News and Press

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

Between helpings at a recent TCSD race I had the privilege of talking triathlon with the 2009 Jim McCann Spirit of TCSD Award winner and superstar volunteer Dawn Copenhaver aka “Food Queen”.  Please join me and get to know this very giving lady.


Craig: What activities were you involved in before triathlon?


Dawn: I was the youngest of four growing up in our house, with my sister being 9 ½ older than me and then two brothers who were 4 and 2 yrs older.  I was a bit of a tom-boy early on, wanting to do everything my brothers did… and better.  I loved to fish, play baseball and football, ride my bike and run around the block.  However, my true passion from a very early age was singing.  No matter what I was doing, I would be singing while doing it. I remember riding my bike around the block and singing the whole time. People would sometimes make comments, but I didn’t care!   Even when I was fishing, my brothers would get angry because I would sing.  They claimed that I scared all of the fish away, but I always had a few fish in the box when we were walking home… they didn’t! ha!

As I got older, I was involved in many different activities. Cheerleading in Junior High, I tried track as a freshman, but learned quickly that running just wasn’t something I was really good at or liked.  During HS, I really focused on Music, Drama and relationships! Oh yeah, and my studies too!!!  I was not overly popular in HS… but I had a lot of friends and enjoyed myself.  My shining moment was during my senior year, I was leading lady in our school musical, Fiddler on the Roof, and also had the opportunity to direct our chorale during our spring concert.

I went on to college at Philadelphia College of Bible, (now known as Philadelphia Bible University), majoring in Bible and Music Performance with an emphasis in Voice.  During my freshman year we had to take PE and did our imitation of ‘Rocky’ running up the stairs of the Art Museum.  I can tell you now, that it is not an easy thing to do. Yep, it clinched it for me right then, I was not a runner and never wanted to be.  I stuck to music, winning awards in both sacred and secular genres.

During college, I met my husband, got married, had two wonderful sons and lived many places while my husband served in the Air Force.  I often sang in our churches as the years went by, but my love for music often took a back burner so that I could raise my sons and support my husband.  However, in 1997 I had the joy of making my first and only album.  Personally, I find my greatest accomplishment to be, loving and raising my sons to become men.

Craig: You have shared with me that over the past couple of years you have lost a lot of weight.  What events led up to or caused those gains?

Dawn: During college I started to gain a little weight each year.  It must have been the all nighters, studying and completing those research papers!!!  There is absolutely nothing like a wonderfully, hot Philadelphia Steak Sandwich with sautéed mushrooms and onions and a diet coke.  That was the staple food for all night studying!!

Then came marriage and two pregnancies.  My sons were born 20 months apart to the day - one, 8.5 lbs and the other 9 lbs.  I gained large amounts of weight with both of them.  I kept that weight on for quite some time.  I did lose weight with fad diets and then would gain back every pound, plus some hitch-hiker pounds along with them.  I did the weight yo-yo plan for many years.  Then in 2001 I went through a divorce, being a stress eater, you can imagine what happened then.  I, of course, had to go to work full time. Sitting in front of a computer all day long and not doing any exercise other than walking from the parking lot and back, can really start adding on the pounds.  I would try changing my diet or walking during my lunches, but soon that would stop for one reason or another.  I became very depressed and insecure.  The worst part was, I gradually hated myself more and more every day.  After my divorce, I began to believe that I was not worthy of being loved. When I would look in the mirror, I would see someone that I believed couldn’t be loved. Why would anyone want to look at that every morning? I would look and cringe and then sit and cry.

Then there was the pain that I experienced every day.  In 2006, I began having problems with swelling in my legs.  Sometimes they would swell to 3X their normal size. It would make it very difficult to walk.  I found myself having to go to the hospital emergency room about every three months with swollen legs and chest pains. Of course, the swollen legs were due to edema and the chest pains were diagnosed as panic attacks or anxiety.  I weighed in at 286 lbs in March of 2007.  I am sure that the scale actually went higher in the month after that, but I never wanted to check and document it.  I was quite embarrassed to admit my weight.  I was having to buy clothes in a size 26 or XXXL. I felt uncomfortable all of the time and crowded in my own skin.

The Doctor told me that if I didn’t do something to lose the weight and take better care of my health that I would be in a wheelchair in approximately 5 years.  He also told me that my belly fat could cause me to go blind and that I was in danger of diabetes, heart disease and a stroke.  I wanted to make a change in my life, but I had tried so many times before with no success.  I even did research for Gastric Bypass Surgery.  But in my heart, I knew I didn’t need to go to that extreme path, I could do it another way.  I was working long hours and under a lot of stress.  So, in May of 2007, I quit my job and decided that I needed to do something to take care of me.

Within the first month of unemployment, I lost 15 lbs. Then in August 2007, I had to have a tooth extracted.  I lost 11 lbs in one week.  I decided that I couldn’t let myself gain that weight back.  So, I made the decision to start changing my life.  I love to swim, and there is a pool at our mobile home park that I hadn’t used in the whole 7 yrs I lived here except for once with my daughter in-law.  So, I started getting up and overcame my fear and pride and put on a bathing suit and went swimming every morning at 9am.  I did 20 minutes of water aerobics that I found on the Internet, and then swam back and forth in the pool for 20 minutes.  I also stopped eating breads, drinking sodas and stopped all chocolate consumption! That was tough, let me tell you!  Before I knew it, the inches and lbs were coming off in no time at all.  By the middle of September, I had to buy a new swimsuit because my other suit was too big for me.  Then a month later, I had to get another one because I was getting smaller. By December 15th, I had lost 75lbs.  I couldn’t believe it.  Everyone who would see me would make comments about my weight loss.  Some didn’t even recognize me because I looked so different.  I would pass in front of a store window and not believe it was me in the reflection.  I began to love my shadow and silhouette.  The strange part was I would be shocked when I looked in the mirror.  I was still expecting to see that large woman and she wasn’t there anymore.  By April 2008, I had lost 95 lbs. That was after hitting a plateau for a couple of months with no weight loss, January – February.  By the time June came around, I weighed in at 171 lbs. I had lost 115 lbs in 10 months and I looked better and felt better than I have ever felt before.

Craig: What happened that inspired you to lose the weight?

Dawn: Oh, you mean besides the Doctor telling me if I didn’t that I would be in a wheelchair?  It is true, sometimes it takes something bigger than just the ‘facts’ to move us to make necessary changes in our lives.  Mine came the morning that I was getting ready to go out of the house and was putting on my sneakers, (I didn’t call them running shoes then… probably because I never did any running!!), and when I bent over to tie them, I couldn’t breathe.  It was so painful for me and I literally could not tie my own shoes, so I had to ask my son to tie my shoes for me.  I was so embarrassed and depressed by the whole situation.  That is the day that I looked at myself and said enough is enough.  I really could not live like this any longer.

Shortly after that incident, my tooth became abscessed.  It became so painful and I didn’t have any dental insurance so I did everything I could to try and get by.  I finally went to a dentist and they extracted the tooth.  I went a total of 10 days without real solid food and lost 11 lbs.  I thought to myself, I can not and am not going to gain that weight back.

Craig: What steps did you take to begin the weight loss process?

Dawn: Well, I think I need to mention again that it started with me deciding to take better care of myself.  I have a drive in me to help others and take care of others, however, before I would do that and forget or neglect to take care of me.  I had to re-adjust my thinking and start taking care of myself.

As I mentioned before, I started taking care of myself by quitting my job.  That was not an easy decision or task to do. I had bills to pay and I was renting my home at the time.  I worked for Hospice care as a Patient Care Secretary which can be a very stressful job.  Stress was one of my biggest problems because I feed my stress.  The more stress the more I ate.  I was not happy where I was working and that caused even more stress.  I think you can see where that was taking me.  So, I made the decision, my first step was to quit my job.  That was made possible because after being married to my husband for 21 yrs, the majority of his military career, I was entitled to half of his retirement.  Through his kindness, in the divorce, he gave me the rest of his retirement as well.  I also moved in with my father when he was diagnosed with cancer so that I could help him.  So now, I only need to pay ½ the rent.

The next step I made was to change my eating habits.  I knew I couldn’t just stop everything all at once, so I took it in stages.  I first dropped sodas out of my diet.  I did it gradually, taking myself down to half of what I drank usually… 3-4 sodas a day to only 1 a day, then 2 a week, then 1 a week, then none at all.  I also cut back on breads a great deal.  I stopped eating white bread altogether.  I don’t even like to have it in the house.  Once in a while I will eat French bread with my pasta… but I really have to limit it.  This is also because of having diabetes.  I started eating salads, lean chicken and pork, very little red meat.  I just began to eat healthy food.  It didn’t take too long and the cravings began to go away.  And besides, I was enjoying the changes in me and how I looked; I didn’t want to go back.

Next step:  Exercise!  I had a pool right here in our park and never used it.  I looked up water aerobic exercises online and wrote them down.  I started going to the pool every day and would do 20 minutes of aerobics and then swim the laps.  It is a small pool, so it didn’t take me long!  But it was and still is great exercise.  No hard impact on the joints or muscles.  I still love doing it that way!

Craig: What led you to get involved in triathlon?

Dawn: Through Jim Markwell.  We met in May 2008, he invited me to go to the club race at Glorietta Bay in June.  From the moment I got there, I wanted to help.  Jim was racing and I didn’t want to just stand around, so I asked if there was anything I could do to help.  John Hill and Cory Osth put me to work right away.  I kept seeing Jim, and kept going to the races; all his races that I could attend.  I love supporting him and I enjoyed cheering on everyone at the club races.  As I watched him race and the others, I thought to myself, “hmmmm… I could possibly do this if I trained for it.”  So I told Jim that and he said, “yeah, I think you could too.”  So, I got myself a membership at 24 Hour Fitness and started riding the stationary bike and getting on the treadmill - to walk as I was not so sure I wanted to try running again.  I hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was 16 yrs old.  So I felt safer on the stationary bikes at the club.  In November of 2008, I took the step I had wanted to take since that first club race, I joined TCSD!!!  I have never been sorry; I love this club and all the wonderful people in it!!  They are all my other family!

Craig: When did you incorporate biking and running into your lifestyle and what was that like for you?

Dawn: Well, honestly you can’t join TCSD and not incorporate the lifestyle!!!  In October 2008, Jim decided with me that if I really wanted to get ready for a race, then I needed the equipment to be able to train safely and comfortably for the next season.  So, we went to Hi-Tech Bikes and he ordered my Jamis Ventura bike, and purchased the package deal that included my wetsuit, bike shoes, bike, helmet, and Tri top and shorts. Everyone in the store was great and patient with this newbie girl.  You would have laughed if you would have seen me trying to get my leg over the bike so they could measure what size I needed.  It was comical!!   I was so excited, and Jim was such a sweetheart to purchase everything for me, including bike gloves, socks and some other tri clothing.   He looked at me and said, “Merry Christmas, now you don’t have any excuses, you have all you need to get started!”  Is it any wonder why I just adore the man?

Now, remember, I hadn’t been on a bicycle for 33 yrs!!!  I was a bit nervous about it, but Jim took me out to learn how to ride again.  I say that because I had never ever ridden a multi-speed, gear…whatever bike!  I kept picturing myself going head first over the bars!  The very first day, I forgot to put both my feet down when I slowed down and fell over.  Jim, sweetheart that he is, looked at me and said, “Well, I guess you won’t ever do that again!”, then he laughed… so did I.  It has taken me a while to really get used to the bike.  It has not happened naturally.  I am beginning to love my bike and enjoy riding it.  But I will tell you now, hills are not my friend!  I do not like them!  But I am learning how to tackle them and am getting better.

Running, well, I don’t think anyone that watches me would ever say that I have incorporated it into my lifestyle!!!   Hahaha   I started by walking, first on the treadmill and then around our park. I walked one mile, then two miles, then three miles.  After that, my friend, Debbie Bailey started meeting with me at De Anza Cove and we would walk/run.  Of course at first, it was more walking than running.  But eventually I began running more than walking.  I was so excited the first time I was able to run 2 miles without stopping or walking!  I want to aim for that again soon!

Last March, Debbie, Dave Evans and I started to do mini tri’s every week at De Anza Cove.  We would swim around the cones, then ride our bikes and do two laps around Fiesta Island, then do a run/walk for three miles.

I really love doing the triathlons.  I am not good at it, but I enjoy the accomplishment that I achieve each time.  Though I am hoping to do Solana Beach Tri this July, it will probably be the only race I get to do this year.

Craig: What event was your first triathlon and what was that day like for you?

Dawn: 2009 Spring Sprint was my very first triathlon race.  I remember the night before, I was so excited and was just making sure that I had everything I needed to take with me the next morning.  Jim was also racing, so he was taking care of his things and checking my bike one more time.  I had my checklist out and made sure I had everything on the list in my Tri-bag.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I slept pretty well and felt rested on race morning.  Race morning began at 3am, Jim looked at me and said, “You get to participate in your first triathlon today, but I already think of you as a triathlete!”

Driving to Mission Bay, I just kept thinking about the race, I was very excited yet nervous at the same time.  When we arrived, I got my bike racked and got everything all set up for transition.  Jim came over to me after he was done setting up, just to make sure I was ok and had everything all set up.  We went and got our body marking done.  Then I called my sister to see if she was on her way.  I really needed her there for me.  I was so happy to see her when she arrived.  We walked around for a little bit, then it was time to get the wetsuit on.  OMG, I had a friend who was there taking pictures of my first race.  He even took pics of me putting on my wetsuit.  They (Jim, Dave [photographer], Thayes [sister]), were making me laugh so much that I had a difficult time getting the wetsuit up.  I was just having a great time.

Then it was time to go to the water.  Being nervous about the swim, I asked for a swim buddy.  A TCSD member named Craig Fletcher was my swim buddy.  He talked to me before we got in the water and assured me that he would be with me all the way.  During the swim I was very nervous.  Craig kept me going… even when I had to roll over on my back and do the back stroke.  He encouraged me to keep going and that I was doing well.  I finished the swim and there was my sister cheering me on.  That helped me so much to keep going and want to do well.  I got to my 1st transition and was able to peel off my wetsuit pretty well and get on my shoes, glasses, helmet and gloves, grabbed my bike and was heading out… meanwhile; I was looking to see if Jim had finished his swim yet and on his bike.  He must have been because I never saw him till I was on my last loop of the bike.  He was already on the run.  I yelled out to him, “Go Jim, Honey!”  He looked over and cheered me on and I saw a look of pride in his face as he smiled at me.  Yep, that gave me the strength to keep going.  I knew he would be waiting for me when I finished.  Then going into 2nd transition, I got off the bike, racked it, took off the helmet, grabbed my hat and started running.  And my legs just went numb.  I couldn’t feel them.  I didn’t want to panic, so I just walked as fast as I could.  Then Buck Williamson came up behind me and yelled, “hey, triathletes don’t walk girl… get running.”  So I started running, ok, more like jogging.  I continued to walk/run throughout the 3 miles.  It was hot and I was tired!!  But I didn’t want to give up and knew that the finish line would be in front of me if I just kept going. As I was running, I saw my father and brother in-law walking along in the opposite direction so they could meet me at the finish line.  It was so great seeing them and encouraged me more.

Finally I got to the end of the run and looked ahead and saw Jim.  He was there waiting for me and let everyone know that I was coming in.  As I went around the bend and towards the finish line, my family was there yelling for me and cheering me on.  My dad, sister, brother in-law, my oldest son, Joshua, my daughter in-law and my granddaughters and Jim were all there clapping and calling my name, encouraging me to the finish line. My granddaughter, Brianna started running along with me outside the chute.  That was the greatest thing to see her running along side me.

Then I was raising my arms and crossing that beautiful finish line. I don’t know if I can really describe the feeling for me when that happened.  It was a culmination of all I had just accomplished for myself.  Yet I didn’t do it alone, God gave me the strength to train and do each sport in the race.  He provided a wonderful man in my life who introduced this new lifestyle to me and taught me how to do it.  And a family that supported me all the way.  I share this successful moment with each and every one of them.  I will truly never forget that day.

Craig: What roles have you done for the TCSD?

Dawn: I started out as a volunteer from the very first race at Glorietta Bay in 2008.  I was willing to do anything they needed me to do.  My first volunteer activity was registration check in at the club races.  I was always encouraging everyone at the club races.  Especially Jim!!!  Then there was an opening for the Friday night Potluck dinners at La Jolla Shores.  I went to Brian Long and told him that Jim and I would love to volunteer to organize the potlucks once a month.  Brian informed me that they already had three couples but if I really enjoyed cooking… would I be interested in helping out with preparing the food for the club races.  I said sure, I would love to help out.  He introduced me to Denise, the wonderful lady that was doing the food at the time.  I helped her that morning with doing the food and learned that she was wanting to take a break and would I like to take over the duties as the cook.  I said I would be very interested but would need to get all of the details from her. That all happened in March of 2009, starting in April 2009, I became what soon became my nickname… the “Food Queen”.  I honestly look forward to each month’s club race, going to Costco and food shopping, cooking the food, then Saturday morning, getting it all set up and heating.  Hearing everyone talk about the smell of the food making them go faster so they can finish and eat the food.  Serving them and seeing the smiles on their faces.  Just knowing that they feel good again after eating that food; makes my heart smile.

While reading the newsletter last fall, I saw the posting that they needed a new newsletter editor.  Well, I thought that would be fun to do, so I wrote to the current editor and let her know that I was interested.  About three weeks later, she and I were meeting together and she was teaching me what I would need to do and would be working with Dean Sprague.  I have enjoyed that position since last September.  I am still learning a lot about editing, but I am enjoying it very much.  Dean is so relaxed and fun to work with.

During the racing season last year, I volunteered to help with an expo.  Working with Anne Fleming is such a joy.  That girl is organized!  I liked it so much, I wanted to do more.  When the position of Expo Coordinator opened up, I called Thomas and asked him if I would be able to do that job.  He said, “consider it done”.

So, now I am still the “Food Queen”, Newsletter Editor and co-Expo Coordinator.

Volunteering for TCSD is not only rewarding, it is great fun.  It truly feeds my passion to help and encourage others.  I have met so many wonderful people in this club by volunteering.  Again, I get to work hard for the new family that I love.

If you want to get to know fellow racers in our club, if you want to get to know how our club really works, then get out and volunteer.  I guarantee you will have a great time, feel the reward of cheering on other athletes and experiencing giving back what you will often receive from others; acceptance, encouragement and the joy of a triathlon family!

Craig: What is the best part of being a TCSD member?

Dawn: 1. Family:  I will never forget the feeling I had the first time I participated in a Club Beginners Race.  Being cheered for right out of the water and helped when I missed the first timing mat, then on the bike, they all cheered me on and made me feel good…but the greatest part was when I came towards the finish line and I heard my name being called out in cheers by so many people.  I couldn’t believe it.  It was the most wonderful feeling and helped me run faster to finish.  I didn’t even know that they knew my name.  I felt like I belonged to something so great… and you know what, I do!

2. Information and training:  There is no better opportunity for training than with TCSD.  There is some type of training every day of the week.  There is free training and there are many professional and experienced coaches for one on one training with great TCSD discounts.  The members of TCSD love to help others along their way to success.

3. The Schwag!!!  I can honestly say that I have received my membership fee back 10 fold in free gifts via raffles at club meetings and for volunteering.  Our club loves to give back and they do it with great style!  I am telling you… volunteering gives back in so many ways!!

4. Fitness:  Being a part of this group helps you get fit and stay fit.  And even when you falter, they don’t judge they just help you get back on track!

So my question back to you, Craig is: What is there not to love about TCSD???

Craig: You seem to be rather smitten with TCSD member, Jim Markwell.  What would you like to share with the TCSD that people might not know about Jim?

Dawn: Jim Markwell swept me off my feet the first day I met him.  I know that since that day, I have never wanted to meet or be with any other man… ever!  Jim is a very private guy, yet pretty laid back.  This is a man with so many talents it is amazing.  Everyone knows me as the club race cook, but Jim is a trained Chef.  He worked as a chef for 25 years.  And I can proudly say that he is a great cook.  In fact, I have learned so much from him, now I want to go to culinary arts school and get my degree.

Jim is now a Kindergarten teacher at North Terrace Elementary School.  He has been doing this for 15 years and loves it.  In fact, during the summer it only takes him a few weeks and he is already missing the kids.

But Jim’s passion is definitely, triathlon!  He loves the training whether it is heat training, cold training, ocean training, hours on the bike or running for miles.  He looks forward to getting up and going out on his bike or doing a brick, going to the gym or diving into the ocean for a mile swim.  And he keeps getting better and better.  It is his passion for the sport that got me interested in triathlon in the first place.  Where my passion is volunteering, Jim’s is racing.  He is getting ready for his second Ironman at Vineman and he is enjoying training for it.  Last year he participated in 16 races.  This year, he is enjoying doing the club races at Fiesta Island, Oceanside 70.3, Spring Spring, Encinitas, and the Aquathons as well. And, he has no problem volunteering when needed. I am so proud of him and how he is driven.

That is one of the things that I love about Jim.  When he says he will do something, he not only does it, he does it with passion.  Racing, teaching, training, etc… he believes in doing it to the best of his ability.

Jim does volunteer on Monday nights as a Beginner Coach at La Jolla Shores.  He does enjoy helping the beginners get use to the ocean.  He really is good, so if you go on Monday nights and you have never been in the Ocean before, ask him questions and then listen to him.  He has been swimming in the ocean for 52 years.  He knows what he is talking about.  And he never leaves anyone behind.

Those who get to know Jim, learn that he has a great sense of humor, warped sometimes, but funny!!!  He is also a generous man, as you have had a glimpse of in my earlier answers.  If you take the time to get to know him, have a conversation with him, you will find a man with lots of knowledge, a passion to swim, bike, run and a sense of humor that will leave you shaking your head.  He really is a lot of fun!

Yep, I adore him… you call it smitten, I call it love!

Craig: What do you do for a living?

Dawn: I am a Voice Instructor.  I teach private and group singing lessons with an emphasis in tonation, enunciation, projection, and breathing skills.  Besides teaching music, I still get the opportunity to sing at events, nursing homes and other solo work.  I make myself available for weddings, military retirements, and funerals.

I had the great joy and honor, just recently, to sing our National Anthem at the Ironkids race.  It was a great opportunity and also another chance to volunteer and represent TCSD.  Watching those kids participate in that windy, cold weather was an inspiration! They were absolutely fantastic.

I am also a Certified Life Coach.  I coach individuals in realizing their dreams and encourage them as they take each step to reach each goal they set.

I do have a new passion and am looking to possibly start school in the fall for culinary arts.  I am hoping to start a catering business with a specialty for athletes.

Craig: What are your future triathlon related goals?

Dawn: I am hoping to do Solana Beach Triathlon this coming July 25th.  Beyond that, for this year, I don’t know.  I will be having surgery in August and won’t be able to train for 6 weeks, so I am thinking that this year will be volunteering for the most part.  For the future, I want to train to improve in swim, bike and run.  It is my goal to be able to do a century ride with Jim.  I really enjoy riding with him… ok, yeah, I love doing anything with him!  And I want to learn to run… and maybe even like it.  Those are my goals for right now.  I don’t know if I will ever be passionate about racing, but I know I am passionate about helping at races.  Giving my time, skills, and heart to encourage others that are racing.   I really love promoting triathlon and TCSD.

So, next time you come to a club race, club meeting or any of the races around… even Vineman, watch for me, I will be there cheering you on, or cooking for you and just letting you all know, you inspire me and I care about all of you!

Thank you, Craig.

Craig: Thank YOU Dawn!  The TCSD is quite lucky to have some outstanding members, but you absolutely define our good fortune.  You are a beautiful woman who has shown us how to overcome challenging life obstacles and do it with style.

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or