Famous Triathletes: Karen Smyers

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.

Karen Smyers(image via www.enduranceplanet.com)

Karen Smyers
(image via www.enduranceplanet.com)

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.

Memorable races

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.


She’s Always on the Move

Karen Smyers Biography

A few thoughts from Karen Smyers, Hall of Famer

Famous Triathletes: Bob Babbitt

Triathlon events always bring together a mixed bunch of folks. Some are there for the fame and the monetary rewards, while there are those who join to satisfy their curiosity about this very popular sport. But regardless of personal backgrounds or motivations for joining, one thing seems to be common among those who join triathlons, and that is this: having the guts to attempt to conquer the most difficult of elements, and come out a better person in the end.

One of those who were changed forever for the better by the sport of triathlon is Bob Babbitt.

Bob Babbitt(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Bob Babbitt
(image via www.usatriathlon.org)

Who is Bob Babbitt?

Bob Babbitt was a Physical Education teacher who moved from Chicago, Illinois to San Diego, California in 1978. In late 1979, he read Barry McDermott’s piece on Tom Warren in the Sports Illustrated magazine. He got so inspired by the story of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman champion as well as the other athletes featured that he wanted to give the event a try as well.

Preparing for the 1980 Hawaii Ironman

Back then, there were hardly any books about race training and nutrition. Though jogging was in full swing, thanks to folks like Dave Pain who helped launch running as a sport, folks who wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of athleticism on their own had no reliable materials they could turn to.

Because this was the case, Babbitt immediately considered approaching Warren. No other individual would be more qualified than him to teach Babbitt how to train for the event. Warren was after all the 1979 Ironman.

So Babbitt called Warren, and was able to convince the latter to mentor him and roommate Ned Overend. Babbitt and Overend trained furiously for the upcoming January 10, 1980 Ironman to be held in the island of Oahu. They would do hundreds of laps in a 15-meter apartment pool just so they could cover the 2.4-mile swim required for the event.

They each bought a bike, and his was from a police auction, complete with a charred seat end. Because he had no idea how to change a flat tire, he outfitted his new secondhand bike with solid rubber tires.

His first Hawaii Ironman race

Babbitt flew with Overend and their support crew to Hawaii. He sincerely thought that he was going to do the race for two days so he brought a tent and sleeping bag with him.

January is storm month in Oahu. Days prior to the event, the organizers decided to move the swim leg to the protected Ala Moana Channel because the site for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim was too perilous. Fairly inexperienced in open and deepwater swimming, Babbitt made sure to swim at the shallow portion of the channel and somehow splashed out of the water unscathed.

He would proceed to do the second portion of the race donning a pair of beige shorts with a belt, and a long-sleeved shirt with pockets sewn at the back to store bags of Hawaiian sweet bread, his race food of choice. He’d slog through the bike which he’d rigged with a transistor radio on its fuzzy handlebars just so he’d have company during the long ride. He fitted it with panniers too to carry his tent and sleeping bag.

Through the race, he’d be fed by his crew with Big Mac, fries, and Coke, as well as a snow cone. He’d even gotten a 45-minute massage. His marathon was practically all walking and when he got weighed at one of the med stations, the aide was astonished that he’d gained instead of lost a few pounds, due to all the Hawaiian sweet bread he’d eaten.

Nearing the finish line, he couldn’t believe that he was able to do the race in one whole day. He expected to see crowds of people and a brass band to cheer and welcome his momentous finish. But all he saw ahead was a light bulb and the finish line drawn in chalk on the pavement. The official who was there asked him if he was part of the race, to which he replied a positive, in turn receiving a brisk reply that he’d completed the race.

Contributions to the multisport arena

Anticlimactic as the finish was, the race forever changed Babbitt’s life. He would go on to co-establish a magazine, the Competitor, dedicated solely to multi-sports. He would also later assist in putting up Competitor Radio, which to this day, is the premier source for multi-sport news in the broadcasting media. He would also create the Brooks Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series which features fun obstacle races for the family and for folks who are just looking to unwind.

Babbitt would also become one of the founding directors of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) which assists folks with disabilities pursue their athletic dreams. Babbitt would also be later inducted to the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2002 and to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2012.


Running Down Memory Lane: 25 Years of Competitor

Bob Babbitt: Triathlon’s Greatest Ambassador, Ironman’s Spirited Soothsaye

Funky dude Bob Babbitt

More insight into Bob Babbitt

In the beginning there was Bob Babbitt

WTC Honors Bob Babbitt with Ironman Hall of Fame Induction