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Terry VanderWert

“At Age 70, I Had 19 Days To My First Triathlon” – Pat Johnson’s Story

“At Age 70, I Had 19 Days To My First Triathlon” – Pat Johnson’s Story

The Villages, Florida – Can you prepare for your first sprint triathlon in less than 30 days, even at age 70?

According to Pat Johnson, you can. She did it and is now an advocate for seniors to compete in triathlon.

Pat’s story was first published on June 24, 2018. Recently, I contacted her for an update on her triathlon journey. Now approaching age 77, Pat remains active in triathlon and is still enthusiastic about it as a way for seniors to stay fit.

This post, updated on February 8, 2021, combines the story of Pat’s first triathlon and her experiences with the sport over the past two-and-a-half years.

Pat Johnson’s First Triathlon at Age 70

Pat Johnson’s triathlon story begins with a conversation she had a few years ago with her then 35-year-old niece, Barb. Barb told her Aunt Pat about her goal to complete an Ironman triathlon before age 40. Excited by the idea of doing a triathlon, Pat committed to complete a shorter, sprint triathlon by age 70.

Fast forward a couple of years and Barb had completed the Ironman triathlon well before age 40. Meanwhile, the deadline for Pat to complete her first sprint triathlon was quickly approaching.

“19 Days To Get Ready for My First Sprint Triathlon”

Pat did not even know where she could do a triathlon.

“I knew I was going to have to practice swimming in order to complete the triathlon. So, I contacted a guy who also lives in The Villages and was part of the masters swimming program called VAST (Villages Aquatic Swim Team).”

Her swimmer friend told her about triathlons regularly held in Clermont, Florida. She said, “I found out that the next triathlon was in 19 days.”

Undaunted by the short time until the race, Pat registered for it, her first sprint triathlon.

The next morning, while waiting between pickle ball games, Pat casually mentioned to another person that she had signed up for a triathlon in Clermont.

Much to Pat’s surprise, the lady replied “Oh, no. That’s the worst place to do a triathlon. There are hills.”   

Pat, a Wisconsin native, admitted, “Until then, I did not even realize that there were hills in Florida.”

This fellow pickle ball player took Pat under her wing and helped her prepare for her first triathlon. She even provided swim goggles and clips for her bike pedals.

Nineteen days after registering for the Central Florida Triathlon Series Race 3, Pat completed her first sprint triathlon, fulfilling the agreement she had made with her niece.

Ironically, the person who helped Pat, Donna Maguire, had been thinking of giving up triathlon. Instead, she started The Villages Triathlon Club. Since then, Donna has completed many triathlons, including at least one Ironman.

Catching the Triathlon Bug At Age 70

Pat had planned to do only one triathlon. However, like so many of us, she caught ‘the bug’. As of this update, she has completed 21 triathlons. And she’s not finished.

Pat Johnson prepared for her first sprint triathlon at age 70 in less than 30 days. Since then, she has created a collection of finisher medals.  Included is one from Pat's first sprint triathlon.
Pat Johnson has earned a fine collection of triathlon medals.

Racing with Sally Edwards

Most who have completed a few triathlons have been asked to name their favorite.

For Pat, the ‘Girlz on Fire’ triathlon in Clermont, Florida has been her most memorable. This race was particularly special in that she could not only meet, but compete alongside, Sally Edwards, a triathlon icon.

At the conclusion of the race, Pat posed with Sally while Sally signed her book “Triathlons for Women” which Pat had purchased earlier and brought with her to the race.

Sally Edwards book signing.  Pat first started her triathlon journey at age 70.
Sally Edwards with Pat Johnson signing Pat’s copy of ‘Triathlon for Women’.

Racing in the ‘Girlz on Fire’ Triathlon with Sally Edwards was one of the highlights of my triathlon career. 

Pat Johnson

Speaking of the ‘Girlz on Fire’ triathlon, Pat said, “There were only two people in my age group. As she often does, Sally purposely stayed back so that she could cross the finish line with the last finisher as a show of support. She is really a sweetheart. When you meet her, you feel like you have been friends forever.”

Age-group-triathlon-award-ceremony
Pat Johnson (first place) and Sally Edwards (second place) at the awards ceremony of the Girlz on Fire Triathlon in Clermont, Florida.

Some Triathlons Are Challenging Even With Experience

Pat, who is approaching age 77, will soon enter her eighth year in the sport. She has no plan to stop “Tri-ing”.

Over the past two years, Pat has volunteered at an Extreme Triathlon each year. She has also completed two triathlons.

The first race she completed was at the Daytona Speedway. According to Pat, this triathlon was “amazing”.

“Running on the speedway track was a wonderful experience.”

In contrast, Pat refers to her last triathlon, one in Crystal River, Florida, as her worst.

“During the swim portion, I was near a swimmer who kept cutting me off each time I tried to pass them. I am sure it was unintentional, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.

“The bike portion was even worse. The rear brake rubbed on the wheel throughout the course. I couldn’t get my bike to go any faster than 14 miles per hour. I had picked up my bike from the shop too close to the race to give it a test ride.

“By the time I got to the run, I was really down. Since I walk instead of run, I think I was the only one still on the course. I felt humiliated. While I was continuing the last leg, other racers were already leaving, since there was no awards ceremony because of COVID.”

A Personalized Approach to Training

Pat has developed her own training approach, one that works well for her. Since she has problems with her back, she runs very little. Instead, she trains in race walking, which she uses during the run leg of the triathlon.

Pat describes her approach to her run leg as “race walking with a tiny bit of running. I get excited near the finish, so I save just enough juice to run across the finish line.”

In any week, Pat will go on at least one 10 to 12 mile bike ride along with a few shorter rides. She also takes advantage of the wonderful lap pools in The Villages with two to three swims per week.

Pat developed her open water swimming by connecting with another local triathlete, Lorri, who lives on Lake Weir. Lorri has a daughter who is an accomplished swimmer. Lorri’s daughter provided “a couple of great big yellow ducks” used to practice sighting, a skill important to staying on course in an open water swim.

Advice for Seniors Thinking of a First Sprint Triathlon at Age 70

Pat is an outspoken advocate for seniors to stay fit. 

“If you have the slightest inclination to do a triathlon, go for it.  Meet people who are involved in triathlon and ask them for advice. You will find them eager to help you on the journey.”

Pat is living proof of the ‘no excuses’ lifestyle. If you were going to use the excuse of not having enough time to prepare for a triathlon, perhaps you need to think again. Pat had less than 19 days to get ready for her first triathlon.

Even if you cannot complete the three legs of a triathlon, there are plenty of races that include a relay option. In these, each team member performs one leg, the one with which they are most comfortable, capable, and prepared.

Applying Faith in Triathlon

Triathlon has given Pat Johnson an opportunity to stay fit and meet new friends. It has also provided her opportunity to put her faith in Jesus Christ into action.

Pat’s Christian faith goes with her on the racecourse. She starts each competition with a personal prayer for God’s guidance during the triathlon.

“One of my favorite promises from the Bible is Philippians 4:6-7.” This verse says:

‘Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.’

Triathlon for women and cross following first triathlon at age 70
Pat Johnson proudly wears a cross symbolizing her Christian faith with one of her triathlon finisher medals.

After the particularly difficult Crystal River Triathlon mentioned above, Pat stopped to reflect.

“As I said, this was my worst experience with a triathlon. What I learned from it was that I hadn’t relied on the most powerful source available to me. My LORD!

“I was so wrapped up in self pity that I didn’t use the power that we all have when we have Jesus as our advocate.

Philippians 4:13 says ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me’.

“Hopefully next time I will keep my focus where it should be.”

Do You Want To Do Your First Triathlon at Age 50? 60? 70? 80+?

Would you like to complete your first triathlon as a senior triathlete? What help can we provide?

Tell us in the Comments section below. You will find plenty of support from this wonderful community.

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‘Gotta Tri’ – Triathlon in The Villages, Florida

‘Gotta Tri’ – Triathlon in The Villages, Florida

The Villages, Florida, located between Orlando and Ocala in central Florida, is a 55+ community like no other in the USA. To say that residents and visitors of every age and ability are required to stay active is no stretch. 

Thanks to The Villages Triathlon Club, triathlon is one of the sports growing here.

The Villages Triathlon Club Builds on an Active Lifestyle

If I were to pick one word to describe The Villages, I would choose ‘active’.

As just one example, consider that from 5 to 9 PM, 365 days per year, each of the three Town Squares has live music with residents and their guests filling the dance floors. 

To prepare for the evening, one needs to take afternoon dance lessons.  That is, unless you are golfing on one of the more than 50 courses, biking, doing water aerobics, playing pickleball at one of the roughly 150 courts, swimming in one of the 102 pools, or involved in any of the other hundred or so activities.

Triathlon-friendly ‘Biker Shuffle’ with Scooter The DJ at Spanish Springs Square in The Villages, Florida .

My Introduction to The Villages Triathlon Club

Reading the sports section of the daily newspaper of The Villages, The Daily Sun, has become a ritual when visiting the area. Articles in the paper often highlight accomplishments of active seniors. These stories never fail to encourage, inspire, and even amaze.

One article that especially grabbed my attention was that of a resident who had restarted swimming after quadruple bypass surgery.

Wanting to learn more about the story behind the story, I contacted the article’s author.  He eventually introduced me to Donna Maguire, founder and president of The Villages Triathlon Club.

members of The Villages Triathlon Club preparing for the swim
Members of The Villages Triathlon Club often race together at sprint to Ironman distance events.

Beginnings of The Villages Triathlon Club

Donna Maguire started The Villages Triathlon Club in April, 2015 after venturing back into the triathlon world following her and her husband’s move to The Villages. While in central Florida, she learned about nearby Clermont, the so-called ‘Triathlon Capital of the World’.

While The Villages had groups for almost every activity and interest imaginable, there were no running or triathlon clubs. However, that changed through a ‘chance’ encounter between Donna and another ‘Villager’, Pat Johnson.

“One day, I met Pat while we were both playing pickleball. She told me that she had just signed up for her first triathlon at age 70. Pat had no idea what she was in for,” said Donna with a smile.

“She had less than three weeks to prepare for the race. So, I took her under my wing and shared my limited experience and some of my equipment.   Helping her helped me. And with that, the idea that would lead to the triathlon club was born.”

Donna started sharing her vision with other triathletes.

“Many of them encouraged me to start a triathlon club. All I wanted to do was find people to train and play with. Did I ever!

“We now have both a triathlon club and a running club”.

The Villages Triathlon Club Today

The Villages Triathlon Club’s mission is “to provide, for all levels of athletic ability, a network of information, support services, training, racing, and social activities in a friendly and supportive environment”.

Membership is open to residents who are currently participating in triathlons or have completed races in the past and have a desire to get involved again. Also welcomed are first-timers who want to learn about and prepare for a multi-sport challenge.

She and many of the club’s members have become ambassadors for triathlon throughout The Villages and beyond. Members often attend triathlons as a club, complete with t-shirts, warm-ups, triathlon suits, and other apparel bearing the club logo which was designed by Donna.

Donna’s support for triathlon even shows in her e-mail signature which includes the words ‘Gotta Tri’.

Sharing Triathlon Information Among Club Members

Both the triathlon and running clubs have Facebook pages to foster communication and support among members. “We encourage all club members and meeting attendees to try to do a triathlon.”

“I’m not an expert and although I share my experience, I also want to be sure that members have a variety of levels of expertise and experience on which to draw.”

Monthly educational meetings are another way the club promotes triathlon for its members and anyone interested in competing in the sport. These meetings are a time for sharing “tons of information”. Many include guest speakers to discuss topics related to training, rest and recovery, nutrition, and racing.

Triathlon Training Events

The Villages Triathlon Club also regularly organizes training events for its members.

The club has group runs on Sunday mornings. During the week, members regularly get together for 60+ mile bike rides at one of the local trails.

The Villages Triathlon Club holds groups swims two mornings per week
The Villages Triathlon Club holds group swims two times per week in one of The Villages’ sports pools..

The club also has standing Tuesday and Thursday morning reservations at one of The Villages’ sports pools. During this time, swimmers of all levels, from beginner to experienced, meet to build their swim fitness and improve their triathlon-specific swim technique.

For example, the group works on swimming close together and drafting, to become accustomed with the contact that often occurs during the triathlon swim.

Club members have also met for group swims and practice triathlons at nearby Lake Minneola and Lake Weir. One of these events included a triathlon swim lesson from a professional triathlete.

The Villages Running Club also hosts group runs on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s morning that leave Lake Sumter Square at 6:30 AM during the summer months.

Before COVID-19 shutdowns, the club reserved Lake Sumter Square (one of the three Town Squares mentioned earlier) on Friday mornings for a free Boot Camp. 

Attendees would gather at 7 AM for a 4-mile run that included interval training. Then at 8 AM, the Boot Camp session was led by one of the club’s members. Finally, a yoga class was held at 9 AM for the most ambitious members. A priceless start of the day.

Why Do A Triathlon?

Why should someone in or approaching retirement age participate in triathlon?

According to The Villages Triathlon Club members, there are many benefits from training in the three different sports. There are health benefits from being stronger, more fit, and, for some, losing weight.

Training in swimming, biking, and running helps avoid overuse injuries by working different parts of the body. It also prevents boredom, which can lead to inconsistency.

There are also social benefits; meeting new people, developing friends with whom you can share successes and struggles as well as learn, or go golfing.

For Donna and many other club members, triathlon has also helped build confidence and mental strength.

Not learning to swim until later in my adult life, Donna had always had a fear and discomfort in the swim portion.

“Little by little I’ve started to overcome that fear, something I never thought I’d be able to do.  I keep reminding myself – ‘Just breathe’.

“We all have something that is scary and out of our comfort area. We can take the easy route and just avoid that situation or tackle it and feel confident.”

Donna Maguire, founder of The Villages Triathlon Club for senior triathletes
Senior triathlete, Donna Maguire celebrating her age group win at the 2015 Great Floridian GFT 1/3 Ironman Triathlon

Have Questions for The Villages Triathlon Club Members?

The Villages Triathlon Club highlights the value of the encouragement and camaraderie that comes from being part of a group that shares common goals and interests. For example, Donna has gone from ‘considering quitting triathlon’ to a 2x Ironman finisher during her time with The Villages Triathlon Club.

Feel free to post questions and comments for Donna and The Villages Triathlon Club members in the Comments section below.

This post was originally published on March 25, 2016. I updated it after Joy and I were in The Villages during April, 2021. During that stay, I had the privilege of presenting at The Villages Triathlon Club’s monthly meeting where I learned from these amazing and inspiring people. I also joined the club for one of their swim sessions.

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