Column: Friendship formed in competition

Suzy Heffernan and Kristen Neimeth met in 2015 while competing in the Deep Pond Triathlon in Wading River. Both were relative newcomers to the sport and were at similar points in their lives, each with two children.

They got to talking and compared notes on their training techniques. Ms. Neimeth and her husband had bought a house in Southold in 2010 and split their time between the North Fork and New York City. She was excited to learn Ms. Heffernan lived nearby in Cutchogue.

The two quickly hit it off and began bicycling together the next week.

“I can’t underestimate the importance of my friendship with Suzy in helping me reach the next level in triathlon,” Ms. Neimeth said. “She’s just a great training partner and very inspirational.”

At the time, neither woman could have imagined just how far they would push each other and the heights they’d reach in a sport as grueling as triathlon, a race that combines swimming, bicycling and running.

In late August, they arrived in Lausanne, Switzerland, to represent the U.S. at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final. They had qualified to compete in the Age Group series against women from across the world in the sprint triathlon. While they’re only one year apart, Ms. Neimeth had “aged up” into the 50-54 group, while Ms. Heffernan competed in the 45-49 group.

“I can’t even express the journey,” Ms. Heffernan said. “It was just amazing. As a first-timer, there were so many things to learn.”

The bicycle course, in particular, with its steep descents and sharp turns, made for a unique challenge.

Ms. Heffernan, who recently turned 49, finished 20th in her group, completing the course in 1 hour, 21 minutes and 19 seconds. Ms. Neimeth, 50, was 28th in her group in 1:23:31.

“What was so amazing about it as you were running, you had all the different countries hanging their flags and people you don’t even know calling United States and your name,” Ms. Heffernan said. “It was just an amazing experience.”

Ms. Neimeth faced some adversity leading up to the trip when she cracked a rib from a bicycle fall just a few weeks before the competition. Her first thought was that the injury might prevent her from competing.

“With positive thinking, everything went great,” she said.

Both women come from athletic backgrounds. Ms. Heffernan said she had been running a lot but the constant strain on her body began to lead to injury. She tried to find a better balance and began cross training. She would ride a bicycle throughout town with friends and her first foray into triathlons was when they decided to try the Mighty North Fork Triathlon.

She struggled in the swim and her husband gave her some hard-nosed advice: figure out the swimming part, or triathlons aren’t for you.

She found the race thrilling and was eager to tackle a new goal in the swimming component.

Kristen Neimeth (left) and Suzy Heffernan. (Credit: courtesy photo)

Swimming, it turns out, was Ms. Neimeth’s expertise. She’d been a competitive swimmer in her youth and also ran track and field.

“I loved the water,” she said.

She grew up in a small town in Michigan and could have pursued swimming in college, but at that time, she said, she needed a break from competing, she said. Her athletics largely stalled as college, a career and then kids took priority in her life. As she reached her 40s, she found she had some more time available for self-improvement. The first triathlon she competed in ignited a spark in her competitive spirit.

“You forget how much fun it is,” she said.

To qualify for the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final, both women competed at nationals in Cleveland in 2018. The top eight finishers earned the right to form the U.S. team.

They spent almost a full year training for the Switzerland competition. On top of the physical aspect, they had to concentrate on nutrition and proper rest. Both women said the support they’ve gotten from family and friends helped make it all possible.

Ms. Heffernan said her husband, Dennis, is her “No. 1 fan” and gets up at 3 a.m. to cheer her on at every race.

Ms. Neimeth said her husband, Chris, competes in triathlons as well, and is currently more focused on running as he trains for the New York City Marathon. She plans to pull him back into triathlons next season.

She said her husband and two children cheered her on in Switzerland. When she started in triathlons, her kids didn’t exactly follow what she was doing. They just saw her collecting gear.

“Now they’re proud,” she said. “My [11-year-old] daughter tells her friends that I’m a triathlete and they were really proud of the trip. So I think I’ve inspired them to do more.”

There hasn’t been much rest time since coming back from Switzerland. Ms. Heffernan competed at the MightyMan Montauk sprint triathlon Sept. 27, finishing fourth overall and as the top female finisher. She finished in 1:08:22, just five minutes off the pace of the overall winner.

“It was a great way to end an awesome season,” she said.

Both women have already qualified for next year’s ITU World Triathlon Grand Final, which will be held in Edmonton, Canada.

“It was just really special to be part of Team USA,” Ms. Neimeth said. “That feeling of camaraderie and pride in your country and pride in yourself to be able to represent the United States at such an event.”

Top photo caption: Kristen Neimeth (left) and Suzy Heffernan have both qualified for the 2020 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada. (Courtesy photo)

The author is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].