4x Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and Paula Munoz
TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
Recently I had the good fortune of talking triathlon with TCSD member Paula Munoz. Paula was elected TCSD Secretary this past fall and has worn many hats for the club over the years. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Paula and I know you will, as well.
Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon?
Paula: I grew up in Sacramento and was lucky to attend really small schools. Really small schools meant that I didn’t have to “try out” for teams! I played volleyball, basketball, and softball in junior high school. When I went to high school, I really took advantage and played every sport that they offered. Volleyball, basketball, track and field, cross-country, soccer, tennis, softball. If there was a team, I joined it! I moved on to a very small college, where I was on the basketball roster my freshman year. Yes, this 5’1’’ girl was on a college basketball team for a hot minute! In my “grown-up” years, I mainly stuck to running events and soccer. My soccer team is where I met (JCC Swim Director) Chris Costales and first heard about TCSD.
Craig: You were on the inaugural Team Solana in 2009. What is Team Solana and what was that experience like?
Paula: I joined the Club in 2009 with a great group of people. I was a part of the inaugural Team Solana (currently known as Team Classic). This Team was created as a fundraiser for TCSD Cares (“the giving arm” of TCSD) and designed to take people from true beginner to the Solana Beach Triathlon in eight short weeks. Coach Steve Tally took fifteen perfect strangers and turned them into triathletes and great friends! Steve told us up front, “Nothing bonds like fear!” Together we learned all the aspects of triathlon through workouts and clinics. Joining the Team was a true life-changer for me. I was bored with just about everything and was thinking about moving back to Lake Tahoe. I needed *something* new in my life, and oh I got it! I met some great people and learned a new sport.
Craig: The following year you became one of the Team Solana Coordinators? How was that experience different from the previous year?
Paula: In 2010, Steve Tally asked me to help coordinate the new Team. I was so flattered and so excited! I definitely wanted to recreate my experience for the new Team. I wanted to facilitate the relationship between the Team members, as well as with the mentors from the previous Teams. As the program has grown, it has become a large undertaking to organize everything, but the time investment is worth it to me when I see the athletes complete a beginner race at Glorietta Bay, or cross their first official finish line. Years later, I have also been able to watch as some crossed the finish line at their first 140.6! I think the time and effort we have put into the program has inspired volunteerism in the members. Out of the Teams have come a couple of Race Directors, a Programs and Events Director, Membership Director, several Beginner Bike Ride leaders, the Social Director, and a Pot Luck Coordinator. Even those who haven’t taken on a specific title can be found volunteering at expos, meetings, and races. In addition to all the training and clinics, a huge benefit to joining the Team is that we know someone at nearly every Club event. This is a major plus when you join a Club of over 2,000 members!
Craig: Now that you have been a triathlete for a number of years, what are some of your favorite destination races?
Paula: I haven’t participated in many out-of-town races (YET), but my favorite so far has been Barb’s Race. This race takes place on the same day and same course as Vineman (the oldest independent 140.6 in the US). Barb’s Race is the only all-women’s 70.3 in the world, and serves as a fundraiser for cancer charities. I think those two factors contribute to the very positive and encouraging vibe of the race. Barb’s is the trifecta of racing a beautiful course, for a great cause, with lots of TCSD members! It was so much fun to yell “Go Tri Club” at all the members who passed me on the bike course, and I received lots of high fives from fellow members on the looped run course. The last couple of years, I have gone as a spectator and it has just become a really fun summer trip with friends.
Though I have not participated, another race that is great fun for members is Ironman Arizona. This is another race with a very large TCSD presence. Both years I’ve made the trip, President Mike Plumb has hauled out the Club tents and set up on the run course. He set up the BBQ and had food and snacks for our members and their families. It’s great to have one meeting spot to get together and cheer for our athletes. A 140.6 can be a long day for spectators too, so it helps to have snacks and company!
Craig: Another area you have had significant involvement in over the years has been the “Introduction to TCSD” meetings. How can a person benefit by attending an Intro meeting and what information is covered at these meetings?
Paula: In 2012, Jay Lewis and I took over the monthly Beginner and Networking meetings. We modified the content a little bit and renamed them the Intro to TCSD meetings. We have had a great run of bringing people into TCSD family. Essentially, the Intro to TCSD meetings answer the question, “What do I get for my $75?” We talk about the workouts, meetings, events, discounts, FRIENDS, all the advantages of being a member of the best club on the planet! We try to keep the mood casual and unintimidating at these meetings, so I like to start out by sharing some of my triathlon exploits. Like when I zipped my wetsuit up front, or about the time I nearly set my rims on fire by riding my brakes down the hills on the 56 bike path. No-speed crashes are always a fun topic. I think it’s important to convey the message that we all have to start somewhere! I strongly recommend that beginners attend both the Intro and Tri 101 meetings. Tri 101 covers the basics of the sport, while the Intro covers the basics of the Club. Both are beneficial, both are monthly, and both can answer the question “Where do I start?”
Craig: Can you tell me about your double life…that you were once a spy? Nobody really reads these interviews so I’m sure it will be fine if you just tell me.
Paula: Haha! Well, I do have a degree in Investigations, which came in handy when I was considering joining our Club! Seriously though, I made it sound like I heard about the Club and then just signed up. Nope. This was a process. While Chris assured me that the Club was for everyone, I couldn’t take his word for it. He is one of the best athletes I’ve ever known, and also one of the nicest people around. I had to see for myself that he was telling the truth and not just trying to be nice. So I looked at the website, found out where the workouts were taking place, and showed up to a few wearing a hat and sunglasses. I wanted to see who was there, what they were wearing, what they were doing, what equipment they needed, etc. I even “went out for my Saturday run” at Fiesta Island so I could see the who, what, where, and how of the Club races. I like information and I learn best by seeing things for myself. I quickly found out that Chris was right, the Club really is for everyone!
Craig: Who do you look up to in our local community of San Diego?
Paula: Someone I looked up to in our local community was Joan Kroc. Sure, we can talk about where her fortune came from, but I’d rather talk about what she did with it. I admired the way she donated money to all kinds of causes and never wanted any recognition. Her name is on several buildings in San Diego, but that was only to encourage others to also donate money. My favorite piece of her legacy is the Kroc Center located in Rolando. She provided the funding to turn an abandoned grocery store and empty parking lot into the most amazing recreation center I have ever seen. When I was studying recreation at SDSU, one of my assignments was to design the facility of my dreams, without regard to budget or other roadblocks. When the Kroc Center opened a couple of years later, it was almost exactly what I had drawn! She paid attention to the details. She wanted the center to be located in an underserved community, and be accessible by public transportation. She wanted the Center to provide not only athletic opportunities, but also arts and education. She gave many gifts to San Diego.
Craig: Who do you look up to in the TCSD?
Paula: This is a no-brainer for me, definitely Steve Tally! I am so glad that he was one of the first people I met in the Club. His knowledge of triathlon is endless, his enthusiasm for the sport (and life) are contagious, and he has a way of convincing people that anything is possible. The one quality of his that I really admire and try to emulate is that when a person speaks to Steve, he gives his full attention. No matter what else is going on, the person in front of him is most important. This is a very rare quality. I always try to do the same because it makes such a difference. I can’t tell you how many times Steve has stood in a dark parking lot answering my silly questions and giving me advice on this, that, or the other. When he first asked me to help with Team Solana, it was the least I could do to start giving back to all the new triathletes. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work side-by-side with Steve and hope that some of those great qualities would rub off on me! I also admire how he balances work, family, triathlon, being a rock star, and so many other things.
The kindness and investment of time shown to me by Steve and Jonathan Jefferson in that first year set the tone for my involvement in TCSD. Many of our member’s stories begin with “I didn’t know anyone in the Club and Jonathan introduced himself and then swam/biked/ran with me.” This is the spirit of our Club. Jonathan’s legacy is for us to make everyone feel welcome and HAVE FUN. We are blessed with good health and plenty of sunshine. Let’s enjoy every minute. I will always be grateful to these two men and that’s why I do what I do for our Club.
Craig: A couple of years ago you had to endure a pretty serious surgery. What happened and what has your recovery process been like?
Paula: In 2012, one week before Soma 70.3, I felt a very sudden, very sharp pain near my shoulder blade. Since all the plans were already in place, I attempted to do the race and had a predictable outcome. When I got back home, I started a long string of doctor’s appointments to try to find out what was wrong. I heard everything from strained muscles to shingles to rotator cuff issues. Finally, someone took an x-ray of my neck and it was very clear. I had a disc that was about to sever my spinal cord. The rest of the appointment was a bit of a blur. He told me to go home and stay home until surgery because if I made one wrong move I could be a paraplegic. I think I was in shock because on my way home, I called the doctor’s office to ask if I could still play in my soccer game that night. I asked a lot of questions about what caused this condition because I never wanted it to happen again. It was a degenerative condition, so as far as anyone can tell, it was caused by a car accident I’d had about ten years ago. I ended up having cervical spinal fusion surgery, and the recovery has been so much slower than I was prepared for. I understood that I would resume normal activities in approximately ninety days (FYI “normal activities” means different things to different people). At first, the fusion was not taking place as it should, so I was possibly facing a second surgery. I was so frustrated. Peyton Manning had the same surgery and he was cleared for the NFL in nine months. I couldn’t lift over ten pounds for a year! After what seemed like an eternity, I was cleared to begin training again. I’ve had a difficult time getting back into the swing of things. I am still anxious about being out on the roads, but I need to remember that with all my metal parts, my neck is actually stronger than ever. It hurts to do certain things, but that it is because I am still regaining strength in my neck. I have felt very discouraged because I can’t keep up with my friends anymore, but I know I can get there again. I am very fortunate to have the encouragement of my Teammates and others who continue to invite me on rides and runs. I just have to go at my own speed and then sometimes they buy me coffee or bread afterward.
Craig: What do you do for a day job, and what do you do to encourage healthy lifestyles at work?
Paula: When I am not taking minutes or planning an Intro meeting, I spend my time at a psychiatric hospital. Yes, as an employee. I work at an outpatient program for mentally ill adults. This is a very emotionally difficult job for me. The wheels keep turning even after I pull out of the parking lot at the end of the day. The Club is a good outlet for me to help take my mind off of work and focus on other things. The upside of my job is that my co-workers also have athletic backgrounds and we are all on the same page as far as encouraging healthy habits for each other and the clients we serve. In fact, I have been successful at talking my co-workers into doing the Spring Sprint relay with me!
When I first started my job, no one (staff or clients) really made an effort to move around during the course of the day. I started a walking club a few years ago, and it helped to get people up and moving. Some started calling it “Walky Talky” because we would pick a topic and have everyone chime in. It was great for social interaction as well. Currently we have a program going called Fit15. One of my co-workers created a calendar of daily movement activities and chart to track progress. Some of the clients will now initiate a morning stretch or dance party, so I think it’s all slowly catching on. It is no secret that exercise can help alleviate some symptoms of depression and anxiety! I have made a standing offer that I will buy a race entry and a pair of shoes for anyone who trains for a 5k event. So far no one has taken me up on my offer. As soon as one person takes advantage though, it might snowball and then I’ll need a second job!
Craig: What are your future goals?
Paula: A long term goal of mine is to establish a program similar to CAF, but for people who have mental health issues. This population could truly benefit from participating in triathlon, running, or other recreational sports. I think the interest is there, but for many people, basic equipment such as shoes and clothing are simply not in the budget. My co-workers and friends have donated new or gently-used shoes and equipment, and I have helped fix up/accessorize a bike or two with some of my spare parts. For most of my clients, bike helmets are unaffordable luxuries and getting a flat means they stay home and isolate until they can somehow get the money for a new tube or tire. This is an undesirable option for anyone with mental health issues. So I guess it really isn’t just about recreation. Yes, I’d like to save the world.
Craig: Paula, I knew I’d hit a home run by interviewing you. In fact, it was a grand slam! Thank you so much for sharing your story and for doing all you do for the Tri Club, your patients and everyone else you come into contact with. I wish you the very best of luck in every area of your life. You deserve it!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.