Most 13-year-old girls don’t gravitate to orienteering as their sport of choice, but most 13-year-old girls didn’t grow up like Gunilla Gard. Raised in the countryside of central Sweden, Gard’s fascination with the world around her began as soon as she could walk. Now, at 61, it’s led her to experience more of the planet than most people could in five lifetimes. The PhD geologist, paleontologist, and stratigrapher (that’s someone who studies “strata” or rock layers) has lived all over the Earth’s surface, surveying what’s beneath it and exercising on top of it. Last year, the lifelong runner decided to give triathlon a go as she turned the corner on her seventh decade, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Gard’s active life began back when her older brother sparked her interest in orienteering, a popular sport in Nordic countries. That gave her the base she needed to be a successful cross-country runner in school, where she learned everything there was to learn about rocks and rock layers. It’s also what has made her the athlete she is today.
“Orienteering is usually done in uncomfortable environments far out in the woods,” she says. “It helps you learn how to mentally plan your race and stay in control. It makes you tough, and that’s definitely helped me adapt quickly to the unique challenges of triathlon.”
Gard admits that she was intimidated by triathlon before her first race. Her only exposure to the sport came in the form of the annual Ironman World Championship broadcast, which can make triathlon seem more terrifying than it really is. But when friends in her adopted hometown of Houston told her about the sprint distance and explained that she’d only be racing against others in her age-group, her fears were allayed.
In April of last year, Gard abruptly retired from the working world and signed up for her first sprint triathlon, not knowing that it served as the Texas state championship and a qualifier for the USAT Age-Group Draft-Legal Sprint National Championship, being held at the Sarasota-Bradenton Triathlon Festival in October. She finished fourth in her age-group in Texas, good enough to qualify for nationals, and she wasn’t going to miss out on having her second race be a national championship.
She surprised herself once again in Sarasota, finishing eighth in her age-group, and she found out a few weeks later that she’d earned a spot on Team USA for the ITU Age-Group World Championship in Lausanne, Switzerland. She accepted—of course—and finished 28th in the world championship in only her second year of racing.
The secret to her sudden success is simple, and she’s reminded of it every time she returns to Sweden, where she’s spent the past summer training and enjoying a break from the Houston heat. “Access to nature is much easier than many other places,” she says. “As a child, I spent as much time as I could outdoors with my family and friends. It’s about getting outside here—not always about doing organized sport. It’s just play, but it’s healthy and fun.”