Thursday, August 2, 2007
Vertiz Qualifies For Kona
Matthew Dale profiles up-and-coming pro triathlete Tatiana Vertiz
From the time she was 14 and moved to Florida to train at one of tennis’ most famed academies, Tatiana Vertiz dreamed of life as a professional athlete. Five years later, dream seems destined to become reality, only with a not-so-slight twist.
Rather than excelling at tennis, which features darting starts and stops, Vertiz is experiencing skyrocketing success in long-distance triathlon, where fast-twitch muscles are not a premium.
How rapid has Vertiz’s stock risen?
The Mexican native and third-year student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas entered her first race 14 months ago at the suggestion of fitness-gym employee. At her first three races, Vertiz placed second in her age group. Fast forward to June 2, 2007 and the Ford Ironman 70.3 Hawaii. In only her second 70.3 race, Vertiz won her age group, finished 10th overall, qualifying for the Ford Ironman World Championship. Come October, the 19-year-old makes her Ironman debut on the sport’s grandest stage, Kona.
Offers 15-time Ironman distance champion Heather Fuhr, who has played a significant role in Vertiz’s ascent, “She’s got a lot of talent.”
Born in Mexico City, Vertiz moved to San Antonio when she was three, began playing tennis at four, climbed Texas’ age-group rankings, then moved to Florida to test her skills against the world’s best. What the 5-foot-3, 110-pounder discovered was that while she was an accomplished player, others simply were better.
“Maybe I could have made it to the top 200 or top 150 on the pro tour,” says Vertiz, who turns 20 in December. “But to really make a living playing tennis you’ve got to be in the top 50. I didn’t want to end up as a coach at some country club. And I got really burned out on tennis. The pressure to succeed so quickly was there. I was like, I’m done with it.”
Having hung up her racket, Vertiz moved back to San Antonio and began a traditional fitness program, sweating for 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer, playing squash, lifting weights. When she ran, it was seldom longer than 20 minutes.
Regarding one-mile runs at the tennis academy, Vertiz admits, “I hated it.”
Vertiz learned about triathlon her senior year in high school when her interest was piqued after catching a race on TV. Her thoughts then about Ironman-distance athletes?
“I thought they were some sort of super-human weirdos.”
Yet she admits, “I thought it’d be cool to do an Ironman before I died.”
Upon moving to Dallas for college, Vertiz met a woman at her new gym who had completed nine Ironman triathlons. The woman encouraged Vertiz to sample the sport. Vertiz did and now she’s hooked.
After catching the documentary film “What It Takes,” Vertiz felt the urge to reach out to Fuhr, one of the film’s subjects.
“She just seemed like a really cool person, somebody awesome to work with,” Vertiz says.
Demonstrating her assertiveness, Vertiz phoned Fuhr, making arrangements to come toEncinitas, Calif., last March and train with the 1997 Ironman Hawaii champion for a week. (A family friend sponsors Vertiz.)
“Initially, I was kind of like, wow, this is going to be hard training with somebody (I don’t know) for a whole week,” Fuhr recalls. “But it went by so fast, it felt so easy. She was so excited about the sport. She was like a sponge, soaking everything up. It’s fun seeing somebody new be so excited. It’s refreshing.”
“Best week of my life,” says Vertiz. “She was so down to earth. So nice. We pretty much trained every single workout together. I felt like we totally connected. Just watching her form running, all the tips she gave me, it was priceless.”
Vertiz returned to Encinitas two days after her successful performance at Honu and has spent the summer training there.
Another positive Vertiz trait: she’s not shy about setting the bar high. After winning her age group at her first half Ironman last September, she focused on Honu, knowing the winner of her age class earned an Ironman Hawaii spot.
“A lot of people said you can’t expect that much,” says Vertiz, adding, “I love it when people tell me I can’t do stuff.”
Four years removed from junior tennis’ pressurized cauldron, Vertiz has fallen hard for the casual Southern California triathlon lifestyle.
“People are so nice and so mellow,” says Vertiz, who promises to move to Encinitas when college is done. “Everyone’s active. I love the weather. It’s the same every day. I love being by the beach, all the little shops and restaurants. Basically, it’s like a little dream. It’s perfect. I can’t think of a better way to live life. To be on the bike for three, four, five hours. To be lost in nature. I’d much rather do that than be stuck in an office.”
When Vertiz is reminded that her Kona date is barely 10 weeks away, she feigns frayed nerves, saying, “I know. Don’t scare me.”
Indicative of Vertiz’s commitment to the sport and the world championship, she will take only 12 hours of classes next term. She took 18 the previous term. An accounting major, Vertiz had planned a second major in public policy, plus a minor in sociology. She has dropped the public policy major and sociology minor.
Her expectations for Kona are modest. A first-timer, she wants to reach the starting line healthy and soak up the day.
“My first Ironman,” she says, “I really don’t have any expectations.”
Fuhr cautions that it’s far too early to know how Vertiz might fare as a pro. Will she train smart, listen to her body, not push too hard? Can she solve the nutrition equation?
“Most 19-year-olds, they just want to go as hard as they can all the time,” Fuhr says. “She realizes you can’t do that if you want to be successful. She’s a mature girl.”
A talented one, too. Not to mention ambitious.
About wanting to one day race professionally, Vertiz admits, “That absolutely is my goal.”