So who is Sharon Opkins?
Sharon, a wife and mother of two, started doing triathlons in 2001. A long-time runner, Sharon decided at the age of 40 to do a long race in honor of her birthday. So she did an Oly. So jazzed about the Oly she signed up for an Ironman just six months later.
Her IM time of 13 hours and 44 minutes at the Great Floridan allowed her to qualify for nationals in her age group and gave her the chance to compete for the USA Triathlon Team in Ibiza, Spain in 2003.
In January of 2003, Sharon began to feel the left side of her face go numb. A visit to a neurologist found a mass on a cranial nerve near her brain stem. Just two days before she was to leave for Spain, Sharon received a call from a specialist at the University of Miami, basically saying there was nothing they could do. Sharon spent the duration of 2003 World Championships in Spain worried she may have a tumor. Over the summer she lost 13 pounds, her appetite and most of her energy. The ordeal zapped her and she could barely keep awake. While she forced herself to exercise, Sharon found she could only run 15 minutes before she got winded. Slowly, she got better and began training in September. As her strength improved so did her sprint times. Determined to continue to compete Sharon turned to the only source that could do the impossible — God.
Boosted by prayers from her church, Sharon kept at training. In early 2003 doctors and radiologists from all over south Florida were convinced they saw a mass on her nerve. But by July of that year a different group of doctors saw no lesions at all.
With the threat of a brain tumor lifted Sharon went on to compete worry free in the 2004 World Triathlon Championships in Sweden July 3.
On July 3 more than 130 women stepped onto the shores of Lake Ljustern near Sater, Sweden to do battle. They were beginning the first leg of a long journey — 4km swim, 120 km bike and 30 km run. That’s the equivalent of swimming the length of the Kentucky Derby twice, bike roughly half the distance between New York and Washington D.C. and run a course that measures as much as the longest continuous loop in the human digestive track — our small intestine. (I know, disgusting metaphor but hey, gotta’ create some sort of picture, right?)
All of the women started on this perilous fight. Not all of them finished. Among the finishers was BT.com’s forum member Sharon Opkins. Sharon is a member of the USA Triathlon Team and competes in long-distance triathlons in her age group. We sat down with Sharon and did a little Q&A to see what would possess this woman to traverse such distances for no money, no fame and almost no recognition. Here’s our interview with Sharon.
When did you start doing triathlons?
I did two or three way back in 1990, but stopped when I had my kids, so I consider my real start to be about three years ago.
Why did you start doing triathlons?
Problems with my knee had abated enough so that I could run as far as 5K without problems, but I couldn't go any further. I prefer longer races, so my only choice was to start doing races with other events in them. Tri was perfect.
How competitive were you in your first triathlon?
I did surprisingly well. It was a small race and I was happy to just get to the finish line, but ended up placing third in my age group.
How did you get involved with the USA Triathlon organization?
Anyone entering a USAT sanctioned triathlon has to either
purchase a one-day license or have an annual one. It pays to just buy the annual license if you do more than three in a year.
How long have you been associated with the organization?
What does it take to be on the USA Triathlon team?
For long distance, there are about 6 qualifying races through out the year, mostly either 1/2 or full IM distances. I did the Great Floridian Triathlon, which is the ultra long distance national championships, so it carried a little more weight. In any of these qualifying races, anyone who placed top 20 in their age group could send an interest form into USAT by the end of December. They then pick 12-18 people from each 5-year age group based on the race itself and your placement in your race.
Why did you decide to join the USA team?
After I accomplished completing the GFT in 2002, I learned a few weeks later that I qualified to send in an interest form because I placed fourth in my age group. Initially I just blew it off, because world championships aren't for regular people, are they? All I did was finish the IM. I just managed to survive ahead of some others in my age group. Then one of my sisters said something that really stuck in my head. She said, "why go so far in training to do an IM and then not go all the way?" That's when I thought, hey, I didn't just finish the IM, I finished fourth! Why not? So I sent in my form and in January 2003 got an e-mail from Tim Yount of
USAT that I made the team!
What steps did you have to take in order to compete in Worlds in Sweden?
Because I was already on the 2003 team, I didn't have to qualify again for Sweden. I just had to let Tim know.
Are you paying your own way?
Yes. Everything from travel/hotel to team uniform and entry fee, and anything else.
Why are you doing this?
It's such an amazing opportunity to say I'm on Team USA. How many people can say they represented their country in an athletic event?
What’s the best thing about being a USA Triathlon team member?
The teammates that I met in Spain are awesome! There were 77 people on the team last year and I stay in contact with about 20 of them. I don't do many out-of-town races because of expense and family reasons, but when I do, I'm bound to meet up with at least one or two.
What’s the worst?
Other than meeting up on rare occasions at races, I don't get to see my teammates. I won't meet new teammates from this year's team until I get to Sweden. There is no training together or anything. I still do the majority of my training alone.
If you couldn’t do triathlons what sport would you do?
What about your family – husband, kids?
The kids are funny. By this time, they just think it's part of life that mommy and daddy go out to bike “x”-number of miles or go running, with a race thrown in here and there. It's just the way it is. My husband has come a long way. He's an athlete too in sprint distances, but never in a million years did he imagine that I'd want to do an IM (to be honest, he wasn't too thrilled about the idea). The funniest part about it, is that now that I've done an IM as well as a world championship race, he's stepped up to the plate and did a 1/2IM for his 50th birthday last October and recently did another 1/2 at the inaugural Disney 1/2 IM.
How many hours do you train a week?
It varies from week to week. I would say around 10-12 hours. Right now it's longer because I'm building up to my longest week which I plan to do around 14 hours then begin a taper for 3 weeks before the race.
What are your goals for this race?
First of all, I just want to finish. My secondary goal is to finish in under nine hours. Last year in Spain I did 9:26, but had a lot of other medical issues in my way so had a tough time in training as well as the race.
I would like to hopefully qualify for short course duathlon or triathlon team. Let's face it. Being on the national team is awesome, but to go all the way to Europe I think it would be a whole lot more fun to do a race that's < 3 hours long rather than one that's > 9!! It's easier the next day to enjoy the sights (and walk!)
I want my kids to appreciate the rewards that come with pursuit and dedication to a goal, figure out what that goal is and be patient and diligent enough to work at it until they achieve it.
If you could tell one beginner the most important thing to concentrate on when they’re training for their first triathlon what would that thing be?
Listen to your body, especially when adding anything new (i.e. longer distances or speed work). If you treat your body right, it will treat you right.
You went to world’s last year, tell us about that experience.
It was an awesome experience. I met my first teammate on the plane from Madrid to Ibiza. As soon as we got to the hotel, she decided we ought to go for a swim to help get rid of jet lag. HOLY COW! That was this Floridian's first experience with 63 degree water! I gradually met most of my teammates and we were immediately like a family.
There were athletes from Denmark, Australia (incredible partiers!) and other countries staying at the same hotel. Breakfast was like a UN meeting, as was training on the bike course with members of other countries. Being a flatlander, I had a hard time going up a 4K mountain, and a German woman came up with me during a practice and gave me pointers.
In the months before we even left for Spain, we were getting forwarded messages sent by the State Dept. to USAT talking about the potential danger against Americans with the war in full swing, and at one point there was a possibility that the support staff (manager, M.D., massage therapists, mechanic, etc) might not go because of it. They all did end up going, but we were a little nervous before the Parade of Nations. We all lined up in
alphabetical order and participated in the parade which ended up in a center plaza. One by one they called each nation to stand on the dais for a picture before taking their place in the center of the square. We were
still nervous about how we would be received, but when they announced Estados Unidos, there was a huge roar of applause! We were all relieved and excited. I got goose bumps! It was great.
The race itself was very well run and organized. My sister, who went to Spain with me, volunteered at the race. She was glad she did. They gave her a volunteer's sweatshirt and t-shirt, and she got to be in the thick of
it all because she was working the transition area.
Everyone at the race was so nice. There fans cheering along most of the course, shouting "Animo, Animo"! (someone roughly translated it to me as, "keep it up", or "way to go"). I can't believe I got up that 4K climb twice (of course, the bike course was 2 loops!) but I finished.
Knowing that it's not just the regular competition attending, but people from around the world who are just as thrilled at representing their countries as I am.
What is the atmosphere like at Worlds?
Emotions are much more amplified. The competitors are much more intense about the race, and those like me who are just excited to be competing on a world level are in awe. Everyone is great.
How do people react when you tell them you are on the USA’s Triathlon Team?
Other athletes initially assume I'm really fast (but disappointed when they hear my times!) and it takes them a while realize that regular people can be on the team. Non-athletes have a hard time understanding why I go such distances in the first place.
Thanks. I'll need it!
*Sharon finished in 8:50:08 , well under her desired time. See her Race Report HERE.