Ironman legend Cherie Gruenfeld inspires masters athletes and youth to strive for more

Ironman legend Cherie Gruenfeld inspires masters athletes and youth to strive for more

Cherie Gruenfeld is a seasoned veteran in the world of Ironman racing. She retired last year after her 30th year of competition, with a long track record of accolades that dot her time in the sport. Unlike many of her counterparts, however, Gruenfeld didn’t come to Ironman until the age of 48, in 1992. And last year at the Kona Ironman World Championships, at the age of 78, she set an age record for being the sport’s oldest finisher. But for Cherie, age has always been just a side note in her story. 

A few years into competing, she had a chance encounter that kicked off a nonprofit endeavor dubbed  Exceeding Expectations that provides access to education and sport to underserved youth in the San Bernardino area of Southern California. Yuri Hauswald, GU Energy Labs' Elite Athlete Manager, caught up with Gruenfeld to hear more about her impressive athletic career and her nonprofit work.

Yuri Hauswald: Cherie, it is my deep honor and pleasure to get to interview you. You have to be the longest-running GU athlete. You embody everything that we love about athletes. You're humble, you've set a really high bar for folks of all ages to be their personal best, and you've basically been a part of the fabric of our brand since you discovered us in the late nineties—we'll get to that story—but I'm just really excited to have this conversation with you and to share your story with more people out in the world so that they can be inspired by what you've done as a triathlete, but maybe more so by what you've done with Exceeding Expectations and the kids' lives that you have changed through that foundation. I haven't seen you since Kona last year, when you were the oldest finisher.

Let's jump right into this. So you discovered GU back in the early nineties because a friend shared a gel with you and you decided to call the phone number on the back. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and how that phone call spawned a near 30-year relationship?

Cherie Gruenfeld: I surely can. It was 1993 and I had one Ironman under my belt and I lived in L.A. So I was training on PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] and there was a bike shop that I used to stop at when I was taking these rides. And one day I stopped and when I walked in, the manager had this box that he'd just gotten in the mail and he said, "have you ever seen anything like this?" And it was these little packets of gel. And I said, no, never have. And he said, “Well, take a few. Go out on your ride and let me know what you think.” So I did and I came back and I said that I like them. So he asked if I wanted more. And I said, yeah, gimme some more. So he gave me a few more. A day or two later, I went up to Washington to see my brother who lives there and one of his friends came to me and was training for his first marathon. And he said, what do you think I oughta eat while I'm doing this marathon? And I said, well, I've got this stuff that I've tried on the bike. I've never tried it running, but I think it would be good. Why don't you try it? So I gave him a couple of packs, and didn't think anything of it. I went back to my home in California, and that Sunday afternoon—this was before cell phones and social media—I picked up the phone and it was Dr. Vaughan on the other end. And this friend that I'd given it to had liked it and saw a number on the pack and called it and got Dr. Vaughan. During that call, apparently my friend told Dr. Vaughan my name and so I had a delightful long conversation where Dr. Vaughan told me what he was trying to accomplish. I told him what I was trying to accomplish, and we ended by him saying, "Okay, this is what I'm gonna do." I think it was Linda who was a friend of his daughter's who was gonna do the marketing and working with athletes or whatever. Dr. Vaughan said, "I'm gonna have her call you." And the next day she called, she sent me some GU and that was the start of a beautiful relationship. I think it's been 30 years and I've never used anything but GU in any training work or race. But I think it's been a mutually beneficial relationship because I get product that I think really contributes to my athletic success. And in turn I tell everybody, and I know a lot of people, and I coach and I work with kids, I work with adults. I tell 'em all to use GU. So I think that we've been good for each other for 30 years. I hope it goes on and on.

Hauswald: I love the depth that you provided to the story there. And I think it speaks to the family nature, the fact that at the foundation of GU—and for those that didn't know, Bill Vaughan is the founder of GU—is the story about how he developed the first gel in a kitchen cake mixer for his daughter Laura Vaughan, who was running Hard Rock and Western States, things like that. He wanted to help her overcome some GI issues and succeed. But I've heard countless stories of how Bill Vaughan has just taken time for people to help them. And while he is no longer with us, I feel like that spirit permeates our company and helps guide us as we continue. I feel this sets us apart from other companies and maybe I'm tooting our own horn a little bit, but we truly do care about the athletes that we work with. And many of them like yourself become like family and a part of our brand story. So thank you for shining a light on how you came to be with GU.

So let's jump into your story a little bit. For folks that don't know who you are, I jokingly call you the Golden Girl of Kona 'cause I know many journalists have called you that since you have been competing on that island for many years. But you didn't do your first triathlon until you were 48 and participated in your first Ironman Kona in 1992. You completed your last Ironman 30 years later, which was last year and I got to witness this and be there at the start and the finish. It was a very powerful moment. What was it that inspired you to get into triathlons and what is it about that community that has kept you coming back year after year?


Gruenfeld: Well, my story actually has two parts to it. It started in 1986. I lived in LA and I didn't run, didn't know anybody who did. But I saw that the first L.A. Marathon was gonna be on TV. So I turned on the TV and I watched this show Wire to Wire, and I was just fascinated. I'd like to say I got inspired, but honestly, I just kind of got a little pissed off at myself because these people had all set this goal and worked really hard. And there they were on that Sunday morning testing themselves, and I was sitting there watching. So I thought, that's it. Next year or sometime soon, I'm gonna run a marathon. The next day I went out and I bought a book called How to Run Your First Marathon. And I bought a pair of shoes and I started running. That was in March. By August, I ran a 20 mile run and it seemed fine. So I decided maybe I shouldn't wait for the next LA marathon. I ran the Run Through the Redwood Forest, and I had a great time, and my time was good. So I decided that I would go ahead and run the L.A. marathon because that's what I had decided to do. But I discovered that my finish time at The Run Through The Redwood Forest qualified me for Boston. You don't have to know much about running to know that that's the Super Bowl of running. So my second marathon was Boston. I had an even a better time there. And so I was off and running. I was a marathon runner. I'd never run a 5K, never run a 10K. I was clearly a distance person.

I was having a good time running a couple of marathons a year. And it worked into my work schedule, which had a lot of travel and all. Then in October of 1991 I brought home Competitor Magazine and the issue was dedicated to Ironman in Kona. I read it cover to cover, and I thought, holy cow, who are these people and how do they do this? There's no way I could do this. I didn't own a bike and I could swim, but I wasn't a swimmer. So instead of throwing it away, I put it aside. My husband Lee, who you know, has a big part in my life, he picked it up and read it cover to cover and came to me and said, you should try this. You'd be good at it. He knew. 

So from that October to the following, October is a really good story, and sometime when we've got time, I'll tell you, but the following October, I was at the start line for my first Ironman, which happened to be in Kona. I had no idea how fast I could do this thing, but I thought maybe around 14 hours. So I got into this race, my watch was knocked off during the swim, and we didn't have fancy computers and all that kind of stuff in those days. I just was having the time of my life in this race, and had no clue how I was doing time-wise. So I came to the finish line and I looked at the big arch where the clock is, and I just glanced at the minutes and it said 26. So in my mind, I had broken 14 hours, I was 1326, and Lee was right there at the finish line waiting for me. I ran into his arms and I said, "Woo! I'm 1326." And he looked at me and turned me around and he said, "You ran 1226." So I thought, this is great! I had a terrific time. I knew that I could do it better the next time I was in. And that became the start of 22 Ironman races. My very last, which truly was last October. There's not gonna be another one. But that was the beginning of the whole thing. Oh. And you asked me, yeah what it is that keeps me coming back for 30 years? I'll tell you the easy answer to that one. It's that this is the perfect sport for me. It's an individual sport where you either do it or you don't. It's up to you. It's one that's constantly challenging you. Every race you do, you're gonna learn something about yourself. It's gonna be different. It's not like 22 Konas were all alike. Every race was different. I love the people. I love the support that you get from everybody. Just everything about it. I'm so happy to have been a part of that community for all those years. I couldn't imagine being anywhere except in Kona in October.


Hauswald: That's a powerful statement about just the unifying forces of sport, of what they can do, working together with others, overcoming challenges and how that bonds you together.

Let's segue into something else that you've done that's been arguably more powerful than all of your performances and records over the years in triathlon—the impact that your foundation Exceeding Expectations has had on getting underserved populations into triathlon for the past 20 years, and most importantly, into the mindset that getting an education is pivotal to success in life. Can you share the genesis, the evolution, and some of the individual success stories of your program?

Gruenfeld: You know, I'd like to tell you that I had a vision and I saw a need, but it really wasn't like that. It was pure serendipity. My life is full of these moments. I was invited to speak to a group of 200 5th and 6th grade kids in San Bernardino in December of 2000. I love kids and so I said, of course. I talked to them about setting goals, working really hard on the goals, and then how good it felt to accomplish a goal. And I showed them a little video of me doing Kona when I was trying to break a course record. And these kids asked good questions. We had a lot of conversations, just fun for all of us. So afterwards, I said to the teacher who had invited me that there was a little sprint triathlon coming up in a neighboring town in a couple of months and if any of the kids were interested, I'd be happy to help 'em out and get 'em ready for this race. I envisioned a couple of kids who had bikes, who had parents. The next day I get a phone call from the teacher frantically saying, I had these 200 kids together again today and I told 'em what you have offered. And she said 200 hands shot up. What do you wanna do?

So I said, tell 'em that I'll come to the school next Saturday, to the playground and we'll do some running, and I will select a few kids and I'll train them for this race. So the next Saturday I went down, and it wasn't 200 kids, but it was a lot of kids and not an adult in sight, not one. So I selected 12 kids, I don't know why 12, but I selected 12 kids. And then I turned to this teacher, and in my usual take-charge way, I said, "Okay, this is what we're gonna do. We're sending a note home to these parents explaining their child's been selected for this program." And the teacher kind of looked at me like I was just nuts and said, Cherie, you really don't get it. Come down next Saturday and we will go to where these kids come from.

And that next Saturday we did, and my life changed. I looked, I went into these places they were living, I wouldn't even call some of 'em homes. I went into these places and I looked around and I looked up. And over all these years, the only word I've ever been able to find to describe it is hopelessness. There was no hope that these kids were gonna get out of this environment if somebody didn't step in. So I didn't know anything else to do, except what I had offered, which was to train them and, and take 'em to races. So that's what I started doing. And the first race, we trained 'em to bike and got a swimmer and a runner. They were all just sprint races. And then they did the run and the bike, and then the whole thing with the swim almost ended the program, 'cause these kids had never been in pools. 

But anyway, it was going well. They were getting out of their environment, meeting other people that were successful and being challenged and setting goals. But then one day, a few months later, uh, I had an experience with the kids that changed what exceeding expectations became and what it is today. I was taking a car full of kids home after some event, and I was talking to them about graduating from high school and going on to college. And little Nicholas was sitting right in shotgun next to me and he turned to me and he said, these exact words, "Cherie, why are you talking to us about that? That's for other kids. It's not for us." Now, I didn't realize this at that time, but of those 12 kids that I had selected, not a single one had anybody in their families, sometimes large extended families who had ever graduated from high school.

So there's a good reason why these kids had the expectations that they'd drop out and that's it. So at that moment, I made the decision that our job was not just to take these kids to races, but our job was to help them and their families understand that education was their ticket to a better life. And it was for them if they were willing to work for it. So that became Exceeding Expectations. And in the beginning it was rough because all these people saw was this white lady that showed up and said, "I'm gonna help get you educated." And you can imagine what people thought. So it took us a little while to get it going, but we got it going. And I would like to tell you some statistics here.

We now have 16 college graduates from four-year schools, two with master's degrees. We have 11 currently in college. We have two in a nursing program, one that just finished and one that's still in the program. Two small business owners. And every single Exceeding Expectations kid, even from the very beginning, has graduated from high school. Some of them in the beginning dropped out, but they got a GED or they came back to high school and finished up. So our kids now know that they are going to graduate from high school and they are going to go to another education, whether it's a four year college or a two year college or whatever. That's a given. And that's what Exceeding Expectations wanted. That's what we're trying to do. And I will give you a couple of examples and I am not going to use names because these were from the early days.

You know, nowadays I will tell you, the program is really quite different as far as the kids and the parents and so forth. We have a lot of parents now that are involved with us. We have kids that come to us, I don't have to recruit 'em anymore. And kids that are in the program bring new kids and they've already vetted so that kids come and they know we're not trying to make 'em athletes, we're going to get 'em educated. So it's a different setup right now.But in the beginning there were two kids I will tell you about. The first one—we'll call her Maria—she was nine years old when she joined and she came right at the very beginning. Neither parent was documented. All her older brothers and sisters, and there were a lot of 'em, they were undocumented. Maria was the only one in the family that had been born here. The father was in and out of jail when he wasn't being deported and then sneaking back in. The mother had spoken no English and would just sit in one place at home saying, "dad's coming back, dad's coming back." The environment with all the older brothers and sisters was very dangerous and risky to the point where we set up a process where when her environment got dangerous and she was afraid, we had her use a cell phone we got her and she would make a first call to a teacher that lived close by that could come and get her out. And then they'd get a hold of me and I'd come in and try and solve the problem.

And we had to use that several times. So this is the environment she came from. During high school, she went into a program where during her last two years of high school, she was taking her first two years of college at a local community college. Then she did her last two years at UCSD, which is a great school. graduated from there, and got a master's degree in social work. She's now back in San Bernardino where she believes she wants to help those people where she came from and is working her dream job. That's her success story. And she's a huge part today in our program. When I speak to new kids at the school, she comes and tells them, "I was just like you and now look at what I've done." So that's one real success story for us. 

Hauswald: What is some advice for those who are in their forties and fifties who might be thinking about getting in triathlon? Why should they get into racing?

Gruenfeld: Well, I think you're asking the wrong question.

Hauswald: Okay, well, what should we be?

Gruenfeld: The question is why not? Why wouldn't you get into racing? It'll make you fit and healthy. You will meet people that will be supportive and encourage you and some of them will become lifelong friends. It'll challenge you. You'll have a purpose and a focus in life. And when you cross that finish line of your first triathlon, regardless of what distance it is, regardless of what time you do it in, you'll have a sense of accomplishment that you will rarely get any place else. What I find frequently with people in their forties and fifties who are thinking about their first triathlon is that they get too hung up on "I don't know enough about it. I need to see it a little bit. I'll come watch." My advice to them is, jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.


Hauswald: That's great advice. OK, last question. There is a lot of information out there for doing your first triathlon or entering a race as a beginner, but most of it doesn't address masters athletes in particular. Where do you see this shortcoming as having the most impact? What would you like to see the industry and media address more here?

Gruenfeld: I've thought about that and I have seen for a long time a need that I think could and should be filled. There are women who are in their late fifties, early sixties, whose lives are changing. Their kids are now gone. Some of 'em don't have grandkids. So, you know, they really have an empty nest. Sometimes these are women who have followed their husbands or their mates to race their races, but it never occurred to them that they could race and he could support her. Or maybe the husband or mate has passed away or they've divorced. So that person is kind of looking to find out something about themselves and the world of triathlon is a perfect place for those people.

I worked with a group in Southern California for a while a number of years ago and that was just this kind of group they took. They were women of every age, but many were in their fifties and sixties, and women can be so supportive of each other. These women who are doing it for the first time, they're not all athletes. They can do a triathlon with a lot of support. And once they do that first one they have these other women that are encouraging them. These women are usually highly educated and have some money, so I think there's no reason why the industry and the media isn't more interested in them. And I'm hoping some of these women's races that are coming up now will support this more, because I really think that's an area that we're cutting a little short.

Hauswald: In what capacity are you going to Kona in this year?

Gruenfeld: Well, I don't know for sure. They told me that they are going to focus the race week on women in sport. And that's why I'm being invited. I said to them, "I'm happy to come, but I really don't just wanna come for a photo op. I'd like to be useful." And they said, "Oh, you're gonna be useful." So I don't know exactly. I'm guessing that they have some breakfast where they have athletes talk. But I am there to encourage women.

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