I recently had the privilege of talking triathlon with long time TCSD member Claudia Flynn. For not being any kind of athlete as a young person, she has had an absolutely amazing triathlon career. She gives hope to everyone still standing on the sidelines. I know you will enjoy getting to know Claudia.
Craig: What sports did you do as a child?
Claudia: I grew up in Bogota, Colombia. Sports was not part of my family lifestyle. The only type of exercise when I was a child was on Sundays, when the whole family would drive to the countryside, pick an open grassy field and set-up a picnic. My mom would bring pans and pots and cook a full meal on site. We would play soccer or just play around until it was time to eat. I had fond memories of just eating, playing and having a good family time. My parents didn’t have much money, but they loved us and worked really hard to give us kids an education. For them it was really important that all of us graduated with a career. Growing up in Colombia was not always fun because of the battle with the guerilla and the drug dealers. It was unsafe and dangerous at times, but we remained upbeat and never lost faith. We learned to appreciate simple things in life, like “just being alive”, to live life to the fullest, and to not take anything for granted.
Craig: When did you start participating in sports and how did that come to be?
Claudia: In 1985, my boyfriend at that time in Colombia was an avid athlete. He was surprised that at age 19, I didn’t know how to ride a bike or swim. I was not interested in sports. I would rather study or watch his games while eating brownies. He convinced me to learn how to swim, but I couldn’t afford it. He paid for my classes so that I wouldn’t drown. When I left my country in 1994 and moved to United States, I felt I could exercise freely without worrying about being kidnapped, robbed or killed. However, I found myself going through a dark period for several years. I was struggling with my marriage, depression, eating disorders, alcohol abuse and even suicidal thoughts. My therapist suggested that I needed to find an outlet that would provide a relief for all of the things that I was dealing with. She suggested some form of exercise, so I started doing yoga and walking. Jogging/running just a block was quite hard for me. I remember running my first mile ever. I was thrilled I hadn’t died. I kept running/jogging until I could run 1 hour without stopping and soon signed up for my first 5K. I completed the Carlsbad 5000 in March 2000 and then did my first half marathon in Camp Pendleton (Heartbreak Ridge) in Sept 2000. It was so hard, but exciting. I was smiling the whole way. I felt free & safe. I was totally hooked. I did my first marathon (San Diego Rock and Roll) in June 2001. I honestly didn’t know how to train for it. On race day, I never used the porta-potty, ate or drank because I didn’t know if I had to pay for it. Only after the finish line when I found out it was free, I got some hydration and nutrition. It took me 4h 48min to do it and I savored every minute of it. I was slow, but I had made it to the finish line with a big smile! That day I realized I could do anything If I had the right mindset. It was a turning point for me. I got divorced, got out of the darkness & got my life back.
Craig: How did you get introduced to triathlon and TCSD?
Claudia: One of my coworkers and a friend, Debby Watry, was doing triathlons and mentioned to me the benefits of becoming a TCSD member. I promised her that once I got a bike and learned how to ride, I would try one. The challenge of completing 3 sports in one day was very appealing. I got my baby Holland road bike in April 2006 and joined TCSD in June 2006. Debby told me about a TriClub Olympic distance race that weekend in Glorietta Bay in Coronado. I had not swum in years and only in a pool, never open water. She assured me the bay was calm. I said OK! I was nervous about the distance and questioned myself if I could do it, but I went for it anyway. Once I got into that dirty slimy water, I couldn’t bring myself to put my face in, so I swam back stroke the entire 0.9 mile. The volunteer kayaker kept telling me where to go. I was obviously the last one exiting the water and spent a few minutes thanking and hugging him for helping me out, until he reminded me that I was racing. I passed people on the bike and the run and made it to finish line with a big smile on my face. I was hooked with triathlons. I loved the whole atmosphere, camaraderie and friendship of the club. I wanted to have that exhilarating feeling for the rest of my life.
Craig: You said you learned how to swim at age 19 and only swam in pool. Were you afraid of the ocean? How did you overcome it?
Claudia: Yes. I was terrified of the ocean because I watched the movie “Jaws” when I was 12 years old and that really traumatized me. Back at home, I was in my 20’s when I first saw the ocean, but I never went in. I joined the TCSD group swim at La Jolla Shores for my first official ocean swim in July 2006 (my 2nd open water ever). I started swimming with the group, but the ocean was quite choppy, so I couldn’t keep up with them. Suddenly, I was all alone and panicked. I swam to a small red buoy and held it tightly. I started praying to St. Anthony to help me out. Thankfully TCSD member Darrell Steele saw me and came to rescue me at the buoy. He became my savior. He was kind and calm and told me to just breathe and let go of the buoy when I was ready. He needed to do a mile swim and if I was up for it, he would stay with me swimming alongside me. I’m forever thankful to him for rescuing me that day. Another friend, Sally Johnson who I met at JCC, helped me with other ocean swims. She used to tell me, “Claudia, look at all the beautiful creatures”. I would say, “ yes, yes”, but in reality, I had my eyes closed anytime I put my face in the water. I was too scared to see things. In fact, the day I finally opened my eyes to see, I saw something following me, I was getting nervous. We stopped and I told her there is some “creature” scaring me. She made me realize that the scary thing was the letters “zoot” on the sleeve of my wetsuit. We had a good laugh about it. Anyway, only years later after my friend Maren Lee Watts joined us in 2009, I started loving the ocean. Now, ironically, I would rather swim in the ocean year-round than a pool. I do my best to help other “newbies” to get comfortable with open water and appreciate the beauty it has to offer.
Craig: What was your first paid triathlon like?
Claudia: My very first paid triathlon was Los Angeles Olympic Triathlon in Venice Beach in September 2006 (my 2nd triathlon ever). The waves were huge 8-10 foot. I was really scared and really should not have been in that race. I only had a few open water swim (OWS) practices and definitely with not that kind of high surf. I was terrified by the waves and had no idea how to get past them. I tried to get past the waves three times only to be rescued three times, nearly drowning on third attempt. I prayed to my Dad in heaven to get me out of there, after being rescued for the third time by the same volunteer! He told me, “lady, you can’t do this. The waves are big and strong, time to quit. I’m not rescuing you anymore.” I was scared and exhausted by then. I removed the time chip from my ankle, and I was going to return it when I saw some of the girls in my age group exiting the water. They had swum the distance and I felt like a wimp. I told myself, “I’m not a quitter. I can’t give up. If they could do it, I can do it”. I didn’t have time to look for my husband to let him know I was ok, and that I was going to try one more time. A girl volunteer told me to run 50 yards or so, north on the beach and try again. She was right, the waves were not so bad there. I was able to do the swim. I was the very last person out of the water. My husband was in tears when he saw me. He had thought the worst. I said, “It’s ok amore, I did it! time to kick butt now”. I passed people on the bike and the run and had one of my fastest 10K runs ever. I was happy to be alive and for not giving up. I was grateful to both volunteers who rescued and helped me that day.
Craig: You won a lottery slot to do the Ironman World Championships in Kona. What was your Kona experience like?
Claudia: In Sept 2014, I was in the water ready to race IM Lake Tahoe, when organizers canceled the race due to poor air quality from the King Fire in Sacramento. The 50 age group slots for Ironman World Championship 2015 were raffled among the Tahoe athletes and I was one of the lucky ones winning the lottery. I couldn’t believe it. My mom loved buying lotto tickets and used to tell me “Mija you are going to win the lottery someday”. I joked to my family saying, “Mom was right. I won the lottery”. Not what mom implied, but to me this was the best lotto win I could have asked for.
Kona was an unbelievable experience. Being surrounded by the best athletes in the world was surreal. I loved every minute & enjoyed the whole ambiance maybe a bit too much because instead of relaxing and tapering prior to race day, Michael, my friend Steve Bean and I walked 8-10 miles a day for the 4 days prior to race day just looking at the expo, attending the parade of nations, meeting the pros, getting ART by Gino, etc. I was in a total “high”. As it turned out, 2015 had one of the worst weathers in the history of the race, the temperature and humidity were in the high 90’s. On race day, the emotions and nerves were high. We were treading water for at least 5-8 mins before the cannon finally went off. Holy cow, that was a battle. Swimming without a wetsuit was not bad, except I swam ½ mile longer due to the current. During the bike, friends tracking me were impressed by how fast I was going the first 30 miles. Little did they know I had a very strong tail wind. However, turning towards Hawi, it was different story. The cross winds and rain started. On the way back from Hawi, the winds got worse especially the last 30 miles. I prayed the whole time I wouldn’t be blown away. Within 2 miles from transition, I heard Mike Reilly calling Jan Frodeno as the winner of the race. At that time, it came over me, I still have a marathon to run and he is done. Sh…! I started running and the heat kept rising. The volunteers were cooling us down with hoses, but one kid got a bit excited and drenched me completely; my shoes got soaking wet at mile 3 and from then on, I had to deal with the worst bloody blisters of my life. I really had to dig deep to keep going and keep smiling. I started cramping badly, too, and thankfully another athlete shared her salt with me. Once I got to Palani Road, mile 24, I heard the song “It’s a beautiful day by U2” and I didn’t mind the hill, the blisters and losing both of my big toenails. At that point, it just came down to tears. I had done it. I was able to race Kona among the best. Right before the finishing chute, I saw Steve and Michael who handed me a Colombian flag. It was such a nice and unexpected surprise. I ran exhilarated, proud and strong. The finishing chute in Kona is the most exciting & rewarding 300 yards of the whole race. The energy from the spectators hitting on the barricades, cheering you on and calling your name is out of this world. Mike Reilly called my name, “Claudia you are an Ironman”. TCSD members Gino Cinco and Tracy Cohen volunteering at the finish line welcomed me with a big hug. I was so grateful and blessed. Tracy put the brown nut lei over my head and although I thought it was pretty, she noticed my disappointment. I thought, “Holy sh… is this the medal for the World Championship? Tracy said, “Claudia, no, this is not your finishing medal. We have to go pick it up”. Michael, Steve, Tracy and I stayed 2 ½ hours longer until the last athlete finished the race. It was a very emotional moment to see what it meant to the athletes conquering that finish line.
If finishing Kona was not enough of a “high” for me, the icing on the cake was getting married 2 days after the race, to my best friend and the most loving supportive person in the world, Michael Satterlee, my husband. We had an intimate ceremony in Kukio beach north of Kona, with Steve -who is like a Dad to me- as a witness and 21 green sea turtles as guests. It was just perfect and magical. I wanted to celebrate with our love commitment, my mom’s life. She had passed 6 years prior in 2009, on that day, Oct 13th. Kona has indeed a special place in my heart.
Craig: Congratulations on completing the Florida Ultraman in February! What was that experience like?
Claudia: Ultraman Florida is a completely different experience from any race I had done before. It’s a 3-day event covering 321.6 miles. Day one is a 6.2 mile swim and 92 mile bike, day two is 171 mile bike and day three, 52.4 mile run. Each day has a 12-hour cut-off time. This race is by “invitation only” and only 50 athletes are chosen worldwide. The race course on the bike and run is not closed to traffic and there is no drafting allowed, not even in the swim. Athletes have to come to a complete stop, putting a foot down in every traffic light and stop sign to avoid penalty or DQ. Every athlete needs a kayak escort for the swim and “crew vehicle for support”. I had finished Ironman New Zealand in March 2019 with a high and lots of energy left in the tank. I knew my coach Shangrila Rendon was right. I was capable of doing longer distances. I had started building my resume since 2018 by doing ultra-distances again (200+ mile bike events, 50K trail runs and I had completed six IM events. Coach Shangrila encouraged me to apply for UMFL, but I did it with hesitation due to the cost, the training involved, my age, having a full-time job, not enough daylight and a myriad of other reasons, BUT, I sent in my application anyway. When I got the e-mail from the race directors that I was “invited to race”, it was like winning the Kona lottery all over again. WOW!! I was nervous but excited. I was accepted and it was real, now I had to get a training plan together and get my ass in shape for this monster of a race.
Training was on track until the bumpy road started. I had way too many setbacks including a visit to urgent care due to heat stroke, a bout of vertigo and the nagging little doubt that I couldn’t do this. I got into a deep emotional roller coaster during a period in my training. I was dealing with the pressure of having to find a new job after eighteen years, I was trying to find a new bike that would fit me and then just 4 weeks prior to the race I came up with strained TFL and ITB friction syndrome. However, Shangrila, my awesome crew (Michael, Steve Bean and Tracy Cohen), my family, friends and therapists kept me going with their encouraging words. I learned how to be patient, manage adversity and “callus the brain” like David Goggins says. Michael and I decided to drive from San Diego to Florida with our trailer and our two kitties, Shaunna and BC. Once we got to Clermont, FL and race central, all the fears started dissipating. I immediately started feeling a sense of family (ohana) and love (aloha) all around me. Everyone involved in Ultraman was so kind and warm. I met the most wonderful race directors ever, Chuck Kemeny and Jen McVeay. All the volunteers, crew members and athletes were so loving and giving. They were all incredible athletes with impressive resumes minus the big egos. We were all the same, but I still felt like the underdog. Steve King, the announcer, has the most calming voice I have ever heard. He took the time to interview each athlete and crew member so he could share stories and a few anecdotes of each of us with all of the spectators as we were racing and at the finish line. He made us all feel like rock stars. Each athlete was introduced prior to the race. I was assigned a kayak escort, John Riordan. Prior to the swim we did a “circle of love” where all 38 athletes that made it to start (largest field of women ever, thirteen) and we all were holding arms together. Steve did a prayer that hit me deep in the soul and I couldn’t help but cry. I was filled with an immense feeling of gratitude and calmness. I knew then, I was going to be ok.
The lake swim started calm, but after one mile the wind came up and it started pouring rain. I didn’t have time to think if the alligators were there or not. John did an amazing job reminding me when I needed to eat and drink and controlling the kayak in the choppy water. My left shoulder/arm started bugging me at mile 4.5 and I had to “embrace the suck”. After the 6.5 mile swim, I got onto the bike with a big smile, got lost for a little while, but got back on track thanks to my crew. The bike ride was beautifully scenic and only 2K of climbing. I finished the first day with 90 minutes to spare and super excited. Tracy was doing a great job posting in FB about the race, so Bob Babbitt who happened to be in Florida, came over to see me. I was thrilled and thankful to see him while I was getting the massage post-race. That night I only got four hours sleep.
The second day was VERY stressful for me. I was panicking I was not going to make the cut off time. I have never been in that situation. Clermont, Florida is definitely not flat. Some hills were up to 18% and we got 6.2K total climbing that day. I love climbing, but not the constant rollercoaster hills, they wear you down. I have endurance, but not speed. If I were going to make the cut off time, I needed to speed up despite the pain I started feeling on my left knee and my tired quads. I did a time trial for the last 85 miles. The scenery was gorgeous, but the crosswinds were scary going downhill on my new lighter Argon 18 tribike, and the head wind was demoralizing. I kept praying and telling myself mantras, “don’t count me out, I’m strong, I got this, it’s not over until it’s over, etc.”. My crew did a phenomenal job keeping me calm and being on top of my nutrition and hydration. I made it to finish line shaking, but with a huge smile and 35 min to spare. I had done the impossible. I hugged/thanked them and got the massage. I only got 3 hours sleep that night.
On the third and final day, I had no idea if I could run. The longest run I had done was 21 miles and remember, just 4 weeks before this, I couldn’t even run a mile without experiencing a great deal of pain in my right hip and leg. Tracy had told me, “Don’t worry, I got you, I will get you to the finish line”. Prior to the start, we did the “circle of love prayer” and once again thanks to Steve’s words, I knew I was going to be ok. I started running and amazingly I had no pain. The endorphins were doing a great job.Yay! Tracy was my pacer for 33 miles. She distracted me with her funny stories and kept telling me to hold a good form and powerwalk the hills. The run was mainly on rolling hills (we ended with 2K total climb) and 15 miles on totally exposed clay road (red packed sand). It got super hot in the 90’s. Michael and Steve did a great job handing us ice and fueling us. All the other crew vehicles were so supportive cheering us and sharing their water and ice. I had to change socks with 16 miles left but was thankful not getting blisters. Five miles to the finish, I got all choked up and teary. We were going to make it after all. Within 50 meters to the finish, Michael handed me the Colombian Flag and my crew, and I made it to the finish line as a team. I hugged Chuck and I totally lost it in tears when I hugged Jen and Michael as Steve King announced I was the first Colombian woman to complete an Ultraman. What an honor.
Finishing UMFL was much more a spiritual journey to me. A race so small in number, yet it felt so enormous and gratifying. We all had to fight our own fears and demons, and yet we were not alone; we were a loving family together (kokua), reaching for something higher than just a finish line. Something deeper in the soul. Something so incredibly amazing and hard to put into words. ALL the athletes, crew members and volunteers gathered until the last person crossed the finish line. That was the real meaning of the Ohana family. Next day, at the athlete brunch and ceremony, athletes walked in the room with the flag corresponding to the country they represented. Eleven countries total. Then, a few of the crew members shared their favorite stories of the race and then it was the athletes turn to share their thoughts as they were given their awards and finishers goodies. Sheryl Cobb, director of the Ultraman World Championship announced that we all had qualified for Kona. What? Michael almost died, he put his hands on his head, and said, “On no, here we go again”. LOL. Tracy immediately said, “I’ll be part of your crew”. So, I guess the Three Musketeers will go to Kona with me someday in the future.
Craig: You have done a lot of races all over the world. What have been some of your favorite destinations?
Claudia: I have been fortunate to be able to travel with my husband Michael and three of my best TCSD friends Daniele Pelessone, Toni Martinez and Jerome Danan to do “race-cations” together and that’s why the race experiences have been more special and fun! Some of my favorite destinations have been New Zealand, Italy and Hawaii. New Zealand is a beautiful country and the kiwis are some of the nicest people out there. The scenery is spectacular. Waterfalls, hot springs right on the beach, the caves, and of course the sheep. Italy has been my favorite country since I was a kid. I love everything about Italy, the beauty of the country and the people, the history, the museums, the food and the wine and of course the gelato and the limoncello. We swam in the most spectacular water I have ever seen in the Blue Grotto. Hawaii has a special place in my heart. I love the memories created there, the diversity of the climates in just one island, volcanos and energy from the lava, the powerful waterfalls, the wonderful warm water, the gorgeous snorkel areas and of course the Honu (green turtles).
Craig: What are your favorite benefits of TCSD membership?
Claudia: The list of benefits is endless, because TCSD is a big family where everyone helps and supports each other beyond triathlons. I have met some of my best friends through the club. I love hearing the amazing speakers (pro athletes), interviewed by Bob Babbitt, The Kona viewing, the raffles, free races (triathlons, duathlons, aquathlons), the eating and socializing afterwards, the wonderful volunteers & the amazing coaches, the track workouts, organized bike rides by Darrell, time trials at Fiesta Island, the open water workouts in Ventura Cove by coach Bill Gleason and the pool swim classes. It is wonderful to see other club members at races. We all get all pumped up and energized, and all the cheering makes one go faster! One of my favorite precious times was when I joined the TCSD team to raise funds for CAF and race the Triathlon Challenge “best day in tri”. That race, today, is one of the most inspiring events I have ever participated. I’m thankful to the club.
Craig: What have been some of the funniest things you have seen in triathlon?
Claudia: At my first full distance triathlon (Vineman 2008), I got out of the water and I was trying to be as fast as I could in T1, and this lady next to me was putting on full make up after the swim and fixing her long hair. According to Michael, she took another 20 minutes or so finishing it up before getting on her bike. I couldn’t believe it. I have done silly things, as well. At the inaugural IM St George 2010 the water was freezing (52-56 degrees). The cold temperature was causing trouble with my belly and I was praying to make it to the porta potty. I barely got out of the water and picked up my bike bag. I actually stayed in the porta potty extra time cause I needed to literally thaw. It took me forever to get the extra bike clothes on and had a hard time putting on my shoes and helmet. A volunteer saw me shivering badly and asked me, “why didn’t you go inside the warming tent? Someone could have helped you!” It was my first Ironman-branded race, so I didn’t know about it. Duhh! At IM Italy 2017 after finishing the bike leg, I ran the entire marathon with my bike gloves on and a fuel belt that had nothing in the bottles. The only thing I got from the belt, was the worst rash all around my waistline.
Craig: Who have been the most influential people and/or institutions to shape you into the woman you are today?
Claudia: My parents in heaven get a lot of credit. They taught me great values: to be honest, have a positive attitude, be responsible, work hard for my goals and never give up; to love and respect people for who they are, to give and do things with passion. In my teen years, raising funds with Mom to help kids and the elderly dealing with cancer taught me a lot about compassion. My older sister, Ivonne, who is pretty much blind and a cancer survivor, has inspired me to keep smiling and keep going despite all the obstacles life throws at you.
In the late 90’s I was watching a documentary about the Ironman in Kona and a man in his 80’s was doing the race. I was so inspired by him, I didn’t know him, but I said out loud to my ex, “I want to do that someday. I want to do that race”. He looked at me and said, “You don’t exercise, you don’t even walk”. I said, “I know, but who knows, I have until I’m 80 to do it”. That 80 year old man put a seed in my brain that took many years to develop, but eventually did.
And finally, but not least, my husband Michael. He is my endless supporter. I couldn’t be where I’m now without him. He has never stopped believing in me even when I don’t believe in myself. His selfless manner has helped me grow as a person. He repeatedly calls me “his champion” and that has a profound effect on me on any athletic event I have undertaken. Knowing that he is there, has encouraged me to make it to the finish line at every single event I have raced. I never had the chance to be a mom, but thanks to Michael, I’m a grandma of 6 amazing loving kids, so my circle of life as a woman and family member feels complete now.
Craig: Over the years, who have been some of the people who have helped you out the most with your triathlon career?
Claudia: It’s been a whole village of caring, loving and supportive people who have helped me out over the years. I’m deeply grateful to each one of them. To mention a few. My family with all their support & prayers. My parents in heaven and St. Anthony looking after me and protecting me. My husband Michael, who actually taught me how to ride a bike, takes me to any race I feel like doing and puts up with me. TCSD coaches – You Craig, for your race plans and mentoring me and Bill Gleason, my previous coach, who played an important role in my training and who I am now as an athlete. Feisty Fox Coaching and coach Shangrila Rendon who has made me a tougher athlete, helped me to believe in myself, kept me out of trouble and inspired me by example to reach higher goals I never imagined I was capable of. My trail running buddies Steve Bean and Sharon Smith and all of my swim buddies from the Pelican Team, biking and race-cation buddies, TCSD and Feisty Fox Coaching friends and all my therapists who have helped this body to keep going.
Craig: What does triathlon mean to you?
Claudia: Triathlon is my passion, my lifestyle. Triathlon changed my life. It made me realize that life is worth living. It helped me with my self-esteem. I became more assertive, confident and more organized with my time. It made me stronger both physically and mentally. It has taken me on a roller coaster ride of emotions, but always so exhilarating at the end. It has helped me inspire others to go farther than they think they are capable of. Thanks to triathlons, I have traveled to places I never thought I would go. I have met wonderful people sharing the same passion and love for the sport. So, I feel grateful and blessed.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals? (You had mentioned IM Switzerland. This answer does not need to be limited to actually racing. For all I know, you might have some more broad triathlon related goals.).
Claudia: Not sure about the timing yet, but future races in mind: IM Switzerland, Double Anvil Oregon and Ultraman World Championship in Kona. Outside of triathlons get more involved in giving back to the triathlon community and help other athletes achieve their goals. I would love to see some of my grandkids follow in my foot steps in triathlons. I hope that dream comes true.
Craig: Claudia, I knew you would have an amazing story. Congratulations on everything you have accomplished. I know you will continue to inspire. Thank you for sharing your story!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.