Falvey thrives on triathlon experience despite tough start
Michelle Falvey was in good spirits when her toes hit the sand moments before her first triathlon.
“I hoped to do well, but I went just to have some fun,” the 1988 Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo grad said.
Falvey had proven herself to be one of the nation’s top collegiate long-distance runners with a third-place finish in the 1987 NCAA Division II 10,000-meter run finals two years prior.
So how tough could a little swim, bike ride and road race be?
She soon found out.
“It was terrible. I’d never experienced a mass start before, where hundreds of people run down the beach and dive into the water,” said Falvey, whose ill-fitting wet suit filled with water the instant she hit the Bay Area lake. “You’ve got people – both men and women – piled on top of you, pushing you down in the water, pulling on your legs.”
“I was in such a panic,” she added. “They said if you had any problems, just to raise your hand and someone on a kayak will pick you up. But let me tell you, when you’re that panicked, there’s no way you can get your arm out of the water.”
While she made it out of the water in one piece, her luck didn’t get any better during the cycling portion where she suffered a flat tire less than a mile from the finish.
“I was still in pretty good condition, so I had a really good run and that’s what really hooked me,” she said. “I thought how well I would have done if I didn’t have the flat tire, or if I could figure out how to get through he swim without getting clobbered. It was the challenge.”
A good cause
Falvey competed in various Bay Area triathlons until 1991, but other priorities bumped triathlons off center stage.
Over the next six years, hard-core training took a back seat first to her job at the City of San Jose mayor’s office, then marriage, then her two children, Josephine and Andrew.
“I hadn’t really run the whole time I had kids. I tried but it was really hard,” said the mother of two, who moved to the Grass Valley area with husband Paul in 1997. “I actually tried running on a treadmill when the kids were babies and they were napping, really just to get back into good physical shape.”
She struggled to remain active, but had kept the wet suit in storage until 2002 when she heard about the Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life Triathlon.
The annual event, which is named after a local woman who died of breast cancer, has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help provide beast cancer screening services as well as college scholarships for women entering nursing or medical fields since its inception a decade ago.
“Before that, the thought of taking off somewhere for a competition didn’t seem possible,” Falvey said. “So to have something local and for such a great cause, I was really excited about it.”
With her children a little older, Falvey found some time to get back into the swing of things.
She ran, swam and cycled for months in preparation for the event.
Despite the intense training, she got a case of butterflies before the start.
Thanks to the good vibes emanating from both the competitors and event volunteers, it didn’t last.
“I did have a wet suit that fit, but I was still very nervous,” she said. “We were standing there on the boat ramp before the swim, then all of the sudden, someone in the crowd started chanting ‘WE… ARE… GOOD… SWIMMERS, WE… ARE… GOOD… SWIMMERS’, then I felt better.”
“It didn’t make me feel like I was going to swim any faster or anything, just that everything was going to be okay,” she added.
Falvey went on to cross the finish line first. She defended her title the next year.
But it’s more than just winning that keeps Falvey going.
“It’s beyond the competition. Sure we’re out there and competing against each other, but the No.1 reason we’re out there is to support the foundation.”
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