Endurance sports, perhaps due to their inherent difficulty, have always been dominated by men. This is true for the highly popular sport of triathlon. Back then, female triathletes were practically unheard of. But as the sport grew, remarkable women such as Lyn Lemaire and Julie Moss would start to join triathlons.
Another woman in the person of Karen Smyers competed proudly alongside male triathletes as well.
Who is Karen Smyers?
Karen Smyers was born in Corry, Pennsylvania in September 1, 1961. Quite avid of sports, she would join organized teams early on. Later while attending college in Princeton University, she would compete in track and field as well as swimming.
After graduating from college, she found her life incomplete without any athletic endeavor. Fortunately, one of her friends was into triathlons. She would join this friend during trainings and would find this new endurance sport quite appealing.
In 1984, Smyers raced as an amateur at a triathlon competition. She did fairly well that she would have won the $500 prize money had she entered as a professional competitor. This boosted her confidence so much that she decided to compete as an elite triathlete starting 1985.
She did not find it difficult to decide to go professional full-time when the company she worked for went underwater four years later in 1989. She was after all in great shape. Surely she could make a living competing in triathlons.
Smyers’ decision to go elite was certainly auspicious. That same year in 1989, she competed at the ITU Triathlon World Championships and placed an impressive fourth place win.
The following year, she would train and consequently race at the 1990 ITU Triathlon World Championships. This race was quite memorable for Smyers. Running in fourth at the marathon leg, she would chase after Joy Hanson and Carol Montgomery who were running side by side, and race leader and 1989 ITU Triathlon World Champion Erin Baker.
Having placed fourth just the prior year, all she was aiming for was to place third overall. But halfway through mile four of the marathon, she would successfully overtake Montgomery and Hanson, and eventually, Baker, thus winning her first ITU Triathlon World Champion title that year.
In 1995, Smyers made a remarkable feat after taking home first place from the inaugural triathlon race at the 1995 Pan American Games in March. Barely seven months later, she would race and subsequently take first place at the 1995 Hawaii Ironman in October. A little over a month after, she would again compete and be declared champion at another ITU Triathlon World Championships in November. So far, no other female triathlete has yet matched Smyers 1995 accomplishments.
1996 was another fruitful year for her professional triathlete career for she won the top prize at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships. Though she was sidelined for the entire part of 1997 after cutting her hamstring from a freak accident, she was determined to get back to racing in 1998. But misfortune struck once more for she got hit by an 18-wheeler truck during one of her training rides.
Though traumatized from the accident, this did not prevent her from training for upcoming competitions. In 1999, she would be the country’s flag-bearer for the Pan American Games as well as be chosen as the United States Olympic Committee’s Triathlete of the Year. She would also place second in the 1999 Hawaii Ironman.
But her challenges were evidently not over yet. At one race, she had a terrible bike fall that caused damage to her collarbone, one that was severe enough for her to not finish, her very first DNF in her then 17-year elite career. As if that was not enough, she would test positive for thyroid cancer and be under a six-hour surgery to remove the cancerous cells in December 1999.
In 2000, Smyers boldly tried out for the US Triathlon Olympic Team though was unsuccessful in her bid. In 2001, she would be declared the USA Triathlon National Champion.
Smyers would continue to race professionally and receive prestigious awards. in 2009, she would be inducted to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame to honor her numerous contributions to the sport of triathlon.
For a great podcast interview with Karen Smyers, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.