Olympic gold-medal swimmer Amy Van Dyken plunges into triathlon

For now, you must forgive Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken for knowing only one way to describe losing her breakfast. But she's still new to the sport of triathlon, where competitors seem to know every conceivable synonym for tossing their cookies.

Having conquered swimming with six Olympic gold medals, she has moved on to another sport: triathlon.

"Going up the longest hill on the bike, I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to throw up,'" said Van Dyken, who competed in her first "real" triathlon Sunday in Monument, Colo. "Then, on the last hill on the run, I thought, 'Oh, God, now I really am going to throw up!'"

But she didn't, though if she had, she wouldn't have been alone.

Comments overheard at the finish line of the 10th annual Saturn Triathlon included: "I'm kind of happy I didn't puke, except here at the end."

"I started chumming on the bike a little bit."

"I ralphed, like, four times."

"I yakked, but here I am."

Triathlon — a race that combines swimming, biking and running, in that order — is not a sport for those with faint constitutions. Not even Van Dyken's husband, Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, wants to try it.

"This is for people who are a lot tougher than me," Rouen said, cheering his bride while lounging comfortably in a collapsible armchair underneath an umbrella along the shores of Lake Woodmoor.

So, what's tougher — two-a-day practices, as administered by Broncos coach Mike Shanahan during training camp in Greeley, or a triathlon?

"You mean, two-a-days for somebody at my position?" he said.

No, no, let's say for a tackle — someone who really has to work.

"Then, I'd have to say two-a-days are probably tougher than this," he said. "But this is pretty tough stuff."

More than 600 people eschewed a lazy, stay-in-bed Sunday morning to sweat and claw their way through a 1/3-mile swim, 15.2-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run. Those are respectable distances, though not the torture of the infamous Ironman Triathlon, a race Van Dyken is considering for 2003. The Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

"Awesome! Just awesome!" Van Dyken exclaimed Sunday after crossing the finish line, slapping a high-five with her husband. Van Dyken, 28, finished in 2 hours, 10.5 seconds, placing 28th among the 34 women competing in her 25-to-29 age group.

The race Sunday was the first for Van Dyken in open water. She placed sixth in a triathlon in Colorado Springs in late June, but the swimming leg was held in a pool.

"(The lake swimming) was so weird," she said, then joked, "I kept looking for the (pool) wall, thinking I needed to do a flip turn."

The hilly bike course was much harder. Her father, Don Van Dyken, was looking for her to finish that segment in about 40 minutes.

Forty-two minutes went by. Then 45, 50, 55. Dad's frown lines deepened. He worried that, with new tires on her bike, she had crashed — or, even worse, had an asthma attack. She successfully overcame her asthma to win four gold medals in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. She added two more golds, both in relays, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, then retired.

During the triathlon Sunday, she kept her aspirator tucked safely in the cleavage of her two-piece swimsuit.

Finally, an hour and 9 minutes after she left, she was back.

"My feet are numb," she said, changing into her running shoes. But she was smiling — much as she did throughout the race. Gone was the intense stare that used to intimidate opponents.

"The atmosphere here is just so much more fun, more relaxed, though just as competitive," said Van Dyken, who attended Cherry Creek (Colo.) High School and Colorado State University and lives in Englewood, Colo.

Cries of "Go, Amy!" and "You're doing great!" were thrown at her from both spectators and other competitors.

Next up? The Danskin Women's Triathlon on Aug. 5 in Denver. But beginning Wednesday, Denver residents can see her on television. She starts working part-time for Channel 2 as a sports reporter, telling viewers in-depth stories about non-traditional athletes — like triathletes.

Triathlon made its debut as an Olympic sport last summer in Sydney. Van Dyken is not ruling out making a stab at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, but it's not her focus. An Olympic triathlon is composed of a 0.9-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.

"I don't think it's going to be possible. But I already have six gold medals, you know?" she grinned.

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