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Despite Setbacks, Triathlete Keeps Moving Forward

By Leah Prudhomme

leahI have a story of overcoming adversity that might set you on course to not giving up your dream. My hope is to inspire and motivate my fellow triathletes to never quit, never give up and find your true potential.  That is,  even when fear and adversity come looming in dark open waters of an ordinary training swim on a sunny hot day, from a background of overcoming adversity I speak on what it means to not only survive but to overcome.   

Imagine you are on an open water triathlon training swim; one you have done many times, 1.5 miles roundtrip. You’re with a buddy and having a great training day as you think about technique, Ironman, and Nationals around the corner. Then, without warning, sharp teeth sink into your heel and ankle and you choke down water and try to tread. What would think? What would you do?  This is a test, a story, would you keep going?  Would you ever swim again, race a triathlon again?  How important is your triathlon finish line? 

You may have read about it: “otter attacks triathlete.” The story traveled the world and was definitely a topic of discussion amongst triathletes. The attack happened July 11, 2012, on Island Lake, in Duluth, Minn. — at my dad’s lake home. I think the world took notice because of how odd it was, but more because it takes courage to keep going.

Having grown up on a lake, I’m pretty comfortable in the water.  As kids, my sister, brother, and I would spend hours upon hours in the lake so a simple training swim with my friend Heather wasn’t intimidating at all.  I was doing what any triathlete would do — not concentrating on what’s down there in the deep — and I was attacked in my heel and bitten by sharp teeth. I thought it was a Muskie!

leahFrom there I was bitten again in the ankle — very fast teeth sunk into my foot and ankle bone, I treaded water and tried to see if it was a fish, a muskrat or a beaver.  It was an otter, and it viciously attacked me for 7 minutes as I tried to tread water, and scream for help and perhaps get away to no avail.  Heather swam to shore and got help. My dad tried to get the boat started and was panicking as I screamed. He thought I was drowning. 

Usually otters are the playful cute creatures you see at the zoo, but this one was on an attack mission to defend the bog near where I was swimming. It wouldn’t back off, diving under the water and giving me bite after bite through my wetsuit, some 2” deep, a total of 25 times.

I went to shore where my son said it was a “mama otter protecting her babies,” a reference to a children’s story I read him (“Utterly Otterly Day” by Mary Casanova). He was right; the DNR said it was likely a protective mother otter defending her den. 

I was treated with a series of rabies shots, a tetanus shot and antibiotics.  As soon as I was able to get back to swimming — 10 days, per doctor’s orders — I competed in the same lake at the new Buzz Ryan Triathlon. Predominantly, I wanted to go and overcome my new fear of water in the same lake where I was attacked, just to show other triathletes you can overcome fear and come back even with some injuries and still race, still try your best. That’s part of the spirit of triathlon.

There is much more to my story, which epitomizes what it means to overcome. I am a mom, an endurance athlete and I’ve been through the ringer with setbacks, injuries, diseases, accidents — the list goes on. I might have more excuses to quit than anyone but I say, “no excuses, don’t quit!” 

I stand today cancer free as a survivor of Metastic Papillary Thyroid Cancer that I went through treatment in 2004-2005. I am thankful and stronger for it. I had a near-fatal car accident in 1997 that left me with many broken bones, blood loss and reconstructive surgeries and the long road to recovery and endurance.  In 1998, I contracted more than one African disease, doing famine relief in Kenya and Tanzania. I have been compelled not to let some of these bad experiences set me back.

I have being doing triathlons since 2007, and before that I was mainly running and biking and traveling around the world in between my BA and MA studies. I’m headed to USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals now, as a mom, coach, fitness instructor. I am planning to come back as an accomplished triathlete and will keep going as over-comer. It is not the first setback, though it’s definitely the oddest.

leahAs a coach and motivator I would say, you need to start training for your goal or you will stop living your full potential — do not back down when the first setback comes.  I think finding your potential is all about how you use your situation to grow. Use the setbacks you have in life as a tool to reshape your destiny — go forward, press on — and have the grace to accept hardships. Any good triathlete knows it is more about being able to adapt and overcome on race day or in training.

My motto is “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). I like to believe I can do all things, and  like the otter story I didn't expect attack or the injury setbacks on this road, but this road has been a road of overcoming and not quitting. I am proving to myself, and my fiancé JC and our children, that if I can put my mind to anything and it can happen, they should try hard for their dreams the same way. 

That's where the true test comes. It’s not about fixing your mind on fear and what can go wrong, but what can come of it. Whether it is to finish an Ironman, a master’s degree, a trip to Nationals and compete with the top athletes in the nation, or just try a triathlon to finish. You can make the best of things if you try. Never quit, never give up, and never sink so low that you lose sight of your vision. I respect anyone who has a drive to set their eyes on a horizon and go after it!

I want now more than ever to give my children not a legacy in racing but a tribute to overcoming the odds. If I can build in them self-esteem and confidence that they are loved and can keep going, I think they can change the world in whatever capacity God has planned for them.

As a triathlete reading this, or supporter, you may be a parent, or a co-worker of a cancer-survivor, or are one yourself. Perhaps you are your own hero to your children. It is a life full of challenge and opportunity for character grown and development. Life has been tough, like it is for all of us, and I feel like triathlon has helped me become the endurance athlete and mom, the coach and motivator I want to be.

If I can do it, there are no excuses — so can you. Keep going. Now I would say, tongue in cheek, seriously, from the otter girl, “you otter tri!”

Leah Prudhomme is competing in the USA Triathlon Olympic-Distance National Championship on Aug. 18 in Burlington, Vt., as well as three other races in the next few weeks, including Ironman Wisconsin on Sept. 9. She believes “You never rise to the level of your expectations, you fall to the level of your training.”  Leah can be reached at  trileah@gmail.com, and you can check out her blog, www.trileah.blogspot.com

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