At age 20, she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Then, at 35, doctors discovered breast cancer.

If you ask us, the coolest thing about triathlon is that hours after the first-place finisher breaks the tape, winners are still crossing the line. Though much fanfare surrounds the jaw-dropping speed and unfathomable strength found in the professional fields, the age-groupers are the ones who quietly inspire. Need proof? Each of our cover finalist athletes exemplify the heart and soul of our sport: Everyday people doing extraordinary things. Meet our contest winner here, and then meet one of the other inspirational finalists below. 

Erica Stockford

Highlands Ranch, CO

At age 20, she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Then, at 35, doctors discovered breast cancer. At age 40, Erica Stockford crossed the finish line of her first Ironman triathlon.

“She has had an endless number of health problems come her way, but rather than complain or hang her head, she has said, ‘This doesn’t define me.’” says her husband, Todd. “She’s the strongest person I know.”

Persistence is the default setting for Stockford. Rather than dwell on the negative, she carries on with gratitude for what she does have. Case in point: When Rheumatoid Arthritis made it too difficult for Stockton to continue her daily habit of running, she didn’t give up running altogether. Instead, she investigated ways to work with what her body could do.

“My body couldn’t handle the abuse of dedicated single-sport training,” says Stockford. “Cross-training on the bike, and eventually the swim, gave my joints the necessary break they needed to keep going.”

This led to her first triathlon, the Fall Frenzy Sprint in 2008, which proved to be the perfect fit for the tenacious Stockford. “Triathlon allows me to see the big picture,” she says. “It teaches me there are many facets that make up the whole.”

In her husband’s words: This doesn’t define me. Stockford, 44, doesn’t see herself as a Rheumatoid Arthritis patient or breast cancer survivor–she’s a person who simply plays the hand she’s dealt, every time. When her arthritis flares up, she does what she can do and respects what her body won’t allow; when her mother died unexpectedly in March 2017, Stockford christened her new bike “Babs” and signed up to race Ironman Arizona as healthy a way to channel her grief.

“Throughout all of this, she has maintained a positive attitude when it would be very easy to feel sorry for herself,” says Todd. “She is an amazing role model for her two children, to always work hard, never give up, and to see the sun through the trees.”

Meet more of our cover finalists