Before Michelle Mehnert raced in her fifth USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships in April, she and dad, Ed, had a conversation about how she might perform in the race.
Mehnert had come in 42nd the year before, when she was on the University of Illinois swim team and could manage only a few weeks of triathlon training between the end of swim season and the triathlon championship. Her dad thought she should finish in the top 50 again this year.
Mehnert — a Champaign native who graduated from University Laboratory High School in Urbana — is now a graduate student in environmental engineering at the University of Colorado. She was a member of Colorado’s triathlon team, which has won the collegiate team championship 14 times, including this year.
She had been training for months, doing time trials. Then she won the conference championship a few weeks before the national championship. And she began looking at the winning performances at the national championships in previous years.
“I was matching up my time trial splits to the previous girls who had won. I was there, or better. I won the conference race by 3 minutes. I’m on the team that’s won the championship the last three years,” Mehnert said.
Suddenly, top 50 didn’t look that great.
Mehnert went into the race at Tempe, Ariz., thinking she could win. And she did, finishing more than a minute ahead of the second place female finisher in the Olympic distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run).
The race “was a big milestone for me as far as confidence and moving up,” she said.
Her finish also earned her an elite license, allowing her to race as an elite athlete and earn prize money.
This year is one of transition for Mehnert — not just from amateur to pro, but also to draft-legal races. These races allow triathletes to race in a pack on the bike, taking turns drafting off one another. The courses are usually tighter and more technical, with more turns.
“That was one thing I had never encountered as an age-grouper. It was a big adjustment,” Mehnert said. “They make for really exciting races, but there is a lot of skill involved.”
She said there has been a crash in nearly every draft-legal race she’s done so far.
Her first was June 1 in Dallas, where she finished sixth. Then she raced the International Triathlon Union World Cup in Edmonton, Canada, finishing 19th in her first big race with formidable competition, including a few Olympians.
Mehnert didn’t have a good starting position in the World Cup because she was ranked lower than her competition, and she was somewhat disappointed with her race.
But, she said, “it proved to me at least I could go with those girls. I don’t have the bike and the run mileage a lot of these girls have.”
A factor that has played a huge role in Mehnert’s ability to race at the elite level: A couple of years ago, doctors discovered a heart condition, called Wolf-Parkinson-White Syndrome, that was causing Mehnert’s heart rate to skyrocket. An extra electrical pathway in her heart was causing it to “short circuit” and not use the full strength of her heart to beat.
Mehnert had an ablation procedure in January 2012 to remove the extra electrical pathway, so her heart now beats as it should.
For Mehnert, that means she can race hard, sprinting on the bike, for example, and her heart rate will recover more quickly.
She recently began training with Dave Scott, the six-time Ironman world champion who has also trained Craig Alexander (three-time Ironman world champion and two-time Half Ironman world champion), Chrissie Wellington (four-time Ironman world champion, now retired) and Julie Dibens (Olympian and Half Ironman world champion).
Mehnert said she hasn’t done a lot of structured training for the bike and run before, and she’ll work with Scott on time trials, going in and out of tight corners on a bike course, as well as her run speed.
The elite triathletes who train in Boulder have offered Mehnert advice on equipment, race scheduling and sponsors.
“They’ve been incredibly supportive. That means a lot,” she said.
Racing at an elite level means more time spent looking at race schedules. There are three levels of ITU races, and a triathlete must compete at the lower level and earn points to move up to the higher levels. Mehnert’s goal is to start earning enough points to get to the highest level of racing — and to compete in June 2014 at the ITU World Triathlon Series race in Chicago.
Her long-term goal: Mehnert is looking to qualify for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team going to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Games in 2016.
Photos: Top, Michelle Mehnert competes in the ITU World Cup triathlon in Edmonton, Canada, in June. Middle: Mehnert in the Life Time Chicago Triathlon in August. Bottom: Mehnert (center, in dark blue) races in the ITU World Cup triathlon. Photos by Ed Mehnert.