By DAVE PAXTON
Editor and Publisher
When Albia cross country coach Todd Ratliff coaxed his sixth grade student Tara Scieszinski to try cross country as a seventh grader, while playing volleyball at the same time, it’s likely he wasn’t thinking his former pupil would be among the qualifiers for the Triathlon World Championship in Switzerland next summer.
Neither did Scieszinski, who graduated from Albia Community High School in 2006 as the most highly decorated female track and cross country runner at the time.
“I was a terrible runner as a seventh grader,” she said.
Obviously that first year as a cross country runner was an anomaly as the petite multi-sport athlete moved on as a state qualifier in both cross country and track, ran four years for Drake University and during her time at Drake was introduced to the triathlon, a sport combining distance running, swimming and biking.
It took a little perseverance and a little globe trotting but Scieszinski qualified for the world championship by competing in Cleveland, Ohio in a race that turned out to be a duathlon because of rough water in Lake Eerie.
Scieszinski is living at her parent’s (Mike and Marilee) home right now, working as a graphic designer for Prime Social Group, a company that promotes concerts. “I came home for my sister’s wedding and decided to stay awhile,” she said. With all the hills she could hope for in running and bicycle training and Lake Rathbun as a training venue for swimming, it’s been a good fit.
The whole idea of triathlon is also a good fit for an elite athlete who loved to play virtually every sport Albia offered in high school. She was a very good point guard on the basketball team, played on one of Albia’s state tournament softball teams as a second baseman, continued to double up in volleyball and cross country through her sophomore year and doubled up in track and golf for a year before concentrating on track in the spring.
“I’ve never understood this whole move toward specializing in one sport in high school,” she said. “To be honest, playing multiple sports helped take the pressure off me in cross country and track. I think any elite athlete will benefit in the long run from playing lots of different sports.”
She said her mentality as a junior high athlete was to compete well enough in cross country and track to eventually play college soccer.
She didn’t reach all of the goals she had set for herself in high school cross country, battling stress fractures in her feet, but still managed to qualify three times at state in cross country, three times in the Drake Relays and twice at the state track meet.
She ran in the top five her freshman year at Drake, then struggled with injuries as a sophomore. “Probably the best thing I did was take a year off to study in Milan, Italy after my sophomore year,” she said. “I came back a lot healthier and ran in the top three my junior year and top two my senior year.” It was in Italy where she ran her first half marathon.
In 2008 she was introduced to the Hy-Vee triathlon in Des Moines and did about one triathlon a year for the next five years, “just for fun.”
Moving to Columbus, Ohio, she started taking the cross training more seriously and began competing a half dozen times a year. The triathlon Scieszinski runs is a half-mile swim, a 12.5 mile bike ride and a 5K run. “I haven’t considered doing an Ironman,” she said. The Ironman triathlon includes a 150-mile bike ride, a mile swim and full marathon.
As she has continued to compete, she has upgraded her equipment, purchasing a specialized bicycle and has sought out better coaching. Times for the triathlon are somewhat irrelevant because of weather conditions and distances that are not always exact, but typically she’ll be out for a little over an hour. Competing in the Cleveland event she finished in the top 10, but didn’t swim. However, she entered another qualifying race in Sarasota, Fla., and had another top 10 finish competing in all three events. As a member of Team USA, she will compete with 20 other women ages 30-34 on Sept. 1 in Lousanne, Switzerland, swimming in Lake Geneva.
“They say the weather will be perfect, but it’s likely I will swim in a wet suit because of the water temperature,” she said.
For anyone who has competed in a triathlon (even a mini-triathlon) moving from swimming to biking to running is brutal as athletes go from wet and some times very cold, climbing on a bike to finally running. Different muscle groups are used in each event creating a complete athletic experience.
During the summer season, Scieszinski will typically train from two to four hours a day, often breaking up the workouts morning and evening. Her new passion is not for the faint of heart. A bicycle crash resulted in a broken wrist and a bad case of road rash and when she trains at Lake Rathbun, she always has someone with her (usually her mom) in a boat so an unsuspecting boater or jet ski rider doesn’t hit her in the water.
With most of her serious leg and foot injuries behind her, Scieszinski is looking forward to a long career. “People who do triathlon tend to have longer careers than other crazy sports,” she said. “I think a lot of that has to do with cross training.”
She’ll continue to cross train this winter (using indoor pool facilities) until the season begins next June, then have three months to prepare to compete on the world stage in Switzerland.