TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I have been looking forward to interviewing Bessy Leszszynski for quite some time. We finally got together and it was worth the wait. I am certain you will enjoy getting to know this humble Christian woman.
Craig: What sports did you participate in before triathlon?
Bessy: I was never a member of any official sport, I just liked to do anything fun to sweat. Being one of five kids in my Brazilian-American family, playing soccer, run, exploring in the woods and “do it yourself” obstacle courses was just how we bonded. My brother was into martial arts so I’d practice a lot of obstacle and strength workouts with him. My parents moved to the US to open educational opportunities for us so I was hyper-academic in high school. After my AP classes I was involved as President of the National Honor Society, editor and writer for the school newspaper & yearbook, and a junior technician in the Computer Club. Whenever I had a chance I really liked to help the badminton team while they warmed-up before games. During track class, even if it made me gag or get light-headed I would dig deep to beat any boy that was running beside me. I guess some things never change – hahaha!
Flash forward, in 2008, I ran my first 10K, hauling as hard as I could in 1:00:00. The first few run races I did in San Diego in 2010 were transferred bibs from my husband, Roger, if he wasn’t feeling well. I just rode my bike as transportation.
Craig: How did you get introduced to triathlon?
Bessy: Short answer: Roger said that triathletes get to change into lots of different outfits since it’s 3 sports in one. Since I liked changing into outfits, I would like it. He was right. Joke now is that I need to regularly buy new outfits for 3 different sports. Hehe!
Full answer: In Fall of 2009 we migrated to San Diego from the east coast, and felt the best way for New Englanders to blend in would be to become surfers. Roger found TCSD in 2010 through some members of the San Diego Running Group on Meetup.com. It would be a way to benchmark his progress on the swim to work towards surfing. Since I only knew how to float in open water – I chose to be his “sherpa” to support his open water swim sessions from land and make sure he was safe. I wanted to be able to share his experiences with him so I would wake up to support him on early morning trainings, volunteer & cheer at TCSD races, and I joined him at the monthly TCSD meetings. I was welcomed as a volunteer even though I didn’t know anything about triathlon. Being involved as a volunteer and getting to know other active members within the club by name started building my confidence that triathletes are people who just dare more than the average person to get out of their comfort zone. I really liked watching and meeting the triathletes after the races to see what kind of person thinks that this would be fun! Haha! People of all ages, abilities and sizes were putting their best effort to swim/bike/run and so when Jim Vance’s TriJuniors started to join the club races, the seed was planted.
In Fall 2011 I decided I’d only be comfortable to go for a triathlon race if it were just women, though. The all women sprint race SHEROX Triathlon was already in 3 weeks and I didn’t know how to swim, yet! Roger was done with his race season, so he was able to help me find a surf suit on Craigslist just to keep me warmer. It turned out to be 2 sizes too big even for a surf suit. Bill Gleason coached me on an intensive 6 lessons, and I swam every day for 2 weeks. I invited my friends to come witness my triathlon birth, and bawled so hard at the finish line. I had not been so scared and having such a blast ever in my life! Having cheered for Roger for over a year alongside the network of other “sherpas” and fellow TCSD members meant that many at the race already knew me by name, but this time they were cheering for ME!
I joined the club with the JUMP! Aquathlon registration in 2012. Roger and I love volunteering together at expos, being run/swim buddies at Beginner races, setting up the raffle table for meetings, serving breakfast at races or wherever we are needed at the time. It has been so fulfilling to cultivate friendships within the TCSD which started when I was just a cheering spectator and volunteer feeding off the awesome energy on the sidelines.
Craig: I’m certain you have seen some funny things since you’ve been doing triathlon. What stands out as being funny?
Bessy: My first duathlon was a meetup.com event at Fiesta Island. During the 2nd lap of the run the other participants kept screaming out to me, “Safety first Bessy, Safety first!” I had no idea what that was about. I thought they were telling me to watch for cars. Then I realized after the finish line that I still had my helmet on from the bike that whole time! But you have to understand, when you grow up with a huge fro like mine, a light round object on your head just blends in with the curls and you forget it’s there at all!
The best one, though, was at the Chula Vista Challenge Olympic course last year, where the T1 and T2 are in different areas, and you need to drop off your running shoes the day before. On race day, I see this guy fly by me on the run course with his cycling shoes tucked into the back pockets of the cycling jersey he’s wearing. I see him again at the podium where he won his age group, but was clearly a newbie so I went to ask him about the cycling shoes in the pockets. He said this was his first triathlon. He didn’t get to put his sneakers into T2 so he had to ride with his sneakers in his jersey pockets. Then, not understanding how T2 would work, while he was cycling the last miles of technical turns and downhill, he changed from his cycling shoes into his running shoes. Yes, I needed to clarify – instead of waiting for T2, he changed into his running sneakers while still on the bike! I was baffled, and jealous of his speedy agility! Ain’t nobody got no time for T2!
Craig: I heard that you drove up to Palm Springs for a race and learned a valuable lesson. What did you learn?
Bessy: Palm Springs Desert Triathlon was my first “far away” race since we drove up 3 hours with all our race gear and had to stay at a hotel. First, I learned that a 3 hour drive in windy conditions can loosen your quick release bicycle wheels. Based on this, I learned that part of my bike check in the morning transition prep needs to include checking to make sure that your quick release wheels are tightly secured to your bike frame. Until that day, I would just fill my water bottle, and pump up my tires. Unfortunately I learned this lesson while riding in the race, going down the first hill I press the brakes and see my front wheel swaying from side to side since it’s totally loose from the drive up! Thankfully due to the low speed, the minor crash just scarred a few surface wounds and didn’t break anything. Secondly, I learned a few emergency tips especially when traveling to a race: know the course map and the street intersections of key aid stations, and exactly where transition is; also memorize a few phone numbers in case you need to call it from the ER.
Craig: In 2014 you were selected to be featured in a film called “Triathlon Film”. What is the purpose of this documentary?
Bessy: 2014 was the 40th year anniversary of the sport of triathlon, so Bob Babbitt and the producers of the Spirit of the Marathon series got together to create a documentary to share the spirit and the intensity that embodies triathlon. The film follows 5 athletes facing the largest and oldest full distance triathlon in the world – Challenge Roth in Germany. Each athlete is facing either emotional or physical “challenges” of their own while battling this ultimate test of endurance. This race sells out in seconds with 5,000 athletes each year – of which only 1,000 were women. The volunteers and spectators come from all over the world in the thousands to this small Bavarian village in the middle of nowhere in Germany, similar to the crowds in Tour de France and similar to the passion at the Boston Marathon – but for 15 hours.
Craig: That is so awesome that they chose you. I can see the movie star qualities in you, but why do you think you were chosen?
Bessy: The producers posted on the TCSD Yahoo Group looking for someone who had never completed a full distance triathlon before to submit some answers to questions to potentially be chosen for the film. I was shy about it, but Roger encouraged me right away to submit. I was chosen to represent the “First Timer” of the full distance triathlon. In 2014 I turned 30 and had already been planning to challenge my time management and mental/physical fitness to complete a full distance. For most of my life, a few emotional roadblocks discouraged me from leaving my comfort zone, but there’s something about leaving your 20’s that makes you re-evaluate the future you really want to live. I was ready to free myself from the prison I locked my mind into. The producers liked my story, as I share how the miles in training, in the silence of my own head, helped me to face my demons giving me the courage, and emotional strength to complete this insane distance – and future adventures in life!
Craig: What special opportunities did you get to enjoy by being part of the cast?
Bessy: The most exciting was to get a free entry into Challenge Roth. Roger, of course, wanted to come with me, and we paid our own travel and accommodations. While the producers wanted to get footage of the swim preview, I was able to join Luke McKenzie for that! He is so down to earth, and as expected, fast! The directing of the videographers to follow 5 athletes in a triathlon is an immense job with motorcycles, vans and a helicopter. Thankfully I didn’t feel stressed by it at all. A crew filmed my transition setup and swim prep, then they found me on the bike course right at Solar Hill then at T2 into the run where I got to see Mirinda Carfrae and Yvonne van Vlarken fly by on their last 10k while I was just starting. A treat available to all participants at Challenge Roth is the Erlinger non-alcoholic Bavarian-style social held 2 days before the race where professional athletes can toast a beer with each other, and the groupie fan athletes can talk to them and take photos. Pros from all over the world show up for this. Chris “Macca” McCormack was there even though he didn’t race; Pros wear the traditional Bavarian-style dress while the amateur athletes wear modern clothes.
Craig: How did the actual race go for you?
Bessy: Due to the filming schedule, I had 8 weeks notice prior to the race date, which only worked because I had been marathon training for 6 months already. The week before the race, due to lack of proper recovery I got sick and so weak. I flew to Germany as planned, and the jetlag and time change really affected my ability to rest. Sick and exhausted and racing Challenge Roth in 72 hours was a level of panic I wish on no one. Roger stepped in and helped build my bike and other race preparation so that I could focus on sleeping and recovering. 48 hours to the race, I tested out my rebuilt bike for a 12 mile ride then dropped it off at transition. I could barely stay awake while we drove along the bike course as a routine preview. 24 hours before the race, I finally feel better and go on a 6 mile run for first time in 7 days. Race morning, though, I felt excellent. I had the new one piece trikit from ZOCA that fit perfectly the entire day.
I was most nervous about the swim since they grouped all the women into ONE wave of 1,000, then they seeded the men to start every 2 minutes after that. My plan was to stay on the outside edge and keep a steady rhythm, to stay calm while the men swam by like lightening schools of sharks with fists and heels. Once I met the cutoff I just wanted to maintain 20mph on bike, which worked out pretty well. Because the flats and spiral down hills are so fast, the aid stations are on the up hills, so that was interesting on a tri-bike one-handed trying to climb to get water. That was the first time I ever looked down at my biceps on aero position and saw them full of dead flies stuck to my sweaty arms. It was so gross but also awesome. The new bike I got from Moment Cycle Sport with the full distance specific fit made it possible for me to jump off the bike pain-free; it was an incredible feeling to have enjoyed the 112 miles of the bike that much! The run was miserable weather of 90 degrees, hot sun and high humidity. There were sponges and aid stations every mile and it still felt too far sometimes. I had to slow down to a jog a few times, and I used the porta potty once. At the 20 mile mark it must’ve been the miracle watermelon slices on the course that I got a second wind and was ready to be done with it. The final miles filter you through a small cobblestone village with picnic tables setup as a beer aid station where spectators are drinking, singing and cheering for you. The forecast said rain was supposed to start at 8pm, my goal finish time was 6pm. Suddenly on my last 5k the rain started and my spirit started to fade thinking I was 2 hours later than what I was working so hard for… Roger finds me on the course like a happy dad trying to take pictures of me while he’s running on cobblestone, telling me I’m going to make it, the rain started early.
The finish line chute and the post-party are INCREDIBLE. Roth finishes in a round stadium that you need to run around the bleachers until you get to the clock. Then after, there was full buffet of Bavarian pastries, fresh sandwiches, all temperature beverages, and like 50 massage tables offering free massages! The race is complete in every way, it was an amazing day. I’m so thankful I was well enough in time to fully enjoy it.
Craig: What recent trends have you noticed in triathlon that make you excited?
Bessy: I’m excited to see short and smaller build women being able to dominate in such a complex sport like triathlon. Seeing athletes like Lesley Paterson, and Mirinda Carfrae who don’t have long legs or an extra long torso – to assist their efforts – is so motivating to me. Not only is triathlon an individual effort, it doesn’t require a specific body type to be successful. That alone is an incentive to see what you can do if you tri.
Craig: You train a lot. What do you think about when you are out there training on your own?
Bessy: When I started half marathon and marathon training, I would focus on my running form and breathing to use my energy as efficiently as possible. When I started swimming it was deafening to be in silence, but then I started looking forward to the short portion of the day to have that silent escape. Now that the 140.6 is over, I’m back to thinking about my techniques and body form while training.
The hours and miles spent in training for a 140.6, your mind starts to cleanse itself of baggage you closed off for years because you didn’t have “time” to deal with. Well, now all I had was time. I thought about how my mother had 5 kids by the time she was 30. It took my father 5 years to speak English well enough to interview for jobs he had degrees in. My parents taught us faith and humility by working at opposite shifts to support 5 children. Although graduating at the top of my high school class, needing to put myself through college was a burden since I had to dropout due to financial reasons. When my parents separated in the early 2000s, the children also split our own ways. Home, siblings, and educational foundations had shaken my self esteem, my confidence, my willingness to feel anymore fear. Bible reading (or listening with waterproof headphones) helped me stay positive and confident that I’d find a way to build my own foundation as an adult. Prayer narrated these thoughts through the majority of my full distance training, where I’d just get emotional on the bike or the run if I had to get all the negative out!
A few weeks before Challenge Roth, I finally asked my mother if she resented me for now turning 30 and not having any children. She told me, I had misunderstood what being a mother meant. She was thrilled to be my mother because she was able to extend the gift of life with another smart strong woman who could shape my own life into what I wanted it to be. She said if she wanted someone to make the same exact decisions she made in life, then she would’ve opted for a clone. She is proud and hopes I find my version of the level of happiness she feels in seeing her children’s lives blossom. Hearing that freed so much guilt I had been holding onto, and I was able to fully focus on my race experience. I’m so thankful I put myself in the position, and gave myself the time, to process these feelings.
Craig: Your faith is very important to you. How has your Christian up bringing helped to shape you into the athlete and woman you are today?
Bessy: Although I was raised with God-fearing parents, my shattered foundation lead me astray for my first years as an adult. I’m thankful that I’m back into my congregation again, and can share in the ministry and interchange of encouragement as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This thought helped me remember that God was looking for me as I was finding my way back. Psalm 139:9, 10: “If I would fly away with the wings of the dawn To reside by the most remote sea, Even there your hand would lead me And your right hand would take hold of me.”
This thought helped cleanse any fake actions for show, and really dig deep to benefit from a Christian peace of mind and purpose. “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in holy acts of conduct and deeds of godly devotion.” (2 Peter 3:11)
Seeking Bible principles to guide my decisions has clarified so many questions I had from, letting go of resentment towards my parents separation, what love and a healthy marriage should look like, to when suffering, sickness and death will end.
My passion to maintain fitness and health is to show respect & appreciation for the amazing gift of the human body. Poor health would limit how I am able to serve others. Triathlon gives me plenty of exercise ideas to stay fit, find new goals, and it’s become a lifestyle in our home. Roger’s very supportive towards balancing chores and errands so that we can fit in our workouts, family, spiritual activities and time together.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Bessy: I’m 20 years behind on my swim skills so that’s an ongoing goal to keep improving my technique and time of the 1-mile. In 2016 I’d like to race a 70.3, looks like a perfect distance for the amount of training I can handle with my current schedule.
Craig: Bessy, thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t wait for the Triathlon Film to be released. The TCSD is lucky to have you among our members. Once the documentary is released we will have to share you with the rest of the world. Good luck with all your future pursuits.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.