Colorado elite athletes set records, overcome obstacles and make it look easy. One thing is certain — the Colorado athletes we met share the same drive, perseverance and ambition. With long training hours and jobs, they still have time to speak, coach and volunteer in their communities. It is incomprehensible what these super athletes withstand to reach athletic achievements. One Olympic bronze medalist lived away from her family for months. A marathoner put off starting a family. A third competitor overcame blood clots to arrive at championship accomplishments. Our fourth athlete finds inner drive to survive radical brain surgery and push her physical limits. And the fifth relentless champion is accomplishing this all without the use of her legs.
One look at Maureen Roben and you know she’s a runner by her tall, slim, fit stature. What you might not know is that she is a world-class athlete and a Colorado half-marathon record holder for 20 years. No. 1 marathoner in the country, member of the Sportswomen of Colorado Hall of Fame, Roben has achieved unmatched success. Equally impressive is the number of years she’s devoted to this community. In early 1980, Roben’s running career had an auspicious start. Her uncle, running for an elective office, encouraged her to run a 5K race wearing a T-shirt bearing his name. Up to this point she had run an occasional one-mile. Nearing the finish line, she saw she was the second place female, and she sprinted to finish first. “I wasn’t a runner at that time, but I got hooked winning my first pair of running shoes,” she says with a grin. Roben subsequently raced in many local events, winning trophies, medals and ribbons to fill cabinets all over her house. She began training seriously. Next, a prestigious race featuring the nation’s fastest runners attracted her attention. The 20K race in West Virginia propelled her to race at an elite status, and she beat Patty Catalano, who was the No. 1 runner. Roben became a distance runner and commenced marathon races. “I have always believed that my running is a gift, and everyone has a special talent,” she admits modestly.
The 1984 Olympics included a marathon for the first time. Roben qualified for the event, but her coach told her not to plan on going. He said she would never medal, so why bother. “It was disappointing, but I just did what he said,” she recalls. “I look back and wish I would have gone.” It was 1986 when she raced in a Fort Collins half marathon and set a Colorado record time of 1:14:08. The record is still in her name, 20 years later. In 1987 she was the No. 1 marathoner in the country and graced the cover of Runner’s World Magazine. She attended the 1988 Olympics and placed seventh. “When I crossed the finish line, I said to my husband, Rex, ‘Now I can have babies’,” she recalls. “I love kids, and I put off having a family because of training.” In all, Roben qualified for four Olympics. Post Olympics, she turned her talents to teaching adults. Roben worked with every level of runner, from those wanting to run a mile to those wishing to go long distance. “It may sound cliché, but I get so excited for people when they do something they never dreamed possible,” she says excitedly. Track, running clinics and gait analysis are sessions she ran then and today. “I enjoy working with all levels of runners, but I especially like helping new runners,” she says.
In the early 1990s Roben was asked to coach the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team in Training. She did this program for 14 years. “I loved working with runners to benefit this cause. It was a very rewarding experience, and over the years, our Colorado runners contributed a great deal of money to this worthy cause,” she says proudly. Not only has Roben developed programs for adults, but she has a big program called Spikes for children ages 7- 18. “I had a boy in the program who was very timid and unable to run a few hundred feet. Now he runs in the middle of the pack with his cross-country team,” she says, with a huge smile. “I am so very proud of him. I’m proud of all the kids — they’re so much fun.” She has more than 80 children in her summer running program.
Roben and Alan Lind are race codirectors of the Platte River Trail half marathon in April. “I’m so excited about this run. It starts in Littleton and ends at the Buckhorn Exchange with a big barbecue,” she says. “At the end of the run, everyone receives an RTD light rail ticket back to the Littleton station.” The race is the fastest-growing half marathon. She is also the coach for the Denver marathon/half marathon in August. When asked about awards she’s received, Roben immediately responded, “I’m from Denver. I am the most proud of being inducted into the Sportswomen of Colorado Hall of Fame.” To be invited into the hall of fame, an athlete must be a three-time winner. Following success, Roben gave all she had to our community.
As an emergency room doctor, Julie Batizy-Morley is no stranger to diagnosing life-threatening conditions. In November 2004, Morley, in a routine segment of her triathlon training, lost consciousness while swimming. Back in the emergency room, as a patient, she received the diagnosis she often gives to patients. She had multiple blood clots blocking vital arteries in her lungs. What she accomplished 10 months later is an amazing athletic feat. Today, she shares her story with children all over the metro area. Batizy-Morley had finished a 10-hour shift at the hospital. Hurrying home, she readied her two girls for school, sent her husband off to a different hospital and headed over to the athletic club. Batizy- Morley had dabbled in triathlons the previous year, but now she was more serious about competing. She had experienced shortness of breath the previous week but attributed it to over-training. Ten minutes into the swim, she passed out in the water. “I was rescued by my friend Tori Smith, who is an Olympic swimmer. I was completely delirious,” Batizy-Morley says.
When she heard the diagnosis, she was scared. “I broke into tears and every hour seemed to pass like days. I didn’t think I’d make it through the night,” she adds. Doctors told Batizy-Morley it would be six months before she could even think about training. “After I was diagnosed, my focus on training was diminished. I had a family, career and my health to concentrate on,” she reflects. The doctors wouldn’t give her any promises for the level of recovery she might expect after her six-month rehabilitation. “My doctor, Carol Spies, allowed me to ease back into limited training in three months. I’m not a great patient and probably trained more than she would have approved,” she admits with a grin. Her trainer, Grzegorz “Gregory,” a professional triathlete from Poland, monitored Batizy-Morley’s condition constantly for the next six months. He kept extensive logs of information that they evaluated daily. “We started training very slowly at week eight. I didn’t allow her to work anaerobically (heart rate 180+) until after May. Before that I kept her heart rate below 140,” he says. At five months, Batizy-Morley felt good enough to compete again. “I knew I had to take it easy so I started with a sprint triathlon,” she explains. Sprint triathlons comprise a 400M swim, 20K bike and 5K run.
On Mother’s Day 2005, Batizy- Morley raced her first triathlon in Phoenix. Her father, also an ER doctor, came to watch her race. “My dad had never seen me race, and when I crossed the finish line, he was crying. I knew he was shedding tears because he didn’t think I’d make it,” she says, misty-eyed. She finished third overall for women. “After that race, I pushed full speed ahead, despite warnings to be careful,” she says, with a big smile. Having placed well in the Arizona meet, Batizy-Morley set her sights on the challenging Olympic-distance Boulder Peak. Olympic distance races consist of a 1.5K open water swim, 42K bike and 10K run. She placed first in her age group. At this point, nothing could stop her. She was invincible. On October 9, 2005, Batizy-Morley went to Hawaii for the World Triathlon Championships. In triathlons, every minute counts, and transition times are critical. “I had to dismount for a minute or so, because of a cyclist crashing, and didn’t know who passed me,” she recalls. “After I finished, they posted the results incorrectly and had me in second place,” she continues. The crowning moment came when she placed first in her age group (35-39) and 13th overall. “It was a surreal feeling, given everything I’d been through the past year. Then I felt excited, elated and thankful. I was thankful for all of my family present and mostly for the smiles on my daughters’ faces,” she says humbly.
Batizy-Morley knew how proud her family was and wanted to give back to the group she loves the most — children. Following her racing season, she volunteered with schools and organizations to teach children about health and fitness issues. “I truly love children and want them to learn to be aware of health warning signs. I also want them to learn that staying fit is fun,” she says. The children absorb a great lesson when they learn of her abilities to overcome an obstacle and succeed.
While Batizy-Morley isn’t fully recovered, she is training and racing to become a professional triathlete. It’s likely we’ll see that goal come to fruition in 2006. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Batizy- Morley in the Olympic trials in 2008.
DIANE VAN DEREN
Diane Van Deren has had to overcome life-changing obstacles. Her athletic prowess is legendary: She was an All- American in basketball and golf, a pro tennis player and a rodeo competitor. It wasn’t an unlikely move when she transitioned to ultradistance running — unless you factor in radical brain surgery. Today, Van Deren shares the story of her trauma and athletic successes with children and adults all over the country. Van Deren by all counts is a gifted person. “I used to say to my dad, ‘I feel different, Dad.’ He would tell me to use the gifts given and enjoy life,” she recounts. When she was younger, she played baseball with an all-boys’ team as a catcher, an unlikely position for a girl. They called her “Dan.” High school sports included basketball, golf and tennis. She turned pro at age 17 and toured Europe and the United States. “I loved all sports and had this desire to perfect a sport on all levels,” she explains, beaming. “It may be why I’m so different — I’m just driven.” Following the pro circuit, she married and started a family. With her husband, Scott, and two children, Van Deren was happier than ever. But at age 27, pregnant with her third child, she suffered a grand mal seizure. Eight months later, she had another seizure. The doctors diagnosed her with adult-onset epilepsy. “I’d had these fuzzy sensations all my life, but I thought they were normal,” she reflects, as she shrugged her shoulders. The seizures increased, medication effectiveness abated, and Van Deren reversed roles with her small children. “My family lived in constant fear. My children assumed the role of parents taking care of me, the child,” she says, shaking her head in sadness. The only time she didn’t have a seizure was when she ran. But she needed help medically.
In 1996, Dr. Mark Spitz, a University of Colorado neurologist, pinpointed Van Deren’s seizures to a specific spot on her brain. As a baby, she had spiked a high fever that left scarring on her right temporal lobe. Spitz remarks, “I performed an anterior temporal lobectomy. The risk of not doing surgery in these cases is probably higher than the surgical risks.” Van Deren had a portion of the right temporal lobe of her brain removed. The surgery left this tough athlete in acute pain. “I was out of control with the pain. I had to be placed in a druginduced coma and strapped in bed,” Van Deren somberly recalls. It took a month for her to walk without pain. “I have short-term memory loss, and retain only 20 percent of what I see or hear. It’s a small price to pay to be seizure free,” she says with a smile. Months after the surgery, she hit the trails running. Van Deren competed in ultradistance races, 50 miles and beyond. She says with conviction, “Everyone has trials. Limitations are what we put on ourselves.” The most difficult ultradistance race is the Hard Rock 100 Miler in Silverton. The elevation ranges from 10,000 to 14,000 feet. She raced for 46 hours, fighting weather changes, frigid river crossings and cliff walls. “It’s a sport you have to prepare for. When you wade across a river with waters up to your chest, you need to be physically ready and confident,” she emphasizes.
In 2005, Van Deren competed in the Iditarod event, completing 260 miles while pulling a sled loaded with 42 pounds of gear. “This was the scariest event I’ve ever done. I had a groin injury, and I fell and twisted my ankle at mile 140. The next aid station was at mile 260. I was injured, exhausted and hallucinating,” she recalls. That summer, she joined a small group of men who finished the Rocky Mountain Slam series of races. This grueling series is the hardest and highest of all 100-mile races in the nation. Over the years, Van Deren raced in dozens of ultradistance races and placed in or won every competition. In February 2006, she received the “Outdoor Athlete Award” as a runner-up to Lance Armstrong. “My success comes through motivating others. My legs serve as my words to inspire others to reach their own achievements. I appreciate each chance I have to touch a finish line,” she explains. Van Deren is a motivational speaker and spokesperson for the KPTI, Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute, of Children’s Hospital. From holding running clinics to speaking engagements, she shares her success story with others.
When you look at Susan Williams’ triathlon career and the awards thereof, one phrase stands out — first place. Spanning 10 years of athletic dedication to this event, Williams’ Olympic dreams came to fruition when she became the first U.S. triathlete to win an Olympic medal. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she captured the bronze. Interestingly, Williams may be the only medal-winning Olympian who is an aerospace engineer. As if that isn’t enough achievement, she has added on triathlon coaching. Her athletic career began at a young age as a competitive swimmer. Williams, then Bartholomew, set age group swimming records. She still holds the record in Hawaii for the 13/14-year age group in the 200 butterfly. Additionally, she captured the same record when she aged up to the 15/16-year-olds in Southern California. At the University of Alabama, Williams set her sights on the Olympics in swimming while studying aerospace engineering. Williams went on to receive a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. Shortly thereafter, she joined Lockheed Martin’s mission analyst team. “I started running for fitness and biked for my commute to work,” she says. Boulder is a very strong triathlon community, and she soon discovered the CU triathlon club. Williams participated in her first triathlon in Longmont and took second in her age group. “I was encouraged and wanted to compete more. From there I tackled two to five more events each summer,” she recalls. And then the super athlete emerged.
As an amateur triathlete, Williams won the first championship of her career in Cleveland in 1996. She earned the top spot in the 25-29 age group at the ITU World Championships. From this point Williams went on to race as an elite triathlete. Williams missed the 2000 Olympics because of pregnancy. But she has a legacy for that season, as she named her daughter Sydney in honor of the event. “Sydney is such a blessing to my husband and me. I had her on the platform with me when I placed in 2004,” she beams. Part of the training regimen for Williams involved leaving home for two months to train in San Luis Obispo. “I had to leave my husband and baby daughter to focus on world-class style of racing. It was hard, very hard, on everyone,” she recalls. “My mom came out to help with Sydney, and it allowed me to train and not worry about home as much,” she continues.
Qualifying for the 2004 Olympics, Williams was ranked 34th in the world. “It didn’t matter where I was ranked; the reward was representing my country,” she says proudly. The day of the race was exciting and nerve-wracking, and she wanted to leave no stone unturned. “It was a dream come true just to participate in the triathlon. I started out nervous, but just kept focusing on doing my best,” she explains. Williams was at the head of the racers when she rode down a steep descent and crashed. “I didn’t think I’d get a medal at all, and now I was sure it wouldn’t happen,” she recalls. “One of my teammates, Barb Lindquist, held up for me, and that really helped me stay in the race.” When she crossed the finish line, she was shocked. “It was hard to believe that not only had I participated in the Olympics, but I had received a bronze medal,” she says. “After that everything was like a cloud — it was surreal. I was immediately whisked away for drug testing and just wanted to be with my family.” That year, she won the coveted “athlete of the year” award from Sportswomen of Colorado.
Today, Williams spends days coaching new triathletes. She motivates them through training to be confident. “I know the night before the Olympics, I was sick and nervous,” she recalls. “Even though I knew I was as prepared as I’d ever be, I just wanted to hear the gun start the event.” When she coaches athletes, she encourages them to try their best.
Staying fit is second nature to Tricia “Trish” Downing. Growing up in Denver, she actively competed in swimming and gymnastics. While at the University of Vermont, she did competitive diving. Graduate school presented an opportunity to work with the USA cycling team. “I had an internship at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. I took up track cycling, but road bikes appealed to me more,” she says. For years, cycling competitions filled her schedule as she traveled nationally to compete. But one fall day that changed. On Sept. 17, 2000, at age 31, Downing’s life and racing style changed forever. While cycling in Golden on a thoroughfare to Lookout Mountain, a car turned and hit her head-on. The impact catapulted her onto the windshield, fracturing the T4 vertebrae. She was paralyzed from the chest down. “I was conscious the whole time. I felt like I was floating, because I didn’t feel the ground,” she says. “I couldn’t feel my legs, and I knew it was bad.” From that tragic moment on, she was bound to a wheelchair. But this accident didn’t paralyze her spirit. “I reflected on my friend Al from college, who landed on his head in a gymnastic rotation and became a quad. He handled it with more grace and humor than anyone could imagine. I learned how to handle my situation from him,” she reflects calmly. “When I got to Craig (Hospital), I had a handful of breakdowns, but overall I was OK.” Four months later, she went home. “The bottom dropped out when I got home. I was living in a house that was full of stairs. It was hard being at home without nurses, friends and family. It was really hard being out in public in my chair,” she confides.
Five months after her accident, Downing competed in a half marathon with a newly purchased racing chair. Most able-bodied athletes aren’t prepared in five months. “I didn’t really train at all because I was in rehabilitation at Craig. While I was in the recreational therapy department, I was introduced to racing and decided to try it,” Downing explains. Since then, her strong arms have raced all over Colorado and the nation. Downing opted to tackle swimming and triathlons in 2002. “I tried swimming after the accident, but it didn’t go so well; it was a miserable experience,” she explains. That spring she applied for a Balance Bar grant for amateur athletes and won. The money provided more opportunities to race. Entry fees and travel expenses for races can be pricey — one race fee was $300. Using the grant money, she went on to race 18 events in 2003, half of them cycling and half of them triathlon events.
2004 turned an upward curve in Downing’s racing career. Working with triathlon coach Neal Henderson of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, she set tough personal records (PRs). “Trish doesn’t back down on anything. She set reasonable goals and met them,” says Henderson. Competing in fewer events allowed her to train for more challenging races. That year she qualified for the Boston marathon and finished a half Ironman triathlon. September 2005 marked the five-year anniversary of her accident and the most impressive accomplishment to date. Downing raced in the Oklahoma Ironman triathlon. “When I opened my eyes that morning and my brain kicked in, I realized I was about to begin one of the longest days of my life,” she says. Looming ahead was a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112- mile bike and a 26.2-mile marathon. She backstroked through the water, pulling the dead weight of her body; hand cycled, and pushed a racing chair over rolling hills. After exhausting her arm muscles to levels of fatigue heretofore unknown, she finished. “When I crossed the finish line at 1:03 a.m., 18 hours and three minutes after I had begun, I became an Ironman,” Downing beams.
Trish Downing made sports history, becoming the second female wheelchair racer to finish an Ironman triathlon. Henderson, who has coached many elite status athletes says, “This is the most impressive effort I’ve seen in an athlete, ever.” Recognizing Downing’s success, the Sportswomen of Colorado named her as the 2005 Triathlete of the year. Downing finds time to visit Craig Hospital and encourage new patients. She is a spokesperson for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). Brave Hearts and Brews is the annual fund-raiser she chairs, with proceeds going to the CAF.
By KATHY SMITH
Photography RICK HEITMAN