Kirsten Sass, 40-years of age, is the currently the most decorated age-group triathlete in the USA.
Sass has her own race goals, many triathlon achievements and guides for one of the top para athletes, Amy Dixon, vying for selection in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Kirsten’s father sadly passed about a year ago and remains the greatest influence of her triathlon journey. Sass is focused on Lausanne and will race the 2019 World Championships, representing USA in her age-group, to race in honour of her father.
To see someone out there on the course, testing themselves, giving the very best they have to give, and representing their country, it is a powerful thing.
How did you get into the sport of triathlon?
“When I was growing up, my father started doing triathlons. I live way out in the country in TN, small town, no track/cross-country/swim team but my father had all my brothers and sister and myself do a 5k when we were kids, just so we could experience it. I ran on and off after that - but never competitively. When I moved away to university, I turned back to running to balance a challenging school load, and being far from home. My roommate encouraged me to try swimming, and I found I could barely make it the length of the pool without having to stop and catch my breath. It became my new challenge and I started swimming regularly. My 2nd year in university I moved off campus and bought a mountain bike to commute on. I kept swimming and met a girl at the pool who turned out to be the coach for the university triathlon team. She invited me to start swimming with them, and then I started biking with them as well.
“When my father found out he was SO EXCITED. He determined my summer break fell just in time for me to come home and do the Memphis in May triathlon (Olympic distance), which he promptly signed me up for. I rode on one of his bikes (he was 6’3” and I am 5’9” - I didn’t get in the aerobars at all - lol). I was dead last in my age group - but I was SO INSPIRED by the supportive community - everyone who passed me offered words of encouragement. The post-race party was amazing with food, live music, and everyone hanging out swapping race stories. I decided this was a pretty cool sport and that with some training maybe I could do a little better.
“I was 19 at the time. For the next 20 years my father and I raced all over the world together. We did local races in TN, IRONMAN events all over the world (including Lanzarote, France and even Kona together), and National Championships. My sister and her husband race and my husband races. We have a number of fellow triathletes in our little town now, largely due to my father’s influence. He very sadly and suddenly passed away last year, but I carry him with me in every race I do.”
Who has been your greatest influence on your triathlon pathway?
Absolutely my father - Volker Winkler
How proud are you to represent USA and what have been your most memorable achievements?
“Representing the USA is an incredible feeling. I remember when the ITU World Championships were in Chicago, I decided to give it a try (I did the World Championships in Cancun a long time before that) and when I was racking my bike I looked at the thousands of bikes and kept thinking I really didn’t belong there. However, I was excited about the opportunity and to experience a world championship event, so I just focused on racing to the best of my ability - and I had an amazing race. I remember finishing and the first person I messaged was my dad. I told him I had such a great race and that I think I won - and he responded back, “I am smiling so big right now”. As someone who has spent a lot more time off the podium than on, I never consider myself really in contention to place in the top finishers, so I am always amazed when I do - and that was one of the most exciting races of my life.”
What does racing at a World Championships means to you?
“It is such an amazing experience, and it is one of those things that is hard to put into words. I guess one of my favourite things is the bond it forms between the athletes - in a sport which is ‘individual’ to be racing together representing the USA is such an incredible feeling. To be out on the course and cheering each other on, and hearing the crowd cheering “GO USA” - just, wow. And to come into the finish chute and grab that USA flag from one of the USA Triathlon staff and to carry it across that finish line. It gives me goose bumps just to think about it.
“The other thing I love about the worlds championships is to see people from around the world come together and celebrate a common love of the sport - well that is just very inspiring. I have been cheered on by athletes from many other countries - and done so in return. To see someone out there on the course, testing themselves, giving the very best they have to give, and representing their country, it is a powerful thing.
“One more note on this, the most memorable World Championships I have done was the Duathlon race in Aviles, Spain. The Parade of Nations ranks among my most favourite memories ever. It wound along these little cobbled streets, flags from around the world were strung above us between the buildings and the roads were absolutely jam packed with people cheering and little kids running along giving high fives. The group behind us were playing bagpipes, and the atmosphere was just the most happy, supportive, inspiring, incredible thing. I just remember thinking what an amazing thing it was that I was in Spain, racing, representing the USA doing something I love to do, and how very lucky I was to be able to do that.
How would you describe the triathlon landscape where you are from?
“I live in West TN, in a small town about halfway between Memphis and Nashville. Despite being in a rather rural area, we seem to have developed a small but solid group of triathletes. My family puts on a monthly Time Trial (about 20k), and will have between 20-30 people come out for it. We even have a triathlon about 15 minutes from my house now (in September - the Dixie Triathlon), and it is a really cool event with amazing community support.”
Have you raced at a World Championships before and can you also please share your story behind your motivation to be a guide for one of the USA paratriathletes and what that experience has been like?
“I have done several World Championships now (Cancun, Chicago, Cozumel, Rotterdam, and Gold Coast) and also did two of the WC Multisport Festivals (Penticton and Odense). I guided for Amy Dixon (Paratriathlon) in Rotterdam and Gold Coast as well.
“Guiding is something that has been in the back of my mind for years now. I always assumed it was something you would have to do some formal training for, and honestly just hadn’t had the time to research it. I was contacted in 2017 through the triathlon grapevine if you will, and asked if I would be interested. I responded absolutely, and the next thing I knew I was being coached through what to do by some experienced guides (Helen Phipps and especially Caroline Gaynor) and then by the athlete I was guiding (Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt). I remember finishing the race with her and just being completely humbled by the paratriathletes out there racing, and humbled to be able to guide Ivonne. A few months later Ivonne contacted me asking whether I would guide for another athlete, Amy Dixon, as her guide had fallen through at the last moment. Still being very new to guiding, I told her I would be happy to if she was unable to find anyone more experienced (I figured I would be better than no one anyways). She couldn’t - so I did. We literally met in Japan and raced together, and have continued to do so ever since. Guiding is something I am very passionate about, and I am still amazed there are no real formal guide training protocols that have to be completed before racing with someone, and there always seems to be a shortage of guides. I am still humbled every time I guide, I am more nervous before racing with Amy than I ever am by myself (to be responsible for someone else’s race is something I take very seriously), and I am never more proud of crossing a finish line than with Amy. Somehow guiding has given some meaning to all the years and experience I have in the sport, and has given me an opportunity to give back in some small way.”
How motivated are you ahead of the World Championships in Lausanne? What are you most excited for?
I am so excited for Lausanne. Of course I am most excited to race with Amy - and in such a beautiful location. It is going to be amazing!”
Is there an elite triathlete you look up to for guidance and why?
“There are a number of triathletes I have followed over the years. Call me dated, but most were when I was really getting going in the sport.
Natascha Badmann is one, I remember watching her race in Kona and always smiling!
Chrissie Wellington - again watching her race in Kona, just amazing
Michellie Jones - who has done absolutely everything in the sport. I remember watching the Olympics in Sydney with my dad as she raced, and then watching her again as she won Kona. And then in Rio as a guide, when I first started guiding Amy she was still guiding and she was racked right beside us in transition and I felt like I was so out of my league. Very cool that she now coaches Amy and we interact pretty regularly - never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined I would one day get messages from Michellie Jones.”
My father. No doubt about it. Triathlon was a passion we shared, it gave us something to spend time together doing and I have so many happy memories from the years we shared racing and training together. As my sister and husband became involved it was a great bond for all of us - we often picked “destination races” to go do and spend some time after vacationing together.
“Triathlon is such a unique sport because of the support the competitors give each other - and I am always amazed by that. Be it a local race, or nationals, or Worlds it holds true across the board - people cheer each other on. If you are struggling or if you’re having the race of your life, people acknowledge and respect and cheer each other on. It is just the coolest thing.
“I always kind of wondered if I would ever lose my passion for racing along the way. When I got a ‘real’ job, when I got married, when I started a family, when I had an injury or setback, but it has never waned. In a way it helps balance out the rest of my life. It gives me time to reflect, to celebrate, to grieve, to ponder, to have some time to myself. It lets me challenge myself - there is always something to work on. It allows me to give myself more fully to my family and my job. It has introduced me to people and places I never would have met or seen. One of the best parts of racing now is knowing so many people out on the course and being able to cheer for them too. It has been a huge part of my life, and I am so very thankful for all it has given and taught me.”
What is your advice for other age-group triathletes?
“Consistency. Seek continuous improvement. Keep it fun. Race to be the best that YOU can be, to the best of YOUR capabilities. One of my favourite quotes is: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it”_Derice Bannock - so, keep it in perspective. And take in every single finish line - never take it for granted, for no matter where you finish it is an honour and incredible thing to be able to do what we do. There are so many who can’t and wish they could, or are never brave enough to try.
Wishing Kirsten Sass and Amy Dixon best wishes at the ITU World Championships and World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Lausanne.
Follow the athletes and races at www.triathlonLIVE.tv | #WTSLausanne.