Ten Questions With…Professional Triathlete Joanna Zeiger

If you’ve paid attention to triathlon for more than a few years, you certainly know the name Joanna Zeiger.  Joanna has been in our sport for a handful of years…OK, perhaps more than a handful – she turned pro in 1998…and been a mainstay in terms of endurance racing and coaching.

Zeiger was the 1997 amateur triathlete of the year and the 2000 triathlete of the year.  She’s competed in the Olympics, the world championships and much more.  Today, Joanna lives with her husband and dog Diesel (who affectionately calls her Crazy Blonde), coaches athletes and works in the field of Genetic Epidemiology.

Keep reading for this week’s version of Ten Questions With….Professional Triathlete Joanna Zeiger!

Joanna Zeiger cutting the tape as the winner of the 2012 Cross Country Nationals

TM:  You’ve been an athlete for a long time – going back to your elementary school swim-team days.  How has your approach to training and racing evolved over the past 20 years or so?

JZ:  I started swimming competitively at the age of 7. My swimming progressed over the years from the 30 minute workouts of a beginner to the double workouts required by my high school swim coach. We were classic over-trainers! I took that work ethic directly to triathlon. My early years as an age grouper and pro were decidedly non-scientific and consisted of the “more is better” philosophy. Over the years, my training became more systematic, with specific intervals to work on different paces on the run and different wattage zones on the bike. I cut down the number of hours I trained to accommodate the increase in intensity. Now, since my racing is quite pared down from what it used to be, I have a mixed approach to my training. I am mostly running with some swimming thrown in. I do intervals a few days a week and I try my best not to over train. However, I do allow myself some latitude with the running and if it is a beautiful day or week, I will take advantage of the weather. 

TM:  How do you differentiate between the normal soreness that we athletes over 40 seem to always have from a possible injury?

JZ:  Normal soreness goes away in 24-48 hours. A potential injury lingers beyond a day or two and often hurts when you are not training. Do not ignore these potential injuries. Get it checked out early. Better to have someone tell you it is nothing than to wait around and have it become a huge something.

TM:  This is an Olympic year – and you’ve got quite a history when it comes to participating in Olympic Trials.  You’ve participated in Olympic Trials in 6 of the past 7 summer Olympics.  That’s quite extraordinary.  Which Trials stands out for you?

JZ:  All of the Trials races for me stand out in their own unique way. My first Olympic trials were for swimming in 1988. It was an eye opening experience to swim in such a high level meet. It was incredibly motivating heading into my freshman year of college.  The triathlon trials in 2000 were amazing not only because I qualified for the Olympic team, but also because it was history in the making. It was the first ever triathlon Olympic trials and therefore very special.  The most recent trials I participated in was the 2012 marathon Olympic trials. It was also special because I qualified when by all accounts I shouldn’t have. I was (and still am) in the midst of a very long term rib injury and had some trouble qualifying, so getting the standard was a huge challenge.

TM:  Tell us about your experience on the Olympic triathlon team in 2000.  What is your strongest memory of the Sydney games?

JZ:  The Olympic triathlon in Sydney was incredible. Most races have only a few spectators here and there on the course. In Sydney, the course was lined three or four deep with people. I had to really concentrate on the bike and not look around! We had a great pre-camp in the town of Wollongong, we didn’t move to the village until after the race. My strongest memory of the race itself was carrying an American flag across the finish line. I do have a good story though: Before the race all of the women were lined up underneath Opera House waiting to be called one-by-one to the start line. We were in our wetsuits due to the cold water. We had been standing there a while when I turned to my teammate Sheila and said “I’m peeing right now”. She said she was too, and then suddenly about 15 voices piped in and said that they too were peeing! If you ever find yourself underneath the Sydney Opera House, watch where you stand.

TM:  Just a few months ago, you raced in the Olympic marathon trials but DNF’d.  Could you share what happened?

JZ:  In January I ran the Olympic trials marathon. Running the qualifying time was a complicated task. In 2011, I ran 3 marathons in pursuit of the time (2:45.00). I finally achieved the time in December when I ran 2:43.48 a PR by almost 4 minutes. By the time the trials came along I was over cooked and my rib injury that I have been dealing with since 10/2009 was flared up. But, it was the trials and I wanted to be a part it, especially since the men and women were competing on the same course on the same say. I got to catch the tail end of the men’s race when I was getting lapped, which was very cool (I even got on TV for a second or two!).  At mile 18 I started vomiting, either from dehydration or the rib pain or both, and by mile 20 I was so dizzy I could barely stand up. There was nothing to be gained by continuing and a lot to lose, so I decided to drop out. While it was disappointing not to finish, I knew it was a gamble running two marathons so close together. I don’t regret a single moment though. It was a fantastic weekend.

TM:  You competed in the Maccabiah Games – which you describe as the Jewish Olympics.  What about that event was special to you?

JZ:  I competed in the Maccabiah Games in 1989 in Tel Aviv, Israel. It was a truly eye opening experience for me. It was my first international competition so that in itself is memorable. However, the most important part of the Games was being exposed to Jewish athletes from all over the world. I grew up swimming in an environment where being Jewish was an oddity. It made me uncomfortable. After the Maccabiah Games I fully embraced being Jewish.

TM:  Earlier this year, you were inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.  Could you describe the emotions that you experienced when you learned that you were selected for the Hall?

JZ:  It was truly an honor to be inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. It is thrilling to be recognized for my achievements in sport. But, more importantly, I feel that this is an opportunity to let other Jewish athletes know that they can succeed in sports no matter how different they may feel from other competitors.

TM:  You’ve been pretty successful as a professional triathlete – a World Championship, a couple of Ironman wins, more than a dozen 70.3 wins, success at ITU.  What has been your favorite distance and why?

JZ:  Ever since my first half Ironman at the former Muncie Endurathon I have been hooked on that distance. It is the perfect combination of speed and endurance. Throughout my career, I juggled Olympic distance (both drafting and non-drafting) and Ironman. I always felt that the half Ironman was the perfect compromise.


TM:  Today, you coach triathletes.  What gets you most excited about working with age groupers?

JZ:  Of course, I want to get help my athletes achieve their goals. But, the best part of coaching is problem solving. Everyone has issues and they are varied. I like working through them with the athlete. Sometimes I have personal experience draw upon (lord knows I have had a lot crap happen) or sometimes I have to refer them to a specialist. Solving the problem is like solving a puzzle and I love puzzles! Ultimately, I aim to get the athlete back on the path to training and racing.

TM:  You have a PhD in Genetic Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins.  Have you done any research on endurance or multisport athletes?

JZ:  Hah! Funny you should ask. Over the past few years I focused my research on the effects of physical activity on general and mental health. I am in the process of getting a new project off the ground to explore these associations further. This project will be in collaboration with USA Triathlon using their membership as the subjects for the study. Most studies on physical activity do not have a decent representation of physical activity so it is often difficult to draw good conclusions. We hope to rectify this deficiency by recruiting triathletes who are generally high exercisers. We will be looking at several measures of general health, well being and drug use.

Be sure to check out Joanna’s website here and follow her on Twitter!


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