Brian Hamilton: Spirit of the 14th annual triathlon is kept up in winners and losers |

Brian Hamilton: Spirit of the 14th annual triathlon is kept up in winners and losers

Despite the fact she’s now the four-time defending champion of the Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life Triathlon, Wenn Murphy is anything but a win-at-all costs competitor.

Just ask her big sister, Breen, who saw as much after getting caught up with mechanical trouble during last year’s event.

Even though her little sister was seeking a three-peat at the time, Wenn actually took a break from the race to come to her sister’s aid.

“My chain came off and Wenn stopped to help,” Breen said. “That just embodies the spirit of the whole day.

“Not that it wasn’t important to her to win, because of course she did anyway.”

Such a show of compassion, despite any good-natured sibling rivalry or any potential threats to her crown, captures the essence of not only Wenn Murphy but also the Celebration of Life Triathlon, itself.

In the 14th year of taking to the water of Scotts Flat Lake and the streets of its Cascade Shores community, the event honoring Barbara Schmidt Millar has made a huge impact on our western Nevada County community.

In more ways than one.

The triathlon, whose namesake died of cancer at the age of 42, has raised more than $320,000 to help local folks afford cancer screenings at the Sierra Nevada Memorial Breast Imaging Center. It has also funded 27 scholarships, totaling $62,000, for women pursuing college educations in the healthcare industry.

But that’s not all.

Over the course of its celebration of life, 3,671 women ” including 385 on Sunday ” have supported a great cause through the dedicated donation of their own blood, sweat and tears.

It’s impressive to anyone who has watched these women pace themselves through the half-mile swim, 11-mile ride and three-mile run. From the grimacing faces atop the climb of the Lake Lane Hill, to the smiles shared and tears shed at the finish line, their determination and satisfaction is on display for all to admire.

But it’s not only the top tier athletes who are applauded. In an event where a group of designated sweepers always finish last, there are no losers at the Celebration of Life Triathlon.

Only winners.

And, as usual, there were plenty of success stories to share.

Sunday marked the first time former three-time champion Michelle Seck was back in the mix. Since sustaining a neck injury at the 2005 Daffodil Run, she had not been able compete. But there she was once again, striding down Spanish Lane as she ran the final leg of her team’s triathlon effort.

How ’bout Lori Wisniewski, who wouldn’t let a little thing like open knee surgery derail her run at the Celebration of Life. Despite going under the knife in January, Wisniewski found success in simply crossing the line under two sturdy legs.

Cathy Anderson-Meyers, the event’s director and close friend of Barbara Schmidt Millar, completed the entire triathlon for the first time in a few years after participating on a team while focusing on her directing duties. Though she’s been out there, in one fashion or another, for 13 of the 14 races, she celebrated as she crossed the finish line as though it was her first.

And then there were the actual first-timers, like 26-year-old Kristin Jenkins, who as of a month ago hardly knew how to swim. But that didn’t stop her. She trained with Wendy Baker at Club Sierra and three weeks later, she had her first half-mile, open-water swim behind her.

“I needed a focus and I wanted to take on a challenge that I had never tried before,” Jenkins said. “I was motivated for a goal.

“It feels good, especially for such a great cause.”

And what about Barbara LaPlant? At 73 years young, she was the event’s “most mature” competitor and brought a rousing round of ovation when she was introduced at the post-race awards.

Then, of course, there’s Evans Phelps, who in five years of covering this event I have never seen come out of the swim in second place. In fact, she was the first out of the water, off the bike and across the finish line for another top 10 finish.

Did we mention she’s 58?

Another impressive showing Sunday came in the form of a slew of elementary school supporters on hand to cheer for Sara Griesert.

With signs and banners shouting her name, and T-shirts bearing her likeness, several boys and girls from Echo Ridge Christian School cheered on their favorite school principal.

“It was amazing, beyond amazing,” Griesert said of seeing her students’ smiling faces at the finish. “They are an inspiration.”

But they weren’t her only inspiration for entering the event, as her grandmother, mother and close friend have all died of cancer.

“So this year,” Griesert said, “we decided to have the students come out and pass out cookies and juice to the triathletes as a community service program.”

No doubt they learned even more while watching these women Sunday. And perhaps a few of the wide-eyed little ladies will be inspired to one day try out this triathlon themselves.

“It’s always satisfying, no matter how much work went into it,” said Wenn Murphy, who was off to her annual celebration with a glass of juice in her winner’s crystal cup at South Pine Cafe. “But I always wonder if this is the year somebody is going to beat me.”

Whether Wenn will be able to pull off a fifth straight victory at the 15th annual Celebration of Life or not, one thing is absolutely certain.

When it comes to an athletic event worthy of such a community celebration, nothing beats this.

Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. Contact him via e-mail at, by phone at 477-4240 or read his blog online at

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