Champaign native Mehnert continues to push herself to the limit

By now, this shouldn’t be a big deal for her. Michelle Mehnert has been competing in triathlons since she was 12, after all. As a three-sport athlete in high school who now swims at the Division I level at Illinois, she’s participated in her fair share of races and is no stranger to the stage.

Still, as she awaits the starting gun, the same old feeling creeps back. Anxiety takes over and visions of failure plague her mind. There’s so much she can’t control. She sees images of a flat tire, of a collision, or a cramp …

Inevitably the race begins, and as she plunges into the water, Michelle Mehnert is back in her comfort zone.

The 1.5-kilometer swim

Mehnert loves the strategy of the open water; drafting off others and jostling for position. She’s right in her element.

Swimming has always been Mehnert’s strong suit, and from a young age she felt at home in the pool. It was what got her into cross country in the first place, a pursuit originally intended to aid in her offseason training.

And once she was running, making the leap to triathlons was just natural.

“It’s the chance to utilize all my skills and get a variety of training,” Mehnert said. “I’ve always been drawn to the water, but I’m also talented in running and I want to use that talent too.”

A Champaign native, Mehnert began competing in triathlon events around Central Illinois during middle school. After transferring from Centennial to University High and taking up cross country, she began to establish herself on the circuit, participating in larger events in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa.

“With her incredible endurance, it’s a natural fit for her,” Illinois swimming coach Sue Novitsky said.

This past summer proved to be Mehnert’s most successful yet, as she turned in a 10th-place finish in the 20-24 year old age group at the International Triathlon Union Age Group World Championships in Hungary and a fourth-place finish in the group at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships on Sept. 25 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In both cases, she was the second swimmer out of the water.

“She doesn’t forget where her roots are, that she’s a competitive swimmer first,” Novitsky said.

The 40-kilometer bike ride

The transition from the familiarity of water to the discomfort of biking isn’t one Mehnert looks forward to. It takes a heavy psychological toll to see all the competitors she had out swam pass her over the long ride.

It’s the area where she has focused much of her time in training, yet it remains her weakest leg of the competition.

“My biking has come a long way, but I still have a long way to go,” Mehnert said. “I’m not exactly where I want to be on the bike, but I’m getting used to incorporating that whole different type of training.”

Indeed, it’s a new kind of preparation, one that most of her teammates couldn’t imagine adding to their already intense workout routines.

“She’ll come in and tell us about these bike rides or runs she did that most of us couldn’t even fathom doing,” senior teammate Meghan Mason said. “She’s putting in the work.”

Biking is the place where Mehnert’s work ethic is most apparent, the work ethic that has afforded her so much athletic success.

“It’s given me stronger legs, and it’s a good way to get your cardio training in without stressing your shoulders,” Mehnert said.

Novitsky thinks it will pay dividends in the pool.

“She was swimming faster, doing less training than she did the season prior, so I think that has her excited and gives her a vision of dropping some time.”

The 10-kilometer run

It’s the final stretch of the race, and Mehnert’s really feeling it now. The aches and pains urge her to stop.

But she won’t. This is her favorite part.

“I really get a thrill out of pushing my body to reach a higher level,” Mehnert said. “When you reach that point where you want to quit, that’s when you want to try the hardest, and that’s what I really enjoy, the chance to push myself and find out how much further and faster I can go.”

A two-time all-state cross country runner at University High, Mehnert is at ease running. She experiences the relief of leaving the bike behind her and the triumph of catching back up to the competitors who had just pedaled past her. Getting back on her feet means a brighter future ahead.

Regardless of the race’s result, it’s hard to overlook the future she has in triathlons. One of the best in the world in her age group, Mehnert senses the ability to reach some amazing goals.

“I’m willing to go with triathlons as far as they’ll take me. I would love to qualify for the Olympics someday,” Mehnert said.

She’s got some time to wait and some work to put in before she’ll have her chance, but her international success has her hopeful.

“With triathlons, most people peak around their early 30s, so I’ve got a good 10 years before I really reach my potential in this sport,” Mehnert said.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to push herself even harder and battle through the pain. As long as there’s a challenge, Michelle Mehnert will be willing to tackle it.

“As long as I still like it, still enjoy it, I’m going to keep doing it.”