Like any number of people with an active background — and even a few couch potatoes — Hailey Danisewicz had idly put on her bucket list competing in a triathlon.
“I just never intended to cross it off,” she said with a laugh. “I wasn’t going to actually do one.”
Now Danisewicz has a different list, and prominent on it is a gold medal.
The target date is just under 16 months away: September 2016, when paratriathlon makes its Paralympic debut at Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. First, of course, she must make the U.S. team, which is why her competition calendar this year is heavy with International Triathlon Union events where points toward world rankings can be accrued.
So she’s skipping Monday’s USA Paratriathlon National Championships in Austin, Texas, though her Dare2tri team will be well represented in an event that’s regularly a stepping-stone to the elite-level competition.
Instead, she’ll focus on two races that are part of the U.S. team qualification: an ITU event in August in Rio, and September’s world championships in her hometown of Chicago.
“I’m excited about that one,” she said. “Home court advantage.”
She does OK on the road, too.
Most recently, Danisewicz led a 1-2-3 U.S. sweep in the PT2 class at the Monterrey CAMTRI Triathlon American Championships, with particularly strong legs in the bike and run.
“This early in the season, I’m not able to get the open water experience that I’d like for the swim,” she said, “but I know that comes with time.”
Not that she’s taking any chances. Danisewicz recently relocated to living quarters a block from the beach in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, making workouts in Lake Michigan that much easier.
“And the view doesn’t hurt,” she said.
She’s also cut her workload at a local nonprofit agency down to part-time — the kind of commitment Danisewicz couldn’t have imagined when she was “totally blackmailed” into trying her first paratriathlon.
As a child in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Danisewicz had been active in volleyball, basketball and soccer before she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at the age of 12. Surgery and chemotherapy put the cancer into remission, but her left leg never fully recovered and left her “frustrated with the lack of progress.” At age 14, she chose to have the leg amputated.
“I realized that it could bring me a higher quality of life,” she said, “and it could help me be an athlete again.”
Five years later she was interviewing for an internship at the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association when program director Keri Schindler, herself a triathlete, offered to take Danisewicz on — if she took on the triathlon. To say the training held no appeal to her is an understatement.
“But my first race changed things for me,” Danisewicz said, “and over the course of a year, it became a part of me. I did that one race, and then I think I did another one three weeks later. I was hooked.
“I loved the sense of accomplishment. For so long, I identified myself as a cancer survivor, but when I crossed the line I became a triathlete. I’d had so much pent up competitive energy and this just unleashed it.”
And unleashing Danisewicz on the triathlon was a revelation. Within two years of her first race, she won the 2013 world championship in London over teammate and mentor Melissa Stockwell — a race she called a breakthrough because “until that point, I’d always felt like the underdog no matter how hard I tried.”
Her underdog days, certainly, were over. And so it’s probably not a surprise that when she lost her title in 2014 to Germany’s Nora Hansel, Danisewicz was devastated.
“For the longest time, I was really angry,” she said. “I’ve definitely grown from it and learned that you can never get too comfortable in training. You don’t know what anybody’s been doing until you get to the race course, and the fact is everyone is working just as hard.”
Which has changed the dynamic for 2015 — and for Rio.
For one thing, Danisewicz said new contenders are popping up on the scene.
“It’s like they’re coming out of the woodwork — more international competitors with great talent,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting how this next year unfolds.”
But Danisewicz’s dynamic has changed, too. The underdog’s motivation is still there, but having won on the biggest stages, Danisewicz knows she belongs.
“That feeling of accomplishment transcends into every other area of your life,” she said. “I’m feeling really good about where I am. I have to stay healthy and put in the work, but there’s a level of confidence I’ve never had before.”