Plenty to run through

Triathlon: Mandy Pagon, a former track star at Dulaney, and Joanna Zeiger, a Hopkins grad student, are on roundabout paths in their quest to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.


May 24, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Birth a baby in 1998, then have last year crumble under a broken collarbone.

Spend the winter wrapping up the research on your doctoral thesis in genetic epidemiology.

Mandy Pagon was a local prep running legend, and now she tracks down a boy who'll turn 2 next month. Joanna Zeiger is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. They have taken interesting paths to the doorstep of the Olympics, as they are among 24 women who will vie for the nation's two remaining berths at the U.S. triathlon trials in Dallas on Saturday."It's so hard with these types of races to predict anything," Zeiger said. "Their nature is that anything can happen. On the bike, you can get unlucky and be in a pack that doesn't work together. Maybe there's an accident. There are so many variables. You can run any number of scenarios, and none might play out."

Zeiger enjoyed the pecking order at the St. Anthony's Triathlon in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month. She and Pagon went 1-2, while third went to Jennifer Gutierrez, the Denver school teacher who earned an Olympic berth April 16, when she was the first American finisher at a World Cup race in Sydney, Australia, site of the 2000 Games.

The top nine American women in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) rankings got to compete on the Olympic course. Zeiger and Pagon are the 12th and 13th American women, respectively, in that point system, but that's a reflection of their relative inexperience on the World Cup circuit, not their fitness.

As Mandy White, Pagon was an age-group swim standout for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. She was one of the nation's top distance running prospects while at Dulaney High, and remains the only girl to twice be named The Sun's Athlete of the Year. While at Stanford, she got a husband, a degree in human biology and a stress fracture, which ended her status as a track phenom. "I had great results off of such little mileage in high school, or so people thought," said Pagon, who dominated the state 4A scene from the 800 meters to the cross country trails. "I ran so few miles, but I had all of that swimming training behind me. When I went to college, I tried just to run, but there was an adjustment. "I finally did well my senior year, broke the times that I had run in high school. I think if I had had another year of running at Stanford, I would have broken through, and that's translated over to the triathlon."

Pagon said that all of her notions about fitness were challenged by the birth of her son, Blake, on June 30, 1998. "I've heard the claims that motherhood makes you stronger, but I don't know about that," said Pagon, who thinks she picked up a stomach bug from her son last weekend. "I have never felt so bad as when I was coming back from having Blake. I felt like I had never been an athlete."

There was more pain in March 1999, when she was cut off during the cycling segment of a triathlon and broke a collarbone. Pagon didn't ride for a month, or swim for two months, but Baltimore-based coach Troy Jacobson e-mailed makeshift workouts to her home in Satellite Beach, Fla.

Pagon's husband, Garrett, was an ROTC student at Stanford, and is now a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Until he's done with his military obligation, Mandy's plans to pursue a master's in physical therapy are on hold.

Stan White, Pagon's father, came to Baltimore in the early 1970s to play linebacker for the Colts, and remains part of the local sports landscape. Mandy was in town two weeks ago for a family reunion and some workouts with Zeiger. It's flat in her neck of Florida, and Pagon needed some time in the hills north of Baltimore for bike training, "my weak link."

Pagon won' t turn 25 until June 8, and she'll be one of the younger competitors in Dallas."Mandy's still developing herself as an athlete," Jacobson said. "Based on her background, she has the potential to be the world's best."

While recovering from her track injury, Pagon joined the Stanford swim team. A background in the pool seems standard on the World Cup circuit, where leaving the water with the leaders is paramount because bike drafting is legal.

Gutierrez, the recent Olympic qualifier, swam for Pepperdine. The trials contenders include Sheila Taormina, who won a gold medal in swimming in Atlanta in 1996. Top American Barb Lindquist, who will take another shot at qualifying after a bike crash led to her downfall in Sydney, swam for Stanford.

And Zeiger? She competed in the Olympic swim trials in 1988, then entered Brown University. An injury that kept her out of the '92 swim trials hastened her into the world of the endurance athlete.

The Olympic triathlon distances are a 1.5-kilometer swim; a 40-K bike; and a 10-K run, a couple of hours of exertion and still a sprint for Zeiger. She considers herself more suited to Ironman tests, which consist of about four times as much sweat: a 2.4 mile swim (3.9K); a 112-mile bike (180.2K) and then a marathon, a run of 26.2 miles (42.2K).

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