Tragedy Drives Woman to Triathlon

Source – Jason Mucher / USA Triathlon August, 2009

After an undetected heart condition claimed the life of 38-year-old Joe Lyons during the 2007 Cohasset Triathlon, no one would have blamed Joe’s widow, Karen, if she distanced herself from the sport.
In fact, though she enjoyed an active lifestyle, Karen had never participated in a triathlon.
However, that tragedy two years ago actually drove Karen toward the sport, not only as a participant and active member of the multisport community, but also as an advocate for race safety. Ironically, in 2008 Karen, who resides in Newton, Mass., entered her first triathlon at Cohasset, where her husband had died just a year earlier. She has now completed five races, including the Cohasset Triathlon for a second time.
“The last two years I’ve been filled with gratitude with the support I’ve received. I look at life, what’s in front of me and walk toward it. I’ve always been that type of person,” says Karen, who is also active in raising funds to fight juvenile diabetes, a disease her son has [check out]. “It’s just how I am. I don’t like to let things sit or go. This is an opportunity to serve others.”
For Karen, that service is two-fold: correcting misperceptions about triathlon being a dangerous sport and persuading highly competitive athletes that it’s okay to stop during a race if something doesn’t feel right with their bodies.
Karen, 45, was particularly troubled over the past few months when a widely reported medical study concluded that triathlons are particularly dangerous when compared to other endurance events.
“The way [the study] was written, it implies novices shouldn’t be in the sport. It suggested you’re better off sitting on the couch than living an active lifestyle,” Karen says. “It also implied races weren’t safe. Saying you could die during a race is like saying you could get hit by a car after the race. Of course both are possible, but they are both also incredibly rare. I have as good a reason as anyone [not to race triathlons]. But I don’t think that’s the answer. Deterring people is not the way to go. It undermines the message that leading an active lifestyle is one of the best ways to stay healthy.”
She wants the public to know that triathlon is a great sport, one that builds community, provides an avenue for supporting worthy causes, and promotes a healthy lifestyle. “This sport for me has been such a positive thing. The community, the camaraderie; it’s so inspiring. I can’t imagine saying I’m better off not participating. [Triathlon has] been a wonderful sport for me. I’d like to see more people getting involved. It accommodates everybody. Don’t be frightened by it.
“It’s amazing that the sport at the center of this tragedy has also helped my healing. I am grateful for it.”
In the face of her enthusiasm, Karen does understand that unsafe physiological conditions can arise during physical activity. So she encourages individuals to take proper precautions before entering this or any physically demanding sport. A checkup from a family doctor is important, she says. But she also recognizes that some individuals have conditions, like her husband’s, that can go undetected even in medical exams. “Most of us don’t get tested if we don’t have a reason,” she says. “You should do that. That’s what Joe did. But what about people, like Joe, who get the ‘all clear’?”
To those individuals, Karen recommends a bit more awareness of their own bodies during training and racing. “A lot of us don’t know when to stop. Joe felt that something was ‘off’ during the swim at Cohasset and actually stopped midway to discuss his situation with a lifeguard in a kayak,” Karen recalls. “But, having been told by a doctor that he was healthy and had no cause for concern, he chose to keep going. If he had known, he would have stopped.
“You can’t check your commonsense at the starting line. If your body doesn’t feel right, stop. Body awareness is essential. Know to look for it, when you’re feeling different even when you don’t know what it is. It is important to take a reasonable amount of caution.”
While her son has yet to race in his first triathlon, Karen has no thoughts of holding him back, and has even considered letting him compete in the Cohasset Triathlon when he turns 13. She has worked hard to ensure that he appreciates the sport and the value of staying active, but more importantly that his father’s death wasn’t due to his racing. “I want my son to know his dad didn’t do anything wrong. It just happened,” she says. “Knowing that, my son is not afraid of the sport or of me participating in it. Things happen; we still keep going. We can do good things even in the face of bad circumstances.”

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