Triathlon legend Cherie Gruenfeld ('66) won't give up -- on herself or on the kids she coaches
Story by Claire Sykes ('81)
As the sun rose from behind the San Jacinto Mountains, Cherie (Simkins) Gruenfeld (’66, English/Education) pushed her weight into the pedals of her bicycle and leaned low onto the aero bars. That July 2011 morning was made for training. The wide, smooth street all to herself, Gruenfeld zipped past the gated homes of Palm Springs, Calif. “I was flying,” she says. “This was going to be a good day.”
Seconds later, a rock caught her front wheel, slamming her down, her bike pinning her to the pavement. A broken collar bone had crushed her plans to defend her world record in the 2011 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Since 1992 she has missed only three of these events – with their 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running – because of severe injuries.
But even though she hated sitting out the 2011 championship in October, she refuses to be defeated.
“I remain positive, and look forward,” says Gruenfeld, 67, of Palm Springs. “And I always need a strong goal. I’m completely rudderless without one.”
So she signed up for the May 2012 Half Ironman (70.3 miles), in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. A first-place win in her age group would qualify her for the big 2012 Kona race. In her 23 Ironman events, she has won first place in her age group 15 times. Ten of those are world championships, including the race in which she was the first woman over 55 to finish in less than 12 hours. All this, and more, put her on the box of Wheaties Energy Crunch cereal, in 2002.
But what is she most proud of? The kids she coaches through triathlons, in Exceeding Expectations (www.eefoundation.org). She founded the San Bernardino program that involves inner-city, at-risk kids in the sport of triathlon, helping them develop positive, goal-oriented lives with an eye toward college, whatever their dreams. In 2000, after speaking to 200 fifth- and sixth-graders about goals and racing, she asked who wanted to do a triathlon and a roomful of arms shot up. Gruenfeld chose 12 students and started EE, despite others’ warnings of its futility with children they saw as hopeless. But she beat the odds with successful fundraising and her persistent, one-on-one attention to the kids, now numbering over 50. Their class attendance and grades have improved thanks to the program for which Gruenfeld received the prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2009.
She never imagined becoming an athlete, having been raised before Title IX, the 1972 Civil Rights Act amendment that finally included gender in educational activities. But growing up, she loved playing kick the can with her brothers, including fellow WWU alum Larry Simkins ('71, Recreation), and won swimming trophies and badminton national titles. “When I became an adult, I had a lot of competitive juices yet to use.” She put them in action in the business world, with her ambitious marketing strategies and sales quotas.
But first, with her B.A.E. from Western, she taught elementary school for nine years, during which she got an M.A. in Education/Learning Disabilities from the University of Washington, and soon worked as a reading specialist. By 1975, she sought new challenges in a computer sciences degree and nine years as a software-marketing executive.
At a business meeting, she met Lee Gruenfeld, her husband since 1982, then a tech support manager. He says, “She just glided through the room, like a puck moving across an air-hockey table.”
One Sunday in March 1986, she flipped on the TV to watch the first City of Los Angeles Marathon. “I didn’t run or know anyone who did. But here were 11,000 people who had set a goal and were accomplishing it,” she says. “And I’m lying around eating sticky buns.”
Gruenfeld was hardly out of shape. She played tennis year-round and skied in winter, but only recreationaly. She wanted something more focused. So, the next day, she bought running shoes and a how-to marathon book. By August, she was up to 20 miles, and that October ran her first marathon. “I loved it but intended to run only that one.” Her finishing time qualified her for the Boston Marathon, though, and she couldn’t resist. “After that, I became an amateur competitive marathon runner.”
In 1991, a magazine article on Ironman made her wonder about triathlons, but she didn’t have a bicycle and hadn’t swum since childhood. Lee read it, too, and kept bringing it up. Pretty soon spending a day swimming 2.4 miles, bicycling 112 and running 26.2 started to appeal to her. Lee was writing his first novel, and by January 1992 he had landed a book contract. So Gruenfeld took a six-month leave of absence from work to train for the fall Ironman World Championship. After that, she never returned to the office.
Racing an Ironman: What’s it like? “First of all, it’s going to be a long day,” she begins. “During the swim, you’re feeling good. Then, on the bike, that’s when the wind and heat hit you, but for the next 50 miles, you’re great. You’ve trained for this. And you never question whether you can do it, because that takes a tremendous amount of energy. You simply know you can.” Gruenfeld, who wears out a pair of running shoes every three months, takes it mile by mile, marked off by aid stations and cheering crowds.
“But at some point, it gets really tough,” especially those last six miles in Kona’s lava fields. “It’s pitch dark and everyone’s spread out and you’re all alone, with only the sound of your labored breathing and your feet slapping the ground,” she says. “If you have any demons, this is when they’ll get you, so I have a positive mantra ready to tell myself: ‘Be calm, courageous and confident.’ With a mile to go, you turn onto Ali’i Drive and there’s the light of civilization, and the roar of the crowd carrying you to the finish line.”
Bike crashes and chlorine-bleached hair, high medical bills and hot Hawaii winds – they’re all worth it to Gruenfeld, who thrives on “going far out of my comfort zone, to see what I’m made of.” But she could never do it without Lee. “This is a guy who believes I can do anything. He is 100 percent supportive and totally unthreatened by my success.”
As he puts it, “I love to watch Cherie race. I love the way it makes her feel. To be that close to somebody with such depth of dedication and degree of talent and commitment inspires me.”
Gruenfeld, who just got the go-ahead to start full training again, is equally inspired by the EE kids she works with. One of them is Nik Keller, a 10-year-old latchkey child in 2001 when he joined, who remains active in the program as a mentor. He says, “I was bored and needed something to occupy me. But I’d give up during triathlons. Cherie scolded and supported me in a very positive way, telling me to always finish the race, no matter how long it takes. Through EE, I learned self-determination, self-reliance and self-awareness. If I hadn’t joined, I probably wouldn’t be in college,” says Keller, a biotechnology student at the University of California San Diego.
“My work with the kids is the most important thing I do,” says Gruenfeld, a powerful role model for them. “They see that I love racing, and I still have game. I’ll race as long as I can stay competitive. I’ve been given lots of gifts in life, and that’s why I feel a responsibility to help others overcome challenges and realize their own potentials. I believe I’m here on this planet to make a difference.”
Claire Sykes (’81, Community Service and the Arts) is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., She covers the visual arts and music, health and wellness, the environment, business, travel and general interest for magazines in the U.S., Canada and abroad. sykeswrites.com