The awards ceremony was about to begin. It was May 2018. The scene was Ironman Australia, in the city of Port Macquarie. 35-year old Woodinville native Kelsey Withrow had just finished third. But she couldn’t ascend the podium. “I was in so much pain, I couldn’t walk up the stairs,” she said with a laugh. “But I just wanted to soak up the moment -- given it was my first Ironman ever.”
The fact she was there at all was amazing. 99 percent of us would have quit years before. But hers is a story of try and try again. A story of being knocked down and battered, lying in a hospital bed surrounded by pessimistic doctors. But she kept fighting and getting back up. Similar to the Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock, aka Cinderella Man.
Withrow’s roots are in the Northshore. She grew up in Bothell but moved to Woodinville while in the eighth grade. At Woodinville High School, she swam and ran track all three years. Dwight Anderson was her coach. Her swimming relay team won first place at State.
She got on people’s radar. A coach named Sara Graham got her into the sport of triathlon.
Withrow spent one year swimming collegiately at Michigan. Then she spent the next eight years at the Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“My first day there, I broke my hip,” she said. “I was riding down the mountain and hit the gravel and then hit the ground. I was in a lot of pain. It took a long time to recover from that. For the next eight years I kept getting injured. I never made it to the Olympics.”
But the worst was yet to come. At age thirty, while riding her bicycle, she got hit by a truck.
There’s a picture of Withrow after the gruesome accident. She’s looking into the camera. Her eyes conveyed excruciating pain and bewilderment. She was inside a Life Flight helicopter. A breathing tube was stuck into her nostrils. A white brace stabilized her neck.
“I T-boned the driver,” Withrow said. “But they turned in front of me at forty miles per hour. I was out [of competition] for quite awhile. My doctors told me I would never compete again. But there was no way I was going to accept that.”
So began the long road back. The first couple years after the accident were awful, she said.
Withrow met a man named Mike Campbell. He turned out to be a 2-fer: He became both her coach and boyfriend.
“I was vegan for four years,” she said. “I met my coach and he said that I needed to eat meat and eat more of it. That was a switch I made that has helped a ton with my health and recovery.”
Withrow also discovered a paradox from eating more calories. “A lot of people will restrict calories, and that was something I was guilty of,” she said. “Now I actually eat more food and more often, and it keeps me leaner. It’s crazy!”
Coach Campbell also threw down the gauntlet. He wanted her to dig even deeper.
“My coach gave me a choice,” she said. “He said that I needed to commit to do all the hard work 100 percent or else get another job and do track on the side.”
Last year, four years after the accident, the 34-year old Withrow was suddenly making waves.
“It was my best season ever,” she said. “I won two 70.3 races. It was crazy. I was in the top three for every race I competed in.”
Momentum was building. She yearned to compete in an Ironman. Suddenly, she made an impulse purchase of a ticket to Australia. Before she knew it, she was in Port Macquarie, Australia, for Ironman Australia.
“I was pretty nervous at the start of it,” she said. “I knew I could swim. I got in the water, it was a river... I got the Australian Ironman [women’s] swim record, which was pretty cool!”
Emerging from the water, she held a massive seven minute lead over the closest challenger.
But things got challenging as she progressed in the biking competition.
“First part of the bike was good,” she said. “The roads over there are bumpy. I became really uncomfortable [during] the second part of the ride. I got a little discouraged.”
Next was the final leg of the triathlon -- running a marathon.
“When I began the run I was thinking I wasn’t going to finish,” she said. “I asked myself, `Why am I doing an Ironman? I’ve never run a marathon!’ The first mile was pretty rough. But all of a sudden, I started feeling pretty good. I started the run in fifth [place] and ran myself into third [place]. It was hard. You just don’t know how your body is going to react after nine hours of racing.”
Withrow crossed the finish line with a time of 9:44:59, twelve minutes ahead of the fourth place finisher. Given that it was Australia, she didn’t have any family there. But her host family, the Joyce family, was there cheering her on.
Withrow was relieved it was over. For the awards ceremony, she needed help walking up the stairs to the podium. She said the third place finish seemed to come out of nowhere. A thrill and a pleasant surprise.
“To me it was a big deal,” she said. “But when I finished I said there is no way I’m ever doing this again. But a few days later I was ready to go again!”
As Withrow spoke to the Woodinville Weekly, she was at her home in San Francisco. She was packing for her flight the next morning to Maryland for another race. And she said that her next Ironman is slated for July in Lake Placid, New York.
“My ultimate goal is to make it to Kona,” she said. “The World Championships!”