9/11 and My Start in Triathlon


Posted by Coach Mandi Kowal


It was a crystal clear morning, the sky a brilliant blue, the water was glass, and there was chill in the air as the sun started peeking over the east side of the Iowa Campus.  We just finished our varsity morning practice and boy did we have a good one.  The boathouse atmosphere was electric.  As I walked to my car I was excited and ready for the rest of the day to rock. That was until I ran into Randy, who works in facilities. He said “Did you hear that someone bombed one of the World Trade Center Towers?” I was a bit taken back and wondered if I heard him correctly. He went on to tell me more. My excited energy quickly turned into a punch-in-the-gut kind of feeling. I walked to my car confused, anxious and shocked. 

Once I got home, I turned on the news to see what was happening.The reporters seemed to be just as confused. I wondered if we were at war and felt paralyzed by what was happening. In the weeks to follow there were endless updates, understandably. The magnitude of the loss on that day was unreal. All I could think about was that these individuals set out to live their day like the day before only to experience something unthinkable. In a matter of seconds, their lives ended or changed forever. It was very disturbing to me.

I did not personally know anyone that lost their life but I felt incredibly shaken by the event. It made me think about my life. What if I was gone tomorrow, would I be happy with how I was living? The answer was no. They didn’t have a chance to ask themselves that question. I did and still do. I wanted their loss to be a wakeup call for me. My life revolved around my job and seriously lacked balance. I knew the first area I wanted to address was my physical state. I really missed being an athlete. 

I thought one way to honor them was to run or row a mile for every person who lost their life. I soon realized that my back wouldn’t hold up. Then I remembered one of my former rowers had taken up the sport of triathlon. I connected with her and then her coach. I soon set out to complete my first triathlon with the ultimate goal of doing an IRONMAN. I did finish my first IRONMAN in Madison in September 2004. 

From that point on, I was hooked and have raced all but one summer. After leaving college coaching in 2012, I started up my own coaching business, started the first ever youth triathlon team in the Iowa City area, and taught hundreds of people how to swim. Heck, even my 9 year old daughter has taken to this sport.

As 9/11 approaches again, I am reminded of that day and how in one way my life has changed for the better. I think about how their loss indirectly helped me improve the lives of others - creating opportunities for athletes, young and old, to grow as people. Their loss has made me look at most days as a gift, even those days when I might be frustrated. I have taken this attitude to most of my races. This Sunday will not be different when I race at IRONMAN Wisconsin. Well, come to think of it, yes it will.

I will be racing in honor of all 2,977 of those who lost their lives. Why? Because their loss changed my life in one way for the better which in turn has impacted so many others. I will remember that during the ups and downs of an IRONMAN day - that I am truly lucky to be here racing. I will use this image to carry with me on that day and make the best of it. As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, take a moment to reflect on the things that matters most. 


~ Coach Mandi Kowal


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