Before start, mind races

Triathlon: Having grown up in a family immersed in science, Joanna Zeiger knows al about cause and effect. The Hopkins grad student is betting that her mental preparation for Sydney will put her ahead of the curve.

September 09, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

There might not be a more scientific mind on the U.S. Olympic team than Joanna Zeiger's.

Zeiger is a triathlete and a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She did the workout she was told as a college swimmer, but now Zeiger partners with coach Troy Jacobson to plot and monitor every aspect of her rigorous training. She wonders if other Olympians have read any of the research on the long-term effects of the nutritional supplements they gobble.

Both of her vocations - she is a professional athlete and a paid researcher - deal in cause and effect, but there are long, delicious spells when Zeiger contemplates nothing more than her breathing.

"The scientific part comes in setting up my training," Zeiger said one morning in late August. "Once I'm out there, riding my bike or going for a run or swimming, it's all about that moment, trying to enjoy that specific activity. Being on the bike on a perfectly gorgeous day, when the sun is out and everything is green because of all the rain, then it's perfect enjoyment."

It's a seemingly natural path that Zeiger followed to enlightenment and her home in Mount Washington, the base for workouts up and down Falls Road that would tax the combined efforts of a dozen average citizens.

Zeiger got her undergraduate degree in psychology from Brown University and her master's in genetic counseling from Northwestern. She figures to complete her Ph.D. in genetic epidemiology next year. Her doctoral thesis will be on the causes of cleft palates.

On the move

Zeiger was born in Baltimore 30 years ago when her father, Robert, was a pediatric intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is now involved in allergy research in San Diego. Her mother, Karen, began her roles as an activist and researcher in Tay-Sachs Disease when she was pregnant with Joanna, and her first born was diagnosed with the fatal genetic disorder that progressively destroys the central nervous system in children.

"Before 1970, there was no screening for Tay-Sachs," Karen Zeiger said. "There still isn't a cure. These children all die before age 5. Our son Michael died at 2 years, 10 months. It was a sad time for us, but the good thing was that I was able to have other children."

Joanna has a 28-year-old sister, Laurie Dodd. The Zeigers followed Robert's work to Bethesda and Boston, and eventually settled in San Diego.

Karen Zeiger saw that many back yards in Southern California had in-ground pools, and was determined to make sure her daughters were proficient swimmers. Joanna was hardly a natural, as she was cut from the San Carlos Swim & Club's summer team. She was a worker, however, and competed in the 1988 Olympic trials before she entered Brown.

Those trials were held in Austin, Texas. Zeiger went for an eight-mile run with a friend on an off day, and thought she would never recover. Earlier this year, her proficiency as a distance runner was such that she qualified for the U.S. trials in the marathon, and placed 30th.

Trying something new

Zeiger missed the 1992 swim trials with a shoulder injury. She took up running to stay in shape, entered her first triathlon a year later, and has continued to combine the sometimes conflicting worlds of academia and athletics.

She is a relative novice to the International Triathlon Union distances of a 0.9-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike race and a 6.2-mile run that will comprise the Olympic challenge. The longer the better for Zeiger, who will go from Sydney, Australia, to Hawaii for the lucrative Ironman. She was the top American last year in that test of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a concluding marathon of 26.2 miles.

When the year began, Zeiger had no designs on being one of the three American women who will participate in the inaugural Olympic triathlon a week from today. She didn't have enough points on the ITU circuit to get in an April World Cup race in Sydney. Jennifer Gutierrez gained a U.S. Olympic berth there as the top American finisher. Sheila Taormina won at the U.S. trials in Dallas on Memorial Day weekend. Zeiger finished strong for second.

"This wasn't even something I was thinking of six months ago," Zeiger said. "I am constantly surprised by my reaction to things. Watching the track and field trials on TV, it hit me: `Hey, I'm going to be there with the people who are qualifying at this moment.' I have had to remind myself that I'm going."

Keeping pace

Logic presumed that Zeiger would cut back on the volume of her training and increase her speed work for the shorter Olympic distances, but her powers of observation dictated otherwise.

"The one thing that's important to maintain is consistency," Zeiger said. "I know what training schedule is best for me. I physically break down when I do too much speed work. I'm getting good results by sticking to training longer distances."

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