Bobbe Greenberg is not your typical 73-year-old woman. Most people associate that age with the “Golden Girls,” not Ironman, but Greenberg is on a mission to change that.
“Triathlon immediately erases old-lady stereotypes,” Greenberg said. “We’re not hiding our age or our bodies. We’re comfortable spending all day bare-faced, dripping wet hair on our colorful kits.”
The way she used “we” to refer to her age group implies a sizable segment, yet there’s a reason old-lady stereotypes don’t default to the lithe, energetic, Kona-qualifying Greenberg. At most races, Greenberg is the only one in her age group participating. Women aged 70 and up is the least-represented group in triathlon; 75 and up is even rarer, which makes Greenberg all the more excited to hit that milestone.
“If all goes well, in 2021, I age into a distinguished new category. Only two women in the 75-79 age group have ever raced Kona: Sister Madonna Buder and Harriet Anderson. I hope to be healthy and lucky enough to join that club.”
Though she races with the ease and confidence of a lifelong triathlete, the retired middle-school English teacher didn’t get her start until her late 50s, when she joined a gym in her hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, to correct her slumping posture. The instructor of her spin class shared information about an indoor triathlon taking place at the gym, and Greenberg was intrigued. She had never heard of triathlon before, but the 10-minute swim, 20-minute stationary bike, and 15-minute treadmill run sounded like a fun, unique challenge.
But there was only one problem: Greenberg didn’t know how to swim. At first, she thought she’d jog in the water, but no–the race called for swimming, not aqua-jogging, and she wanted to complete each leg of the event legitimately.
“Rather than humiliate myself, I took a weekend workshop, plus a private lesson to learn how to push off the wall,” she recalled. “After that, I was more or less able to remain somewhat horizontal from one end to the other.”
Despite her underdeveloped swim skills, Greenberg took the age-group win at the race. As soon as she crossed the finish line, she set her sights on a new challenge: a sprint triathlon, with what she called a “real” open-water swim.
Fast-forward almost 20 years, and Greenberg is a podium regular at races, be it local sprint events to the Ironman World Championship. She’s raced Kona a total of six times and has won the women’s 70-74 age group in Kona for the past two years. In 2019, she finished the race in 14:07:11, 22 minutes faster than her 2018 race and her first sub-five hour Ironman marathon, which she calls an “unexpected personal highlight.” Though she’s excited to defend her title next year, that’s not the focus of her racing. The focus is–and always has been–having fun.
“As corny as this sounds, during races I’m either singing a song or self-talking positive vibes. Way too often I lose focus and become overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude, celebrating my fitness in the natural outdoors. Whatever the day, I embrace it with joy. The harsher the experience, the more I’m a badass.”
Few grandmothers refer to themselves as “badass,” but the moniker seems appropriate for Greenberg, who defies stereotypes about aging every time she toes a starting line.
“Big or small, age is only a number,” she said. “Without a doubt, I’ve been very, very lucky and do not take my good health for granted. I try not to take life too seriously. My family gives me purpose, my husband supports my nonsense, and my grandchildren keep me on my toes. I lean on my running club and friends to plan our rides and swims. But mostly, I just enjoy being active each day.”