This is Jessica Demello’s year.
After beating more than 1,000 other women to take first-place overall at Ironman Florida in November, the Baton Rouge triathlete drew the attention of the world of endurance racing.
Now she will train most of 2016 to test herself at October’s Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii.
Demello, 31, loves racing, training and pushing her mind in the grueling Ironman races, which last 10 hours or more.
“I do it for the competition and for the challenge,” says Demello. “As a competitor, you fight to win, and you fight mentally and physically and you ultimately want to push yourself further each race. And having the satisfaction of achieving the goals you set for yourself, there is nothing more satisfactory than that.”
While Demello’s triathlon success has come just in the past five years, it may have been her destiny.
Always competitive, Demello grew up in an athletic family in Shreveport. She played soccer, swam in a summer league and, most of all, looked forward to elementary and middle school field days, when students would race each other.
“I wanted to beat everyone,” she says. “I wanted to beat the boys, I wanted to beat the girls. I wanted my parents to be proud.”
Her father, an exercise physiologist at LSU Shreveport, knew she was made for long-distance running and endurance sports.
As a teen, Demello’s father would perform tests on her as an example for his classes. She would wear an oxygen mask while running on a treadmill to gauge her VO2 max, which measures the amount of oxygen an athlete can use.
The results showed an aptitude for endurance sports.
“My dad always said, ‘You’re a runner, not a soccer player,” she says. “Even though I loved soccer, he knew I would excel more at running.”
Competitive soccer ended after high school, and while Demello studied biology at LSU, she “just kind of hung everything up.”
She joined a sorority and describes herself at that time as “a college party animal who was only seen running to the bar” and occasionally for exercise.
Then, in need of a job, Demello began working at Varsity Sports. At first she was annoyed by the running groups that met there, and she swore she would never run anything as long as a half-marathon.
After finishing college in 2006, with more free time available, she started joining the groups and raced a few times.
“I realized this was fun,” she says. “It’s even more fun as an adult.”
In 2009, she borrowed a bike and entered her first triathlon, a shorter sprint-length race in Shreveport. Without taking it all that seriously — she sat down in the transition areas between the swim, bike and run instead of hustling to the next discipline — Demello finished well enough to pique her interest.
In 2012 she took on her first full Ironman-length race in Florida and qualified for the world championships in Hawaii. There she placed 11th in her age group.
These long, tough races suited her, just like her dad had said.
“She’s a natural, but when you’re talking about competing against the best, it takes a lot of work, too,” says Will Jones, her coach and fiance. “She works, very, very hard with the ability that she has.”
While she accumulated winning results, the races challenged her. Tire punctures during the bike leg and injuries sidelined her. Developing mental strength for the arduous races mattered most.
“There are so many things that can go wrong,” she says. “The ability to handle those situations is your biggest strength.”
Preparing for last November’s Ironman Florida race, Jones, who owns 4th Dimension Fitness, thought she could win overall. It was the first time no professionals would compete there.
“He probably had more faith in me than I did,” she says.
She won by 20 minutes.
Now the triathlon world will be watching her in Kona, Hawaii, at the world championship.
First, she and Jones will wed in February. In April she plans to run the Boston Marathon, then begin training for the championship.
With a good result in Kona, Demello may decide to go professional and train full-time. She definitely has the ability to compete professionally, Jones says, but Demello worries that may cause her to lose her passion for the sport.
“Giving up my career (manager at Varsity Sports) — which actually pays bills — to take this leap of faith and put it into my training in hopes that I can compete is a big risk,” she says. “Is it one I’m willing to take?”
That’s a question Demello will have to answer in October.