Staying Power // Elite Endurance Athletes

By Janice Huang

You can’t go far on Bainbridge without seeing some Lycra. Among the many active islanders are four notable elite endurance athletes whose mental steeliness and physical talents are taking them far, fast.

At 58, Bainbridge Aquatic Masters (BAM) swimmer Randy Rogers is speedier than ever. Last year he became the U.S. Masters Swimming national champion in his age group in three freestyle events: the long course 1500-meter, the ePostal 5K and the ePostal 5K relay.

“I never dreamed I would win a national championship, not ever, but especially not at this age; maybe when I was 80 and the only one left in my age group,” he said. At the Open Water Nationals, Rogers was a close second for the 10K, coming in less than a minute behind the winner an amazingly small 50-second margin when swimming for over 2.5 hours.

To train for the long distance races, Rogers who works as a vessel business manager with Washington State Ferries—was at the pool at 5 a.m. six days a week, logging massive yards. At one point he swam 100 yards, a hundred times in a row.

Despite recently recovering from a broken leg, Rogers is looking forward to this summer’s Nationals meet. “Who knows? I may surprise myself again.” Like Rogers, 30-year-old pro cyclist Kiel Reijnen is no stranger to long distances.

The island native rides the 33-mile Chilly Hilly course multiple times over as just part of a day’s training. Riding the race with his dad is what initially propelled Reijnen into cycling. Now a professional rider for WorldTour team Trek-Segafredo, Reijnen considers Bainbridge home when he’s not at training camp in Spain or racing in places like Dubai. “We have a great cycling oriented community,” he said. “People are enthusiastic about riding, rain or shine, even if it’s just commuting to work.”

He joked that if he didn’t train in the rain, he wouldn’t have made it very far as an athlete. Marathoner Sara Otepka, 40, doesn’t let the weather stop her either. “The thing I love about our area is that you can run outside every day.”

And for over a decade, Otepka’s “every day” included her workday commute. She’d run to the ferry, walk laps on the boat, run to goal is to finish a marathon in sub-three hours, seven minutes faster than her Seattle and Omaha victories.

Swimmers, cyclists and runners sometimes cross over into competing in triathlons, but very few triathletes qualify to compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Islander Karen Segerson, 42, did just that last year.

The legendary already qualified by 2015, though she didn’t get a spot until 2016. A medical doctor and associate professor at UW, she calls herself “pathologically competitive” but, like the other three athletes, shows a remarkable amount of humility and perspective.

Segerson is grateful for Bainbridge’s small-town relationships physical therapists, bike shop mechanics, BAM swimmates whose her office, then do the same coming home a round trip regimen of 15 miles. That efficiency and dedication has led Otepka to win four of her 10 marathons.

She was the first female finisher at the Seattle (’05), Omaha (’06), Winthrop (’15) and North Olympic Discovery (’16) marathons. Otepka is now working from home (she and husband Matt recently opened BIO+D at Lynwood Center) and enjoying training on the island. “You just go out and are on a beautiful trail or road or beach.” Her test of endurance, which includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run, was her 14th full length Ironman event.

Segerson had already completed two when the Legacy Program was introduced in 2012. Under that program, athletes who have completed 12 full distance Ironman races are candidates for the World Championships. “I decided to slowly chase down 12 over my lifetime,” she said.

“And somehow that morphed into becoming obsessed with getting to Kona.”  Segerson had support, along with that of family and friends, pushed her to finish the challenging Kona race. “This was the one time I could not fail because too many people had contributed to this effort.” Reijnen agrees.

“Being an endurance athlete requires an immense amount of help from the community,” he said. “It makes a big difference knowing people are rooting for you. Bainbridge is a great community, not just for endurance athletes, but for anyone who wants to put their all in something.”