Dorothy Niss vividly remembers the moment she decided to become a triathlete. It was a Saturday afternoon in 1983, and she turned on the TV just in time to catch the coverage of the recent Ironman World Championships on Wide World of Sports. It just so happened to be the one where a young Julie Moss, overcome with exhaustion, famously crawled to the finish line in an epic display of resolve and triumph.
Niss was captivated.
“She was such a warrior,” Niss recalled of Moss. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
At the time, Niss was about to turn 40. She was also a mom of two boys, and working full time as a teacher. She had a few marathons under her belt, but had never done a triathlon before. And she didn’t even know anyone who had–or many other women in endurance sports, for that matter. But that didn’t bother Niss. She never let much of anything get in her way.
Niss was born in 1943, during World War II. Her father left to fight on the frontlines in England soon after her birth, leaving Niss’ young mom and grandmother to raise the precocious little girl for the first few years of her life. “I was always in the presence of two strong women who really did it all,” she said of her upbringing in Wooster, Mass. “There was never that feeling of females being less than. Anything that boys would do, I would do.”
To illustrate that point, she recalled a time when her pack of friends–all boys, save for Niss–went water skiing. “There was this jump, and some of the other kids were scared to go off of it,” she said. “None of the guys thought I’d do it as the only girl, but I just went for it. Maybe some people thought boys were superior, but I never did.”
So when it came to entering an Ironman-distance race, Niss went about it just like she had that water ski jump: With a casual, “no big deal” kind of confidence. It was the same approach she took to exercising during both of her pregnancies, in 1970 and 1974, which she ran through despite her doctor advising her to relax and rest. “I got a lot of looks,” she said of being a pregnant runner in the 70s. “But I wanted to be healthy, and I knew my body. Besides, I’m not a person who can sit still for long.”
When Niss signed up for the inaugural Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon, the very first Iron-distance race on the east coast (and founded by Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray), she didn’t have a coach or much of any resources for training. So she set up her own plan. A friend, Peter Ouellette, gave her one of his custom Ouelette bikes in exchange for ski equipment (at the time, Niss and her husband owned a ski shop in Vermont.) And after finishing up teaching and before she picked up her sons from daycare, she’d swim, bike, or run for a couple of hours each afternoon.
“Honestly, I love to be alone, and training allowed me to have that alone time to really think through things,” Niss said. “The distance never really dawned on me. I enjoyed the process.”
Niss had no delusions of grandeur when it came to her performance on the Cape. She wasn’t necessarily fast at any particular discipline, but she knew she could endure, albeit it at a slower pace. Plus, with just seven women among a field of some 110 men, Niss figured she had a pretty good shot of placing.
“Actually, all of the women were much younger than me, so right off the bat, I knew that I would win my age group automatically if I just finished,” she said.
And that, she did, some 18 hours after she launched herself into the choppy Atlantic Ocean on the morning of September 10, 1983. Niss lost contact with the other women early in the race, struggled some on the windy, hilly bike route, and found herself alone by the time her feet hit the pavement for the arduous marathon run. As the sun set and enveloped Niss in darkness, she plodded along, smiling all the way.
“I remember running through the really ritzy part of the Cape. Where the Kennedy’s live,” she said. “They had set up a table and some of the Kennedy kids were out there cheering us on with posters they had made. They had lit some candles since it was so dark. There was just this wonderful, supportive vibe.”
When Niss finally crossed the finish line at 1 a.m., she was greeted by a small, but raucous crowd, including competitors who had long since finished their own race. And, despite being the final finisher in the field, Niss did wind up winning her age-group, by default. (“That was the great part about being ‘older’,” she joked.)
The experience stoked Niss’s fire to continue her triathlon journey. She returned to the Cape the following year and shaved her time down by two hours. She even went on to race at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii later that year, before scaling back to shorter distances as she became more involved in her sons’ activities, eventually joining them in BMX racing for a short stint.
“There weren’t many women doing that, either,” she said of off-road biking. “But I never felt excluded by men. I was always welcomed, or maybe I just didn’t pay attention to the fact that I was the only women out there.’”
Now 78 and a grandmother living in Vermont, Niss remains active (she also still teaches, now as a substitute since her recent retirement), but says her racing days are long over. And though flattered at the idea of being a trailblazer in the sport of triathlon as a working mom who tackled an Ironman at the age of 40, she said that was never her intent.
“It wasn’t about doing something different or proving anything,” Niss said. “I was just having fun and getting out doing something I loved.”