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Olympic Triathlon results

What's the worst spot to finish in at the Olympics?

Fourth.

That's where Laura Bennett of the U.S. finished in the women's triathlon in Beijing on Sunday. Fourth place is just one spot away from a medal ... so close but close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Still, Bennett seemed pleased with her performance and if you got a chance to watch any of the race, you saw three-time world champion Emma Snowsill of Australia completely pull away from the pack on the run.

The run was also the highlight of the men's race where Germany's Jan Frodeno sprinted past Canadian Simon Whitfield down the stretch to take gold. The U.S. men, however, finished out of the Olympic medals for the third straight year.

Reviving the Olympic Dream

The first Olympics I remember watching was the 1984 Los Angels Summer Games. That was the summer between fifth and sixth grade and I was glued to the TV, enamored with all the sports but particularly amazed by Mary Lou Retton, the then-16 year gymnast who took gold in the women's All-Around. Heck, I even got my long hair cut to look like hers.

Granted, I never took gymnastics nor could do anything more complicated than a cartwheel-roundoff combination but Mary Lou and the entire Olympic experience allowed me to dream.

And then, life happens.

You get older and often the wisdom of age is tempered by cynicism. While I've been awed and amazed by Micheal Phelps, understanding completely that I've been witness to athletic history, I've had more than my fair share of cynical Olympic moments.

My biggest rant involves the sponsorship of McDonald's, particularly the commercial which begins by showing a series of athletes spouting off one-liners about the dedication of training and the pursuit of a dream -- all to sell McDonald's deep-fried chicken breakfast sandwich. (Note: You will not get that washboard stomach the track athlete has in this commercial by routinely eating breakfast at Micky D's.)

But there are moments in these games that inspire me, even more so than the exploits of King Phelps.

And one of those came over the weekend in the women's marathon.

For the record, while swimming has been my biggest challenge in triathlon, running was new to me, too. My previous running experience was a series of "learn to run" programs which would alternate running with walking. Until I started triathlon training, I had never run for more than 15 consecutive minutes. The mere concept of running a marathon remains pretty daunting to me.

It was a 38-year old woman from Romania, Constantina Tomescu-Dita, who won the Olympic marathon. She became the oldest woman to win the gold in the marathon and did so by taking a huge risk -- pulling away just over an hour into the race.

The sentimental favorite,34-year-old  Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain, had another anguishing finish. She suffered a stress fracture in her leg just 12 weeks ago and felt the pain of the injury and the reduced training by the midway point. Four years ago in Athens, health issues kept her from finishing but this time, she was determined to cross the line, finishing 23rd.

For the record, 13 women did not finish the race.

Seeing this women take chances on themselves -- seeing them excel well past the age traditionally seemed as appropriate for athletic success -- is inspiring, whether your goal is to finish a 5K or return to school or change careers or start a family.

The only restrictions we really have in life are the ones we put on ourselves.

Carly's Crossing

I stood on the beach and pointed out the swim course to my father.

"So how many loops do you?"

I had to resist the urge to smack him upside the head.

"Just one," I replied. "Once time around is a mile."

He stared at the water for a moment.

"Once is a mile?"

"Yup."

"OK. Good luck."

I had never done a mile-long swim in a competition setting before Saturday, though my friend, Joe P., whom I convinced to do the Carly's Crossing event with me, reminded me that we were swimming  the "non-competitive" one-mile. We weren't in a race. Heck, we didn't even have to rip ourselves out of our wetsuits and sprint to get on our bikes. We just had to lazily finish the swim course.

Joe Zwierzchowski, the founder of Carly's Crossing, had invited me to do the one-mile swim with him after reading about my triathlon training and my baby steps in learning to swim.

Carly's Crossing is a fundraiser to help children with cancer at Roswell Park. It was a great cause and Joe Z. was so enthusiastic and encouraging I decided to jump right in.

So it was me, Joe P., Joe Z. and Jeff D. in wave five. We went off after the "competitive, timed" mile swim (which Joe Z. also did) -- though I did catch someone refering to our event as the "relaxed mile." I liked that name much better than non-competitive. "Relaxed mile" sounds intentional and deliberate and less wimpy than "non-competitive."

But relaxed or not, I still had a few false starts when I got in the water. That white turn-around buoy was pretty far away. And though it was for enjoyment, I still didn't want to embarrass myself.

I had some trouble starting my stroke (granted there were some pretty high patches of weeds, but nothing like the Summer Sizzler at Grand Island) and gently pushed myself forward in an above-water breaststroke. Joe Z. told me to take my time and Joe P. told me not to get frustrated.

I put my head down in the water, took a long stroke and turned to breathe. Relax. Repeat.

"That's a good looking stroke, Amy!" Joe Z. shouted back to me.

I kept going, stopping only a few times -- like once when I followed Joe Z. and ended up inside the buoys. He just cut through to go back on course. I swam around the buoy, and promptly got tangled in its anchor cord.

Continuing on down the course, I did my famous move where in one stroke I manage to turn myself from a straight line to my target to 90 degrees off course. This smacked me right into Joe P. not once, but twice.

It was pretty funny and luckily near the turnaround, giving me a chance to catch my breath and look back at shore and the skyline which was blue, calm and beautiful.

On the way back I somehow drifted far off to the left (again, I was following the swim cap of Joe Z.) and the kayaks had to lead our four-person group back toward the buoys and the course. (So I'd like to think I actually swam more than a mile, what with my off course diversion on the way back).

Out of the water it was high-fives all around. Joe Z. quickly disappeared as he was swimming the course again with his son and then finally with his daughter. (Yes, Joe Z. was swimming the one-mile course four different times.)

As time goes on, I enjoy swimming more and more. My goal isn't necessarily to become a fast swimmer -- just a consistent one. And I figure that if I can keep myself relaxed and loose, like I did in the Carly's Crossing swim on Saturday, the triathlon swims would be just fine.

I thought of the one-mile Carly's Crossing swim as a bit of a marker for me -- someone who learned to swim over the winter and struggled with nerves in the open water.

The distance turned out to be not so difficult after all. My time (we figured it took about 50 minutes or so to complete it) wasn't horrible, especially considering we did chat at certain points along the course.

Most importantly, I had a fantastic time.

And that's a big part of what this journey is all about.

Getting in the swim mood

In all honesty, I was dreading the workout.

I just didn't feel like getting in the pool and swimming 500 yards four different times -- including twice without my beloved fins.

I just wasn't in the mood.

But in the pool I went. And it's always a good thing when I do.

What I've come to love about swimming most is the sensory deprecation. You can't hear anything when you swim and if you're doing your stroke correctly, you don't really see a whole lot either. There is nothing but you and the water.

It's not necessarily a great time to think, especially if I'm trying to swim 500 yards and count the 10 laps (or 20 lengths) of the pool I'm doing lest I end up doing one less or two more than required. But it can be meditative. My mind doesn't quite empty (though that would be a blessing) but it does get quiet and focused and submerged in the joy of movement through the water.

On Saturday, I'll be hoping to keep the joy of that feeling as I participate in Carly's Crossing to help raise funds for pediatric cancer patients at Roswell Park. I've been recruited to swim the one-mile non-competitive distance and coerced, I mean, persuaded my friend Joe to join me.

And I'm pretty sure once I settle into the rhythm of the water I'll quickly be in the swimming mood.

From Olympic triathletes to celebrity ones

Want to know what it's like to be an Olympic triathlete? Check out the blog by U.S. team member Sarah Haskins. She discusses her travel and posts pictures from Beijing.

Meanwhile, in the world of celebrity triathlon, apparently musical artist (and former "You Can't Do That on Television" star because, yes, I am that old to remember) Alanis Morissette has become a triathlete. Of course, the People magazine article doesn't tell us what tri she did, what distance or even how she fared.

First JLo now Alanis. I think we're seeing the makings of a reality show before our very eyes.

Still celebrating that relay win

Does anyone really get tired of watching that 4x100 freestyle relay? I have the link to the NBC video of the race listed on my favorites. Sad will be the day when that link will no longer work which, of course, is why God invented YouTube.

And while, yes, I have crush on Michael Phelps (is there anyone, man, woman or dog in the United States who doesn't have a crush on Michael Phelps at this point?) what amazed me about that relay was Jason Lezak. This is Lezak's third Olympic Games. He was the anchor leg for the last two American 4x100 freestyle relay teams -- the ones which lost the Olympic gold medal in a race the country had dominated for years.

Lezak's performance was breath taking (heck, I knew the result before I watched the final and I still was screaming at the screen when he made his final move on the French) but more importantly to me, it was a testament to perseverance. Yes, that old, "try and try again" adage. Sometimes you can try and try again and nothing changes, but other times they lead to golden moments.

Meanwhile, any parents of children with attention deficit disorder might want to check out the parenting column in the New York Times which featured a story on Deborah Phelps. Michael was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and was told that he would "never be able to focus." With his Olympic medal count, it looks like he found a way to focus after all.

Summer Sizzler Race Report

The chatter before the Summer Sizzler triathlon at Beaver Island State Park was mostly about one thing -- the weeds in the water.

Since I practice open water swimming in Lake Erie where I routinely am on the lookout for dead fish and get fists full of seaweed I didn't think this would be that big a problem.

So after the Saturday race when I was talking with friends and acquaintances, the first statement after the standard, "How did you do?" question was "How about those weeds?"

I was greatly looking forward to this triathlon because it involved the shortest distances of any race I've done. And that 400 meter swim? You can stand up the entire time because the river is rather shallow. Hence, the problem with the weeds.

I'm still a back-of-the-swim pack girl which is fine with me. But this time, I stayed pretty close to the rest of the pack. I did have to stand up once in the middle of the swim, not because I was having problem with the actual swimming but because I had gotten so tangled in the weeds I needed to wiggle out. Seriously, it was like an underwater jungle. Remember Aquaman in the Superfriends cartoon? He would swim at the bottom of the ocean and call on sea creatures for help? Well, in this episode, the Legion of Doom clearly lured Aquaman to a remote, dark corner of the ocean where no school of fish could come to his rescue.

Still, I got out of the swim rather quickly and did not learn one lifeguard's name.

The bike flew by on a short, flat course. Granted, there was some wind in your face on the way back, but nothing to really make an impact. I used the first two miles as a chance to warm up my legs in an easy gear then kicked it into race mode. I got low on my handlebars, sang "Everybody Wants You" by Bill Squier in my head (hey, it's a pretty good cadence song) and started passing people who got out of the water before I did.

My faux pas of the day came when returning from the bike in transition. While I identified the entrance and exits for each event in transition before the race (much like looking for the emergency exits when you're on airplane) when I came in with my bike I was totally turned around. Where was my bike rack spot again? Oh yeah, over there. I got my sneakers on and promptly turned to run ... out the wrong way before a volunteer kindly corrected me. In the world of "transition time" I probably gave some away there, but then my airheaded-ness gave me something to laugh about on the run.

On the run, I was caught by Karyn, who was doing her first triathlon and pretty much kicking butt. This was great for me. Karyn runs slightly faster than I do but not so much that I can't keep up. We actually got a chance to chat for at least a mile before she wanted to pick up the pace. God speed to her. I stayed at my pace and let her go.

In the final results I finished in 1:09.05. I was seventh out of 20 in my age group, 32 out of 108 women and 131 out of 244 overall.

And as a bonus, I got to take home a few extra weeds from the river as the plant life attached itself to my trisuit.

I have one more triathlon on my schedule for this year -- the Finger Lakes Triathlon on Sept. 21. That's a month to improve and gain more confidence in my swim and hopefully turn in the best performance of my inaugural season.

Changing roles

You know something is shifting in the universe when during a workout I'm the leader.

Well, in essence, I was really just a flesh-based GPS system. One of the guys in the triathlon club told me his wife, who seemed to me to be a pretty accomplished runner, was preparing for her first triathlon. Would I be at the brick workout on Thursday to show her the ropes?

Certainly. I've had plenty of people take time to help me (and continue to help me) so there wasn't even a question of helping someone else out. And really, all I did was lead the way on the bike course and run with Karyn through the three-mile run course. I didn't really have any words of wisdom or expert training advice.

The next day I received profuse emails of thanks. Really, I should be thanking them. It was nice to have someone to chat with on the run. It made my workout go faster.

A further shift in the time-space continuum happened this week when Joe Zwierzchowski, one of the founders of Carly's Crossing, sent me an email. Joe had been following my triathlon progress and invited me to participate in the open water swim, which benefits pediatric cancer patients at Roswell Park. He suggested that I swim the one-mile non-competitive event with him.

Oh boy.

A mile? Really?

Can I wear my wetsuit?

Absolutely I was told.

And so I conned my Buffalo Triathlon Club friend Joe into doing the swim with me (because while I believe in the axiom of doing things which scare you, I also believe in bringing down other people with me).

My summer schedule now includes the Summer Sizzler sprint triathlon on Grand Island this Saturday with Carly's Crossing on Aug. 9 followed by the Finger Lakes Triathlon on Sept. 21.

The thing about the journey is that it never really ends.

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