Every year, the USA Triathlon Women’s Committee presents the Spirit of Judy Flannery Award to a female athlete who has excelled in her multisport lifestyle, has high moral character and gives back to the sport. The 2017 Judy Flannery award winner, Karen Aydelott, is someone we should all aspire to be like. A Team Coeur athlete, Karen is no hidden figure in the sport of triathlon — in fact, she is quite a legend. While she may think she has only worn this crown in the past few years, she’s worn the laurel wreath since she entered the sport in 1984.
Karen’s palmarés are long and legendary, although she likely shudders at the adjectives so many of us use to describe her. A life-long athlete, Karen ran her first marathon in 1976 and transitioned to triathlon a few short years later. Throughout nearly four decades of racing, she completed countless marathons and IRONMANs, winning her age group in Kona in 1997. She was inducted into the Triple Crown Hall of Fame for ultra-distance cycling in 2002, and was recognized as a San Luis Obispo Woman of Distinction in 2001.
Although it would seem as if Karen lives the life of a full-time athlete, that is very far from reality. She raised two sons and led a career of distinction in various leadership positions at several YMCAs. Even today in retirement, Karen is an avid volunteer in her community and spends a great deal of time devoted to the Challenged Athletes Foundation. We are not sure where she finds her energy, but her smile is ever-present.
Karen’s accident in 2006 and subsequent below-knee amputation in 2008, at the age of 62, appeared to many just a small blip on the radar. While it was no easy task learning to walk and ultimately run and compete in an IRONMAN again, Karen’s attitude and never-ending smile made it seem less monumental than it was. She returned to IRONMAN and Kona, this time being the first female amputee to earn her slot to Kona as an age-grouper. She remains as legendary in the IRONMAN world as Paula, Chrissie and Rinny.
If you know Karen, you have seen this twinkle in her eye and infectious smile and you just want to hang out and smile with her. Her 30-plus years in the sport have given her perspective, insight and a sage wisdom from which we can all learn. She won her age group in her first triathlon, riding a steel Dutch bike. In fact, Karen didn’t own her first triathlon-specific bike until after she lost her leg in 2008, a reward for completing rehab and returning to the sport that has defined her for most of her adult life. When we asked Karen how she felt when people told her she was inspiring, she laughed, remarking that she didn’t feel particularly inspiring, but she understood we all find motivation and inspiration all around us in many different forms. If she inspired someone to finish a race or accomplish something they thought was out of reach, then that is a good thing. Karen finds inspiration in many things as well. Anyone who works hard and accomplishes a goal is inspiring.
Karen says she is motivated to train every day because she just loves it and feels so much better when she is training. She loved training in the Minneapolis climate when she lived there, and she loves the Southern California climate now.
“This sport is so much of who I am,” she says. “I think more clearly and I want to remain healthy as long as I can. I’m slower now, but I still have some good friends with whom to swim and cycle.” In fact, Karen was in the middle of a run when we chatted about this article.
The Judy Flannery award was established in 1997. Flannery, a Grand Masters multisport athlete, served as the first Women's Commission chair and was tragically killed in a bike accident. This award honors her memory and supports talented female triathletes who have contributed meaningfully to our sport.
Karen has donated her winnings to a Cal Poly student, to help fund her to compete at her first USA Triathlon Collegiate Club National Championships this April.
Congratulations to Karen and thanks for inspiring us all!
The USA Triathlon Women’s Committee strives to get more women into the sport of triathlon. Please follow the Women’s Committee on Facebook to keep up-to-date on grant opportunities, our tri initiatives and other awards throughout the year!