I had the good fortune recently to talk triathlon with the TCSD’s former Sponsorship Director, Raja Lahti-McMahon. Raja’s awesome 2009 season included a great performance racing for Team USA at the ITU Sprint Triathlon World Championships. Raja knows firsthand how to climb back on the horse after falling off. Please join me as we get to know this well rounded lady.
Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon?
Raja: I've always been the kid bouncing around with extra energy. I ran cross country and track in High School and made it to the City level. I enjoyed running, but wasn't all that great at it.
My background comes from riding & competing horses. I've been riding horses since I was 7 and competing more or less since then. Thinking back, my life was really a triathlon between school, running and horses through high school. By the time I entered UCLA, my ankles were trashed and I was on a high with the horses so I ran only for fun, stopped racing and devoted all spare holidays to training with the horses. I compete in a discipline called Dressage, which is the French word for "training". Dressage is the art of training a horse to dance. It's a military to Olympics based sport centered on training the horse for Calvary where a rider may need to give silent cues to a horse. The white Lipizzaner horses of Austria still pride themselves on the military tradition. Today it's an Olympic discipline based on art & training rather than military conditions.
I didn't have any money and was lucky enough to be a working student for former Olympic rider Charlotte Bredahl. I rode a borrowed horse that was 2 inches taller than a pony. I mucked stalls and even lived in a barn during intense training weeks. I also worked with Conrad Schumacher, the then coach of the silver medal Dutch Olympic team. But, we worked and we made it to the 1997 North American Young Rider Championships (Jr Olympics of sorts) and came home with a Team Gold. In ‘98 I was the top Amateur (no longer a Jr) rider at my division in the country. I then went pro. I really did have Olympic dreams. Then tragedy struck.
Craig: What happened?
Raja: As a fairly average cross-country runner, I always figured I would run a marathon. After all, that's what average cross country runners do.. go long. My dad had run 4 or 5 LA Marathons, and while the sight of him oozing over the couch for days post-marathon should have deterred me, it was, what I thought I would eventually do. Run for hours and then collapse on the couch for days.
However, on May 4, 1999 I had a bad day. A reaaaalllly bad day. I was riding a young horse fresh under saddle who was having a bad day. I should have gotten off and let her have a bad day, by herself. But I didn't. I used to joke if a horse wanted to get me off, they'd have to go down with me. Then it happened, she lost her balance and fell on me, using me as her cushion. I lay there in the sand and knew it wasn't going to be pretty. I could wiggle my toes and feel the top of my boots and just stayed positive that I wasn't a paraplegic, yet. Four mighty-fine fire fighters carefully lifted humpy-dumpty and all her pieces into the ambulance and off I went. My life would not be the same.
I had broken my back, pelvis & hip in 7 places. I lost 2 units of blood in the first hour, was bleeding to death and didn't have a scratch on my body. My parents were flown to the hospital and told I may not live the night. I had a morphine induced dream that night where I was running on the beach. When everyone else had doubts on me walking again, I knew I would run again. I didn't however, have a clue I'd be doing triathlons.
I was transported the 5 hours back to LA where the only surgeon who would attempt to reassemble me, Joel Matta MD, put humpty-dumpty back together again. I called my friends and told them I had good news & bad news. Good news first, I was back in LA. Bad news, you can come see me at Good Samaritan Hospital. Three surgeries, a wheelchair, a pair of crutches, and a year later, I ran my first steps around the block. It would take years before I regained full mobility of my right leg. In 2002 I moved from LA to San Diego and started over. My thoughts of doing a marathon were over. I still couldn't run any distance without my right leg cramping. I could however, run a 5K.... and got the itch to do something. I needed to do something.
Craig: What was your first triathlon like?
Raja: I wanted a challenge and a marathon would be out of the question. So I opened my PB local magazine and saw the 2004 Mission Bay Triathlon listed in October. It was June. I could do it. I had my challenge. I found a random program for a sprint triathlon and tried to follow it the best I could. It took all the extra time I had. Not accustomed to doing 2 workouts a day, I thought it was borderline ridiculous. I bought some goggles and a cap and jumped into the cove every Friday afternoon to see if I could finally swim to the quarter mile buoy and back. I knew how to swim, but not very well. I had no idea what I was doing. Funny to look back and think all my swim buddies were probably TCSD! I rode my 40lb mountain bike around Mission Bay boardwalk as a "bike" workout. My longest run was 30 minutes. And I never knew that you were supposed to practice running off the bike. I raced that fateful October morning after listening to Gurujan Dourson give his "How to do a Triathlon" lecture 3 times. I had no clue what was involved. I survived the swim, got on my "gelapi" (as my husband calls it) completing the bike, and then tried to run. I'd run plenty of 5Ks in my life, but now I had spaghetti legs and didn't quite know why the devil had possessed my body. I finished 34th and promptly got hooked.
I decided I'd benefit by learning to swim so I joined a masters program at The Plunge in Mission Bay. Here I met my soon-to-be-husband, David McMahon, and one of my best friends, training partners, and co-worker Stacy Dietrich. It was a fruitful masters program! I never learned to swim, though. After I met Dave my triathlon bug took off. I sold a horse and bought a bike. I told my fellow dressage riders the bikes poop less and the vet bills were much cheaper. I got a coach, former pro Peter Clode, a swim mentor, Neily Mathias, and I had Dave and his 17 years of triathlon. The rest has TCSD written all over it!
Now I just have some imbalances due to a slightly askew pelvis which are managed with my chiropractor Chris Elleraas and ART with Gino Cinco. I've actually got to give Gino the credit he deserves. Until I met Gino, I couldn't sit cross legged. After encountering some issues running, coach Peter advised me to see Gino. In 1 session with Gino I regained the mobility I lost 7 years prior.
Craig: You and I both represented Team USA at the ITU Triathlon World Championships in Gold Coast, Australia. What was that experience like for you?
Raja: I race because I can. One day, long ago, I nearly lost the ability to walk. You never know what will happen and that event, as traumatic as it was, left me a better person. I've always been competitive. Now I'm competitive with myself, and only myself. I enjoy being physically fit, but more importantly, I enjoy triathlon because I clearly remember while running my first triathlon in Mission Bay, I thought this was stupid, silly and impossible. Now I know I can do it. For me it's a question of how well can I do, while still keeping the rest of my life. I'm not a pro and I never will be. I'm just not that talented. I am a decent age grouper and enjoy racing against other amazing athletes. I'm cool with getting my rear handed to me by better athletes. So I aimed for Nationals. I had tried twice, and come within 2 seconds of making the list to make Worlds. In July I placed 5th at the Sprint National Championships and was in for Worlds... in September. I hadn't planned it but decided that if it was the only Worlds team I would make, I would regret not going. Hopefully it won't be the only chance.
Dave was lucky enough to book his one client in Australia for the same time so we could both afford to make the trip. We flew into Brisbane and hopped on a bus for Noosa. Here we would decompress and adjust to the new time zone. The fabulous little beach town is known for hosting a large triathlon festival. We went for runs through rain forests, saw koalas in the wild, swam in perfect family surf and rode bikes on the wrong side of the street. That, is strange. We walked at night and ate amazing meals on the beach. After 3 days of paradise, we rented a car and drove south to Surfers Paradise. As natural and peaceful as Noosa is, Surfers is not. It's a concrete jungle of high rise hotels and tourist traps. It does, however, allow housing for thousands, as we all converged for the ITU World Championships.
There were so many fantastic athletes. Just to be among them was truly amazing and inspiring. This was something I could never have imagined, and now I was here sporting a Team USA Speedo. I raced in the Aquathlon World Championships (ironic since I'm a crappy swimmer) to break the ice and see what would happen to my nerves. I've always been told not to try something new at a race, and yet here I was about to race a format I had never done before: run - swim - run. I can't tell you how fast the air escapes your hot lungs when you literally go from a sprint to a swan dive into the water. Cold water with no wetsuit. It took half the swim just to catch my breath. As I like to joke, I am a land mammal, and thus felt relieved to hit solid ground again and run till I was warm again. I felt like I was competing in a different league with athletes much better than myself. Olympians were here going for a spin next to you. But I was here too. My goal was to try hard and finish. I had no clue where I'd place, nor did I care.
My entire 2009 season had been plagued by sinus allergies, chronic sinus infections, a cough that still hasn't stopped since last March, and the inability to swim on a regular basis. Thanks to doc John Martinez, I was at least able to keep training. It's been a season of super highs, and super lows. This was a super high after such a shaky year. There were 4 different triathlon World Championship races being held: ITU Elite, Under 23, Age Group Olympic and Age Group Sprint. All of which receive equal grandeur as the elites. No wonder people get hooked to this stuff.
When my sprint triathlon race started on Sunday morning, I swam as hard as I could, and still exited the water 7th to last. Nothing unexpected, especially at this level. Then I was off on the bike. It is here at which time I feel like I am at peace. Legs burning and lungs busting, but at peace. I feel like I'm flying and my legs are just turning over with a mind of their own. I stopped counting the people I passed. My goal was to make top 20. I had a hard enough time making top 20 at the National level. At the Worlds level I expected it to be even rougher. By the run I was trying as hard as I could but my legs were no longer turning over with ease. The final stretch is through the banners and flags. It truly is the most amazing experience. Skip Gilbert, Executive Director of USA Triathlon, handed me an American flag and I death gripped it to the end. I placed 18th and wanted to cry. I don't need to win to feel great. I did it for me and there was no better feeling. Ten years ago I was in a wheelchair. Who knew??
Craig: What do you suggest for your TCSD friends who may want to race events such as Nationals and Worlds?
Raja: Go for it! It's a challenge. If not to qualify, then to make Worlds, but if you don't try, you'll never know. I have so much satisfaction finishing these USA Triathlon National Championship races because you are competing among the best in the country. And you're there which means you're one of them. It's a goal worth reaching for.
Craig: During 2008 and 2009 you were the TCSD’s sponsorship coordinator and your husband Dave is now filling that role. Thank you for all you did to truly take that job to a very professional level. What did that job involve?
Raja: Time. Insane amounts of time. I wanted to help and volunteer and when I joined after former TCSD President Jim McCann passed away, we were left with a bankers box of notes from 10 years ago. Brian Long was a driving force in getting the club back on track and re-organized. I went in with the mind set that I wanted something that was good for the members and good for the sponsors all at the same time. I created some promotional material for the club and started contacting past sponsors and began preparing packages that would be fair and reasonable. I can't stress to TCSD members how hard the board members work behind the scenes to make it all run as smooth as possible. Sometimes it's not perfect, but instead of griping about something that you don’t like, perhaps take a moment and think of some of the good things that have happened. After all, we're all volunteers. My job as a pharmaceutical sales rep has ramped up to most of my time. I felt with my time crunch that the Sponsorship position would best be handled by someone else. I was lucky Dave already had his eye on what I was doing. It's not an easy transition from one person to another, but he's done a great job and from his business consulting background has really added to the position beyond what I could have done.
Craig: What advice would you have for someone wanting to get involved as more than just a passive member of the TCSD?
Raja: If you have interest in being a part of the team, learning the development of an organization, or feel you have experience which would benefit the club, please contact one of the board members! We have a huge club of over 2300 members, and it surprises me we can barely find enough volunteers for races, or even to run for elections. Taking the position really helped broaden my scope of organizational development and how to negotiate between representing members and representing a sponsor. I truly believe it's helped me to communicate better with my job and become a better problem solver. This is an organization of volunteers; it feels great to give back.
Craig: What is your favorite aspect of being a TCSD member?
Raja: The community aspect. I have met so many great people and friends.
Craig: What is the funniest thing you have witnessed while training or racing triathlons?
Raja: Hands down watching Brian Long and Buck Williamson scare the daylights out of those poor Tour of California cyclists earlier this year. I have got some photos that will go down in my history book. I'm not sure if I was laughing or crying. Maybe both.
Craig: Who is your hero or role model?
Raja: This is a tough question. There are so many. I have a dressage friend in LA, Patty Mayer, who really helped me get through my accident. She works about a billion hours a week and makes the time to do what she needs to do. Namely get up at 5AM to ride the horse before work, then get to the office and work until 11PM. When I get overwhelmed, I think of Patty. She just inspires me to keep doing the things you love to do. I think reminding yourself of someone like Lance Armstrong keeps you going. Outside of the fact he's a physical freak, he's pretty darn amazing. Surviving cancer, the drive to make your goals, the ability to let your passion take second stage and then come back without attitude? That's pretty impressive. I'm constantly amazed and in awe with all the female athletes out there with jobs, and families... and still get up to go to 6AM swim. Like my friend, Whitney DeSpain, who does Ironman because she "doesn't have a lick of athletic talent." Yeah... right! All you triathletes inspire me.
Craig: Who are your personal sponsors?
Raja: As I have a more-than-full time job, I've never really gone after any personal sponsors. I started racing for a Women's Cycling team called Velo Bella. Whitney and I were the only 2 in San Diego and we both started submitting race reports on triathlons. I'm lucky enough to be sponsored by them now as part of their Elite Triathlon Team. We just picked up a new sponsor Ellsworth who is just now releasing their stellar new TT bike. Other sponsors include Giro, Patagonia and SRAM. They haven't yet finalized their 2010 sponsorship so I don't have the final list yet.
Craig: What do you do for a living?
Raja: I work for Allergan Pharmaceuticals as a Territory Manager for their Eye Care division. Allergan is better known for their little product called Botox. I work with ophthalmologists and optometrists with dry eye issues, Restasis, and a few other medications used around ocular surgery. My territory covers Southern California, Orange County south to the border and east to Coachella Valley & down to Yuma, AZ. I drive... a lot.
I also have fun with photography and still am out riding the horse at least once a week.
Craig: What are your triathlon goals for 2010 and beyond?
Raja: I'm excited to be representing Velo Bella, Ellsworth and TCSD in 2010. Let's see if I can get back to another Worlds!
Craig: Thank you Raja for sharing your story and for all you have done for the TCSD.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.