Laura Bennett

No bum story: Sarah Groff's breakthrough

Six months ago, Sarah Groff could barely walk. This past weekend, she raced to the bronze medal in Kitzbuhel, Austria, the first-ever podium finish for an American woman in the International Triathon Union's world championship series.

When you know the back story of what mental toughness it took to make that breakthrough, it's all the more incredible -- and why she has to once again be considered a real contender to make the U.S. team for the 2012 Games.

This is mental toughness of the sort it takes first to endure. Then to understand who you are. Then, ultimately, to prevail.

Sarah grew up in New England. She went to Middlebury College, where she was not only an All-American swimmer but double-majored in conservation biology and art -- how's that for a combo? -- and graduated cum laude. In 2008 she was ranked No. 4 in the world in triathlon.

In March of 2010, at her training base in Australia, Sarah fractured her sacrum in what didn't seem like much of a fall from her bike but turned out to be, well, a big deal.

There are maybe two ways to describe what she had broken. There's the polite way: the sacrum is that triangle-shaped bone at the base of the spine. Then there's, like, what you'd say in real life, and what she herself posted in a cartoon on her blog, using the English and Australian variation on the word. She had a broken bum.

But being an over-achiever, Sarah didn't really feel much like slowing down.

So she didn't. Even though, as she now says, "I was miserable." The year 2010, she said, "chewed me up and spit me out."

Classic story.

By the end of the year, things seemed to be getting better. So Sarah and some training mates headed to Kenya, to a high-altitude training camp in a little town called Eldoret.

It's a base known the world over in running and triathlon circles because of Kip Keino, a middle-distance running pioneer and multiple Olympic medalist from the 1960s and '70s who is now an International Olympic Committee member.

A couple days in, on another bike ride, a wheel slipped. Sarah took another fall. "A nothing fall," Sarah said.

Except it wasn't.

Within a few days, she couldn't run.

What she could do, however, was spasm. Involuntarily. Her legs would just start shaking.

Of course she had no idea what was going on. And no easy way to find out. Eldoret is a long way from anywhere. It's in western Kenya and thus even a long way from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

Sarah decided the smart thing would be to head home and find out what was going on.

The international flights out of Nairobi operate overnight. Sarah was stuffed into economy class. Carrying a backpack that was too heavy.

She flew to London like that. Then she flew back to Colorado Springs, to the U.S. Olympic Training Center. There she underwent an MRI.

Three guesses what it showed.

Her sacrum was fractured -- and in the exact same spot.

For emphasis now -- imagine flying overnight out of Africa, with a broken bone in your butt, stuffed into a tourist-class seat, your legs given to spasm, not knowing why. For added emphasis -- you're in pain.

Literally, she had to learn to walk again.

And, after that, to run again. Her mind had to accept that it was okay for her feet and joints and pelvis to accept the shock and pounding of running, of hitting the ground again.

Which is where the best part of the Kenya trip came in handy. In Eldoret, she and her coach, Darren Smith, who is Australian, met another Australian coach, Rob Higley, whose life quest has been for the perfect human running model and who has been a presence in Kenyan running circles for many years now.

"Trust me, I'm a long way off," Sarah said with a laugh, referring to her running form and meaning from perfection. "But at least my pelvis is stable!"

The Kitzbuhel race, Sarah said, was -- well, it was fun. That's what happens when you're healthy and fit. For most of the race, she said, it felt like she was "playing triathlon with a whole bunch of girls from around the world," and during the run, when triathlons increasingly are won and lost, "I was just thinking about maintaining good technique and focusing on every second.

"When the last two girls surged on me with a lap to go," Sarah said, "that's when it wasn't easy anymore. I hadn't been in that position before. That's going to be the next level.

Paula Findlay of Canada won the event, in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds over the Olympic-distance course. Helen Jenkins of Great Britain took second, four seconds back. Sarah finished in 2:06.27.

Laura Bennett of Boulder, Colo., finished sixth, in 2:06.44. The Kitzbuhel event marked the first time two American women finished in the top-six of a WCS event in the history of the three-year-old series.

Thirteen months now until London, and the Olympics.

"Between now and then I am just trying to stay healthy," Sarah said, and in this instance that's all the more reasonable, "and become a better triathlete every day."