the grit, focus, and smarts to do anything, and she chose very wisely according to her talents,” said Lauren. “Triathlon is the perfect sport for her restless nature: it's three sports in one, requires a good amount of travel, and is excessively glamorous — at least for us spectators.”

In her first ITU World Cup in 2005, Groff finished 18th. She made steady progress and by 2008 was ranked fourth overall in World Cup standings. She did not make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team and says the missed opportunity was impetus to become a better triathlete.

“I think she has known for a long time that she was physically capable of doing more than her results showed, and it drove her intensely to close that gap,” said Lauren, when asked what motivates her sister.

In 2010, Groff signed with Coach Smith, who saw her potential.

“A standout moment was watching her in 2009 at the London WCS — half fit, heavy, technically pretty average,” said Smith by email from his base in Canberra, Australia. “[But she was] only 30 seconds down on the leaders and was dragging the second run pack against the wind every lap. … I remember thinking there’s a champ if someone could reverse all those things!”

Then in March 2010, she broke her sacrum in a bike crash. She still trained and raced but felt “completely defeated” by September 2010. She was dealt another blow in November when she re-fractured the bone.

Back training with Smith in Australia, she could hardly walk. But the injury forced her to learn a new, more efficient running technique, and she was competing by early March 2011.

Four months later, she finished third in the ITU Kitzbuehel WCS race — the first American woman to finish on a WCS podium. Then at the Olympic test event in London, she ran her way to the lead pack and crossed the line in seventh. The top nine finishers qualified for the 2012 Olympics.

“What we saw in 2011 was Sarah about 80 percent fit compared to previous years, but a smarter racer and trainer and more technically efficient athlete in all disciplines,” said Smith. “This obviously worked pretty well.”

Groff also gives credits for her success in 2011 to a fresh perspective.

“When I came back to running in February, I was grateful for every day that I could run,” she said. “When you have that gratitude, you enjoy the process so much more.”

With Olympic qualification accomplished, Groff now has the gift of time to add fitness back to what Smith calls “a revised athlete.”

She is not speculating about how she will finish in London next August. Nor is she thinking about what she will do after her triathlon career, though probably not ornithology.

“In some ways, it’s actually probably easier to be an Olympian than [Jane Goodall], she said, “because there are so few people who actually do that.”

And even fewer who win Olympic medals.

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.