Joanna Zeiger: from washed-up swimmer to Olympic triathlete

Joanna Zeiger was a good swimmer, but she's become a great triathlete.  Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Allsport
PROVIDENCE, R.I. For Joanna Zeiger it all started with a small triathlon one rainy day in Goddard Park. As a youngster, she became intrigued by the endurance event after watching the Ironman Triathlon on television. Now, years later, she was finally going to give one a try.

Thanks to her strong swimming background, the Brown University graduate easily completed the half-mile swim portion of the triathlon that day. But it started to pour by the time she began the 18-mile bicycle leg. Her competitors sped past as she meandered along on a borrowed cycle that was too big for her.

Still, Zeiger managed to complete the triathlon, squishing her way through the run in a pair of waterlogged tennis shoes. Covered in mud, she crossed the finish line. Even with her less-than-stellar performance, she placed first in her age group.

That day, says Zeiger, was when she officially became hooked on triathlons.

The 30-year-old native of Baltimore will be one of six athletes representing the United States when the triathlon makes its debut at the 2000 Olympic Summer Games this September in Sydney, Australia.

"There are so many things about it," Zeiger said of her love of the sport. "I really enjoy training. I enjoy racing. The people I've met along the way have been amazing right from the beginning. I've traveled all over, and the people are so nice, that makes it really a lot of fun. Altogether, it's been a great experience."

As a child, Zeiger thought she was destined for a career in swimming. And for a time, she was.

She began swimming competitively at the age of 7, and became nationally ranked by the time she was in high school. She qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 200 breaststroke and 400 individual medley but did not make the Olympic team.

Zeiger earned All-Ivy and All-Eastern honors in three of her four seasons at Brown, setting school records in the breaststroke and the individual medley in her first year in Providence. She then became a distance freestyler, setting school marks in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,650-yard events.

Zeiger qualified once again for the swimming Trials in the 1,650 freestyle in 1992. But years of intense training and ignoring a number of nagging injuries to her leg, hip and shoulder took their toll, and she was unable to compete.

Though disappointed that her swimming career was fading, Zeiger deep down never believed she would be an Olympic swimmer.

"I was a good swimmer, but I was never the top tier," she said. "And that was fine because I just loved to swim. I never had grandiose dreams because I knew it wouldn't be a reality."

She began running to stay in shape during her senior year at Brown when the shoulder injury kept her out of the water. After graduating in 1992 with a degree in psychology, Zeiger stayed in Rhode Island for a time. She began her triathlon career with that aforementioned Warwick race, receiving guidance from fellow members of the East Providence Masters swimming club, who also were triathletes.

Zeiger continued to compete in triathlons when she moved to Chicago to earn her master's degree at Northwestern University in 1995. As she enjoyed more success as a triathlete, she realized that making the Olympic team in that sport was well within her reach. She was named 1997 Amateur of the Year by USA Triathlon and by Inside Triathlon and Triathlete magazines after placing 10th overall — second among amateurs — at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Zeiger, who has since returned to Baltimore to pursue a doctorate in genetic epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, turned professional in 1998, and was named "Pro Rookie of the Year" after finishing sixth at the Ironman World Championships and winning the Mrs. T's Chicago Triathlon.

Ranked 55th in the world by the International Triathlon Union (ITU), and 12th in the United States by USA Triathlon, the sport's governing body in this country, Zeiger qualified for the United States Triathlon Olympic Team Trials after compiling 950 points on the ITU circuit. But before heading to those trials, Zeiger first competed at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials last February in Columbia, S.C. She had met the qualifying standard for that event, as well.

But as she expected, Zeiger did not come close to making the U.S. marathon team, placing 30th. She knew the mileage base she had built up preparing for those trials would place her in good stead at the triathlon trials.

And in fact, it was during the running portion of the triathlon, normally the weakest of her three disciplines, that Zeiger made her move and subsequently earned a spot on the team. After completing the 1.5-kilometer swim and 40-kilometer bike portion of the Olympic-distance triathlon, Zeiger found herself trailing leaders Sheila Taormina and Barb Lindquist by more than three minutes.

Faced with having to make up more than a minute on each lap of the run, Zeiger turned in the fastest 10K of the field and passed Lindquist — the pre-race favorite — to finish second behind Taormina in two hours, six minutes, 17 seconds.

"I didn't want to celebrate too much too soon because I knew anything could happen," said Zeiger, the U.S. Pro National Championship runner-up for the last two years. "But once I had a half of a lap to go, I knew I would make the team. It was totally exhilarating. It was so exciting."

Taormina, 31, of Livonia, Mich., and Zeiger join Jennifer Gutierrez, 33, of San Antonio, Texas, who had already qualified for the Olympic team with her seventh-place finish at the ITU World Cup in Sydney.

They will attempt to bring home the gold when the triathlon event kicks off Olympic competition in Sydney on Sept. 16.

(c) 2000, The Providence Journal.

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