IOWA CITY — As day was breaking Thursday, four Iowa City residents got on their bikes and started an hourlong workout in Mandi Kowal’s garage bike studio.
“You never regret getting up early to work out,” said Kowal, a grin on her sweaty face. As the last seconds tick out, she claps and shouts. “Whoo! Happy Thursday is right!
Kowal, a former University of Iowa rowing coach, started her business, TRI-Umph Today Coaching, in 2012 to help adults and kids train for triathlons, which combine swimming, biking and running in a single-day event. She wants her clients to enjoy the personal journey just as much as the event.
“It’s not just about the sports,” said Kowal, 54. “It’s about what you’re learning. It’s the process with the people.”
Kowal grew up playing ball in the summer and hockey in the winter, the neighborhood kids huddling to devise rules, bases and scoring systems. After a strong bat in a pickup softball game in eighth grade, a friend invited her to join a team — Kowal’s introduction to organized sports.
“My stepfather was abusive, so I was really, really shy,” she said. “Sports were a game changer. They built up my confidence and gave me an outlet for everything I was going through.”
Kowal joined the rowing team at the University of Wisconsin and later was on the U.S. National Rowing Team.
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She became UI rowing coach when the sport assumed varsity status in 1994 and led the program until 2012. It was reported at the time Kowal’s resignation was linked to a lawsuit by a former coxswain, but Kowal said it had more to do with the Athletic Department wanting stronger performance in the Big Ten.
Kowal is credited with expanding the UI rowing program and helping the UI secure the $7.2 million Beckwith Boathouse.
That tenacity helped Kowal and her wife, Karla Brendler, through the long process of adopting a daughter from Vietnam in 2007.
“It was incredibly stressful and every tool we learned — my wife played college ball — about getting through the tough times we used to get our daughter out of Vietnam,” she said.
Kowal did her first triathlon in 2003, three years after the event debuted at the Olympics. She remembers feeling disoriented after getting out of the water and preparing to mount her bike, but now, 15 years later, the transitions are her favorite part.
“As time went on, I really liked going from one element to another and figuring out how to do it the best,” she said.
Triathlons range from the Ironman, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and full marathon, to sprint triathlons with much shorter distances and relays in which different people do different parts of the race.
Triathlon saw its biggest surge in U.S. participation between 2009 and 2010, when it increased from an estimated 1.5 to 2.3 million competitors, according to statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association quoted in a 2017 article at Triathlete.com.
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Kowal, a USA Triathlon certified coach, is coaching 15 adults this spring, including eight who live in the Corridor and seven from other places, including Florida, New York and Tennessee. She also gives swimming lessons to more than 100 children, ages 3 to 12, and expects 20 to 30 of those kids will be involved in triathlon training this summer.
Kowal designs adult triathlon training plans based on each client’s goals and schedule.
“You can have one person who wants to get to Kona. That’s the world championship for Ironman,” she said. Then “you have people who just want to finish the event. It’s very individualized to the person, working around their work and their family.”
Gary Watts, 62, of Iowa City, plans to do a half Ironman in June, followed by a full Ironman in September. He and his wife, Becky Watts, 62 — who prefers shorter Olympic-length tris — regularly train with Kowal.
“She makes it fun,” Gary Watts said. “She inspires you.”
Beth Pfohl, 42, isn’t training for a specific event now, but she loves the cross training of triathlon.
“It’s better for my body than just running all the time,” she said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of different people.”
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