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The former boxer trades her gloves for goggles as she takes on triathlon.
There’s no doubt Laila Ali is tough. After all, as the daughter of the legendary Muhammad Ali and herself one of the most accomplished female boxers in the world, she once knocked an opponent to the mat in a mere 31 seconds. Before stepping away from the sport in 2007, she recorded a perfect 24-0 record, including 21 knockouts.
But when it comes to triathlon, this 34-year-old mother of two admits to being intimidated by a common fear that leaves athletes of all levels shaking in their wetsuits. Of all things, she’s not too crazy about the thought of making contact with other competitors in the turbulent start of the swim.
“I just didn’t want to get kicked or hit; I’d heard that happens,” she says with a laugh a few days after finishing the New York City Triathlon in July, her multisport debut. “I actually swam way out of the way to avoid contact.”
Of course, if Ali were to get slammed, she could no doubt retaliate and leave any fellow swimmer stunned. But as a triathlete, she prefers to keep the gloves off, instead opting to relish in the independent nature of her newly adopted sport. “It’s nothing like boxing, where you compete head-to-head,” she says. “At first, I couldn’t figure out why people would do this. You’re just out there by yourself, going against your own time? That’s fun?” she says. “Then I got it. And now I have a newfound respect for triathletes.”
So how does a former competitive boxer make the switch to triathlon, anyway? “It was one of those things that I always thought about doing, but I wanted to completely focus on it,” she says. The motivation to lose a few extra pounds of baby weight left over after the April 2011 birth of her daughter, Sydney (she and husband Curtis Conway also have 4-year-old C.J.) provided extra impetus, as did an invite from Aquaphor, the New York City Triathlon’s title sponsor, to be a brand ambassador at the event. They hooked her up with Natalie Bojko, a coach with Carmichael Training Systems, who whipped Ali into race-ready shape in just three months.
“It was definitely a challenge,” says Ali of her abbreviated NYC preparation, adding that she was simultaneously shooting the NBC show Stars Earn Stripes, which she hosts, during the height of her training block. “It’s pretty demanding, especially when you’re spending so much time in the pool, or getting up to those 25-mile bike rides followed by 6-mile runs,” she says. “But you can always find time for what you really want to do.”
And she did just that in NYC. Ali says her first race was much easier than she anticipated, though she would have liked to dip under the three-hour mark (she finished in 3:06:21). “I had an 11-minute transition between the swim and the bike,” she says. “I wasted a lot of time checking my bag and doing who knows what. Then on the bike, I was switching gears the wrong way and never used my left side gear shifter. I see all of these areas where I can improve the next time.”
When the next race will be, Ali hasn’t decided. But she says she’s ready for another go at the Olympic distance or a sprint and hopes to continue to keep swimming, biking and running as mainstays in her regular workouts. After all, not only does she like it, but being a triathlete also earns her extra bragging rights—at least with one family member in particular.
“Yeah, Dad thinks it’s really cool, and a little crazy” she says of her famous father. “Jumping into the Hudson River? That’s something he’d never do.”