Local Triathlete Ignores Injury, Competes Anyway

On any given day, Phipps could run 13.1 miles, swim 1.2 miles and pedal a bike for another 56 miles. If faced with fetching a five-pound bag of sugar from the bottom grocery shelf, however, or reaching for a cup of coffee, she’s not too sure if it’s worth it. “I’d have to think about that first before trying it,” she said. And therein lies the enigma of Phipps, a world-class triathlete on the weekends competing with an injury that could cripple her.

By world-class, I mean that Phipps, 38 — whose day job is consulting biomedical scientist — was a licensed, card-carrying professional triathlete. As recently as the Capital of Texas Triathlon in May, for example, Phipps finished sixth among elite female competitors and fifth among all 180 women in the event. She was 76th among a field of 690 competitors.

Not bad for a woman who’s close to being disabled, thanks to a pair of bulging discs that popped up during a May 2014 competition. Phipps was able to finish that triathlon, but did so in a lot of pain.

Doctors diagnosed the problem shortly afterward.

“They told me I should find another hobby,” she said. “I wanted to cry, but I didn’t cry in the doctor’s office.”

She cried in the car instead, fairly certain her athletic career — a large part her life the past 15 years — was over.

Phipps, a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, took up the triathlon two years after graduating from Hood College in Maryland in 1999, where she had played basketball. She noticed a neighbor training for a triathlon, joined her on practice runs and ran her first marathon in 2001. She turned professional in 2005 and maintained her status by the time she enrolled at Florida State to pursue her doctorate in 2009.

In order to remain professional, Phipps agreed only to run races that had more than 500 competitors and more than $5,000 in prize money. She also had to end up ranking in the top 8 percent of female finishers every time.

At any given time, there are only 400 or so professional triathletes nationwide, so this was a big deal.

She competed as a pro for nine years, giving up her card in January 2014 and hoping to take a more relaxed approach to the triathlon.

Then came the injury, the diagnosis and that heartbreaking moment in her car.

Phipps dried her tears and got back to work. Under a trainer’s supervision, she has strengthened the muscles surrounding the injured discs.

Armed with that new strength and a new plan, Phipps now runs with renewed focus. In the past, the running was about pace, timing and strategy.

Now, she’s thinking about those elements and keeping the adjacent muscles flexed as she runs.

If she takes her mind off the back injury to daydream about pizza, for example, even for a few seconds, she could damage her back and make it worse.

Upon Phipps’ return to running, she has been part of a winning 200-mile relay team. She ran a half-triathlon in New Orleans. Her last event was the 70.3-mile event in Austin.

In each case, and from now on, Phipps faces serious injury every time she competes athletically.

And this begs the question — Is Phipps nuts?

Not necessarily, says Julie Wiernik, a licensed sport and performance psychologist in San Antonio.

“Sports isn’t simply about the sport,” said Wiernik, a former scholarship softball player at the University of North Florida. “It’s more than that. It’s about the motivation and what the sport means to the athlete.

“If the sport is something that they’ve been doing for a long time, or if it’s something that has helped define them, it’s got a lot of significance in their life. If the sport is part of their identity, hanging it up means hanging up part of themselves. That’s not easy to do.”

In other words, Phipps might not be Phipps if she stops.

“You ask (these athletes) if it’s worth the risk of injury and they’ll say ‘Yes, it’s freaking worth it.”

And there’s your answer. Phipps isn’t nuts. When she does 70.3 miles on foot, bike and in the water, she’s just being herself … with a bad back.

rbragg@express-news.net

Twitter: @roybragg

August 20, 2015 | Blog, News, Press | Comments Off on Local Triathlete Ignores Injury, Competes Anyway

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