Triathlon triple threat defies odds

samec norton and meehan

(From left) Timmy Samec, a senior physics major from Drums, Cheryl Norton, SRU president, and Dan Meehan, a freshman exercise science major from Allison Park, show off the medals they earned at the recent U.S. and World Championship Triathlon age group competition.

Sept. 29, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Timmy Samec, a soon-to-be plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy, went from deliriously happy to distraught when his dream of wearing his country's colors was snatched away at the last minute.

Denied Navy admission due to a health condition, Samec enrolled as a physics major at Slippery Rock University, where he continues his passion for running, cycling and swimming. Earlier this month, Samec's seemingly lost dream of serving his country became a reality when he was selected to wear the red, white and blue as a member of Team USA Triathlon 2015 Age Group World Championships.

"It was surreal to wear the stars and stripes, especially after what happened five years ago," he said. "I still don't think that comparison has really hit me yet but the phrase everything happens for a reason applies here. It's not exactly the same as military service but I am doing something I love in triathlon and having the opportunity to represent my country is one of the biggest honors I can receive. Wearing my team jacket, putting on my race suit and crossing the finish line carrying an American flag are something that can never be replaced."

Samec, of Drums, is part of a trio of SRU triathloners who are defying odds. He, Dan Meehan, a freshman exercise science major from Pittsburgh, and SRU President Cheryl Norton, were invited to compete in the U.S. Triathlon in Milwaukee last August. Samec and Meehan raced in the World Championships in Chicago two weeks ago.

Norton, an incredible athlete herself, has worked to infuse physical activity into the campus culture, arguing regular activity can stave off chronic disease.

"We are incredibly proud of Timmy and Dan," the president said. "Both of these young men were selected to participate in the world triathlon age group, not as representatives of SRU or their community, but as representatives of the U.S. As such, they represent the very best of what this country has to offer. They know how to compete, and they know how to represent their country. We take pride and respect everything they have accomplished and look forward to what they will accomplish in the future."

For Samec, it's been a long ride since what he describes as "the worst moment of my life."

Samec was born with a hole in his heart, a hole that had healed over time. He went through the rigorous process of earning a nomination to the Naval Academy in March 2011 and was cleared for service by Navy medics. He was scheduled to be inducted June 30, 2011.

"Quickly enough, that day came and I was saying my goodbyes at 0800," he said. "A group of you are processed into a gym where you are briefed on the day's schedule then moved from station to station," he said. "Medical status came up because of my prior heart condition, which had already been cleared, so I was sent to a cardiologist 'just to be safe.'"

Doctors told him to wait for the results of his echocardiogram, which he thought was no big deal. He was totally focused on becoming a Naval aviator, a Division I wrestler and aerospace engineering major at the academy.

"Almost two hours later, with all the other 1,999 inductees on the bus with their hair cut, uniforms on and waiting for me, my results came back, and I was told plainly that I had been medically disqualified," he said.

The reason given was a heart murmur.

It was a devastating blow, but one that Samec didn't let define him. He enrolled at SRU where he has excelled, partnering with a professor on nanotechnology research and serving as president of the Triathlon Club at SRU. He's even become a mentor to Meehan.

Samec said the World Championship was an unbelievable experience. One of the proudest moments occurred when he arrived at Chicago for the World Champion in his Team USA jacket and Team USA run pants. The occasional passerby would yell, 'Go USA,'" he said.

"Being surrounded by athletes from Team Australia, Canada, Russia, Great Britain and several others was intimidating at first, but I kept reminding myself that I too had earned the right to be in this field," he said.

Samec said he felt relaxed about the race the night before and his "phone was blowing up with Facebook messages and texts. Those kept me awake past 8:30 p.m."

On the day of the race, Samec suffered some nerves. "Long story short, I had one of the best swim and bike splits in a spring race of my life," he said. "The run, not so much. Just racing alongside of the other athletes wearing their country's uniforms was enough for me, though. Listening to the crowd cheer for me because I had USA on my race suit was simply amazing."

Another memorable moment, Samec said, was having spectators yelling his last name, since it was on the back of his suit.

One doesn't just prepare for a triathlon in a month. Samec said he works out every day. His regiment includes a Monday swim; Tuesday run; Wednesday bike, swim and run; Thursday bike; Friday swim, run, core; Saturday, long bike run, swim; and Sunday long run.

"It's really non-stop, and there are different goals for each workout for specific times of the year," he said.

Samec said he and President Norton have a great relationship. He is grooming Meehan, a freshman, to become president of the Triathlon Club. The golden trio competed in the Milwaukee triathlon, took pictures, talked about the race and "even did a bit of recruiting for SRU."

"Dr. Norton and I talk fairly often about triathlon and training," Samec said. "We try to get out on rides together, and she is always sure to greet me with a hug and ask how my training is going. Dr. Norton is absolutely amazing, and everyone should strive to be a bit like her."

In mentoring Meehan, the freshman has found a "coach" who will help him train for the April USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals.

Meehan said his triathlon experience started in childhood by watching his father compete at various races throughout the years. He started competing in children's' triathlons.

"I kept training and competing alongside my whole family," he said. "I knew I had a passion for triathlon and wanted to get very serious about it and training fulltime."

His first big win came at the Pittsburgh Triathlon in 2015, at the age of 15. "I am a three time Team USA Age Group qualifier in the sprint distance," he said. "I have had lots of setbacks throughout my training due to various injuries, the most serious being a stress fracture in the neck of my femur in 8th grade. I am a three time USA Triathlon All American."

When training "at full," Meehan said he trains 20 hours per week, with two or three workouts a day.

Meehan said it means so much to be at a school with a president who has finished three triathlons.

"President Norton inspires me to keep pushing as a fellow triathlete," he said. "As for Timmy, I wouldn't want to be alongside anybody else training and competing. Timmy is a great role model as evident by his demeanor, his sponsorship and his overall attitude. I know that training with him will have an enormous impact on both of our triathlon careers."