2009-01-01 / Features

3 Sports In 1

By KIM POINDEXTER TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) - When Angela Stewart sits on the edge of the pool at the Northeastern State University Fitness Center, tucking long strands of hair into a swim-cap, she's focusing on how many laps are on her training schedule. She may not necessarily notice what's going on around her.

But anyone new to the pool that day, male or female, will almost certainly notice Stewart. And he or she may lean toward one of the veterans and whisper, "Who is that? Is she training for the Olympics?''

Stewart doesn't look like a typical 43-year-old, and shock registers on the face of anyone who learns she's the grandmother of a 3-year-old boy. She could easily be taken for a professional athlete - maybe someone like 2008 Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres.

Stewart has always been in good physical shape, ever since she was a tomboy keeping up with the boys in her neighborhood in Pawhuska. Sports were a big part of her life, though not in an organized sense.

Swimming, biking, running - those were activities she loved. But it never occurred to her she might combine all three into one package.

Stewart married young, in 1983, and a few years later had her son, Tyler. At first, she was content with being a stay-athome mom. But after a divorce, she found herself back in the work force. She'd been single for four years and was working as a data entry clerk when her life took its first dramatic turn.

"A guy I worked with was putting siding on buildings and had been working with another guy, and (the co-worker) thought I just had to meet him,'' she recalled. "We went on a date and hit it off right away.''

Soon she and Eddie Stewart, a Tahlequah contractor, were married, and Eddie adopted Tyler. Once she moved here, she decided to enroll at Northeastern State University.

Over the years, Stewart had cultivated an interest in the law. After she got her bachelor's degree in 1986, she enrolled in law school at the University of Oklahoma. She had both an aptitude and an appetite for it, but the going was rough.

"Eddie stayed here, and Tyler and I moved to Norman,'' Stewart said. "It was hard being apart from Eddie, and Tyler had to leave his friends here.''

Stewart wanted to quit, but some of her professors, who saw her potential, pleaded with her to stick with it, so she opted to lay out for a year.

"I started to go back, then I thought about it, and realized I just couldn't do it,'' she said. "It was too hard on my family.''

But the foray had given her a taste from the career menu, so Stewart decided if she couldn't pursue law, she might as well go for physical fitness. In 1999, she and an architect put together a plan for a local fitness center, designed for women. It was Stewart's "gift to the community.''

"I wanted to give women a place they could feel was theirs,'' she said. "For many women, it's hard enough to take time for themselves, let alone get out in front of a bunch of men and try to get in shape.''

But during the five years she owned the center, she would veer onto another path - one that would not only prompt her to sell her business, but would physically challenge her like never before.

In March 2003, she and Eddie were in Paceline Cyclery, looking at road bikes, when she happened to pick up a magazine.

"I noticed this listing for events in 'multi-sport,' and I thought, 'What in the world is that'?'' Stewart recalled. It turned out to be information on a series of triathlons, and one featured a 500-meter swim, a 13-mile bike race and a 5K run in June, and in a nearby city. Stewart was intrigued.

"I didn't know you could do that sort of thing around here,'' she said.

The following weekend, she bought Joe Friel's Triathlete Training Bible, reading it cover to cover. She started intensive training in all three disciplines, showed up for the race, and took second in her 35-39 age group, just seconds behind the top finisher.

"It was the most incredible experience,'' she said. "I was hooked right from the start.''

Though Stewart now works her own. She began running, swimming and cycling three days each, without any days off. She became so immersed in triathlon that she decided to sell her business in 2004.

"I was working so much I didn't have enough time for myself, to train, to do the things I enjoyed most,'' she said. Her official occupation these days is personal trainer. Now she's a USA Triathlon Level 1-certified coach, but she's had to cut her clientele to 10 or 12.

"When you become a triathlete, it's pretty much a full-time, permanent thing,'' she said.

The competition year for Stewart begins around February, with a run. In 2009, she's eyeing a marathon, 26.2 miles. Then in April, she'll do a "sprint,'' which usually includes a 500-yard swim, 12.4-mile bike ride, and a 3.1-mile run. Stewart can complete the series in just over an hour, whereas most participants need at least an hour and 20 minutes. In May or June, she may do another sprint, or go for an "Olympic distance'' triathlon - a 1,500- meter swim, 40K bike race and 10K run. In 2008, she took on that event in Austin, Texas, where many renowned pros also competed.

Next up in the triathlete's season is the Half Ironman - a 1.2- mile swim, 56-mile bike race and 13.1-mile run. This year, Stewart competed in September in Lubbock, Texas, where she had a problem with her bicycle: a flat tire.

"I use tubular tires, which are glued onto a carbon fiber wheel, because you can generally change them more quickly, but you have to get it on just right, or you have problems,'' she said. "That's what happened in Lubbock, and it cost me 20 minutes.''

This year, for the first time, Stewart signed up for her first "full'' Ironman, the ultimate triathlon: a 2.4-mile swim, 112- mile bike race and 26.2-mile marathon. She opted for the one in Panama City, Fla., Nov. 1.

"You get the signal to start, and hundreds of people suddenly plunge into the Gulf of Mexico,'' Stewart said of the swimming leg. "And anything can happen. If you don't like contact sports, don't do it. People swim over you, you get kicked in the face, dragged down.''

This time, Stewart was freestyling on pace when she felt someone grab one of her legs. A male swimmer was trying to pull her back to give himself an advantage.

Still, she was thrilled with her performance: Out of the 117 who started in the 40-44 age group, 99 finished, and Stewart placed 20th, with a time of 11 hours, 36 minutes and 26 seconds. The typical first-time Ironman competitor shoots for 13 to 15 hours.

Stewart's success this year has also spurred her to pass on her love for triathlon to others. She'd like to see more area residents take up the sport, and eventually stage a local event. She's especially interested in getting children involved.

"As we're all aware, childhood obesity is an epidemic. Kids stay inside and watch TV too much. I'd like to get them outside and playing again, and help them get into something they'll enjoy for the rest of their lives,'' she said.

Individual sports are fine, but as Stewart points out, participation usually ends after high school or college. "And a single sport, like running alone, can put a lot of stress on the body. With triathlon, you mix the different (disciplines),'' she said. "There are triathlon categories for kids, teens, all the way up to 70 and 80 years old.'' There's no initial investment, if you have a decent bicycle.

A healthy, high-energy diet is also important.

"Stick with lean protein like skinless chicken, no fried food, watch your sugar, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables - not processed, but in their own skin,'' she said.

Stewart herself, who's 5-foot- 6 and weighs 120 pounds, consumes a whopping 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day during rigorous training, and about 2,500 a day offseason. She also takes a multivitamin, fish oil, and glucosamine.

Stewart would like to offer clinics for kids in the spring and summer.

For the time being, Stewart's just trying to get as many people interested in triathlon as she can.

"It will change your life. I know it did mine,'' she said.

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