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Swim, bike and run? How about parent, CEO and coach? All the while, Heather Gollnick remains a top triathlete.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 27, 2007
Heather Gollnick stretches out after a run with friends in Bradenton. Gollnick, a three-time Ironman champion, also balances a coaching career, a hectic travel schedule and helping raise three children.
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Heather Gollnick wears a pinkie ring with the symbol of her favorite sport, Ironman.
[The Arizona Republic]
Heather Gollnick hugs her children after winning an Ironman event in Tempe, Ariz., on April 15. Earlier this year, she finished second at an event in New Zealand to remain among the top triathletes in the world.
BRADENTON -- Heather Gollnick is sitting inside the Naked Bean coffee shop, chatting with some old friends from California when her three young children burst through the entrance, trailed by their dad, and rush over to get their morning hugs. At a moment like this, the term Ironman hardly seems to describe the blond-haired woman with the well-toned, well-tanned 5-foot-3 physique. Ironmom seems more like it.
In fact, Gollnick is both -- a busy mother of 10-year-old twins Joshua and Jordan and 7-year-old Zachary; and four-time Ironman champion in the United States, not to mention a consistent top-five contender on the world scene.
"How are you guys doing?" she says with a broad smile. The two boys are jumping up and down; their sister, Jordan, is giggling. She stands a few feet away, supported by little canes. Doctors once told Heather and her husband, Todd, that their daughter, born with cerebral palsy, would never walk. But Jordan was determined to keep up with her active brothers and worked hard not to be dependent on her wheelchair. She progressed to a walker, then to her canes and now keeps up just fine.
"She's my biggest inspiration," says Gollnick, 37. "The first Ironman I did was in Madison, Wis., and it's such a distance, you don't really know how to pace yourself. Well, I got into the run, and I was physically and mentally finished. I was just ready to start walking, and at that very time, I saw Jordan on the sidelines.
"She was still in a wheelchair, and I thought, 'She would do anything to run.' So it totally motivated me to get going. And I think of Jordan every time I'm in a race and I want to stop or slow down."
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Slowing down is a foreign concept to Gollnick, who moved with her family from Wisconsin to Lakewood Ranch two years ago - and travels the world to compete in Ironman events, with races lasting nine hours-plus for top-tier women.
A world-class triathlon such as this weekend's St. Anthony's event in St. Petersburg is tough enough, covering the Olympic distances of a 1.5-kilometer (1 mile) swim, 40-kilometer (26-mile) bike and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and culminated by a full marathon (26.2 miles).
"So when you watch St. Anthony's," she says, "it would be like I would do it four times in a row without stopping."
Gollnick will be at the 24th annual race Sunday, but not to compete. She'll be on hand to watch some of the two dozen athletes she has been coaching -- one on one and in her camps and clinics -- from around the country. In fact, her IronEdge Coaching program was named the official training company of the St. Anthony's Triathlon -- with Gollnick providing 12- and 16-week regimens leading up to the event.
Gollnick, as company CEO and personal trainer, has coached more than 100 athletes for Ironman triathlons over the past two years - via training packages she customizes for her clients, reviewing data and progress weekly via phone and e-mail. Her athletes range from first-timers to pros who have competed at the national and world level.
Still, Gollnick's main claim to fame is as a competitor. Last month, despite coming off a sinus infection, she finished second in the women's Ironman event in New Zealand with a time of 9:28:16 - behind winner Joanna Lawn's 9:20:02.
Then barely two weeks ago, Gollnick followed up by overtaking 2004 Olympian Joanna Zieger to win the Ford Ironman in Tempe, Ariz., in 9:36:40 - less than a minute ahead of Zieger. A year earlier, Zieger had defeated Gollnick in the Women's Professional Ironman Championship in Idaho.
"Heather's performance in the first six weeks of the season this year has just been incredible," says Philip LaHay, director of the St. Anthony's Triathlon. "She goes to New Zealand and takes second, then her win in Arizona six weeks later was huge. ... To be able to run someone like Joanna down, off of a great performance six weeks earlier in New Zealand, is just an amazing accomplishment."
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Gollnick has been accomplishing big things for most of her life. The middle of three sisters, she was always an active child growing up in Wisconsin, and her parents enrolled her in gymnastics to channel her boundless energy. She was a standout on a state championship team at Brookfield Central High near Milwaukee.
"And while I was on the high school gymnastics team, there was a very cute boy I saw across the balcony," she recalls.
A member of the Brookfield boys gymnastics team, Todd Gollnick, had caught her eye. She was 14, he was 16. But they got to know each other and started dating. College put their relationship on hold, as she earned her degree in corporate fitness/sports management at Valparaiso and he attended Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Gollnick's first job after graduating in 1992 was at a corporate fitness center for General Electric, and she organized a triathlon. "That was my introduction to triathlons," she says. Soon after, she started competing in them on a recreational basis.
And that old flame from high school? They resumed their relationship and married in 1996. "We've known each other 23 years now," Gollnick says with a smile.
The couple has been through a lot together. They were still in Wisconsin when their twins were born prematurely 10 years ago.
"There was a lot of trouble for them and we suspected from the beginning that Jordan was having difficulties," Heather says. "She was about a year old when we knew for sure."
The Gollnicks built a home with handicapped access so Jordan could move around in a wheelchair. "We never coddled her, like, 'Oh, let me carry you here,' " Heather says. "As a parent, you do have a tendency to feel bad for her. My mom wanted to do everything for her. But I said, 'Mom, you have to let her try to get dressed, even if it takes her a half an hour.' She's got to learn to take care of herself."
Being a pro triathlete with three kids makes Gollnick a bit unusual on the circuit, and she often finds herself giving advice to women competitors on how to balance racing and parenting.
Her husband, a former teacher, helps run the business side of IronEdge coaching, managing high-end sponsorship deals plus camps and clinics. He also has the flexibility to care for Jordan and her brothers -- both active Little Leaguers -- when his wife is away competing.
The coaching business supplements her earnings from racing and sponsorships, and there is decent money to be made competing. Winners of Ironman events in the United States can earn up to $12,000 a pop, and the winner of the St. Anthony's Triathlon will win $10,000.
When school schedules permit, he takes them to his wife's races, where they always greet her at the finish line in their Team Gollnick T-shirts.
"I consider us very fortunate," he says. "Heather has had a fantastic career, and she's only getting better. So any way that I can support her, that's what I want to be able to do."
They base their training camps out of the Village Bike Shop at Lakewood Ranch, which owner/cyclist Ed Levins runs along with the adjoining Naked Bean. "The great thing about Heather is she's a working mom - and world-class triathlete," he says.
Since turning pro in 2001, Gollnick has been one of the sport's most consistent stars, highlighted by her finish as top U.S. woman in the 2004 World Ironman Championships in Hawaii.
Still, one race means more to her than any of her impressive triumphs. In 2006, Jordan decided she wanted to enter a quarter-mile kids run at Disney World before a half-Ironman event. She competed, holding herself upright with her canes, moving forward step by step. She'd fall but get back up and keep walking, far behind the rest of the children.
"Jordan was the last one to finish by forever," Heather recalls. "But everyone was waiting for her at the finish line. And she had this big smile on her face. She was so proud."
Heather Gollnick Age: 37 Resides: Bradenton, with husband Todd and children Joshua, 10, Jordan, 10, and Zachary, 7 Highlights: Four-time Ironman champion and past national and world champion at the duathlon and triathlon level. Fastest American woman at the 2004 Ironman world championships in Hawaii. Other victories: 2003 Ironman USA Coeur d'Alene, 2002 and 2003 ironman Wisconson Coaching: Runs IronEdge coaching in Bradenton to help athletes of all skill levels train for Ironman and triathlon competitions Links:www.heathergollnick.com; www.ironedgecoaching.com