When Melissa Thoen was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 11, doctors said most exercise was impossible.

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.

Melissa Thoen

New York, NY

When Melissa Thoen was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 11, doctors said most exercise was impossible–it was too unsafe to risk having a seizure in the water while swimming or crashing her bike while riding. That warning haunted her while her finger hovered over the “register” button for the New York City Triathlon almost 20 years later.

“Triathlon interested me, but I was nervous about how I would fare considering my history of epilepsy,” says Thoen. “I decided to take on the challenge despite any misgivings, and that decision changed my life. I’ve never looked back.”

Since 2011, Thoen, has raced more than a dozen triathlons, defying the odds and re-structuring the definition of what’s possible. “This sport is such a gift,” says Thoen, 39. “It may be physically challenging at times, but you will acquire a sense of perseverance and accomplishment that you never even knew was possible. Triathlon will help you realize qualities that you didn’t know existed.”

Thoen’s next challenge is racing Ironman Florida in 2018 – not only for the thrill of crossing the finish line, but to raise funds and awareness for epilepsy research. Her ability to overcome inspired her friend, Susan, to nominate her for the 2018 Triathlete Cover Contest:

“She was told she could never do sports due to her condition, but she made the decision to defy the odds to prove to herself and others that she was capable of more. She wants to give back to that community and raise awareness for those suffering from this condition. This is why Meli is such an amazing person and an even more amazing triathlete. She embodies everything that makes an Ironman and overall athlete: an unyielding endurance, a fighting spirit, and the ability to make the impossible possible.”

Meet more of our cover finalists