Small talk among runners at last month’s IAAF World Junior Championships often included, “What’s your next race?”
It didn’t sound out of the ordinary when Stephanie Jenks, who placed 15th in the 3,000 meters, replied, “Youth Olympic Games.” That is, until Jenks said she was going for triathlon, not track.
“I’m sure that kind of stumped a lot of people,” Jenks said, “as in why I’m doing triathlon. When I could choose one (sport), why am I doing both?”
She’s simply keeping her options open – for now.
“I want to give both of them a shot,” Jenks said. “I don’t want to make the wrong decision and I don’t want to make a decision too early and end up regretting it.
“Whichever one I have the greater future in is probably the one I’ll pick.”
While Jenks concedes that she’s leaning toward running, she is happily multi-tasking this summer. Her hectic schedule includes up to 18 workouts a week and competitions all over the world.
Sunday is not only Jenks’ 17th birthday; it’s also the day she goes to the starting line in Nanjing, China, for the YOG triathlon. The race (which starts at 9 p.m. ET on Aug. 16) is composed of a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and 5-kilometer run. Jenks is seeded No. 4 among the 32 athletes, each from a different country.
Jenks has a reputation at USA Triathlon for improving every time she races.
She won the women’s 16-17 age group at the Monterrey PATCO Triathlon American YOG Qualifier in Mexico on May 2 despite trailing teammate Taylor Knibb by more than 90 seconds going into the run.
Jenks ran the 5K in an impressive 17 minutes, 11 seconds, overtaking Knibb with about 100 meters to go to finish with an overall time of 59:55.
“Everyone knew I had a really strong run, but I kind of proved something to myself, too,” Jenks said. “My run at that race was a lot better than I had thought it was going to be.”
The YOG triathlons will be held at historic Xuanwu Lake, the largest imperial lake garden in China. Seth Rider will represent Team USA in the men’s event on Aug. 18 (9 p.m. ET Aug. 17).
Based on their performances, Jenks and Rider could be named to the continental team competing in a mixed, four-person relay event on Aug. 21. After they’re finished at YOG, they’ll head to Canada for the ITU Junior World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta.
Jenks’ mother, Deb, said she has “just been one of those kids where she wants to do it all.”
Running was her first love. “I ran with my mom all the time, and eventually went to triathlon as something during the summer to keep me out of trouble,” Jenks said. “It included all three things I loved doing as a kid — swimming, biking and running.”
She tried her first triathlon at age 7.
“I was immediately hooked,” Jenks said. “Ever since then, I’ve been training for all three (disciplines).”
She also found time to play T-ball, soccer, basketball and tennis.
“I played a lot of sports involving balls and I’m just not very coordinated,” said Jenks. “I was terrible at those sports.”
She wanted to try gymnastics and dance, but Deb Jenks said she was just too busy to take on anything else. Taekwondo, in which Jenks earned a second-degree black belt, and triathlon were starting to clash.
“It just came to a point where she had to make a choice,” Deb said. “And she chose triathlon. Now we’re coming to that crossroads again where she’s going to need to decide whether she wants to run or do triathlon. When you’re young, you can do all of these things, but as you get older the competition gets better and you’re going to have to make that choice.
“It’s going to be a difficult one. She doesn’t have to quite make it yet, but it’s one she’s been thinking about.”
Deb, who ran track collegiately and is Stephanie’s biking coach, and her husband Mike have always encouraged their daughters to make their own decisions regarding sports.
The family’s main residence is in Aurora, Iowa, a no-stoplight town of 185 people, where they live on a farm that grows corn and soybeans. They also have a townhouse in Marion, about 55 miles away, so Stephanie and 15-year-old Jennifer can commute only half a mile to school on weekdays.
Jenks is on the Linn-Mar High track and swimming teams. She sometimes runs with the boys’ track team, which gives her competition and them incentive. She said she told the coach, “If I ran with the boys, they wouldn’t want to get beat by a girl, so technically I am helping you, too.”
At the Iowa state meet this year, Jenks won the 3,000 (9:24.67) and the 1,500 (4:31.10) and was second in the 800 (2:10.20). She’s also on the swim team.
On July 5, Jenks was the runner-up in the 3,000 at the USA Track & Field Junior Outdoor Championships behind 18-year-old professional athlete Mary Cain. Cain went on to win the IAAF World Junior Championships on the same track in Eugene, Oregon, 19 days later. She invited Jenks to join her for her victory lap, an American flag stretched between them.
“I was so happy she asked me to go on her victory lap with her,” Jenks said. “I love Mary for doing that. She’s such a kind girl.”
Compared to Cain, who ran about 60 miles a week when she was 17, Jenks puts in very low mileage of about 35 miles a week because she also trains daily in the water and on her bike.
“I think my swimming probably helps my aerobic system a lot and my biking helps my turnover,” Jenks said. “I’m sure if I increased my mileage a little bit, that would be very beneficial for my running.”
Her mom agrees. “I think if she would get more miles underneath her, she would be a better runner,” Deb said. “It would just be a process of increasing it slowly. And that’s been the whole game plan from the beginning — to make the Youth Olympic Games, then she’d be going into her junior year and then we’d start building more mileage just to get her ready for college.”
However, Deb believes training for triathlon has kept Stephanie healthy “and she definitely doesn’t get bored that way either. “ In the classroom Jenks maintains a 4.0 grade point average. Last year her favorite subject was anatomy. This year, while getting a jump on her schoolwork, she’s partial to psychology.
“Academics does come first around here even though she has so much going on,” said Deb.
Because Jenks would be spending her birthday in China, her family decided to celebrate the occasion a couple of weeks prior to her departure.
Although Deb and Mike try to stay away from sports gifts, they couldn’t resist Stephanie’s pleas for a unicycle.
“It’s harder than I thought,” said Jenks. “I’m pretty cautious when it comes to trying new stuff. That’s why I’m on the grass and I’m always holding onto something.”
But no doubt she’ll eventually master it. “She is a perfectionist,” Deb said. “She wants to do well at everything she does.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.