Champaign native Michelle Mehnert is best known in her hometown as a swimmer at Urbana University High and the University of Illinois. She also competed in track and cross-country, and that range of sports led Mehnert into the multi-tasking triathlon. Now 24, she’s competing on the world circuit with a goal of representing the United States at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. News-Gazette staff writer Jeff Huth caught up recently with Mehnert as she prepared for today’s ITU World Triathlon Series event in Auckland, New Zealand.
Take us back to the beginning. How and why did you decide to try your hand at the triathlon?
From a very young age, I knew I wanted to do my best to be world class in sport. I was just trying to find out which one. I saw triathlon in the Sydney Olympics and knew that it could be the one. I was already swimming at the time but knew I had some run legs in me. My then-coach with Aquachiefs, Carol Wright, confirmed my thoughts with a simple “Yes, you could be very good at that.” I entered the (Champaign Park District) Mini-Tri at the first opportunity after that.
For you, which of the events that make up the triathlon — swimming, cycling or running — is the most challenging?
Cycling. Easy answer. For non-draft triathlon — what I had been racing as an amateur — the bike is purely about endurance, but draft-legal triathlon is also about skills. It’s one thing to go 24 mph on a bike in a straight line, but it is quite another to hold that speed going around 50-plus turns while riding 6 inches away from another rider on all sides. It takes a lot of nerve.
The triathlon has made you a world traveler. How many countries have you visited, and do you have a favorite so far?
Brazil will be number 10 later this April, but my life on the road is just beginning. Before I started competing internationally, I covered most of the U.S.; I’ve visited 45 states so far. It’s hard to choose just one place as a favorite; each country has been unique and spectacular in its own way. If you had me move anywhere, though, it would probably be near Bern in Switzerland- I’m a sucker for mountains! Countries Stamped: Canada, Mexico, UK, Germany, France, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand, Australia.
You must have a bunch of memorable stories to tell from your travels and experiences overseas. Give us one of your best.
I was on a swim team exchange in Germany a few years ago, and the coach jokingly asked me if I was going to swim in their 5K open water championships. I said sure, not realizing that a) he was joking and b) none of the other Americans would be there. It was a non-wetsuit swim, with a water temperature of about 65 degrees with air temperature cooler than that. I swam it with both my host sister and host mother; we all finished pretty close together and each won our respective categories. Post race, we drove to a small restaurant in the Black Forest and ate our weight in schnitzel and spaetzle with some of my host’s extended family. We finished the evening at my host’s grandmother’s house for cake and champagne, where I got to play a note passing game with one of the younger cousins. The catch was all my notes had to be in German, and her’s had to be in English. It was an exhausting day, but an incredible experience that I still cherish to this day.
What is the oddest food you have tasted during your travels? Are you an adventurous eater?
I’ve gotten more and more adventurous as I’ve traveled. Locations show a lot of personality through their food, so it’s important to get out there and try the local dishes. One place that stands out is a small breakfast restaurant in Quebec that served only rabbit meat. It was delicious. I’ve developed a taste for Vegemite on this recent trip, but feijoas — a small green, guava-like fruit — are also prime down under.
You were a 4-H state champion in baking as a teenager. Do you still have time to feed your passion for cooking? Do you have a dish you consider your specialty?
Absolutely! Admittedly not as much baking anymore. I need a bit higher nutrient density for training. I always have some sort of fresh salsa in the fridge, but I’ve been experimenting over the winter with soups. So far, a Thai coconut salmon soup has been a repeat favorite in my house, but buffalo chili is also a Colorado classic!
I understand you are active in a movement to make the triathlon a scholarship NCAA sport. You’ve even testified in front of an NCAA committee on that topic. What points of persuasion did you present and where do things stand on this?
Triathlon has now been voted in as an “emerging sport” for all divisions of NCAA competition. It now has provisional status in order to form college teams and hold intercollegiate competition. Once 40 teams sign on, they will hold a championship as well. This fall will be the first official NCAA season for the girls. One of the main points for the NCAA committee was legitimizing the different skill set that it takes to be a triathlete compared to pure swimming or running. Triathlon is clearly a sport with a lot of interest at the collegiate level — there were 2,000-plus athletes at collegiate nationals last year — but the current system forces even the top athletes to choose NCAA competition in only one sport or stay at the club level in order to pursue triathlon. Some of the best triathletes, while not good enough to compete in pure swimming or running, are fabulous when they’re allowed to combine the three sports. Hopefully adding triathlon will help the NCAA expand the number of student-athletes it serves and provide some exciting competition.
You joked on your Twitter account that you’ve been away from home in Boulder, Colo., so long, your roommates had replaced you with a fish. What’s the first thing you do when you return?
The fish has probably taken over my room as well. I live in a house with five other girls and a dog in Colorado. None of the other girls are particularly into sport, but we’re all very close. I missed a family hike on a beautiful Boulder day this past weekend, which would be great to do again when I get home.
You earned a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Colorado in December. What’s the career plan beyond triathlon?
I’m still working part time in engineering; I’ve got a job down in Denver with Tetra Tech Inc. I’ve spent too much time on my academics to let it go that easily. I wouldn’t mind going back to school for a PhD, but that would have to be after my triathlon career is over.
Is Boulder a good place to be a triathlete?
Boulder is a fantastic place to be a triathlete. The riding and running are top notch, and I have a solid swim group that is able to push me in the pool. There are nice wide shoulders on all the roads — which keep us away from cars when we’re out biking — and 300-plus days of sunshine a year. One of the best parts for me, though, is getting to know all the other athletes that live in town. Many are older athletes who have a ton of experience that they are happy to share with the younger generation.
During your final year of swimming at the UI, you were diagnosed with a condition called Wolf-Parkinson-White Syndrome, caused by an extra electrical pathway of the heart that can lead to episodes of a rapid heart beat. Sounds scary. What was that like?
Literally speaking, it felt like someone sucked all the energy out of your muscles and stuck a very large, very floppy fish in your chest. I had incidences of rapid heartbeat when I was younger, but it began to happen a lot more frequently in my final year of swimming. I had always thought it was a training issue. It was almost a relief to finally have it explained.
In January 2012, you had a surgical procedure to address the problem. Since you are swimming and running and cycling at a world-class level, can we assume you now are OK now?
Yep. The extra pathway in my heart was burned out successfully, and my heart now beats as any normal person’s would. I get a blip every once in a while from the scar tissue, but it doesn’t effect my training or racing anymore.
What would you regard as your best achievement so far in the triathlon?
Winning USAT collegiate nationals last year stands out so far, both physically and mentally. Dealing with the pressure of being the front runner on such an outstanding team — and having to take control of the race from the start — it’s not my usual style. I’m usually the one with a kick at the end.
Dave Scott and Christine Bell are your coaches. Tell us about them and how you connected with them for training?
I worked with Dave and Christine a little last year, separately for swim/strength training and physiotherapy. Dave is widely considered to be one of the legendary athletes and coaches of Ironman distance triathlon, and Christine is his partner, consulting physiotherapist, and the one that has to keep us all sane. I approached them last fall about coaching me when I decided not to come back to race for the university team. While they usually coach Ironman distance athletes, they were ready to take on the challenge of coaching a draft-legal short course athlete. It’s been new territory for all of us, but so far it’s been working really well. We all seem to be a great fit personality-wise, which makes everything easier.
Sounds like what you do could be expensive. How do you pay the bills?
Ha, it is! My parents have helped me out a bit, but I am expected to be self-sustaining. I worked up to three jobs as a grad student and am working part time now to help fund my “triathlon habit.” It admittedly does not allow for much a social life, but the trade-off is worth it.
What do you miss most about Champaign-Urbana?
The people. C-U has an incredible community, and I miss seeing my old friends around town. I try and do the rounds when I visit, but it’s still hard to keep up with everyone. I also try and go back to my old running haunts — the Arboretum and Allerton Park, and grab some Papa Del’s (pizza) while in town.
We noticed that the ITU World Triathlon Series stops in Chicago June 27-29. Will you be swimming in Lake Michigan?
Indeed. We’ll be in the harbor just east of Grant Park. The whole race will be contained on the waterfront, so it will be very spectator friendly.
Are you expecting to have “home-course advantage” in the Windy City? Or at least a whole bunch of fans to cheer you on?
The course looks like it will be flat and windy, so that should at least feel familiar. I know my family and some friends from Champaign will be driving up for the weekend. Many of my UI swimmer teammates now live up in the downtown area, so I expect I’ll have some buddies form the swim warm-up. It very much feels like a hometown race.
Finally, the Olympics are a couple of years off. How does the qualifying for U.S. athletes in your sport work and how are you positioned among the top American candidates?
The U.S. has one of the more straightforward qualification procedures: get enough points to race in the WTS circuit — eight big races each year; Auckland and Chicago are each one of these eight — and then finish as the first American in selected races in the lead-up to the Olympics. There are three races selected, and one new spot available in each race. After the first race, you only have to be the top American who has not already qualified). The world championships — the last race on the circuit — will be in Chicago in 2015 and will have a qualification slot open. At the rate the U.S. women are going, this will likely mean you have to win the world championships to secure the spot. Two of the three (U.S.) Olympians for London are planning on returning — they still need to qualify like everyone else — and there are about five of us ready to fight it out for our own chances, too. It’s a tall order for anyone, but they’re all top class people- both on the course and off it. The competition will only make us all better.