I recently had the good fortune of sitting down and talking triathlon with TCSD member Maggie Riley-Hagan. Maggie is a real pioneer for the women athletes of today. Maggie did the TCSD and USA proud by recently winning a Bronze medal at the ITU Aquabike World Championships in Spain. I know you will enjoy getting to know Maggie.
Craig: What sports did you do through your college years?
Maggie: I grew up in Dallas, Texas in the 1950’s, when it was a relatively small city, with large, rural land areas close by. My first love in the outdoors world was horses, as my grandfather’s hobby was raising quarter horses and appaloosas on a farm he rented. I spent as much time as I could on the farm, riding bareback through ponds and fields by myself at age 8. I was encouraged to enter some rodeos, where I participated in western horsemanship, as well as barrel racing (a timed event doing a cloverleaf pattern around 3 barrels) and pole bending (a timed event weaving in and out of poles). I won my first trophy at age 8 for the “flag race” (sprinting on horseback to the other end of the arena and grabbing a flag sticking up in a barrel, and racing back). Even today when I ride a bike, it reminds me of the feel and joy of horseback riding.
I loved running and all sports, but there were few opportunities for young women back then. At school I would always race the boys, and never lost a foot race until I was 12, I guess when puberty set in :)!! I would beg to play baseball with the boys at recess, and finally one day they let me play, and I hit a home run. After that I was included in the baseball games at the playground.
My grandfather had to give up the horse hobby due to poor health, when I was 12. My parents helped me look for another way to spend my time. That summer I tried swimming, track and tennis. I was on a swim team for a couple of months in which I participated in my first competitive swimming events. I found a local track team, and won the state 440 yard race, and the running long jump. I would have loved continuing all of the activities, but my parents asked me to choose one sport. We settled on tennis, as that was the only sport for girls in junior high and high school, and I could ride my bike to the local park courts. We got my first racket with “green stamps”, which you collected back then when you bought enough groceries.
I played tennis throughout high school, and won the Texas State Tennis High School Championship. In the summers from age 13-18, I played the national junior tennis circuit, which allowed me to travel throughout the US for tournaments, often by myself or with other players from Texas. I was a nationally ranked junior tennis player. Fortunately, Dallas had a very supportive tennis program, which helped sponsor me, as my family would not have been able to pay for these tournaments and trips. It was such a wonderful experience, not only from the view of sports, but to be able to travel alone as a teenager, and gain confidence, and knowledge about other parts to the country.
My senior year in high school, there was finally a track team for girls. The tryouts consisted of “who wants to run a race on the track team?” I volunteered to run the 880, running in my tennis shoes, and tennis clothes, and won the district and regional meets. After I qualified for the state meet, one of the coaches, offered me a pair of spike track shoes for the state meet. With my new track shoes, but still running in my tennis clothes, I placed 5th in the state meet.
Craig: You played tennis in college at SMU in the early 1970’s. How did your experience on the women’s team compare to the men’s team and how were you treated as a female athlete?
Maggie: After graduating from high school in Dallas in 1970, I attended Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. My mother was employed at SMU, which allowed me to attend tuition free. Fortunately, there was a women’s tennis team, but the experience was quite different than that of the men’s team. We had separate tennis facilities. We had concrete courts with metal fences that we shared with the students and recreational players. The men had a state of the art facility with beautifully maintained courts and a stadium. One day in the middle of the hot Texas summer, all of the recreational courts were taken. It was probably 97 degrees and no one was on the men’s court. I went there to practice my serve, and was told by the men’s coach that I should “go home and do my ironing”. I did not respond, and just kept serving, and he quietly departed. Though no more words were spoken, I felt that I gained his respect.
At that time, there were no scholarships for women in sports. We bought all our own equipment, rackets, balls, paid our own entry fees to tournaments, and drove ourselves to various tournaments, accompanied by our coach. Our team finished as high as 5th in the nation one year at the NAIA Championships. My senior year, 1973-4, Title IX came in, which mandated scholarships, and equal facilities and equipment for women. It was a big change for us, being able to travel to bigger tournaments, and practice at the better facility.
As I have gotten older, I see the pluses and minuses of our situation. While we did not receive scholarships nor equipment, we were able to focus on our studies as a first priority. As a science major, I was able to take courses with afternoon labs, miss a tennis practice here and there, and still be able to play #1 on our tennis team. We played because we loved the game. It seems a lot of pressure now for those on scholarships to be able to be a good scholar as well. I think that a good balance is the answer.
Craig: You played professional tennis in Europe after college. What was your lifestyle like in those years?
Maggie: My sophomore year in college, I attended a semester abroad in Spain. It was a fabulous experience, and while I was there, I sought every opportunity to play tennis as well. I made many tennis friends, some of whom I still stay in touch with today. I also learned about the “Spanish Summer Tennis Circuit”, which is a series of tournaments that take place throughout Spain. So after I graduated college in May of 1974 (double major in Spanish and Biology, Phi Beta Kappa), I decided to pursue my dream of playing tennis full time by moving to Spain shortly thereafter. It was a fabulous time of my life, as the tournaments usually took place at beautiful resort towns in Spain located on amazing beaches. After that summer, I decided to stay in Spain and teach at a tennis club. I played tournaments on the weekend to make some extra money. I lived over a bar, close to the tennis club, and push started my old truck every day by running around the town square.
With the encouragement of my friends, I decided to expand my tournament experience into France. I landed a teaching job at a club outside of Marseilles, France, and despite not knowing any French, decided to move to Marseilles. I obtained a French textbook, and had informal lessons at noon every day with a 90 year old women, who still played at the club every day. I lived in a farm house on the property, taught tennis, and played on the club team, while also playing weekend tournaments. My workouts often involved running along the “calanques”, the limestone cliffs found along the Mediterranean coast. Our team won the Team Championship of France, and we all received a medal from the City of Marseilles for our accomplishment, something I cherish to this day.
At that time, the professional women’s circuit in the US was just getting started, so playing in Europe was a great option. While there was not much prize money, we were given travel expenses, housing, food, and extra money if we won. In addition to Spain and France, I played in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, The Netherlands, and England, as well as a 6 week circuit in Brazil.
Men and women played the same tournaments and we stayed in homes or lovely hotels. Besides the great tennis competition, there were many social events, great food, and we had a lot of fun, just visiting and getting to know people from all over the world. In addition, we were able to experience the rich history and art of the various places where we played. My goal was really just to have enough money to get to the next tournament.
Craig: How highly ranked were you and what were some of the big tournaments you played in?
Maggie: About 1978 I was invited to play on a club team (after winning their tournament) in Montrouge, France, just outside of Paris, which I accepted. There, I lived at an apartment on the premises, taught tennis, played on the club team, and traveled Europe to various tournaments. I also was able to attend school in Paris, and received a “Certificat en Francais” (a French language competency certificate) from the Institut Catholique in Paris. As part of our training, the tennis team ran in the “Cross de Figaro”,a cross country race for amateurs held in Paris every year. Again, my tennis shoes and clothes served me well, as I won the women’s race. As a tennis player, I was ranked #5 in France, which afforded me a lot of perks and opportunities to play in bigger tournaments in Europe as well as in Wimbledon, the French Open, and the US Open. I believe that my best world ranking was around #95.
Craig: What are your favorite memories from those years?
Maggie: It is hard to say what would be my favorite memories from those years–so many!! Mostly, an overall gratitude for the experience of being able to pursue my passion of playing tennis and traveling–meeting so many interesting and wonderful people. Also receiving such hospitality where ever I went. I remember playing in Turkey, where representatives from the US Embassy came to watch us play. There were players from USSR. I was shocked when they told me that this tournament was their first time to be allowed to play outside of their country. It was also Ramadan during that tournament, and I was amazed at the dedication of some of the players to be able to play all day in the hot sun, and not eat or drink. Again the hospitality and warmth shown to us by the Turkish people were very touching.
I will never forget my travel experience after playing in the finals of the Team Championship in Bayonne, France, which is on the far Western coast of France. As soon as we finished playing our last match, I had quickly boarded a train to Paris, in order to catch an airplane to London, to play in my first Wimbledon the next day. About halfway to Paris I remembered that I had left my passport with the team captain. I got off of the train in a remote town at the next stop, called the captain from a pay phone at the hotel in Bayonne (remember no cell phones back then), who then instructed me to wait at the small train station where I was located. She then went to the train station in Bayonne, handed my passport to a train conductor headed my way, who somehow found me waiting in the middle of the night at the small train station, and gave me my passport. I did make it to London on time to play, but probably not my best match. Again, the kindness of friends and strangers helped make my dreams come true, as playing in Wimbledon is the ultimate dream of any tennis player.
Craig: How did you meet your husband?
Maggie: After several years of living in France and traveling in Europe, I was also now frequently flying to the US as the US pro circuit ramped up. I began having a lot of back injuries. Although, I still enjoyed my life as a tennis player and coach, I knew that it was time to look ahead to another career. I moved back to the US in 1979 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science at the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, just outside of Dallas. I was able to work as a tennis pro at the local tennis club to pay my tuition and living expenses. While working on my Master’s degree I met the love of my life, Raymond Donald Hagan (Don), who had a doctorate in Exercise Science. I had come to the Aerobics Center in Dallas (founded by Kenneth Cooper, the “father” of aerobics) to turn in a research paper. The prior evening, we were doing an experiment in Environmental Physiology, in which I, as the subject, would take my temperature and other vital signs before and after sitting in a hot tub. The only problem was that everyone left and they forgot I was sitting in there. After about an hour I decided to get out, quite warm and dizzy,which led to me turning in my paper the next day. When I was asking directions to my professor’s office the following day, Dr. Hagan ask me about my experiment. When I explained what had happened, he said, “What were you trying to do, beat the test?” I thought WOW this guy already knows who I am!!! We were married in 1981, and enjoyed an active life style together. Due to my back issues, we started doing master’s swimming together, and would run in local 5k and 10K races for fun.
Craig: How did you get your first bike and what did you learn through that experience?
Maggie: During this time, I also became interested in triathlons, but I had no bike to ride. There was a local bike race, with a bicycle as a prize for the first place man and woman. So I hopped on my husband’s then 15 year old Schwinn, two sizes too big, and of course in my tennis clothes and tennis shoes. I had no experience in bike racing, but was doing pretty well, fairly close to the front, when it began raining, and I slipped and fell. Just then some women in a pack of riders, dressed in spandex passed me; laughing at my old Schwinn, tennis clothes, tennis shoes, and lack of proper bike clothes and equipment. I thought–that is NOT GOOD sportsmanship. My Dad had taught me to be a gracious winner and gracious loser. I got right back up, and off I went with determination. I passed them at the very end, motivated mostly to make a point that their behavior was unacceptable. I won the race and the bike, a steel Bianchi, which I rode for years, until I got my current bike in 2005. I can still see the shocked expression on their faces!!
Craig: What are your earliest memories of triathlon?
Maggie: I believe my first triathlon was at Texas A&M during the mid-1980’s, in which the course was swim (in a pool), run and then bike at the end. I also remember being at Lance Armstrong’s first triathlon in Texas, when he was a young teenager. At the end of my race, my husband was so excited that some young kid had crushed the field. It was good to be part of the beginning of triathlon.
Craig: How did you end up in medicine?
Maggie: While finishing up my Master’s in Exercise Science, my husband encouraged me to pursue a career in medicine. I was accepted to medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School (UTSW) in Dallas, where I began my studies in 1984. I finished my Pediatric residency in 1991, also at UTSW in Dallas. During medical school and residency, we had 2 children. While I stayed active during this time, usually running at lunch, or swimming when I could, competition was sporadic, as my priority was my family and my studies. I am so grateful for having a husband who was so supportive and encouraging of everything that I wanted to do.
Shortly after finishing my residency in 1991, we moved to San Diego, where my husband had accepted a job in California with the Naval Health Research Center. I started working as a pediatrician at a community clinic in Escondido and at Palomar Hospital. I also finished a residency in Sports Medicine through the family practice department at UCSD, and moonlighted at the Urgent Care for Rady Children’s Hospital. During this time we had 2 more children, so my workouts usually consisted of 30-45 minutes at lunch, just to stay in shape, and competition was not a priority. I occasionally did an event for fun.
Craig: You had a 3 year grant from the state of California focusing on childhood obesity. What did you learn from that experience?
Maggie: In the early 2000’s I obtained a 3 year grant from the state of California focusing on childhood obesity. It was a great program, and we had psychologists, nutritionists, social workers, and nurses, as well has several pediatricians at the clinic participating. Our patient population consisted mostly of socially and economically disadvantaged families, who embraced the program with great enthusiasm. Information about a healthy lifestyle was provided to all overweight children and their families at our clinic, but only those really wanting to make changes and willing to invest the time were enrolled into the program. I was also able to get memberships at the local YMCA for our participants, and their families.
Our focus was on “healthy living”, and not weight loss per say. As young children will grow taller, and need time to develop life style changes, we do not promote large amounts of weight loss in a younger age group. For older adult-like teens, weight loss might be a focus.
Craig: What can we do as Americans to solve the childhood obesity problem?
Maggie: Many hours of education are needed to provide information about preparing healthy meals and to communicate the benefits of exercise. Many parents do not really know what constitutes a healthy meal and appropriate proportions. We would have pot lucks in which the families would share healthy meals every week, based on their increasing knowledge of nutrition. The parents had to participate in the exercise program with their children. We would have several sessions a week, some at the clinic and some at the YMCA.
Our program included pre- and post-testing of fats, lipids, and glucose, as well as markers for diabetes, and pre-diabetes. We did see encouraging improvement in the lab results as the children participated in the program. As the program grew, we also had volunteers, former participants and parents, who would help introduce newcomers to the program, encourage them and hold them accountable.
Our program was enormously successful, and I would say that most all of the children and families made great strides toward healthier living, and many lost weight. Unfortunately after 3 years our grant money ended, and so did the program.
I am very concerned about the youth of today. I believe more education and programs similar to the one that we had could be helpful. Encouraging families to eat foods from the earth, instead of processed foods or fast food is a good beginning. It is really important that the whole family participate in all aspects of creating a healthier living environment for the children. Families cannot just point a finger at an overweight child, and say “don’t eat that”, and “go outside and play”. Walking even 15-30 minutes 3 times a week as a family can be a good start and very beneficial. My philosophy is that any healthy change that the family unit makes is great, no matter how small it seems. Also “decreasing inactivity” is essential, meaning limiting time on the phone, computer and video games. Having children have a passion to pursue, whether it be sports, music, art, theatre, dance, animals, or the environment can help direct children toward a healthy lifestyle.
Craig: The mid-2000’s presented some major challenges for you. What happened?
Maggie: In 2004, we moved back to Texas, the Houston area, when my husband took a job at NASA, heading up the Exercise Physiology program at NASA, and designing exercise programs and equipment for the International Space Station. I took a year off from work to help get the children settled, and look for work.
As a way to meet people and work out, we joined the YMCA, where I met a fun group of people who encouraged me to get back into triathlons. I started participating again in triathlons that year, and was introduced to open water swimming in lakes (the triathlons I had done previously were in pools), which I really enjoyed. I took a job as a pediatric hospitalist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas in 2005.
My life was turned upside down on May 12, 2007, when my husband died suddenly of a heart attack, while driving our 10 year old son to his baseball game. My 92 year old mother had just moved in with us 2 weeks earlier. The day after he died was Mother’s Day, and my flowers that he had preordered arrived on Mother’s Day. I keep that in my heart always to remind me what a thoughtful and loving husband he was, and how fortunate I was to have him in my life for 26 years. I was suddenly a widow, with one child in college, 3 minor children at home, as well as a 92 year old mother in my care.
I must say that without the help of my “nanny”, Consuelo, who has been with us for 30 years, I could not have cared for everyone.
I attended Don’s funeral on a Wednesday, and decided to do the triathlon that I had already signed up for the following Saturday. While I usually made the podium in local races, I just wanted to honor his memory, and finish, as I knew that he would have wanted me to. It puts in perspective how meaningless those medals and trophies we receive can be. After no sleep for days, I did finish, no recollection of my time or finish. I just remember feeling stronger, and thinking “ok, that was something I did that sort of feels normal”, I can do this–I can raise 4 children, work, be a good mother, and take care of my own mother. As odd as it might sound, finishing the triathlon was the beginning of being able to rise up to the challenges that I faced.
We made a family decision in August of 2007, to move back to the San Diego area, where we would have more family support. I began working part time, in order to have time with the children, for Kaiser Permanente and Rady Children’s Hospital of San Diego. I also decided to continue to pursue training for local sprint triathlons, as a way to stay fit, and stay mentally focused on caring for my family and working. I participated in events in and around San Diego, and at times in Northern California. I got my first introduction to swimming in the ocean, as well as using clip in bike pedals. As my training knowledge increased I became competitive in local races, being lucky enough to score some podium spots in my age group.
Craig: In 2012 you broke your neck. How did that happen and how has that changed your life?
Maggie: In September 2012, while bike riding, I hit a big bump in the road, and suffered a fracture of 2 vertebra in my neck, requiring placement of a titanium plate and bone graft in my neck. I had to take 3 months off of work, and my only exercise during that time was walking and eventually stationary biking. I was not allowed to lift my arms above my head for one month, leading to some major upper body decrease in strength.
I slowly recovered, starting with a few swimming laps with a snorkel, and working my way back into shape. My first triathlon after that was in March of 2013 in San Diego. I was so happy to compete, and just full of joy and exhilaration of being out there, that I had absolutely no expectations. To my surprise, I had a great race, and won my age group (60-64).
Craig: At about the same time you broke your neck, my wife Laurie crashed on her bike and suffered 4 pelvic fractures. One of my all-time favorite stories was the one where you and Laurie showed up at 24 Hour Fitness to work out together – you with your neck brace and Laurie on crutches. The reception person at that club must have thought you 2 women were nuts!
You started doing some of the more high profile triathlons in 2015. You raced Sprint Nationals in Milwaukee that year. What was that experience like for you?
Maggie: In 2015, I went to my first National Sprint Triathlon race, which took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was quite intimidated by the competition, hoping just not to finish at the bottom of my age group. How could I, with no real competitive swimming background, a 10 year old $450 aluminum road bike, and running 10 miles a week to keep down the running injuries compete against these women? Many of the women had a long history of national and international competition as well as state of the art carbon fiber triathlon bikes. My philosophy however, is always just to do my own race, focusing on keeping a good pace in all of the disciplines. By finishing 7th in my age group (60-64) I qualified to go to Mexico for the World Age Group Championships in 2016. However, I fell off of my bike and broke my arm about 2 months before the race, so I was not able to participate that year.
As the children have grown into adulthood, I have been able to travel more, both for work and triathlons. I have been fortunate enough to work the past 4 years for 3-5 months at a time in Maui, Hawaii. In Maui, I really became comfortable with ocean swimming, after being embraced by a wonderful “pod” of experienced ocean swimmers. Every Sunday was a magical experience, where we would swim about 2 miles, while enjoying the beautiful clear ocean scenery of Maui.
With encouragement from my friends, I decided to try to qualify again for the World Age Group Sprint Triathlon, which would take place in Australia in 2018. Figuring out the qualifying process can be a bit daunting, as I had to go to Florida in November of 2017 to compete. It was about 95 degrees with 95% humidity. The swim (one of my stronger disciplines) was cancelled and the race became a duathlon with a run, bike, run. Although I had not trained for, nor competed in a duathlon in 15 years, I gave it my best shot, finished second, and qualified for Australia. I figured growing up in the Texas heat and humidity was my best advantage in that race!!
Going to Australia in 2018 was a fabulous experience. One of my sons, Colin, now age 24, accompanied me. I finished 5th in that race, again quite surprised, and also realized, that my strengths were the swim and bike. Thus I decided to train for the Aquabike World Championships which were to be held in Spain in 2019. It was an opportunity to return to a country that I loved, with many great memories, and compete again. Also being fluent in Spanish, I would be comfortable with the language.
Craig: Congratulations on placing 5th at the 2018 ITU Draft Legal Sprint Triathlon in Australia. And even bigger congratulations on winning a Bronze Medal at the ITU Aquabike World Championships in Spain a few weeks ago. What was the Spain experience like for you?
Maggie: The qualifying race was again in Florida, hot, humid and flat, a 1.2 mile (2000 meters) swim and a 56 mile (94 K) bike ride, a pretty big stretch for me, who usually did only the sprint triathlons. I discovered, to my surprise, while I was in Florida that if I were to qualify, that the race in Spain would be even further, a 3000 meter (1.8 miles) swim and a 112K (67.2 mile) bike with 6000 feet of climbing. That would really require an enormous increase in my training!! I finished 2nd in my age group in Miami, qualifying for a spot in Spain!
I was fortunate enough to again be working 4 days a week in Maui from January-March of 2019. It was the perfect setting to train for the race in Spain, which took place early in the season in May. Swimming with my friends in the ocean every week, sometimes with huge waves and currents, and bike riding in Maui, which is VERY hilly, gave me confidence that I could feel strong in the Spanish race. Most of all, training in Maui was fun, and beautiful.
Going to Spain was the fulfillment of another dream, as I had always wanted to represent the US in an athletic contest. I was very proud to be on Team USA, and relished meeting athletes from all over the US, and other parts of the world. It was also a reminder from my youth what a great experience it is to travel internationally as an athlete. Again, I was lucky enough to have my son, Colin, accompany me, his support and encouragement being invaluable—his father would have been very proud of him!
The swim was in a beautiful river in Spain, quite chilly about 58 degrees. Due to current in the river, and the cold temperature, the swim was shortened to 1500 meters. I was second out of the water, and then began the 3 loops of the gorgeous and hilly 67 mile bike course. Again, I just tried to do my own race, and finished 3rd in my age group (65-69), getting passed on the last downhill by a British woman, with incredible hill descending cycling skills. Standing on the podium that evening, with an American flag wrapped around me, and with other Americans as well, was a very emotional experience. I also was reminded how fortunate I am to be able to compete, and also that it always helps to be at the younger end of your age group!! I can’t wait to be 69, so I can “age up” to compete in the 70-74 year old age group!
I must thank my “pod” of swimmers in Maui, Chris, my message therapist, Richard and Ben, my biking buddies, my friends Laurie and Craig, and all of my friends and coaches at the Carlsbad Masters for all of their encouragement as I was training.
I see being active as an extension of leading a healthy life style. For me competition is always about having fun, doing my best, and accepting the outcome. As the saying goes in Desiderata– “If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself”. So I encourage everyone to get outside, have fun, and see where your own personal journey might take you.
Craig: Maggie, thank you very much for sharing your story. I have wanted to interview you for a few years and it was well worth the wait. Laurie and I are honored that you are our friend and TCSD is fortunate to have you as a member of our great club. Good luck in your future races and everything else you do.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.