Quick-Change Artist

By William Bunch '81 / January / February 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Joanna Zeiger is really good at transitions.

You learn this just a few minutes after meeting her, a dripping wet triathlete and Olympic hopeful, near the deep end of an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the fringes of Baltimore. For the past half-hour or so, as the belated sunrise of a February morning has been throwing dancing shadows on the wall, the twenty-nine-year-old Zeiger has been methodically plowing through the water, splashing a quart of it out of the pool with each perfectly executed turn. After emerging from the water, Zeiger says, "I’m just going to lift a few weights – I’ll be right back out," and slips away.

And so you prepare to wait, amusing yourself by perusing the health-club bulletin board, which features the English translation of a short profile about Zeiger from a Japanese magazine. You’re maybe on the fourth sentence when you are startled by Zeiger’s voice and turn to see that her short, wavy, almond-colored hair, which was tucked under a swim cap just seconds ago, is now neatly combed. Her Speedo has been replaced by a T-shirt and cycling shorts, and she’s put on a pair of sneakers.

"Didn’t I tell you I’d be quick?"

Zeiger became a quick-change artist because she had to. It takes hours to complete a typical triathlon – a grueling event that requires swimming, cycling, and running long distances all in a row – but it is sometimes won or lost by shaving seconds off the time it takes to change out of a swimsuit and into cycling garb or a pair of running shoes. And Zeiger, formerly a top Brown swimmer, is someone who’s clearly learned how to gain a second here, a minute there over the long, long haul. For the past four years, she has been a top finisher at the infamous Ironman World Championship on Kona in Hawaii, where competitors swim 2.4 miles, bicycle another 112, and then run an entire marathon. (The U.S. national championships, by contrast, comprise a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bicycle race, and a 10-kilometer run.) Last year, Zeiger placed sixth among all female triathletes competing in the Hawaiian Ironman competition, finishing the grueling, sun-baked course in just under nine hours and thirty-seven minutes.

Over Memorial Day weekend this year, while the class of 2000 is walking through the Van Wickle gates, Zeiger will be in Dallas competing for a qualifying slot on the U.S. Olympic team that will travel to Sydney this fall for the debut of the triathlon as an Olympic event. One of Zeiger’s chief rivals in making the team will be Siri Lindley ’91, a former Brown ice hockey, field hockey, and lacrosse standout who has also made the transition into professional triathlon competition. A high point of Lindley’s career so far was winning the 1998 U.S. triathlon championships, held in Oceanside, California. The woman who finished second, just forty-three seconds behind Lindley, was Joanna Zeiger.

Besides the Ironman and some lesser triathlons, Zeiger, who turned professional in 1998, also competes several times a year in marathons. Three days before her swim in the Baltimore pool, in fact, Zeiger ran in the U.S. women’s marathon Olympic trials in Columbia, South Carolina, an unusually trying race in warmer-than-average Southern winter weather, over a course that proved hillier than she expected. Going into the race, Zeiger was ranked 111th among female U.S. marathoners; she finished thirtieth.

As if being a professional triathlete and occasional marathoner weren’t enough, Zeiger is in her fifth year working toward her Ph.D. in genetic epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, pursuing a research interest triggered in part by a family tragedy that occurred while she was an infant: the death of her older brother from the hereditary Tay-Sachs disease.

Today, in fact, after completing what Zeiger considers a light, post-marathon workout – she dove into the pool at 7:30 a.m. instead of 5:30 – she will drive fifteen minutes to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center and her tiny cinderblock cubbyhole of an office and seek out missing blood samples for her research. Zeiger says that, although she’s close to wrapping up her work, she’s not sure of the next transition: from graduate school to the great unknown. Something, however, will likely come along. "That seems to be a common theme in my life," she says. "While it may seem regimented, a lot of things have just come to me."

Like, for instance, the triathlon.


On your left! On your left!"

Those are the sounds Zeiger remembers from her very first triathlon, which she completed seven years ago in Warwick’s Goddard Park. Having just received her undergraduate degree in psychology, Zeiger had remained in Providence to take some science courses in preparation for graduate school. At twenty-three, this Brown record-holder had watched her promising swimming career fizzle out after a string of injuries. Not one to stay inactive, Zeiger, who’d been forced out of the pool for much of her senior year by a bad shoulder, had taken up distance running instead. It was then that several friends suggested she try a triathlon.

Having grown up in hilly, car-crazed San Diego, Zeiger had scarcely ridden a bicycle in her life. "I’d ridden maybe once or twice," she recalls. What’s more, the Goddard Park event was held the day after she’d swum a five-kilometer race on Cape Cod with the masters club she’d recently joined. Zeiger borrowed a bicycle from a relative of her Brown swim coach and headed for Warwick.

"I remember driving up and seeing this van there with all these fancy bikes. I had never seen anything like it," Zeiger says. "I realized that I had absolutely no clue of what I was doing – I figured that I knew how to swim and I knew how to run and that I would just muddle through the bike part. I didn’t know how to do a transition – I’d never even seen a transition area."

Luckily for Zeiger, the half-mile swimming leg of the triathlon came first, so when she emerged from the water, she was ahead of virtually everybody, including most of the male competitors. "Now, here I am on the bike course" – eighteen miles – "and I’m like la-dee-dee, la-dee-da, riding at a nice slow pace, and all these guys are whizzing past me, yelling ‘On your left! On your left!’ " Then it started to rain. "I was just wearing these regular old tennis shoes, and now they suddenly were soaking wet and weighed six pounds. Then I had to start to run, and I’d never gotten off a bike and run before – my legs felt like Jell-O."

Nevertheless, Zeiger finished first in her women’s age group. "I’m covered in mud, but I’m completely exhilarated," Zeiger recalls. "I knew I had found something I really wanted to do." Within weeks, Zeiger had bought a racing bike and moved to Chicago’s Gold Coast to begin work toward a masters in genetic counseling at Northwestern. She began training to become one of the world’s top triathletes.


Zeiger’s athletic career began in the aftermath of her family’s move from Boston to San Diego when she was still a small child. At age seven, she made the swim team at the local pool (after failing to make it the year before) and began her competitive life.

It intensified during her years attending the city’s Patrick Henry High School, when she typically rose at 3:50 a.m. so she could be in the pool by 4:30 for her first practice of the day. After school, homework, and usually a nap, Zeiger practiced again in the afternoon. By then a nationally ranked swimmer, she competed in the 1988 Olympic trials and caught the attention of several college coaches, including those from U.C.L.A., where she expected to go, and Brown, where she decided to go after a visit to campus. "Brown just has such a warm and cuddly feeling," she gushes.

At Brown, Zeiger quickly set about breaking the school records in the breaststroke and individual medley, but the rigorous training schedule she’d been keeping up since high school was starting to take a toll. "I had pulled my groin a lot as a breaststroker in high school," she says, "and had never given it time to heal." During her freshman year at Brown, a muscle in that area snapped during a particularly hard workout, the first of a string of maladies. After the groin injury, she continued to compete and do well, but she could feel herself losing flexibility. Overcompensating, she developed a sore hip. Disappointed with her freshman season, Zeiger shifted events and became a distance freestyler, breaking school records in the 500-, 1,000-, and 1,650-yard events.

By the start of her senior year, however, Zeiger’s left shoulder was so sore that she spent the first semester out of the water completely. Although she later returned for several meets, her lifelong dream of becoming an NCAA champion and an Olympian were fading. "I was hoping to end with a bang and instead ended with a fizzle," Zeiger says. The time out of the pool, however, helped her think more seriously about her life after Brown. Although intimidated a bit by some of her undergraduate science courses, she discovered she had a flair for research. After the death of Zeiger’s brother from Tay-Sachs, a disease that tends to strike Ashkenazi Jews, her mother had became a prominent activist on behalf of efforts to cure the disease, and Zeiger thought she might apply her new interest in research to help.

Her decision to focus on genetic counseling also grew partly out of the part-time job she took at Providence’s Women & Infants’ Hospital during the year after her graduation. Her task was to gather data on whether children born to teenagers suffer more health problems than those born to older mothers. Interviewing mothers as young as thirteen and fourteen was a formative experience. "It opened me to a whole world I never knew existed," she says. "I had gotten this shiny red new Sundance for graduation, and I was this young girl bopping around Providence, saying ‘I’m here to interview you.’ " Some of the young mothers were wary and silent when Zeiger approached them, but others bared their souls.

After completing her master’s in genetic counseling at Northwestern, Zeiger decided to take on more basic research without entirely losing her sense of sympathy for those Providence teenage mothers. When she resolved to earn a doctorate combining genetics and epidemiology, Johns Hopkins was the logical choice. Her work there on two types of birth defects – congenital heart problems and cleft palate – and their relationship to a type of gene mutation has involved both taking blood samples from children and interviewing parents about such environmental factors as prenatal drinking or smoking. "The strength of some of these families is overwhelming," she says. "A lot of these kids are really cute kids – happy, with great personalities. You can’t feel bad for them because they don’t feel bad for themselves."

Five thousand miles away from Baltimore, Zeiger competed in her first Hawaiian Ironman in 1996. "It was an indescribable experience," she recalls. Not surprisingly, she finished the 2.4-mile swim near the front of the pack, and then once again had to endure a herd of male competitors whizzing by her on their bicycles. She recalls a surge of excitement seeing a plane land at the Kona airport and realizing she’d completed about three-fourths of the 117-mile cycling leg. The euphoria quickly passed, however. "All of a sudden it hit me that I was going to get off the bike and run a marathon," she remembers. "I said, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I gotten into?’ "

Nevertheless, Zeiger ran the first thirteen miles of the marathon in good time, fortifying herself at the comfort stations with an gelatinous energy concoction known as GU. But she walked much of the last portion and started to cry as she crossed the finish line. She finished sixth in her age group. Of course, for Zeiger that wasn’t good enough. In 1997, she finished tenth among all women at the Hawaiian Ironman, and the following year Zeiger, the 1998 Rookie of the Year, placed sixth. Although she also finished sixth last year, she managed to cut her time in that Ironman by almost ten minutes over 1998. Most recently, Zeiger finished third in the ITU World Cup triathlon, held – some might say ironically – on April Fool’s Day in Kona.

"She’s mentally tough. She can battle it out with anybody," says Matt Haugen, the national team coach for USA Triathlon. "If the swim is rough or the run is hot or if there’s a bunch of competitors around her, nothing seems to rattle her." Those who work and train with Zeiger say she also thrives because, in the triathlon sense, she is a glutton for punishment, able to train hour after hour. She tries to bicycle with others – Baltimore has a surprisingly large community of triathletes – but concedes that much of training is a solitary affair. "I think about things I need to do, like paying the bills," she says, "and I’ll make a list in my mind."

These days, Zeiger also finds herself thinking more and more about what lies beyond Dallas and Sydney. If she doesn’t qualify for the Olympics, she says, she’s certain to race in the Ironman again, but the rest of the course – getting married, having kids, finishing her dissertation, and carving out a career in epidemiology – is not yet mapped out.

"The one thing I’ve learned in life," she says, "is that things never turn out the way you think they’re going to." m

William Bunch is a political writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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January / February 2005