Triathlon: The biggest accomplishment isn’t always a fast time
With support and encouragement from a fellow competitor, novice triathlete completes the course
By Brent Kennedy
Jessica Pearsall kept telling herself things were going to be different.
The 48-year-old Ellicott City resident, participating in the Celebration Sprint Triathlon in late June, was determined to overcome the swimming difficulties that had hindered her in two previous races. At her first triathlon, the AFLAC Iron Girl Columbia last fall, she pulled up at the second buoy before struggling to shore and at the Columbia Triathlon, in May, problems with her wet suit forced her to drop out.
But from the moment she got in the water and started swimming in the Sprint race, Pearsall was determined to put those shortcomings in the past.
“I’m usually not a very competitive person, but I really did want to do well and kind of get back on the horse after the Columbia Triathlon,” she said. “I had trained really hard and I felt great. I wasn’t thinking about anything, I was just out there swimming as hard as I could.”
However, just as she had found a rhythm, Pearsall saw something out of the corner of her eye. There, clinging to the side of a canoe, was 40-year-old Jewel Jackson contemplating dropping out of the race.
“I don’t know how I saw her — I was so focused — maybe it was her yellow cap, but I knew right away what I had to do,” Pearsall said. “I’d never met Jewel before, but I knew what she was going through. I think she was almost at the exact same point where I was when I got out of the water during the Columbia Triathlon.”
Pearsall swam over, asked Jackson if she wanted to finish and when Jackson replied that she did, Pearsall vowed to help her along.
“So many swimmers had passed me by without turning back and she clearly could have done the same, but she didn’t,” Jackson said in a recount of the story on Facebook. “She told me … no matter how long it took us, we’d finish this part of the race side by side.”
So for the final 300 meters in the water, Pearsall provided encouragement as Jackson floated on her back toward shore.
Along the way, Jackson explained that her husband and four children were waiting for her at the finish line and Pearsall used that as motivation for her new companion.
Race time suddenly was no longer the top priority for Pearsall.
The two finally emerged from the water hand-in-hand and turned their focus to the bike portion of the race. They stuck together for roughly another 30 minutes before Pearsall decided she had to go ahead to make sure that her own mother didn’t worry something had happened to her.
“I actually wanted to see Jewel all the way through, but I was worried that my mom would start thinking that I had hurt myself and couldn’t finish,” Pearsall said.
But even as she sped ahead, Pearsall tried to continue the encouragement through others. Every time she passed a volunteer, she asked if they would tell Jackson, “Way to go Jewel! Keep going! Jared (Jackson’s oldest son) is waiting for you!”
And, sure enough, the entire second half of the biking section, Jackson heard those words that motivated her to keep going.
“I never doubted for a moment that (the volunteers) would help her along, that’s just the nature of triathlons I’ve found,” Pearsall said. “There is more camaraderie and more support than I have seen anywhere else, and I’ve been running for several years. People go out of their way to make sure people finish and feel supported.”
Motivation in tow, Jackson did indeed finish the triathlon. The time (4 hours, 31 minutes) didn’t matter, only the accomplishment, and Jackson said she couldn’t have done it without Pearsall’s help.
“I was exhausted and my knee was badly swollen and hurt with every step, but I was motivated by my husband and my guardian angel, Jessica,” Jackson said.
Success stories, like Jackson’s, are sure to occur at this year’s AFLAC Iron Girl Sunday, Aug. 22 with the first swimming wave at Centennial Lake at 6:40 a.m.
In addition to individuals, some raising money for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (Team Fight), the Women’s Giving Circle and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (Team in Training), there are 71 relay teams. There are also three amputees in this year’s field and a handful of cancer survivors, including Laurel Wassner who won the 2010 Columbia Triathlon.
In all, 2,400 women are scheduled to participate in this year’s Iron Girl, including Jackson and Pearsall, who says she will be going into the race with a new outlook.
“When I started the Sprint, I was trying for a personal record … that was my goal,” Pearsall said. “But after the experience with Jewel, I’ve decided that I’m (instead) going to measure my triathlons by the inspiring stories I can collect along the way. Hopefully, my story with Jewel is the first of many.”