I balance on the starting platform in anticipation, shoulder to shoulder with my competition. From my left, a voice commands “Take your mark!” Time stops. Or at least is seems to stop — like a pause button on a remote. The waves freeze in front of me. The rustle from the wind in the trees is silenced. The crowd’s echo disappears. “Pop!” The gun’s trigger taps play. In an instant, everything rushes back to life.
I bolt forward, galloping through the water. I surge ahead with the long-legged competitor on my left, inch by inch. THIS is my forte. My many years of ocean racing are in my favor. Our legs sink deeper. We jump higher, hopping over thigh high surf. The two of us in the lead until my foot lands on uneven ground. With momentum still moving forward, I try to match my stumble with a dolphin dive. But it doesn’t quite work. I throw my hands in front to brace myself, but splash with a belly flop instead. On all fours, a wave smashes into my face and the competition catches up. Once again, I find myself in the midst of a trip, stumble and fall.
2014 consisted of many trips, stumbles and falls, both literally and figuratively. My year began with a physical fall, then an emotional one, then an injury, then finishing my degree, and work overload. I got up determined and with resolve after each stumble. Yet my performances in my first ITU races did not meet my expectations. Missing school to race, I was further challenged with finishing my bachelor’s degree in architecture. Grateful to receive unwavering support and encouragement from family, friends and my coach Greg Mueller, I remained strong while I refocused. And I finally had success! A victory at USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals and second place in the National Relays were extremely reassuring, especially with my friends and teammates there to cheer me on.
Afterward, school was the main focus and my performances that followed were mediocre. Graduation from Cal Poly followed with celebrations, a move back home, and directly into a 60-hour workweek. As much as I love my summer job it can be physically demanding. As a member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Ocean Lifeguard I am also an instructor for a Junior Lifeguard summer beach program full of 100-plus hyperactive kids. But the kids I work with make it completely worthwhile.
Not long after graduating, I miraculously made the start list for my first ITU World Triathlon Series race on USA soil: ITU World Triathlon Chicago. This was an honor that I could not turn down. The race was scheduled just two weeks after my graduation. Bad timing. My tank was empty. My workouts had taken a backseat to my full-time summer job. I tried to stay positive but my result in the race was disappointing. After the race, my workweek decreased a bit which gave me just enough time and energy to enjoy the job and still put in decent training. Things were looking up. Late season races were planned, and I ran my first 50 mile run week … well, almost.
Just when everything was finally coming together, I crashed my bike badly. BAM! My front wheel hit a bump at 30-plus mph on a group training ride and became dislodged. My hands bounced off the handlebars. I flew forward then skid along fresh gritty asphalt next to a bed of rocks. Once my momentum stopped, I sat up dazed and stared at my wounds. The worst injury was a deep missing chunk above my knee that had been replaced with handful of gravel. I could see my tendon and the edge of my knee cap. I screamed. I was rushed to the ER where I was X-rayed, cleaned up, stitched up, given painkillers and sent home. I was unable to walk for weeks and could not fully bend my knee for months.
Thanks to the healing hands of my Physical Therapist Sean Ryan at Positive Energy PT, we worked together daily. I began swimming, then biking (on a trainer), then running in no time. With patience and routine my atrophied muscles regained strength and mobility. Not more than four months after the incident I managed to run my first 50 miles week. I was back! Four months became five, and I was a little closer to where I was pre-crash. Enter reset button and 2015.
On New Year’s Day, I arrived somewhere along the dry dusty suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada. This would mark my first opportunity to really experience triathlon at a training camp with my coach Greg Mueller and Innovative Endurance teammates. Here, I began my game plan of full-speed-ahead training in preparation for my first full year of racing at the elite level. A month into camp, and six months after my crash marked my first test: ITU Punta Guilarte, Puerto Rico.
Back to the race. For a split second after my stumble I flashed backed to that moment when I was skidding down pavement. But this time I landed gently on water. And there was zero doubt in my mind that I was going to get back up. From all fours, I bolted out of the water, but the group behind converged in front of me. Their stampede obscured my path and I dove toward the nearest clear water along the inside. One by one, I slowly picked off each swimmer.
At the turnaround I caught the front pack. I sat behind their feet, relaxed, and regained myself mentally. I exited the first of two swim laps in a pack of four. At my side were two other USA teammates and a competitor from Puerto Rico. I remained comfortable and at the final turn around I made a move. I pushed the pace. Ocean swimming is my element. I sighted the straightest line and used the undulating chop to surge me forward. I jumped out of the water in the lead(!) and entered T1 with the same four athletes. We exited the transition together.
We had a 45-second lead as we started the bike. In order to maintain our lead we had to be smart and work together. We took turns pulling in front on the bike. As the race progressed our teamwork improved and we gained on the group behind exponentially. Forty-five seconds increased to 1 minute, then 2 minutes, and so on. By the last lap, our efforts gifted us with a commanding 2 minutes and 40 seconds lead into T2.
On the bike I had remained hydrated in preparation for the run. It was midday and the sun was blazing. The temperature was 90 degrees and thick with 80 percent humidity. These factors required a smart execution onto the run. The four of us bolted out of transition. Erin Jones (USA) immediately took the lead. I trailed in fourth, but I stayed relaxed and set into a comfortable rhythm. It was a long race, and it was hot. I gained on two of the three girls slowly and by the first turnaround had established a gap on them. I was in second place now and my lead was gaining. Erin increased her lead. I remained calm and relaxed in second place. I made sure to grab water at every aid station in order to cool my core in the high heat.
I followed Erin rounding our first of four loops. But then all of a sudden a race official yelled at me, “Go back! The turn is back there!” My heart skipped a beat. I turned and ran the other direction, completely confused. I had turned exactly where Erin turned. I kept running until another voice exclaimed, “No! Turn back around! Go the other way!” Boy, oh boy, I was frustrated. Again I turned around, paused and starred at the officials. One man pointed in the direction I was initially running and said, “Go!” so I went, and I tried to stay focused. On the second lap the leaders of the second bike pack were gaining on me. But by the third lap the gap behind me remained large and the heat was certainly affecting my competitors. I continued to stay calm, cool and hydrated. Into the final lap, Erin gained a substantial lead, and my second place was not in threat. I crossed the finished in second place and with a big fat smile on my face.
After a year of setbacks and managing other life priorities things were falling into place. I was standing on my first ITU podium! This was a great jumpstart and confidence booster. I am very excited about my 2015 race season and remain humbled and grateful for my support system — family, friends, coach, physical therapist, teammates and sponsors. I could not do it without them. I am also learning that a trip, stumble and fall simply part of life. You cannot allow them to throw you off the beam. Treat them as lessons. I know there will be many more. In the meantime, full speed ahead.