Using 52 as a Turning Point to a Career in Triathlon

By Sally DePoala | Nov. 07, 2019, 3:05 p.m. (ET)

Sally nearing the finish with her arm raised

Most seasoned athletes in the world of triathlons would consider a newbie over 50 a late bloomer or possibly a has-been! Fifty-two was a turning point for me, maybe even a new beginning.

I was looking for a new way to slice a few pounds off this slightly middle-aged body, and after researching triathlons, I found the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club in my area. After getting the nerve up to call, I found myself sitting at a picnic table with Mark Wilson, a well-informed director/coach, discussing my possible entrance into a sprint triathlon.

I was so excited when he said he thought I could compete successfully in the event if he went with me as a guide. It was a huge boost to my athletic ego! Coach Wilson was extremely kind, knowledgeable and caring, yet he nonchalantly mentioned that I had just “let myself go…that was all.” Let myself go? Those three words pierced my heart like a hunter’s arrow taking down a deer. Could it be true? I didn’t think so, but I began a tactical mission to prove this director wrong. 

A 400-yard swim, 12.4-mile hilly bike ride, and a 3.1-mile run make up a sprint triathlon. The biggest fear factor for me in this trio of events was the open water swim. Before I began training, I had only swam in a 4-foot pool in my backyard, mostly during my teenage years.

At a practice triathlon event, I linked up with a sassy newbie a few years younger than me who would later turn into a trusted friend. We were both pretty equal in our running ability. As it turns out, our competitiveness upped our training practice time results. 

We had all summer to practice for this three-ringed circus of events. We swam in a nearby creek (which I thought was polluted, but she reassured me it was safe). We biked endless loops on blacktop and gravel roads. When I wiped out on the gravel and my knee was bleeding, she immediately offered to call her husband to help us home, but instead we took a moment to regroup on the road and continued to bike to her house. That biking accident was a wakeup call for me – I needed to take this sport a little more seriously and give it the respect it demanded. 

During a training practice in August, I was waiting alone for coach Wilson to join me when I encountered a huge snapping turtle at the edge of the lake. It almost ended any thoughts I had of competing in September. When he arrived, I explained my fears and trepidations to my coach. He could see I was almost paralyzed by these fears, but he calmly told me no one had ever been bit by a snapping turtle in this lake. After much reassurance, I found the courage to jump in, and it turned out to be a real turning point for me.

After many practices, September finally arrived. My dedicated training partner showed up at my house with a stunning one-piece tri-kit her husband purchased for her online. I didn’t get the memo on clothing, so I ended up wearing a favorite tee shirt, shorts and a one-piece bathing suit underneath.  As we slowly got up to the starting line, my faithful training partner suggested we hang back and let the experts go first.

ON YOUR MARK, GET SET…GO!!!! I felt like I was in the Olympic Games in Greece! I knew if I could make it to the halfway point in the swim, I would conquer this triathlon event. Swimming past that halfway buoy felt like someone injected pure confidence into my veins. I SOARED. I made it through the remainder of the events. My training partner finished ahead of me, but waited for me at the finish line, and my kind-hearted coach was waiting with open arms and a big hug! Like a little too much icing on a huge cinnamon bun, completing this goal felt very sweet. Not too shabby for a 52-year-old.

A few years have passed since my first triathlon. I am now almost 64 years old. I have completed a HITS HALF Triathlon in Naples, Florida, and also ran the NYC Marathon (my one and only marathon.) This spring, I met up with a few hardcore triathletes on a bike ride to Niagara Falls. 

As I look back over the years, I realize being outdoors and engaging in all the events of a triathlon keep me absorbed in fitness and training, and I love it!