Nancy Avitabile crossing the finish line. Source: Nancy Avitabile
After a 2014 operation for an Achilles tendon injury left Nancy Avitabile in a cast, the triathlete made a decision.
“I was so depressed because I had missed most of the 2013 racing season that I decided I was going to be World Champion,” said Bethesda’s Avitabile, now 67, who’s considered one of the country’s best female triathletes. “I couldn’t walk, but I was going to be [a] world triathlon champion.”
And she became just that.
With an overall time of 2:48:52, Avitabile claimed the World Champion title for the women’s 65- to-69 age group at the 2015 ITU World Grand Final and World Championships held in Chicago in September.
Avitabile said she became doubly motivated to pursue the title when she learned that the 2015 World Championships were going to be held in Chicago. Over the years, she had traveled internationally to compete in previous world championships, never placing higher than fifth.
“I was like, ‘That’s like my backyard,’ ” she said. “My family said they were all going to come and I thought, This is the race I’m going to win. Crossing that finish line was great…it made all of the hard work worth it.”
A seasoned competitor, Avitabile had competed in races in other sports before deciding to compete in her first triathlon in 1993.
Avitabile started her athletic career as a swimmer, although her high school only had a men’s team. During the school year, she was a member of the school’s synchronized swim team and then competed on club teams in the summer. After graduation, Avitabile attended Fordham University in New York, but did not swim competitively. While at the University of Hawaii for graduate school, she joined the Waikiki Swim Team in 1977, practicing and competing in open water.
“I was a long-distance swimmer for a long time when I was much younger, and then I started doing marathons in the ’70s. The running craze started in the ’70s, like late ’70s, so I was doing marathons then. And I always liked biking, so I was like, ‘Let’s just put this together,’ ” she said.
Avitabile took a break from competing to focus on raising a family and growing a business. In 1979 she married Richard Edelman and had two children. She moved to Bethesda in 1984 and started Business Management Resources, which manages accounting, bookkeeping and tax work.
In the last 15 years, Avitabile has focused on competing in triathlons, finishing about four annually. She competes in a total of about 10 events annually, including swimming, cycling and running races.
Her previous rankings in events, combined with the setback from her injury and operation, only fueled her desire to seek World Champion status. So she created a plan and started working with her coaches.
Avitabile attributes her recent success to her improved swimming technique, which she developed at Bethesda Sport & Health under masters swim coach Jay Beneditti. Avitabile also works with running coach Roland Rust, triathlon coach Abby Crew of Balanced Power Coaching and lifting coach Geovanny Ardon of Bethesda Sport & Health.
“I knew I needed help, and I think for people who are serious and set a goal—‘OK, here’s my goal and how I’m going to get there’—and that’s where…I needed help getting there. And they were great,” she said of her coaches.
Avitabile trains by herself mostly for about two hours five or six days a week. Her trainers give her workout plans ahead of time. Her coaches praised Avitabile’s commitment. “She inspires me and everyone big time,” Ardon said.
Currently, Avitabile is in the building phase, one of the four triathlon training periods. During this period, she adds weight lifting to her routine and more mileage through long swims, runs and bike rides. After the building phase comes the pre-racing phase during which speed is added through short interval training “so you’re going as fast as you can but for a short period of time,” she said.
The pre-racing phase transitions into racing season, “and that’s when you hope you’ve put all the stuff together. And that’s when I do less weight lifting but much more interval training and what we call brick training,” Avitabile said.
Brick training focuses on transitioning fluidly from one leg of the race to the next. Avitabile said she often practices taking off her wetsuit and hopping off her bike to start running during racing season, which runs from May to October.
“I’m really good at transitions,” she said. “You’re timed from the start, when the gun goes off and you dive into the water until you cross the finish line running, so every second counts.”
After racing season comes off-season, where Avitabile lets her body recover through leisurely hikes and swims. It only lasts a couple weeks before the building season starts again.
“I feel the same way now that I did when I was 25,” she said. “Older people talk about aches and pains. I don’t even know what aches and pains are. I mean, if I had a hard workout, I’ll have muscle soreness, but that’s different than aches and pains.”
She loves competing and the way her training makes her feel physically. All the hard work is worth it, she said.
“I really like the competition. I really like pushing myself, seeing how far I can go and winning. Crossing the finish line is the best part because at the beginning of a triathlon, I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Because I know how hard I’m going to push myself,” Avitabile said. “I know how much pain I’m going to be in. Cross the finish line, [and] I get the answer. And I just feel so good.”
She has no intention of retiring from racing anytime soon.
“After I crossed the finish line at Worlds, I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ It was so hard. I had to really push myself into the pain zone. I was in the pain zone from the time the gun went off until I crossed the finish line,” Avitabile said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this again. This was really hard.’ My son said, ‘Yeah, but two weeks from now, we’ll hear that you signed up for another race.’ Two weeks from then, I had signed up for another triathlon.”
Avitabile also won the 2015 USA Triathlon Olympic-Distance National Championships for her age group in Milwaukee in August, which qualified her for the 2016 World Championship team that will compete in Cozumel in September.
“I thought, Cozumel…I’ve never been to Cozumel. That could be nice. The water would be warm,” she said. “So I signed up for the Worlds next year.”
Avitabile at the finish line with family and friends after the race. Provided photo.