Athlete Spotlight: Sara Koehnke

Feb
2

Posted by admin

About Sara:

I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago (Highland Park, Illinois.) I was born without my right hand, the doctor's hypothesis was "amniotic band syndrome." I participated in just about every club activity I could get my hands on (band, choir, fencing, photography, yearbook, working as an editor in the writing labs, volunteered in groups to help freshmen acclimate to high school, etc.) while also competing in cross country and track and field. I studied biology and psychology in college (Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois). There, I also competed in cross country and track and field. I loved the opportunities I had being captain in both college and high school, and though I loved running, I changed gears and focused on half marathons after college, and the last two years have been learning how to swim and introducing myself to the world of triathlon. I am now working with Coach Chris Palmquist.

 

What were your sports growing up?

Cross country and track and field. A lot of the time if I finished my workouts early enough and fencing was still going on, I'd jump in and do their workout too. I'm not sure how I did all of that without coffee.

 

In 2008 you were invited to Beijing to experience the Paralympics. What did that experience mean to you?

In 2008 I was invited to Beijing as the female Illinois representative as part of the Paralympic Academy. The Academy's purpose was to introduce young athletes to Paralympic sport and encourage them to go beyond what their local teams provided and find interest in someday representing the USA. That was the first time I really got a feel for how incredible the Paralympics are. I had tears in my eyes listening to our national anthem, and I wasn't even the one who earned anything. Before that experience, I didn't completely understand just how incredible some of the sports and athletes were. I left that trip in awe. That was the first time I really felt the power of the Paralympics and everything it encompasses. I didn't jump right in though, because I didn't feel like I was anywhere near good enough to be in the Paralympics and I wasn't really sure how I could get there.

 

What led you to triathlon?

Travis Ricks had been encouraging me for years to look into triathlon. I didn't jump right in because I didn't know anything about triathlon. I didn't even know how to swim, and when I already have self-doubt, those two factors were enough to drag my feet through the mud for a while. But when I realized that I could learn how to swim, and that triathlon could give me the much-needed change of pace, I fell in love. I'm the kind of person who wants to know everything and enjoys overcoming the odds. I know people who told me I would never become a strong swimmer, I've been told I'm too fat to be a "real athlete," I've had people who ought to be supporting me be completely indifferent to my accomplishments which can be incredibly painful. But I also appreciate how much I've yet to learn and master, am thankful for those who have loved and encouraged me unconditionally (i.e., my boyfriend spent thousands of dollars to travel the world with me just to keep me calm and help me race my best), and am especially thankful to the people who have tried to shrug me off. Because it's that sweet combination of encouragement and overcoming adversity that make me work that much harder.

 

You were already a runner - how fast did you pick up swimming and cycling? Is running your strength?

Running was my first love. Cycling is my neutral friend. Swimming was my biggest fear. Two years ago I stood in a 4 ft indoor pool mortified. I didn't really think I would drown, but I was certain I would somehow choke to death on inhaling water. It was so bad that one of my friends went swimming with me and yelled at me to stop, in the middle of the pool, and demanded that I stand up. It was that moment when I realized that no matter what happened, I really wasn't about to drown in that pool. That same year another person asked me to swim a length in a pool that had a 12 ft deep end. When asked to swim one length, I was certain that was going to be my last day alive. That same year was the first time I went to a race where a few minutes before the start was declared wetsuit illegal. I considered dropping out because I wasn't sure if I was going to somehow get sucked to the bottom of the body of water and drown. Today I can swim for over an hour. I've seen people in the gym watch me swim and have asked for tips. I still have so much work to do, but considering where I was two years ago? I'm ecstatic.

 

Does your experience training and racing influence your work?

I switched jobs in the middle of last year. I worked at a special education high school and I've never had a more rewarding job. The kids I worked with frequently asked about my travels and what was coming next. Some of them were genuinely interested in my journey and wanted to know more, whereas I'm sure many of the other kids felt a little disconnected from the sport. I grew up completely oblivious to the world of triathlon, and some of these kids didn't even completely understand the point of sport. One girl asked me if the reason I worked out was because I was afraid of getting fat - she didn't even really consider that I might be doing this for fun. They more they learned, the more supportive they were, and I'd find little paper signs on my desk with swim-bike-run figures on it. I still have some of the drawings and cards in my room. The staff got really into it too which surprised me -- a few of them actually came to some of my local races! That environment was so supportive and loving. I had no idea someone I worked with would have any interest in my athletic endeavors. I was doing a lot of traveling though, and I felt guilty leaving so often. Even though my bosses were supportive, I saw the strain my absence was putting on the team and so I began working at another company which has also been incredibly supportive beyond words. I managed to get two of my coworkers to do an indoor triathlon, so I'd like to think I'm encouraging them in the right direction. I also work in a pharmacy during the weekends which is also inquisitive, supportive and encouraging.

 

What races are on your schedule for 2016?

I have many races on my "wish list," but have only signed up for one so far. I'm a little intimidated by the year because I spent too much time in the off season sick. I kept getting knocked out for weeks. I have this little imaginary timeline in my head where I go hulk-mode and work out nine times a day, and I kept getting angry that I wasn't able to do that. I'm still a little frustrated, but I'm trying to keep it all in perspective. I'm thankful that my coach has been my rock through all of this.

 

What are you like as an athlete - data driven, go-by-feel, relaxed, disciplined?

I'm not sure if this is my biggest weakness or strength, but I don't think I yet fit into one of those four categories for "type of athlete." I am definitely data driven and a total dork for stats, graphs and progress reports. I love workouts that tell me to hit specific times because there are few things in life more satisfying than smashing those expectations to smithereens. But I also enjoy workouts that tell me percent effort and "go by feel." I'm a constant ball of stress by nature, so I have to actively think about staying relaxed, but if I get too stressed out I turn into a goof ball, but a hard-working goofball. I may be doing heel clicks between intervals, but I'm still destroying my times.

 

Anything else you'd like so share about Sara Koehnke?

I learned so much and changed so much as a person in 2015 that I'm really excited to see who I become this year. I think a big part of growing up is wanting to do the right thing and please the right people and make the perfect decisions, but I've finally figured out that it isn't my job to please everyone. It's my job to work as hard as I can to become the best athlete that I can be. This is the first time in a very long time that I don't have to really overcome anything other than myself and that is such a weird feeling. It's confusing, to be honest. But my instincts have never led me astray. I think this will be the year of decisions, picking directions, and realizing that although I thought 2015 was the happiest year of my life, 2016 can somehow be even better.

 

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