Memories of dad motivate Gutierrez

Jennifer Gutierrez finished 13th in the women's Olympic triathlon.  Credit: Authentic Fitness

Johnny "Tiger" Gutierrez's kid, his girl, is going to the Sydney Olympics.

If he could, before she lines up at the start of the Olympic triathlon, he would remind her again that no matter how she does in the race, she's still No. 1. He would offer his usual sendoff, the one she's heard since field day in kindergarten: "Go get 'em." He might thumb through his wallet for some singles while waiting at the finish, so that he could hand her $3 if she came in first, $2 if she came in second. Just like he always did.

If he could, Tiger would be there. But his girl, Jennifer Gutierrez, couldn't let him.

In January 1999, they had a tough conversation, daughter to father. He was in a hospital bed, his body weakened by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, his will strengthened by his unwavering belief that Jennifer would make it to the Olympics.

I have one wish, he told her. To watch you in Sydney.

The cancer, which started in his prostate, had spread to three-fourths of his body. He had a choice: Submit to experimental treatments or submit to nature's course.

He wanted the treatments, to stay alive to see her at the Games. She wanted him to be comfortable and to, as she says, die with dignity.

"I don't think he really knew what those (treatments) do to you, how sick they make you," she says.

As might be expected from a man nicknamed Tiger, he didn't acquiesce easily. And after he did, he would shoo Jennifer from his bedside and out the door to train. He kept track of her race schedule, remembering every date in his mind, telling her not to miss even one because of him. She did miss some, she admits now, while shuttling many weekends between San Antonio, to see Tiger, and her home in Denver.

First qualifier

She won't miss the grandest one of all. In April, 33-year-old Jennifer, who took up triathlon as "a hobby" six years ago, became the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Olympic triathlon, a new event at the Games this year. She wasn't certain it would happen when Tiger died in May 1999 at the age of 68. Tiger was.

"He believed in me," she says, "more than I believed in myself."

She has Tiger in her. She repeatedly heard from his close friends at the funeral — the ones who played semipro baseball with him in the Arizona-Mexico League as well as the ones who teed up with him later in life to play for a couple of bucks or a beer — something she already knew: Tiger was a dogged competitor.

His former teammates remembered how many wins for the Yuma Sun Sox had hinged on his sheer hustle in center field. She remembered a donkey baseball game she and her dad played in when she was in third grade.

Tiger was mulish in his desire to win even a charity game. He had been paired with a donkey that was just as stubborn in its desire to be uncooperative.

"He got so mad at the donkey," recalls Jennifer, who keeps a portrait of her father as a baseball player hanging in the front entryway of her home.

An early glimpse

Michelle Blessing, Jennifer's coach since November and coach of the U.S. triathlon team in Sydney, got a glimpse of the Gutierrez grit at the Boulder (Colo.) Peak triathlon five years ago. The year before, Jennifer had finished second to Blessing in her first triathlon, the Mere Mortals in Pueblo, Colo. After that race, Blessing thought, "Wow, who is that? She's good." At the Boulder Peak, Blessing found out just how good.

"She just killed me in the swim," Blessing says. "I never caught up on the bike, but on the run, I was catching her. She gets to the turnaround — it was just an out-and-back course — and she came running by. I had probably picked up at least a minute, and I was pretty certain I was going to beat her. Then she saw me and she got this look in her eye, picked up the pace, and I thought, 'Oh no, I'm not going to catch her.'

"That's Jennifer's strongest thing. She doesn't like to lose."

Swimming days

A swimming team coach saw that quality when Jennifer was a teenager and riding her bike or running two miles each day to the neighborhood pool, because it was a good place to spend hot San Antonio summer days while her mom, who was divorced from Tiger, worked as a nurse.

"Even though my swimming wasn't that great, (the coach) knew I had a lot of potential, because of my aggressive nature," Jennifer says.

At that coach's urging, she decided to try out for the swimming team at Oliver Wendell Holmes High. Although her mom, Margaret, would have preferred she stay with the clarinet or piano — "My mom really encouraged me to do music, and I hated it," Jennifer says — Tiger backed the idea.

He attended as many of her meets as he could, and when she became a regional champion in the 500- and 200-meter freestyles and later earned a full scholarship to Pepperdine University, he bragged to as many people as would listen.

"He didn't try to push us to do something we didn't want to," says Jennifer's younger brother Kevin, 30, who got his first BMX bicycle from Tiger when he was 4 and who still does BMX freestyle riding at NBA halftime shows.

After a relatively quiet swimming career at Pepperdine, Jennifer moved to Colorado. She started a job as an adaptive physical education teacher, working with students with conditions such as autism. In August 1993, while training with a masters swimming team, she met another person who encouraged her athletic ambitions.

Starting slowly

Bob Utberg, a dentist, had been competing in triathlons for years. Shortly after they met, Jennifer watched him compete in a local triathlon, then stated her intention to try one herself the next year. Utberg suggested she start with a swimming/running event in Boulder, since she also had run cross country and track in high school. She finished third overall in that Boulder event, ahead of Utberg and behind only two other men.

"This woman just crushed me," Utberg said. "I said, 'Jennifer, we've got to get you a bicycle and train and try (a triathlon) just for fun.'"

A month later, Jennifer finished second to Blessing at the Mere Mortals triathlon.

By June 1998, when she married Utberg, she was serious enough about the sport to go on a run with the groom the morning of their wedding day and on a 60-mile bike ride between the ceremony and the reception.

The final days

Tiger made it to just a few of Jennifer's triathlons, all of them smaller races. When she emerged as a world-class competitor in 1997, he already was sick. When she was the first U.S. woman across the line at the Pan Am Games and World Championships last year, he already was gone.

Jennifer didn't see him in his last days. "That was his request. He didn't like to see us hurt," she says.

Tiger, although not an avid James Bond fan, liked the number "007." He used it as the combination on his locks. He gave it to Jennifer as a code to enter whenever she called his beeper, so he would know it was her.

When Jennifer checked into her hotel in Sydney, the room number was 1007. The first U.S. finisher in the race, she finished seventh overall.

With that, Johnny "Tiger" Gutierrez's kid, his girl, made it to the Olympics.

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