It was still dark out on a recent Wednesday morning when a group of about a dozen triathletes of all ages and abilities got into the water at the YMCA’s Paula G. Manship branch in Southside.
Three of those are women who not only compete in triathlons in the over 55 age group: All three — Kathy Kliebert, Dianne Casalena and Renee Rodi — completed their first triathlons after turning 50.
There was just enough light for most of the group to see the minute clock hanging on the wall outside. Their coach, Anne Shawhan, gave them instructions for their next training drill, telling them to start at the top of the minute.
“Ready,” said Shawhan, who was a five-time All-American swimmer at Florida State University.
“Wait!” yelled one of her athletes, pulling up her swim goggles. “I can’t see the clock.”
“OK,” Shawhan said. “I’ll call it out.”
That’s not unusual, Shawhan said, when you train athletes over 55, she laughed. Apart from that, in Shawhan’s opinion, age is nothing but a number. She puts them through the same rigorous, hour-plus of swim training and doesn’t give them any breaks when she knows they can do it.
And they can.
“It was Anne’s fault,” said Casalena, 58, who works as a landman for Williams Companies, said of her triathlon career. “I went to a pre-retirement seminar, and they suggested developing hobbies, so I started swimming.”
It turned into this far more involved hobby when she started training with Shawhan, then at a fitness club.
But it’s a hobby she loves. You have to have a passion for it, Shawhan said, if you’re going to be willing to get to the pool every Monday, Wednesday and Friday by 5 a.m. to fit practice in around a work schedule.
“I don’t really train as much as I’d like,” she said, because she still travels a lot for work. Swimming is only one-third of the formula. The group also runs and bikes together.
“You don’t really compete against each other,” Casalena said. Or, at least, you don’t have to. Casalena focuses on beating her own best times.
She and Rodi, 57, both did well enough at regional competitions to qualify for the Hy-Vee Triathlon 5150 National Championships, which is in August in Des Moines, Iowa. The top 15 finishers in each age group qualify, Shawhan said.
The Hy-Vee is an Olympic-distance triathlon, which is a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run, for a total of 51.5 kilometers — or 5150.
Triathlons are about as varied as the participants. Rodi started her tri career at 55 when she signed up for the RocketChix, which is a sprint tri: 200-yard pool swim, 12-mile bike ride and 2-mile run. “I barely made it through that race,” she said.
She’s made quite a bit of progress in the last two years.
“I set goals for myself, and those goals only put me in the middle of the pack, really, but I swam 50 (meters) in under a minute today,” she said.
Probably her biggest challenge in starting triathlons was the swimming. She couldn’t swim until she started training, in fact. Now, it’s her favorite of the three tri components.
It’s not as unusual as you’d think among triathletes, Shawhan said.
“I always thought I couldn’t swim because I just never learned how,” said Kliebert, 58, who did her first tri when she was 51. “When I took swimming lessons for the first time — it was at the Y, actually — I quickly realized that I was afraid to put my face in the water. For the first two years I raced, I did the backstroke for the swim.”
After working with Shawhan, she got over her fear, and now, oddly enough, it’s become a vital stress reliever.
“I still don’t like the feeling of putting my head in the water at first,” Kliebert said, but it doesn’t last long anymore. Later that day, she would testify before the state legislature in her capacity as Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Services, and it can be tense.
“It’s not the competition in the races, that’s not why I do this. It’s the feeling of relief when I’m in the water. I focus on that, and nothing else,” she said. While Kliebert has completed a 5150 tri, she mostly trains for sprint races now.
Though they may not do much talking as they train, the whole group, including the three women, train as a team in part because it provides a support system, Shawhan said.
The group is swimming at the YMCA until renovations are completed at the LSU natatorium later this year.