Fifty years ago, the word triathlon didn’t exist. There were biathlons – cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, which still ranks as one of the oddest combinations in all of sports – and decathlons, which, for decades, journalists considered the mark of the “world’s greatest all-around athlete.” But the idea of swimming a few miles, hopping out of the water soaking wet only to get on a bicycle for a 50- to 100-mile jaunt and then running anywhere between 10 and 26 miles back-to-back-to-back would have earned you the kinds of looks people give a daylight racoon or a potentially rabid dog.
Today, a quarter of a million athletes compete in triathlons, with thousands of diehards completing multiple Ironmans – the longest and most insanely grueling of competitions – every year.
Golfers aren’t normally among them. While the sport has plenty of fit athletes, endurance disciplines don’t always jibe with hitting three-quarter wedge shots and making five-footers. So, when one of the longest-hitting and most talented players on the LPGA Tour and LET decided to give a triathlon a whirl, it raised a few eyebrows.
“I’ve always wanted to do a 70.3,” said Anne van Dam, referring to what those in the sport call a Half-Iron, a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile footrace. “So, I signed up for one (in Indian Wells and La Quinta, California) on December 4.”
This is not like deciding to run a Jingle Bells 5K or a 10K road race on the 4th of July. If you’ve never tried swimming a mile, it’s not for the uninitiated. Nor is peddling a bike for the better part of three hours in the California desert. Throw in a half-marathon and you have to be an incredibly dedicated athlete or a little bit nuts to even start.
“I’m big into cycling,” van Dam said. “And I don’t mind running. I run a lot when I’m out on tour. Also, I used to swim as a kid. Unfortunately, all my training has collapsed since then, so that’s going to be a lot of work.
“I have some friends who live close by who did some (triathlons). It seemed like, for me, something to do in the off season. This date worked out great, so, yeah, it seemed like the perfect time.”
It also seemed like the perfect reason.
“As I was training this year, I kept asking myself, can I do this for a good cause? I had so many friends and so many things going through my mind. Should I do it for Girls Golf? Should I try to raise money for a scholarship? But after a while, a couple of months, there was only one thing that continued to be on my mind. That was to Race for Grace.”
She was talking about Grace Godfrey, the two-year-old daughter of LPGA Tour veteran Jane Park and her husband Pete Godfrey, a longtime caddie on tour. Grace suffered severe brain damage last year after a series of seizures when the family was in Dallas for the Ascendant LPGA benefitting Volunteers of America. Since then, Jane has been at home caring for Grace’s long-term needs, which include regular hospital visits and medications, in addition to mobility, feeding, and physical therapy.
Grace continues to suffer from seizures consistent with epilepsy as doctors near the couple’s home in suburban Atlanta try to adjust her medications. Meanwhile, LPGA Tour players continue to visit and raise awareness and money for the family.
In October, Grace celebrated her second birthday with a stream of players, including Danielle Kang and Jessica Korda. Former LPGA Tour player and current University of Southern California assistant women’s golf coach Tiffany Joh spent Thanksgiving with the Godfreys and took Jane out for one of her first rounds of golf in over a year.
But nothing has matched what Anne will do in the desert on Sunday.
“She called me and told me her plans and, of course, I burst into tears,” Jane said of van Dam’s commitment. “I can’t imagine doing any of those things (in a triathlon) but to do them all in a row is just mind-boggling. And to do them in California when you played in a tournament in Spain last week, it’s insane. But we are so grateful. For her and for everyone.”
Van Dam played in the Andalucia Open de Espana on the LET last week before flying to California for some rest and last-minute training.
“I’m thankful to raise a bunch of money and have a cool race on Sunday,” van Dam said. “I’m just getting used to the jetlag and having some short runs and bike rides. But I’m excited.
“Many individuals have made donations, and my sponsors have jumped in and helped. A lot of people are just writing checks directly to Jane. So, it’s been really cool. A lot of players have come up to me over the last two weeks and asked me about it. They’re all going to follow, and they’re excited to see how I finish.”
The problem with long-term care needs, especially for a child, is people’s short-term attention span. When Grace was first hospitalized, the outpouring was breathtaking. More than a year later, it’s easy for those on the outside to forget.
“I hope to make this an annual thing,” van Dam said. “If I can do this every year, raise some funds and keep Grace in everyone’s mind, that will be a win, no matter what my finish times.”