On the Podium: With Heather Leiggi

Heather Leggi is no stranger to the professional triathlon scene. Discovering the sport post graduate school, her background as a soccer player lended itself to a stellar running career, which then built into strong performances as a triathlete.

This season has been somewhat of a breakthrough season for Leiggi with top three performances at Ironman Florida 70.3, Rhode Island 70.3 and solid performances at New Orleans 70.3, Buffalo Springs 70.3 and Rev 3 Quassy, it looks like things are falling into place.

Heading to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas this September, we took a few minutes to pick the brain of this hard working fast charging athlete as she is clearly on the ascent.

Your running career began when you were 10 years old, yet your true love was soccer as a child. Now that you are a professional triathlete, what are some of the lessons that you learned from soccer…if any…do you think help you in multisport?

Soccer was definitely my passion as a child. Had I not moved in 8th grade to a school with no women's soccer team I probably would still be playing soccer. I still miss it but I'm completely happy to have found triathlon! Soccer taught me the love of sport and to love being outside and active. It was soccer that showed me I was a pretty good runner since I was always one of the fastest girls on the field. After my family moved and I couldn't play soccer anymore, running sounded like something I would rock at and have fun with. I do wish I had discovered triathlon a little earlier. I didn't do my first race until after graduate school. While I had run and done a few bike races here and there I had no swimming experience. Needless to say I barely survived the swim part of my first triathlon. Triathlon seemed so low key at the time that I basically taught myself how to swim and just went out there and hoped for the best. I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I definitely loved it. It's great to see the sport grow so much and I love being able to participate in triathlon clinics, coach athletes and offer advice to those who are interested in getting involved into triathlon.

At what point in your amateur career did you decide to turn professional? What helped make that decision for you?

I have always wanted to be an elite athlete in some form or another. When I was a soccer player I dreamed of playing at the top, as a young runner I dreamed of making the Olympics, and when I became a triathlete I had thoughts of racing as a professional. So once I started have some success as an amateur, I realized that racing as a professional might be realistic. I've always loved challenging myself and I love pushing myself to be the best I can be. Turning pro was definitely something I wanted to do and it was the push I needed to step up my game. After winning the Columbia triathlon as an amateur in 2008, I decided to go for it. Looking back I know I would never have been able to reach this level had I not decided to take the leap and become a pro.

You've had several top finishes in 70.3 events, and you are aiming for the 2011 70.3 World Championships. Can you speak about the venue change, what that might mean for you and what your training will be like leading up to the event?

Yes, I love racing the 70.3 distance and have, what seems like very slowly, worked my way up the ranks to a few top finishes last year. With my focus being on the 70.3 distance, it always seems like a good goal to qualify and race at 70.3 World Championships. Honestly I always enjoyed racing in Clearwater. I like flat fast courses and I loved being in Clearwater. With that being said, I am looking forward to racing on a new course and am very happy they moved the World Championship race from November to September. It has always been a struggle staying focused and peaking for race in November. I had many more thoughts about what I was going to be doing after the race was over last year than I should've had even though I tried my best to keep my head focused on the race. Racing in September will make this much easier and after getting in a lot of early season races, I will be able to take a bit of a break before heading into a big build phase for Worlds am I seeing lots of hill work in my future!... Plus, I don't have to feel any pressure going into the World Championships race since no one will ever know my race results… What happens in Vegas, stay in Vegas, right?!

What do you think of the new WTC rules regarding professionals? Has it changed the way you race?

The new WTC rules have given me quite a bit more to think about and organize with regards to my race schedule and probably trying to get in one or 2 more races than I might normally have done. I love to race so I don't mind the extra racing too much but I don't like the feeling of being forced into it. With the points system being new this year, I have no idea how it is going to work out with regards to World Championship slots. I definitely feel a little more pressure when doing the 70.3 races to perform well so I can get more points.

Tell us a little bit about your family!

I have a huge support system when it comes to racing…everyone except for my cat who is really unhappy with me right now for all the time I have been away from home. Seriously though, I would not have been able to get to this level without the continued support and encouragement of my parents. They taught me from a very young age to follow my dreams and to do things that make me happy. They have made a lot of sacrifices, encouraged me to take advantage of important opportunities, and taken a lot of time out of their lives to support me. My husband has been one of the most positive influences to come into my life. While he only dabbles in triathlon himself, he has an amazing understanding of the sport and an impressive way of guiding me in the right directions and knowing what I need to continue to improve. I trust him 100% and knowing that he believe in me has helped get me through the rough times and keep on pushing.

I also need to thank my amazing sponsors for being there for me, especially Zoot Sports. Zoot has been a sponsor of mine since I was an amateur and have stuck with me. They are constantly asking for feedback and looking for ways to make their products better. I particularly love their new wetsuit, the Prophet, and their Ultra TT race shoes. Zeal Optics make some of the coolest sunglasses around and I have so much fun wearing them. They come in so many different colors and styles I never get bored. Ridley is my new bike sponsor for this year and I am absolutely in love with the Ridley Dean. I have had my fastest bike splits yet on it and a trip to the Wind Tunnel in NC helped to make sure it was super aero! GU has also been a long time sponsor of mine and I love the new flavors they have come out with although vanilla is still my favorite. And thanks to Garmin, I have finally started racing with a watch!

You spent some time training in Australia this season, how did that come about and how did that help your fitness coming into 2011?

Lifesport, the group that my coach works for, puts on a camp in Noosa, Australia every year. When I started working with Dan last year, he encouraged me to get to this camp. I had my doubts. I was coming off a disappointing 2009 season and struggling with fitting into the pro scene. I wasn't sure if travelling all the way to Australia for a few weeks of training was going to be worth it and maybe a little scared I wouldn't be able to handle it. I ended up having a great time and really loved the training. Having the chance to train with other professional athletes, have my coaches present for most of workouts, and having no distractions from your training really made a big difference. I was still a little overwhelmed with the quantity and volume of the workouts and by the end of the 2 weeks I was ready to come home and have a rest! Regardless, the camp really did help me and I started off my season much better than I would have hoped. When it came time for camp again this year, I was onboard immediately. I was super excited to go and had even given myself an extra week over there. What really shocked at camp this year what a different experience I had. I could tell I was a completely different athlete than I had been the year before. The training was hard as always and the workouts were long but I handled the work so much better and could feel myself getting stronger and faster as the camp progressed. It gave me perspective on how far I had come and a lot of confidence going into this years' race season.

Tell us a bit about your coach Dan Smith of Lifesport.

Working with Dan has made a world of difference in my racing. He definitely had his work cut out for him when I came to him in the end of 2009. My confidence had taken a huge beating throughout the prior season and while I stubbornly refused to give up on myself, I really doubted my abilities to compete at the elite level. I like the fact that Dan is very thorough and detail oriented. He is able to sort through all the data and feedback I give him from my workouts and races and know what tweaks need to be made and what the next steps need to be. We are constantly tweaking and rearranging my schedule in order to keep the improvements coming. Dan has also taught me how to be a smarter racer. I used to just go out there and race as hard as I could and hope for the best. Dan taught me about race strategy, how to race more in control and all the little things I can do to that will really pay off. As he keeps telling me, at this level, it's often the small things that are most important.

In May you had an amazing race at Florida 70.3 against a field that included Cait Snow and Nina Kraft. Tell us a bit about your race and what a top 3 podium finish means to you.

Well, I can tell you it is a dream come true and one of the best moments of my sporting career so far. I had set a goal of finishing in the top 3 this season so to have done it in my second race of the year was amazing. Time to re-write some goals! While the race itself ended well, it did not go quite as well as I had hoped (they rarely do!). After a terrible swim which put me several minutes down on most of the women, I thought I'd be lucky to even finish in the top 5. I am not that unfamiliar to coming out of the water with a bit of ground to make up so while I didn't exactly panic when I headed off on the bike, I wasn't exactly thrilled either. I love to bike and thanks to a strong bike leg which turned out to be the second fastest of the day, I managed to move me into 5th place, right behind Cait. This was my first race on my new bike, my Ridley Dean, and it felt amazing. I knew I didn't have much of change to catch her and there were several women hot on my heels though. I was a little worried since my nutrition had been off thanks to some stomach issues I was having but was determined to at least hold onto my 5th place. I was halfway through the run and still feeling surprisingly good when I noticed I was making up quite a bit of ground on the 4th place woman and was not far behind her. I decided to go after her. I caught her around mile 10 and then ½ mile from the finish line I caught the 3rd place woman whom I hadn't seen ahead of me. I could not believe I had managed to run myself into 3rd place and was so ecstatic crossing the finishing line. It was especially gratifying to see my run finally coming around which I have been working really hard to improve. Coming from a running background makes me expect more from my running. Swimming is a whole nother story though!

Thanks Heather for allowing us a peek into your life!

Mary Eggers is a 37 year old age group triathlete, race announcer, writer, mother, wife, triathlon coach, yoga teacher, and nurse. As the race announcer for the Score This Multisport Series in Upstate New York, she's been in the sport for over 15 years. She's a 6 time Ironman finisher and Kona qualifier, and has raced everything from sprint upward. Mother to 10 year old Luc, wife to Curt, she calls Rochester NY home.


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