It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the triathlon. It's simple: The race has three torture chambers--swimming, cycling, running. We can all do a little of that, at one speed or another. ¬∂ It doesn't take a rocket scientist to be a triathlete: In fact, as Susan Williams can attest, it can even hurt. "Before a race I'll think too much about how to make my bike more streamlined," says the 36-year-old pro, who earned a master's degree in aerospace engineering at Colorado. "I'll wrap my race number around the seat post to make it more aerodynamically sound, only to have it fall off halfway through the ride." Which is another way of saying that fastening signs to your 10-speed is not exactly rocket science.
Williams is the Trident III of U.S. triathletes. Flying under the radar at the Athens Olympics last summer--ranked fifth among American women and not among the world's top 25--the 5' 5" 130-pounder rallied from a minor bike crash, whizzed like a heat-seeking missile past celebrated teammates Barb Lindquist and Sheila Taormina, and won the bronze medal.
Earlier this month Williams hit pay dirt again, accomplishing something Al Capone never did: She succeeded in the Escape from Alcatraz. Williams won the prestigious triathlon of that name, a San Francisco event that starts with a 1 1/2-mile swim through the frigid waters off the infamous prison island and ends with an eight-mile run capped by a climb up scores of sand steps.
Williams savored her Escape as she might a space-shuttle liftoff. "I enjoyed the cycling best," she says. "Cycling is my real strength. It's the discipline where I try to make up the seconds I lose in the other two."
June 26, 2005
This is a theme Williams often reverts to--so much to do, so little time. She trains hard, but not like she did in the years before Athens. Back then, when not working out, Williams was often working in the Littleton, Colo., offices of Lockheed Martin Aerospace. She helped create a Titan-4 launch vehicle and brainstormed on the Mars Surveyor. "That Mars mission failed, but I don't think it was my fault," she says. "I sure hope it wasn't."
Five years ago, in the first of two U.S. team trials for the Sydney Olympics, Williams missed a berth by 13 seconds. The day before the second qualifying race she learned she was six weeks pregnant. "My husband, Tim, and I weren't sure how to react," she says. "Should we be elated about the baby or disappointed at the timing?" Elation trumped disappointment. Battling morning sickness, Williams placed sixth, not good enough to make the team. "At least I got to tell people that my kid raced in the Olympic trials," she cracks. When the kid was born the following winter, she was named Sydney.
In 2003 Williams quit her part-time job at Lockheed to prep full time for the Athens Games. Encouraged by Tim, she left home to train in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Unheralded--Williams had never won a world title or even a World Cup race--she earned the third and final spot on the U.S. team in the third and final trial. The rest is current events.
"Had I placed fourth at the Olympics," she says, "I would've been thrilled, my coach would've been thrilled, Tim would've been thrilled, but the public wouldn't have cared less about me. I'm happy that they do care."
She lives in Littleton in an unpretentious town house in an unpretentious development with Sydney, Tim and Merlyn, an Australian shepherd rescued from a pound. Merlyn is named for Merlin, the brand of bike Williams rode to Olympic bronze. "It was my idea to stick the y in Merlyn," she says. "I wanted to make it look more feminine."
The youngest of four Navy brats in a family that lived in Hawaii, Virginia and California, Williams grew up with two dreams--to become an astronaut and to compete in the Olympics. Dream One entailed piloting the first rocket to Mars. "It's just as well that never happened," she says. "I get claustrophobic."
Dream Two took shape in a community pool. It was there, gazing at a Nerf ball, that the seven-year-old realized you can't spell Susan without USA.
Her love of swimming was instilled by her father. A skilled scuba diver, Capt. Charles Bartholomew supervised the salvage of the space shuttle Challenger and coordinated the Navy's cleanup operation during the Exxon Valdez disaster. He chronicled his life in the 1990 memoir Mud, Muscle and Miracles.
"Susan has my dad's drive and dedication," says Lisa Turner, Williams's half sister. Not long ago the Turner and Williams clans vacationed together on a Lake Powell houseboat. Susan mounted a bike trainer on the roof and pedaled while everyone else partied. The running joke was that she powered the boat. "Even as a teen she was obsessive about keeping in shape," Turner says.
At 15 Susan set the junior national record in the 200-meter butterfly. She won a scholarship to Alabama, but her swimming career sputtered. As a freshman she contracted mononucleosis. As a sophomore she broke both arms roller-skating. As a junior her parents separated. A year later her father died while diving off the Florida coast. He was 50. "Dad's death affected Susan profoundly," says Turner. Dream Two was deferred.
In grad school Williams joined the triathlon club and excelled. Sixteen months after buying her first racing bike, she placed third at the 1996 nationals. On the plane home she sat beside a meet official. "That was cool," Williams told him. "But now I've got to go home and do some real work."
"Or," the official said, "you could make this your real work."
Williams did, turning pro in '97. She was solid if unspectacular, winning a half ironman in St. Croix two years ago and garnering top five finishes in a half-dozen other elite races. In 2003, with Athens looming, Williams decided she needed a new coach. She hired Siri Lindley, the '02 world champ. Lindley intensified Williams's workouts and toughened her mental game. By the opening ceremonies Williams had shaved 45 seconds off her time in the 10-kilometer run.
Nowadays, Williams imparts Lindley's lessons to the 15 triathletes she coaches. Being the only American ever to win a medal in the event gives her cachet. "It's like, Gosh, if she won a bronze in the Olympics, she must know what she's doing," says Williams.
What she's doing next is the Buffalo Springs Lake Half Ironman on Sunday near Lubbock. Williams is using Buffalo Springs to prepare for the Life Time Fitness Triathlon on July 16 in Minneapolis. The LTFT is the only pro event that pits men against women--using a handicap start. First prize in this year's race totals $200,000. To date, Williams's biggest purse has been $12,000.
Rocket Woman thinks she still has a couple years of racing in her, and she won't rule out the Olympics in 2008. Everything may hinge on whether she gets pregnant again. This time she's actually trying. Success might put her out of the running (and the swimming and cycling). "I'd love to have a second child," Williams says. "As for the name.... "
If the baby is a girl, the people's choice is Athena, in memory of Mom's bronze. Unfortunately, says Williams, that's also a term for heavy female triathletes. "I wouldn't call a girl Athena," she says. "That would be like calling a boy Clydesdale."
If, on the other hand, Williams has decent results in Beijing and then gets pregnant, the call would be obvious. "Whatever the sex," she says, "it would be fun to name a baby Beige."
"You could make this your REAL WORK," a triathlon official told Williams as she headed back to her job at Lockheed Martin