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Sarah Michaelson - Coaching for a Cause
August 04, 2014
“Polar Vortex.” Those two words were all over the Washington, DC area media this past winter, and it was not just the typical hype. Everywhere you turned there was a snow bank or an arctic wind gust waiting to knock you over – not exactly the ideal conditions for a training bike ride or an open water swim practice. For Senior Project Engineer Sarah Michaelson, however, the brutal weather that the area experienced this winter seemed appropriately symbolic of the battle that the members of her Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) Team in Training (TNT) were fighting on behalf of their loved ones. The WDC Service Scout had an opportunity to talk with Sarah about her experience as a Team in Training Swim Coach.
What is TNT?
TNT is the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s endurance sports training program. Participants agree to raise a certain amount of money and in return, TNT provides coaching, training schedules, and race day support for the athletes. The money that is raised by TNT goes towards research and development for new cancer treatments, case studies, and medical cost assistance.
How did you come to be involved with TNT?
A friend of mine who was training for the 2013 Nation’s Triathlon with TNT introduced me to LLS and their mission. While I do not have a personal connection with anyone who has had leukemia or lymphoma, I do know several people who have or have had various forms of cancer, all of which can benefit from some of the research funded by LSS. About the same time I got involved with helping my friend prepare for Nation’s, the mother of one of my close childhood friends was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I took that as a sign that I was doing the right thing and seized the opportunity to get involved with TNT.
You grew up swimming and played water polo in college, but had you ever coached swimming before?
Yes, but I was coaching children, and it turns out that coaching adults is very different. All the participants came to us at different skill levels. I started working with our beginner swimmers. I found this to be unbelievably rewarding throughout the season. Over the course of the six month season we watched people who could barely swim learn how to swim freestyle, breath properly, swim longer distances without stopping and gain confidence in their own abilities. I think the confidence was the biggest payoff. All of the coaches had faith in their abilities and we knew that we could teach them all the skills they needed to succeed, but it took faith in themselves for them to get better. Once they started to believe in their own abilities, they got better by leaps and bounds.
Six months is a long training season. How often did the team practice?
We started training in January and our last triathlon was early June. We had two coached swims a week – one at 5:30am and one at night. Participants picked which one they wanted to go to. The bike/run practices were held every Saturday morning at various locations around the DC metro area.
This was a really long, cold winter. How did you and your team stay positive and motivated?
It’s hard to be negative when you’re training to cure cancer because most people are training for someone who is fighting for their life. During the giant snowstorms and record low temperatures, we knew that what we were doing would allow more people to go into remission, celebrate more birthdays, live better lives, and maybe even participate in Team in Training event themselves. It’s sort of like the circle of life: we train so they can.
Wow, that’s really inspiring! Did all of the training pay off?
Let me answer the question this way. During training, participants had to complete timed test swims to get an idea of how they would do in the mile swim during the race. One of my participants was not a particularly strong swimmer. He never completed his test swim in less than 45 minutes. He came up to the coaches after the race, and clutching his split times, told us with disbelief that not only had he completed the swim portion in 32 minutes but that he felt better during the race than during any of his test swims. He was baffled and we were thrilled!
What a great experience. Are you still involved with LLS or TNT?
Yes, I am a participant right now, actually. I’m training with TNT for the 2014 Nations’ Triathlon on September 7th.
That’s awesome. Can anyone participate in TNT or are their special requirements?
There is an interview required to be a coach, but anyone can participate in TNT as an athlete. There are LLS chapters that have TNT groups all over the country. TNT takes people from all different skill levels and they participate in a wide variety of events including the Marine Corps Marathon here in DC, century bicycle rides, hikes and various triathlons.
If you had to summarize your experiences with TNT in one word, what would it be?
We trained through a brutally cold winter. Yet people showed up, jumped in the cold water, rode their bikes through the rain, ran in the snow and raised $200,000 for LLS, so I guess if I were to sum it up in one word, I’d say pride. Pride in the accomplishments of the participants I helped coach, pride in my own ability to help them along the way, and now, pride in my own ability to Tri. My TNT friends have taught me that it doesn’t matter if I wipe out on the bike (which I have) or if I hate running (which I do), or what apocalyptic weather we’re experiencing most; what matters is that I tri because with every lap, every mile and every dollar we are all making a positive impact on someone else’s life.