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Triathlon support system

SUNDAY, AUG. 12, 2007

Can a woman without the use of her legs participate in a triathlon? Jan Whitcomb, of Coeur d’Alene, did – and she finished.

Whitcomb, 40, and her sisters Mary Monroe, 44, and Jane Soltys, 42, were born and raised in Coeur d’Alene as the Dreisbach sisters. Monroe and Whitcomb have always been athletic, while Soltys would much rather read a book than go for a walk. In high school, Whitcomb went out for every sport offered – softball, volleyball, basketball and track. She played volleyball at North Idaho College, where she was also a lifeguard and swim instructor. She frequently rode her bike and went snow skiing.

That changed when she discovered she had multiple sclerosis.

“I was diagnosed 11 1/2 years ago,” said Whitcomb. “The first five or six years I was still able to ride my bike and I could kind of snow ski, but not very well. I’ve had a walker for about three years now.”

Swimming is the only sport Whitcomb can do now. But it has become more and more difficult for her to make it to the water.

“MS is like a reverse freezing to me,” she said. “That’s what happens with the heat. I get stiffer and stiffer the hotter I get. So if I try to go down to the beach, I can’t make it all the way because I get too hot and freeze.”

Four years ago, Whitcomb and her husband, Pat, had a swimming pool installed at their home.

“I swim a mile almost every day in my pool. I can’t move my legs at all, they just kind of drag along behind, so it’s all upper body. But, it’s really good because when I swim, I feel normal. I was always an athlete so it’s been really hard to let that part go.”

She had always dreamed of participating in the Coeur d’Alene Triathlon. This year, she told her sisters that it would be great if the three of them did it together as a team. At first they cringed. On Whitcomb’s 40th birthday, her two sisters asked how badly she wanted to do the triathlon, secretly hoping she’d back out before they committed.

“I told them I think about it every day,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb’s sisters agreed to team up with her for the event.

“Jane has never been called an athlete in her life,” Whitcomb said of her older sister prior to the triathlon.

“I’m going to do the swim part and I’ll probably be in last place, so Mary will catch us up a bit on her bike, but Jane says she’s going to bring a trash bag while she does her run so no one realizes she’s in last place – she thinks if she picks up cups, they’ll think she’s the cleanup crew.”

Whitcomb trained daily for the 1.5-kilometer swim.

“I keep saying, ‘I don’t want to be the last one,’ and everyone keeps saying, ‘Oh, Jan, who cares as long as you finish?’ But the athlete in me doesn’t want to be the last one.”

Saturday morning, Whitcomb sat in her wheelchair surrounded by family and friends.

A smile split her face as she watched the second wave of swimmers bail into the water.

Her husband wheeled her through the sand, where she slipped out of the chair and crawled into the water.

Fans cheered and called her name as she sat waist deep, blowing kisses to the crowd and waiting for the horn to blow for the third heat.

Throwing her hands in the air she cried, “Woo-hoo! Happy birthday!”

Thirty seconds before showtime, Pat waded into the water – shoes, socks and all – and gave his wife a good-luck kiss.

And at the blow of the horn, she was off and swimming.

About 50 minutes later, Jan Whitcomb swam to the finish line while a crowd cheered her in.

“Am I last?” she asked Pat as he waded out for another smooch.

“No, there are two behind you,” he said.

She sat in the water. “Yeah! I did it!”

Swimming the length of the beach to get to her wheelchair, she smiled and waved at bystanders. “Thank you! Thanks for coming!” she called.

Soltys, already trying to get out of next year’s triathlon, told her younger sister:

“This year is the year of the sisters, but next year can be the year of your friends.”

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