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Recalled: A New York City Triathlon Three-Peat

Rebeccah Wassner was the first New Yorker to win the race and the first woman to win three times—including a one-two finish with her twin sister. This year, she'll head back to the start line for an emotional return.

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This weekend, midtown Manhattan will once again pulsate with the beat of feet hitting the pavement (and rubber hitting the road) in the much-anticipated return of the New York City Triathlon. A fixture on the tri scene since 2001, the race was canceled in both 2019 (due to extreme heat) and 2020 (due to COVID). This year’s triathlon is set to bring a renewed energy and spirit to a city continuing to recover from the pandemic.

Among those racing? Pro triathlete Rebeccah Wassner, who will toe the line exactly ten years after her historic three-peat at the race. Wassner took the tape in 2009, then again in 2010 and 2011, becoming the first woman to win three years in a row—as well as the first New Yorker to win as a pro. Here, she recalls that epic streak. 

Some triathletes have Kona. Others have the Olympics. But as a pro and a New Yorker, I always consider the New York City Triathlon as my biggest race of the year. I feel so fortunate that I live in a city that offers this high caliber race that has historically attracted the world’s best with a big paycheck. Not everyone has that opportunity. There’s truly nothing more amazing as an athlete than racing on your home turf in front of your family and friends—and even better when you win.

Of course, I didn’t start off winning. My first race, way back in 2002, was on the heels of my first New York City Marathon (which I finished in 2 hours, 55 minutes). I didn’t know much at all about triathlon, but I knew I loved to run and that I could swim. Swimming in the Hudson River—a thought that raised eyebrows for some people—didn’t phase me. I had already competed in some open water swims around the city and knew the water would be just fine. During the race, I lost a lot of time on the bike, but wound up running 38:51 for the 10K run to finish second in the age-group race. Later, when I looked at the results of the pro women, I noticed my run split would have been among the fastest in the field, which included big names and Olympians like Barb Lindquist, Sheila Taormina, and Karen Smyers. I knew that with more training, I could one day race shoulder-to-shoulder with women at that level. That was the spark that ultimately ignited my passion for triathlon, which turned into a decades-long career.

The pro women dive into the Hudson River at the New York City Triathlon. Photo: Dario Cantatore/Getty Images

Over the next several years, I went whole-heartedly into triathlon, racing around the world and seeing success in big events. Eventually, my twin sister, Laurel (the first cancer survivor to turn pro in triathlon), joined me and we made the New York City Triathlon our “A” race each season. I had placed as high as third in the pro field, but I really wanted that win. In 2009, I came in confident, well prepared, and in very good shape. But I was never the favorite. Maybe that suits me: I could just put my head down and grind, without the pressure. I came off the bike with Becky Lavelle, one of the world’s best triathletes who was an alternate for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. She had beaten me several times before. But that morning, on the familiar, undulating roads of Central Park in front of a crowd who knew my name, I found an extra gear. I ticked off 5:35 miles on my home turf to win by two minutes.

That experience only motivated me more and made me dream bigger. In 2010, I didn’t just want to win. I wanted to go one-two with Laurel. We hatched this plan quietly together, training almost every step of the way side-by-side. But during the race, she was behind me by about 45 seconds after the swim, and I put another minute into the gap on the bike. I didn’t know what place she was in until about mid-way through the run when someone shouted that she was in second. I was really hurting at that point—that run course is incredibly challenging, especially towards the end—but I knew that if I kept charging, our dream would come true. We wound up finishing a little less than two minutes apart…and her run split was actually 10 seconds faster than mine!

That was probably the perfect race experience for me. In 2011, things were anything but perfect beforehand. As we lined up to dive into the Hudson on that muggy August early morning, I didn’t feel like a champion, as I was dealing with a lingering injury. I told myself to just get to the run, and at that point I’d see what I could do, not really knowing if running would even be an option. I was in second place off the bike, but I could see the leader ahead of me on the long stretch of 72nd street leading into Central Park. At that point, experience and familiarity and adrenaline took over and I was able to run her down in the final two miles of the race. After all of my years of racing, I still had more self-discovery to do. I needed that race as a reminder to believe in myself, and to just give myself that chance even if the build-up wasn’t ideal.

A year later, I made headlines for another reason: I was newly pregnant with my daughter, Amy. Life moved on, and I went on to have another three “wins” in my children. My career isn’t over and I still love to race, but this year I am approaching the line with a huge dose of excitement and gratitude for just being there. Collectively, our city has been through so much. Personally, after my entire family had COVID last year, there was a time when I thought I may never race again since I was sick and so far out of shape. We all need this moment, this time of celebration, this sigh of relief.

So this Sunday, I’ll set my alarm for 4:20 a.m. and roll down the West Side Highway from my apartment downtown to the race area once again. I’ll pass the partiers spilling onto the sidewalks and the ubers and the cabs roaring out of the clubs, the bodega owners brewing those first pots of street coffee. I’ll take in those welcome sights and sounds and scents in the sleepy city, knowing something special is about to happen. This year, more than ever.

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