Mercer Island native, medical student, catches the triathlon bug

Nicole Kelleher, a 2000 MIHS grad, recently won the USA Triathlon Collegiate race in the women
Nicole Kelleher, a 2000 MIHS grad, recently won the USA Triathlon Collegiate race in the women's division. She is working on her medical degree at the University of Virigina.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Think training for a triathlon is grueling? The 1.5-kilometer swim, 40k bike and 10k run is a daunting undertaking for anyone, and Nicole Kelleher did it while finishing her clinical rotations at the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia.

The triathlete won the women’s USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships in May with a time of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 10 seconds, and finished two full finishes ahead of the 2009 winner. She is now looking at an international stage to compete on.

A 2000 Mercer Island High School graduate, Kelleher said she got a late start in athletics, but that didn’t slow her down.

“I got into track and field and cross country later in high school, as a junior or senior,” the 28-year-old said. It was MIHS cross country coach Erica Hill’s first year, and the program hadn’t made the start tournament in a long time.

“We finished third at start after years of not even going. It’s a great tribute to her as a coach,” said Kelleher. “My success is a direct result of her and the program. She was a phenomenal coach.”

After running on the Dartmouth College track and field and cross country teams in college, Kelleher said after she graduated and started medical school, she was looking for a way to stay active and competitive, and found triathlons.

“I seriously started competing in 2009, but I had done some before for fun,” she said. “I had knee surgery a couple years back, but once that got better, I started training.”

She kicked things off with the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, D.C. in September 2009, finishing with a time of 2:11.49. One of the largest races in the country, featuring almost 5,000 participants, showed Kelleher just how much she enjoyed the sport and that it was something she wanted to invest time in. Because of her already slightly hectic schedule as a medical student, going through clinical rotations at the time, she trained at night after spending the day at the hospital. The longtime runner said her swimming background also made it a natural fit, despite saying that the swimming leg is her weakest of the three.

“Running is my favorite part,” she said. “Most people find it to be the hardest, but with my background I actually enjoy it.”

The all-winter training paid off after taking the Collegiate National title, and spotlighted Kelleher to the point that she’ll now be taking on international races.

“I was surprised at how well I did at the Collegiate race,” she said. The win earned her a spot as a featured “Face in the Crowd” in the May 10 issue of Sports Illustrated and put her in touch with the various triathlon big organizations, such as USA Triathlon.

“That was great,” she said of the “Faces in the Crowd” feature. “It was unexpected. I guess I didn’t realize how big the race was, but it was cool to get publicity for triathlons because it’s considered a very minor sport.”

Because of the recognition and her obvious talent at the event, she has started training for international races, hopefully putting her in line for a spot at the USA Triathlon team trials for the Olympic team. Her first big international race will be in British Columbia in August, bringing her close to home.

“I try and get back once every two years,” she said of visiting the area. Her family now lives in California, but she said many friends from high school are in Seattle. She said she’ll be applying to residency programs in the area, hoping that maybe life will bring her back to the region, but at the moment she’s taking a longer route to finish school in order to focus on triathlons.

“I’m getting a dual degree with my master’s in public health over the next year, so with that I have more flexibility to do triathlons and training,” she said. “Then I’ll go back and finish up my last year of med school.”

While someday Kelleher will be a doctor, maybe even in the Seattle area, right now she has her sights set on something a little closer.

“Right now, with the type of races that I’m doing, my goal is the 2010 Olympic trials,” said Kelleher. “I want to try and make the trials and then see what happens.”

A spot on the team means Kelleher could race at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but until then she’ll be devoting her time not only to becoming a doctor, but to improving her swim, bike and running times.

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