Tatiana Vertiz is a professional triathlete and two-time age-group world triathlon champion who has done dozens of endurance events including Ironman triathlons.
At a chance meeting in a training clinic, the former tennis player from Texas found she had all kinds of commonalities – and a love of the open water – with professional marathon swimmer Ashley Twichell.
It was interesting to hear them talk about their different sports, both rooted in commitment, character and discipline.
Twichell: How did you get your start in triathlon? What is your sports background? Did you do sports in high school or college?
Vertiz: I started triathlon in the summer of 2006, after my freshman year in college. A lady at my gym had done 8 Ironmans- something I couldn’t even fathom as I had only seen the Hawaii race on TV. I thought doing triathlons was a super-human feat. She suggested that I enter a local sprint. So I did, and surprisingly came in second in my age group. I was hooked. I really missed competing after quitting tennis.
Tennis is my primary sports background. I played since I could hold a racquet. By the time I was in middle school, I had reached a number one ranking in Texas and proceeded to attend Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Tampa, Florida for the first two years of high school. After that, it became all-consuming. In reality I didn’t have the maturity nor the knowledge of how or what it takes to be a true professional or elite athlete at that age. So I returned to my original school in Texas, and shortly after I quit for good.
Aside from tennis, I was always a tomboy and my parents were very active and loved being outdoors so I did everything from water skiing to karate, gymnastics, hockey, soccer…you name it. Mostly my parents were looking for outlets for me to release my energy. I was too hyper for my own good.
Twichell: What was your triathlon trajectory? How long after you did your first sprint triathlon did you do your first full Ironman?
Vertiz: Watching the Ironman on TV is why I got into the sport. I thought it was absolutely incredible to challenge your body that way. I originally had it simply as a bucket list item, but that quickly changed after my first race. Through the years, I never followed others’ advice to focus on speed or short distance because I believe I excel at the endurance component of our sport and the Ironman distance is what captured my heart from the beginning.
After racing the whole summer of 2006 in the sprint and Olympic distances, I signed up for the Hawaii 70.3 [Half Ironman] in June 2007 because it is a qualifier for the Ironman World Championship. Other triathletes I knew at the time thought I was delusional in pursuing a Kona slot on my first attempt, let alone my first Half Ironman. But that’s the way I’ve always approached things. I tend to be overly ambitious and shoot for the top right away. I hired a local coach who was an ex pro duathlete and trained my butt off for several months. Luckily, former pro and 15-time Ironman champion and a world champion Heather Fuhr agreed to coach me for a short while during my spring break.
Long story short, I won my age group at the Hawaii 70.3 and punched my ticket to Kona. Since then I’ve done 8 Ironmans – 4 times Hawaii, 2 times Arizona, 2 times Cozumel.
Twichell: What is your typical weekly training schedule?
Vertiz: My weeks vary, but I typically train around 20-25 hours with about 4-6 times per week on each sport. I’m fortunate to have a part-time job from home so I can do my long training on any day, not just the weekends. I’m always amazed at elite age groupers or pros who have kids or a full-time job.
Twichell: How much of your time training is spent swimming? Do you do your swimming training in the pool or open water?
Vertiz: I love swimming. So I try and get my coach to give me at least 5 days, if not 6, in the pool. Of course, during some weeks, recovery is necessary so I may just swim 3 times. Most of my swims are around 4-5 kilometers in distance with occasionally some 6-7 km days pop up. At our recent camp in Clermont, I was thrilled to get the chance to feel a tiny bit like a real swimmer as I put in 18 straight days in the water with many tough 5,000-7,000 workouts there.
Typically I swim with my local masters group. We’re fortunate in San Diego [California] to have some awesome programs. On other days, my coach will give me specific workouts and I’ll try to drag friends along because cranking those [workouts] alone can be a beating.
I’m a big wimp when it comes to the ocean unless it’s Hawaii or some warm Caribbean water. The cold darkness of the California coast keeps me in the pool unless I’m racing. On months when I’m back at my parents’ house in Texas, I’ll do open water swims at the lake as much as possible.
Twichell: Do you focus most on technique, aerobic base, or speed when training swimming?
Vertiz: Very rarely do I focus on technique. I mean yes you’re always thinking about it in some way while swimming. I relate swimming a lot to tennis because it’s so much feel. Like tennis, you take a day or two off and the ball or water will feel foreign. That said, there will be some drill work here and there but for me the biggest thing over the last few years has just been swimming as much distance as possible. I did do swim team for a short while when I was little, and grew up with a pool in our backyard and weekends to the lake in the summers so I always felt comfortable swimming and learned a decent stroke.
The aerobic base my coach does a great job taking care of by including plenty of long distance sets or boring 1k’s after 1k’s after 1k’s. The speed is usually left for masters days when it’s easy to push with others around to motivate you.
Twichell: What is your goal for the swim segment of a triathlon (i.e., stay in the lead pack, be leading, just get through it)?
Vertiz: As a pro, and even racing as an age grouper where the goal was always to win, I have to stay with the lead pack or be as close to it as possible. As triathlon grows and we have more of the new generation of triathletes that grew up doing all three sports, or came from ITU (Olympic distance drafting format) racing where the swim is a deciding factor in the race, coming out of the swim in the front group becomes essential to placing.
Twichell: What do you find most difficult about open water swimming?
Vertiz: I’m very comfortable in the water so it’s never an issue of fear or trepidation. Personally, the sighting and swimming a straight line is the biggest worry. If I get dropped from a pack and have to navigate buoys or it’s choppy and dark and sighting is critical, that slows me down and adds stress to my low back because of arching which I struggled with as an injury all last year. The straight line swimming is simple: I don’t swim a straight line so I better not lose the feet in front and hope that they don’t veer too far off course.
Twichell: Where is the coolest place you have ever raced ordone an open water swim?
Vertiz: Hawaii! I could swim the Ironman course every day which I basically did while spending 2 months there last April and May and never get bored. The water is warm, there are often dolphins and turtles. It’s just beautiful. My second favorite was Ironman Cozumel- it’s very similar to the Kona swim, with tons of sea life and clear warm water.
Twichell: What advice do you have for triathletes who find swimming to be their weakest leg?
Vertiz: If they’re a total beginner, I suggest working on proper technique, stability, and confidence in the water first. Once that’s established: swim, swim, swim. For many learning to swim in adulthood, they may never achieve a good-looking or particularly “proper” stroke, but as long as they get the basics of pulling water efficiently such as not bending the wrist, not dropping the elbow, using their hips, getting in the water and logging plenty of volume is what’ll help them the most. A lot also fear open water and other people all around for that there’s only one cure: face your fear and get in the ocean, river, or lake as much as you can with others until you feel comfortable.
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