Double Fractures Set This XTERRA Athlete on a Mission

After a nasty accident, this off-road athlete rebuilt as a more complete person.

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On Sept. 6, 2010, hours before her flight to Zurich to compete in XTERRA Switzerland, Barbara Edelston Peterson climbed up into her closet to fetch a gift for the race director—only to slip and fall, bilaterally fracturing her heels in both feet. And just like that, the eight-time XTERRA age-group world champion and one-time ITU age-group Cross Triathlon world champion went from race-ready to stuck in a wheelchair.

Edelston Peterson could have quit and let that be the end of her triathlon career. She was 54 and had had a good lifetime of races. But, instead, the accident made the sports psychologist more introspective: Was it appropriate to focus so much on her results? Would she be able to walk and run again, let alone compete? If she could, what would it mean?

Photo: courtesy of Barbara Edelston Peterson

Edelston Peterson, who lives in Montecito, California, talked to her doctor and concocted a plan to swim while wearing her fracture boots. (She even got a second pair so she’d always have dry ones.) A friend with a van drove her to the pool every day at 5:30 a.m., where she would crawl from her wheelchair to the water. For three months she swam as best as she could.

Then, 12 weeks after the accident, she tried walking in the water. She didn’t last five minutes the first time. But little by little, she persevered, and by mid-December she went on her first run since the accident. By the following April, she competed in an XTERRA event in Nevada, and by October, she’d won her sixth age-group world championship title.

But it was the introspection during the recovery that pushed her in a slightly different direction. “I wanted to be a champion for humanity,” she said. “Being a champion shouldn’t stop on the podium.” Following in the footsteps of people she admires like Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and 1% for the Planet, and Daniel Lubetzky, founder of KIND, she created the Whole Champion Foundation, a nonprofit organization that acts as an educational center to teach people that they have an environ- mental and societal responsibility and helps connect them with causes they can support. Edelston Peterson also does speaking engagements and working with groups, such as Girls, Inc., to help empower and inspire others. She has written a book on her philosophy, A Whole Person Makes the World Better.

Now, at 64, she said: “I still want and can be a champion of sport. I love it. It makes me feel alive, but I also want to live and lead others to create an everyday difference for the whole world. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

I wanted to be a champion for humanity. Being a champion shouldn't stop on the podium.

The pandemic’s forced break from racing has given her more time to devote to growing the Whole Champion Foundation and also to the jewelry line she started 18 years ago. She credits her lifetime of being a triathlete for helping her now in her newest venture—but, like any whole champion, she also can’t wait to be back out on the race course competing again.