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Theresa Carter

Life Challenges Not Enough to Stop Sprint Nationals Competitors

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Meri Surdoval-Fetkovich
There are many stories of athletes who have found their way to triathlon after a life-changing experience, whether it’s weight loss, the loss of a family member or just the desire to be healthier. For a number of triathletes competing at the USA Triathlon Sprint National Championship on Aug. 19, the sport has been part of a road to recovery, from life-threatening illnesses to accidents that made tasks like walking look questionable.

Meri Surdoval-Fetkovich was told she would never run again after a car accident in 2003. “I had shattered my acetabulum and pelvis, and I have a titanium plate and pin that hold my left hip in place, amongst other injuries,” she said. “Within a year, I was back running in road races though with limited success, a limp and pain. I was getting frustrated until I learned about triathlons. I had met a great group of people in school and at work in Florida who were doing triathlons and it seemed like an interesting sport to try. After my first one, I was hooked.”

Triathlon is a test, with three sports and quick transitions, but it can also be therapeutic, like it was for Meri and another Sprint Nationals competitor, Kerry Conti. “When people told me I would never be the same after being hit by a car in college, it challenged me to prove them wrong. It took me a few years to try triathlons after the accident, but once I finished one I pursued more.” Kerry had brain surgery in June 2010, and once she recovered, she made her return to triathlon, qualifying for Team USA just three months after the surgery.

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Kerry Conti
“When I tell the majority of people my story, all they know about is that I'm a student and triathlete, and they might know that I'm working to qualify for my professional racing license,” said Joshua Stephens, who had been in a car accident in June 2008 and is competing in both the Olympic-distance and sprint events over the weekend. “I share the story of spending a week in a coma, hooked up to machines, a neck brace, catheters, and a whole host of tubes keeping me alive back in 2008, and jaws hit the floor.” Joshua says he shares his story with athletes he coaches, because it can show them that they can push through and finish their events.

Theresa Carter was critically injured in an accident in 1984, and though she still has rods in her back as a result, she doesn’t see her participation in triathlon as any different from anyone else. “It’s a lifestyle choice,” she said. “If that inspires someone, then that’s great.”

Training and camaraderie have been key factors in making triathlon part of Theresa’s life. “Entering a race gives me a goal, and a focus for being active,” she said. “As for the camaraderie, I love hearing people’s stories. I find out a lot of interesting things about people’s lives, their stories, and goals. That’s a cool feeling.”

Lee Fuller agrees that the best part of triathlon is the people you meet along the way. Lee had signed up for his first triathlon before he was struck with epiglottis — a life-threatening disease of inflammation of the tissue that covers the trachea. He has faced incredible odds himself, but he believes the multisport community is filled with amazingly inspiring people.

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Lee Fuller
“I think in general it’s a lifestyle choice that puts a person on the road to being healthy, and being healthy makes people happy,” he said. “The first triathlon I watched was in Wakefield, Mass., about a month before my first tri. I was truly overcome by the people of all ages, shapes, sizes and athletic backgrounds finishing that triathlon by 9 a.m. while I was drinking a cup of tea.”

Sprint Nationals, which is part of the Age Group National Championships weekend, will be an exciting time as thousands of athletes aim for personal records and spots on Team USA.

“I love the atmosphere that each race brings,” said Meri, who is among those aiming for her best race yet this weekend. “Triathletes are a special group of people and each race has a different feel but the same great athletes.  It's a sport where it doesn't matter how old you are, what level you are or your reason for competing. We are all in it to be triathletes.” 

Kerry competed on Team USA in Beijing in 2011 but missed her chance to qualify for the 2012 World Championships when she got a flat tire in Burlington last year. “I think it is finishing that is the best part,” she said. “I put my body through all of this stress from the lack of sleep the night before, to pre-race jitters before the start, to going all out on the swim, bike and, run. It feels awesome knowing what I just went through to get to the finish.”

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Joshua Stephens
Triathlon is becoming a common “bucket list” item as the sport continues to grow in popularity, and athletes cross the finish line with a feeling of pride, whether it’s their first race or their 50th. Even so, common thread amongst athletes who have overcome the odds is a feeling of gratitude, just to be able to participate in the sport they love.

“It's a miracle that I'm competing in these races, going to school, and really functioning at all after my wreck,” Joshua said. “I've had check-ups with neurologists who've looked at my CAT scans and said, ‘You shouldn't be alive, much less doing anything like what you are.’ I know how lucky I am, and I thank God for it every day, along with the opportunities to share my story through the sport I love.”

To watch the action from the Age Group National Championships, you can tune in to the live blog and live stream provided for each event.

Click here for Olympic-Distance coverage.
Click here for Sprint coverage.

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