For much of her life as a triathlete, Michelle Mehnert has been racing from behind.
But not this year.
Mehnert won the Olympic-distance USA Triathlon collegiate national title earlier this month, with a comfortable lead out front.
Before this year, the University of Colorado graduate student had no hills to ride on. She grew up in Champaign, Ill., home to the University of Illinois, a lot of cornfields and not much triathlon culture. Mehnert bought her first bike at a garage sale, then cobbled together her second from busted bikes left on campus over summer break when she was 15.
As an undergraduate at Illinois, Mehnert swam for the school’s Division 1 varsity team for four years, which pushed triathlon to the backburner for much of the year.
And then there were nagging heart palpitations and arm pain that caused her to bomb during races, symptoms that no coach had ever identified as something serious. She’d wake up from naps, her heart racing at 180, 200 beats per minute. The summer before her senior year at Illinois, she learned about a heart defect that caused her body’s engine to sputter during races, she said, and would lead to a stroke at age 25 if not addressed.
So Mehnert fixed her broken heart, left the Midwestern cornfields for Boulder’s Flatirons and worked several jobs while going to school to buy a new bike.
Now, she’s coming to terms with racing at the front of the pack.
‘Small town kid who trains in corn fields’
Mehnert is what college students like to call a “townie.”
She was born and raised in Champaign, home to the Illini. Both her parents got various degrees in engineering from the university, so it seemed natural for Mehnert to attend Illinois.
Both marathoners, Ed and Brenda Mehnert discouraged their daughter from running long distances at a young age because they didn’t want the sport to affect her body’s development.
When she was 12, she begged them to let her compete in a short triathlon hosted by the city’s park district. The first year she competed, she finished. The second year, she beat her marathon-running dad. On her third try, she won.
“My goal growing up was always to go to the Olympics,” Mehnert said. “I didn’t know what (sport). I didn’t really care what. I just wanted to go.”
She tried gymnastics, but grew too tall for the sport. Next came swimming, but she was too short. She even tried figure skating for a shot at the winter games.
But after winning Champaign’s mini triathlon, she decided to stick with it. As a teenager, her parents drove her to Chicago for races where she was shocked to find entire teams of young triathletes, like the Multisport Magnasquad, who had coaches and resources.
Mehnert didn’t know she needed bike shoes or a race kit.
“You mean I can’t just race in my two-piece?” she said, laughing.
Mehnert looked at Olympians like Julie Dibens and Laura Bennett, who both swam in college. To get to the Olympics, Mehnert decided, she should be a collegiate swimmer.
At Illinois, she competed in freestyle and individual medley events during swim season and competed for the Illinois club triathlon team in the off season. In both pursuits, Mehnert never quite reached what she thought was her potential.
‘My heart was beating out of my chest’
The summer before her senior year at Illinois, Mehnert competed in an Ironman70.3 race, often four to eight hours of grueling punishment. She was a mess afterward, she remembers.
After being tested for mononucleosis and sent to a psychologist for what coaches thought were race-day nerves, a cardiologist showed her an electrocardiogram of her heart beat.
“I saw it and said, ‘That doesn’t look like a heart beat,'” she said.
She was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. An extra electrical pathway was causing only the top half of her heart to beat most of the time. It wasn’t able to pump as much blood as her body needed, so it would beat like crazy to make up the difference.
In January 2012, doctors burned out the extra electrical pathway, and Mehnert’s heart had to relearn how to beat. During that process, her heart often tried to fire along the now-removed electrical pathway and failed.
“Your heart skips a beat,” she said. “As much as the songs, whatever, romanticize your heart skipping a beat, it’s not fun. It feels like you’re being punched in the chest.”
Doctors told her after the procedure, her heart would be 15 to 20 percent more efficient.
A second chance
Heart restored, Mehnert graduated from Illinois and packed her life up for graduate school at CU-Boulder.
Now 23, Mehnert immediately began training with the 14-time national champion CU triathlon team. Because of her swimming background, she trained mostly with “the guys” on the team, who she says are now like her brothers.
Coach Mike Ricci said when he first met Mehnert, he didn’t have any expectations for her, other than her swimming capabilities. She’d never had a full six months to devote solely to triathlon training while swimming at Illinois.
After some of the team’s time trials, Mehnert knew she had a shot at placing high at nationals. When the team trekked down to Lake Havasu, Ariz., for conference championships, Mehnert won by more than three minutes.
Her mom Brenda Mehnert credits Michelle’s wins to a renewed faith in her own body and powers.
“(The surgery’s) given her a lot of confidence, too,” Brenda Mehnert said. “‘OK, now I have a complete body, a complete heart. I can do well.'”
At nationals in Tempe, Ariz., Mehnert’s old Illinois triathlon club teammates watched, awestruck, as she crossed the finish line and broke through the race banner first.
‘Whatever makes her happy’
Her graduate degree in civil and environmental engineering should take a year and a half to complete, so Mehnert has a few more chances to defend her title. After she finishes school, Mehnert doesn’t know yet whether she’ll pursue triathlon full-time.
Her parents have always advocated for education. Her dad has a Ph.D and works as Illinois’ senior hydrologist, while her mom has her master’s degree and works for the Army Corps of Engineers. But after watching her win in Tempe, they’re realizing her triathlon potential.
“Whatever makes her happy,” Ed Mehnert said. “She’s got a unique opportunity here, and it’s her dream so she’s got to chase it. We want the best for our kids, and if that means being a triathlete and traveling the world — she wants to be in the Olympics. How do you say no to that?”
Her teammate Davide Giardini, who’s pursuing his MBA at CU, agreed:
“Being in the same point in my life, I feel like (pursuing triathlon is) the right decision,” he said. “If I had the opportunity, if I had just won collegiate nationals, I would definitely try and pursue a career in the sport.”
The national title did prove to her that she has what it takes to make it in the sport if she chooses. Being a part of the CU triathlon team has been her second shot as an athlete, with a brand new heart, to see how far she can push herself.
“Looking back at my swimming career, what happened?” she said. “As an athlete, you always want to find out how fast you can go. I spent 16 years swimming with pretty much my legs tied together. Triathlon has given me a second chance to actually find out what I’m capable of. Do I have what it takes to be the best in the country? Yeah. Do I have what it takes to be the best in the world? We’ll find out.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.