The Longevity Project: Triathlon is a sport for all ages
Editor’s note: This is the third of the series The Longevity Project, a collaboration between The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
Biking, running, and swimming at any measurable distance prove to be challenging workouts. Roll all three into one race and you have an event that would push the boundaries of anyone’s body. But for a women’s team of triathletes in the Roaring Fork Valley, that challenge can be conquered alongside strangers turned sisters and plenty of adaptive training.
“We’re good at teaching people the sport. And we’re teaching them to believe in themselves, that they have more than they think they have to give,” said head coach Carla Westerman, 59. “We teach them to enjoy what they’re doing, and that the process of ‘becoming’ is way better than ‘being’ part of it. The process of becoming that triathlete is better than being a triathlete.”
The Roaring Fork Women’s Triathlon team was founded in 2000 by Judy Haynes and Nancy Reinisch as an outlet for women of western Colorado to reconnect with athleticism they may have known in their youth. But over the years, the team’s mission evolved to introduce women of any athletic ability to triathlons.
The team generally consists of about 25 returning athletes and 25 first-timers, or “babes” as they’re affectionately called on the team.
Training starts mid-May, with the women committing to two weekly training sessions as a team, plus whatever they can do on their own time. Coaches teach the team about road running, trail running, hill running, track running, road and triathlon cycling, and swimming in a pool then open-water swimming.
The summer of training culminates in the Outdoor Diva Sprint Triathlon in Longmont on the third Sunday in August. It consists of a half-mile swim, an 11.8-mile bike ride, and a 5k run around Union Reservoir.
Last month, the team celebrated its 24th season, and 45 team members competed in the race — some taking first place in her division.
Age spread among the athletes ranges from 17-68 last season, but the team has recruited women up to age 73 in the past.
“It’s not just the fastest ones or the slowest ones — that’s not really what we’re about. We have a space for everybody,” Westerman said. “And we will make it as comfortable as we can, and we will do everything we can to get you across the finish line.”
Westerman, alongside co-lead coach Sharma Phillips and a roster of six assistant coaches, have designed a program to prepare the team for the race in Longmont since 2018, when she stepped up as lead coach.
They focus on meeting women where they are and challenging them to perform their best and never sell themselves short as a competitor or teammate. Westerman herself started on the team in her 40s without a storied athletic career behind her. But the team met her where she was and taught her the tools to succeed.
“I learned to swim at the ripe old age of 45 (or 46) and completed my first sprint distance and was hooked. Hooked on the sport, hooked on the team. I guess it filled a void in my life,” she said. “I’d always had this image in my head of an athlete that I wanted to be, but didn’t quite know how to get there until I joined the team.”
For assistant coach Sydney Miller, 29, joining the team was a natural next step. She swam in college, committed to CrossFit for a while, and coached triathlon at Colorado Mesa University. But after moving to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2020, she was looking for a community.
COVID-19 threw a wrench in her plans — then she became a mom two-times over — but this past season, she finally got to participate with the team.
“It was just physically good for me, emotionally good for me, and mentally good for me to be a part of a team like that,” she said. “I was around so many women that had the same mindset and same goals and like-mindedness of wanting to push themselves to be better and help each other.”
She coached swimming for the team and said that coaching for a group of women ranging in age from 17-68 differed greatly than coaching a group of 18-22-year-old college athletes. For one, she said, everyone wanted to be there.
“Coaching was so easy because the team wanted to learn, and they just soaked it all up so much,” she said. “Every practice, it was like, ‘OK, what can we do better? Can you watch this? How can I improve this?'”
But challenging moments arose when a certain drill wasn’t clicking or a lingering injury complicated a set. Miller said that happened a fair bit with the team, but refocusing her team member to an adaptive move or stressing the importance of rest prevented injury.
“Sometimes you just need to have someone feel your frustration and just listen, take it in,” she said. “(Addressing the issue) was either changing the set, so they can still participate or just having them rest and knowing and reassuring them that rest is OK. It’s not going to hold you back. It’s not going to deter you from your goal. It’s just reminding them that yes, it’s frustrating, and it’s hard. But the more we take care of it now, the faster that we can get around it and get you to that end goal.”
For one team member, learning the value of rest came down hard. Sherrie Setterberg, 66, has competed with the team for 12 years, serves the team as assistant coach, and shows no signs of slowing down.
She’s been competing in triathlons for about 34 years, just after the birth of her oldest child. In high school, she said her sport was synchronized swimming, noting that she was a teenager when Title IX passed.
“I would say that triathlon is what picks me up, it gives me that reason to kind of push through, and I love it for that. I just love it. I really don’t see myself stopping,” she said.
She plans her race schedule every January — entrance fees are lower if you sign up early. And she once even qualified for nationals, which serves as a motivator to keep improving and qualify again, especially after a grueling year for her health.
About five years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a mastectomy and starting on a year of chemo treatments, a skier collided with her. That crash resulted in a broken femur and a severe concussion, she said. And the main thing that kept her motivated was the hope of competing again.
“The sport of triathlon was my carrot. It was like, I’ve got to get through this. I’ve got to do my PT, I’ve got to finish my chemo. I waited for my doctors to say, ‘Yep, go ahead.’ (The doctor said) I won’t be able to train all summer like you really want,” Setterberg said. “I couldn’t push against the wall while swimming because my chest still wasn’t up to speed … And I said, ‘I don’t care how I do. I don’t care if I’m not trained up; I just want to go.'”
And the summer following cancer treatment and the crash, she competed. Training was complicated because she still couldn’t push off the pool wall, and her femur was recovering, but her teammates got her through it.
Everyone agreed that the sisterhood among the team is what makes it so special. Making intergenerational friendships and sharing advice, competitive drive, and compassion keeps the team close-knit.
“We start as 50 strangers. And then as the season goes on, and they are training together, and they are riding in our cars at the Harvey Gap when we started our open water training, and they start to make these connections with each other,” Westerman said. “And by the time we get (there), we’re a team of sisters.”
The next Longevity Project event is slated for 5:30-7 p.m. on Oct. 4 at The Arts Campus At Willits (TACAW), 400 Robinson St., Basalt. The panel is titled, “How to maintain mobility, balance, and athleticism throughout life” and will feature experts in the field.
Tickets can be purchased at aspentimes.com/longevity-project-2023-fall.