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Cheryl Woodworth getting better with age

Cheryl Woodworth, a former aquatics director at the West Suburban YMCA, competes in this year’s IRONMAN in Hawaii.

Cheryl Woodworth, a former aquatics director at the West Suburban YMCA, competes in this year’s IRONMAN in Hawaii. Photo By Cheryl Woodworth

Dec. 23, 2013

Cheryl Woodworth had a couple goals when she retired 12 years ago.

She wanted to still be living a healthy lifestyle when she turned 70.

She also wanted to shed some pounds as she entered the next phase of her life.

Since she had always been an avid bicyclist and stayed fit in the pool over the years as the aquatics director at the West Suburban YMCA in Wauwatosa, this didn't seem an impossible feat.

But Woodworth has achieved an improbable feat over the past decade: She is an IRONMAN champion. Or maybe it's best to call her an IRONWOMAN.

Woodworth has now reached her 70s (she celebrated her birthday last month), and looking back, she's stunned with how far she's come.

"It's my birthday and it was such a long-range goal that I can't believe it," said Woodworth, who has far surpassed her 20- to 25-pound weight loss goal. She's now lost about 75 pounds since retirement. "I never thought I would be where I am. I couldn't have scripted this myself, as it's really been an unbelievable journey."

Challenge accepted

The journey started when she was biking with a semi-pro cyclist in the Blue Ridge Mountains about six years ago.

"He said to me, 'Have you ever thought about doing an IRONMAN?'" Woodworth recalled. "I just laughed, because I never really run. But he knew I could swim and bike."

Woodworth said she dropped the idea but a couple weeks later another friend told her she should consider an upcoming IRONMAN Triathlon in Arizona.

"Two people in a short time were telling me this, so I was thinking there has to be something to it," she said.

While she was 65 years old, her age didn't stop her from undertaking the challenge.

"My distance biking was fairly decent and I was very comfortable in the water," Woodworth said. "That came to me relatively easily. I always was an endurance person."

That was a good start because endurance is needed in the IRONMAN Triathlon. The long-distance event begins with a 2.4-mile swim, continues with a 112-mile bicycle ride and ends with a marathon 26.2-mile run. There are no breaks.

Long process

Needing the most work on long-distance running, she pulled a trifecta by entering in her first 10-kilometer run, half-marathon and marathon all in the same year.

She said her one worry was getting injured, but that concern was quashed as she continued to compete.

She did a couple half-IRONMANs and since 2009 has competed in six full IRONMAN Triathlons. Woodworth also was part of the Team USA that competed in Budapest, Hungary, for the Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2010 and was just invited to be on Team USA for the 2014 International Triathlon Union Long Course Triathlon World Championships on Sept. 21 in Weihai, China.

But the featured event that she has looked forward to every year since 2010 is the IRONMAN Triathlon World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

In her first try there, Woodworth finished fifth in the 65 to 69 age group.

"That was a shock," she said. "Some try to qualify for years."

After that competition she continued to work with her full-time coach, Briana Boehmer, as well as her personal trainer, Dory Karinen. She swims during the off-season in Silver Lake in Oconomowoc. During the season leading up to an IRONMAN competition, her training is intense. But Woodworth explained preparing for one takes almost an entire year through the various phases: base, build and peak.

"I call it a part-time job," said Woodworth, who works part time at the YMCA in Waukesha as a pool deck supervisor. "I don't think I've digressed or maintained, I've definitely improved and that removes any preconceived notions of what someone can or can't do at any age."

Support system

She knows she couldn't do this by herself. She credits her coaches and husband, Tom, a recently retired longtime math teacher at Wauwatosa West High School.

"He supports me 110 percent," she said. "I could never do one of these alone. You need the support, and I have wonderful support behind me."

Besides making the travel arrangements and hotel reservations for his wife's big competitions, Tom is often nearby to bring her water, change a flat tire and make sure her route is safe when she's training.

"I've been nothing but her biggest supporter," said Tom, who has been the public address announcer at Tosa West basketball games for almost 35 years. Cheryl has been the official scorekeeper at the home games for about 20 years.

Woodworth's preparation for October's IRONMAN in Hawaii was met with mixed emotions. She lost her father, who was just shy of his 100th birthday, in August. And her nephew's son was diagnosed with leukemia. Meanwhile, her first grandson was born this year.

"My dad was my real inspiration," Woodworth said. "He had a very vibrant and active life. I had told myself 'I'm going to live that kind of life.' He inspired me and was such a role model for me where you can have an active and healthy lifestyle into your 70s. But I was also running for my great-nephew for his recovery. That was a real motivator for me."

Positive results

Woodworth finished the Hawaii event in 15 hours, 47 minutes, 37 seconds.

It was Woodworth's personal best and earned her the top spot in her age group. But like any champion, Woodworth had higher aspirations.

"I was really hoping to be under the 15-hour mark," Woodworth said. "But on the run I got several blisters that kept me from going under 15 hours. They really slowed me on the run."

Her under seven-hour bike time, however, was a personal-best.

"I was all excited after the biking, but the run just didn't work out," Woodworth said.

Don't tell Tom that it didn't work out. He continues to be astonished by his wife.

"She's gone far beyond what I thought," Tom said. "She's amazing. It's not something that's done by women her age, and she continues to amaze me."

2014 on her radar

She'll return to Hawaii next year looking for that 14-hour mark and to defend her title. "I would like to set the standards for the next age group," Woodworth said.

In the meantime, her training for the 2014 World Championships begins next week.

While she's become a champion, she'll be the first to tell you that it hasn't happened overnight.

"I thought it would just be about losing some weight," Woodworth said. "But then all of a sudden it became not so much about the weight loss but about doing something I was passionate about. The weight was an added bonus. I'm doing what I love, and who would have known that this athletic body was underneath it all."

And while her goal was initially about herself, it's now about others.

"A motivation is to inspire others to lead a healthy lifestyle," said Woodworth, who recently shared her story while serving on a panel at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I always say, don't be afraid of starting. Just be afraid of not starting."

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