Christ or Kona?
Young triathlete chooses between faith and sport.
The room in Lake Placid, New York, was crowded with athletes, friends, and family. Weary yet anxious Ironman racers waited as certified times were given and qualifiers’ names were announced. Alicia Trott, an Adventist young adult from Topsham, Maine, had never participated in a full Ironman but managed to turn in a personal best at 11 hours 47 minutes at the July 22, 2012, event. Though tired, Alicia was exhilarated, excited. And prepared with a credit card—in case she actually qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Alicia didn’t have long to wait. Officials announced her name. Gripping her credit card tightly she rushed up to the desk—it was sign up immediately or lose your spot—with no hesitation. The moment was surreal to Alicia as she ran through the crowd amid congratulatory pats and smiles. No one in her training group had ever qualified for Kona! As she signed the necessary paperwork, and paid her $800 fee, Alicia took the last qualifying slot in the 25-29 women’s group (Alicia had placed third in her age group and 383 out of 2,896 overall).
GET READY: Alicia Trott prepares for the Lake Placid Ironman event as her race number and age is written on her skin.
RECOVERY: Jamie Trott, Alicia Trott’s husband, warms her up after the race, helping her recuperate.
FAMILY FANS: Jamie and Tucker Trott show their support for Alicia by donning matching shirts..
During the postrace celebration Alicia texted many of her friends in her training group back home, telling them she had qualified. One of them offered to pay for her and her husband Jamie’s entire trip to Hawaii—plane tickets, lodging, and food for a week.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Trott. “How could we pass this up? It was such a rush to sign up.
“When I left the building, I was met by my mom. She was very excited to hear that I had qualified and wondered what the event date was. I told her, and she immediately informed me that it was on Sabbath.”
The breath whooshed out of Alicia as this news, to which she had been oblivious, sank in. The biggest Ironman challenge, the Kona Ironman, was on Sabbath. She had been vigilant in not training on Sabbath. Everyone in her training group knew she wouldn’t run, bike, or swim on Sabbath. Students she taught health and fitness to at Pine Tree Academy in Freeport knew about her training—and her decision to take the seventh day off. So did her church family, and the people, mostly non-Adventists, who read her blog. Alicia says, “I had gone through an entire year making it a point not to race on Sabbath. My heart fell, and at that point, since I had been so careful in protecting the Sabbath, I was actually shocked that I wasn’t immediately thinking, OK, I’m not going to do this.”
Alicia thought especially of her husband, who respects the Sabbath as much she does. “He had to make so many sacrifices to get me to Lake Placid that he felt when I qualified that the Lord was blessing us,” explains Trott. “Jamie felt as if God was giving him a bit of a reward—he was going to be able to go to Hawaii.” Jamie was thinking about the grueling training—and all the effort—they had both put in.
While her husband wasn’t sure which choice would be best, Alicia knew what her decision would have to be—she couldn’t, wouldn’t run the race on Sabbath.
Alicia’s passion for training and competing didn’t start until she was a sophomore at Southern Adventist University (SAU) in Collegedale, Tennessee. “That’s where I did my first triathlon in 2002,” she says. “That’s where I started diving into exercise sciences.”
Each spring SAU holds a sprint triathlon (half-mile swim, 18-mile bike ride, five- to six-mile run). Her aunt organizes those triathlons, and convinced Alicia to participate. “She made me do it!” remembers Trott. “At the time I was upset she was pushing me to do this race. I couldn’t swim across the pool when I first started training. But I had several months to train, and I did it. I used an antique bike she owned and placed first in my age group, and I loved it.” Alicia thanked her aunt and then promptly starting tracking with exercise and science for the rest of her schooling and professional career.
Alicia continued to participate in sprints for several years before making the switch to half-Ironman distance. She immersed herself in training and teaching—health and fitness, 5Ks, and triathlon—and completed two half-Ironman events (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run).
Spending more time training, with a group of about 100, Trott admits, “Ironman is a different beast. It’s time-consuming, expensive. It becomes your life. It’s all you think about. Our daily schedules, our weekend schedules, our yearly schedule is organized preparing for this event.”
That’s where Jamie got involved. “He could focus on his health, but there were so many things he couldn’t do,” says Trott. “We both went into it together. He wanted to, he was ready to support me, but it’s a selfish sport. You start focusing on so much of what you have to do . . . it’s very tricky.”
As she trained, usually with a core of 12 from her group, she pushed herself in more ways than one. Alicia, admittedly a competitive person, would readily participate in an Ironman every year. But she understands that the toll it would take on her family and her relationship with God would be too great. “I don’t like how my year of intense training made me struggle with my relationship with God, taking away from my personal time with God. I really tried hard to make sure that I had my worships every day. But they were shortened; there were days when they were missed. . . . I tried hard to protect the Sabbath, and I made that a point in my blog. I went into it really wanting to do something for God, but I didn’t know what that would be or how it would be.”
“A lot of people have coaches, but we couldn’t afford it,” says Trott. “I had the background, so I was able to do it, but I had to put my whole program together. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this because I’d never done it before. Coaching myself made it hard for me not to overtrain.”
Alicia averaged 12 hours per week training, while many in her group did 18 to 30 hours per week, including Saturdays. Alicia says, “We agreed that I was to do everything possible not to interrupt the family. I would wake up at 3:00 in the morning and train until about 8:00 so Jamie, a teacher at Pine Tree Academy, could dash to work. I’d get most of my training done before he and my [toddler son] Tucker were up for the day. Then Sundays I would again wake up really early so I could get my bike ride in, and be home by noon.”
As Alicia would pedal for six or seven hours straight in preparation for Lake Placid, spending much of the day away from her family, she’d wonder, What good am I doing for anybody? And yet she still felt impressed to press on. The triathlon group noticed her training schedule. “A lot of them asked about Adventism as we were training,” says Trott. “But I still didn’t quite understand why I pressed on. I didn’t know why until the day after I had finished the race.”
The moments of joy at being third—and qualifying for Kona—were eclipsed by feelings of anguish, sadness, and struggle. Alicia knew she couldn’t run on Sabbath, and yet she says, “I was surprised that it was a struggle. I went an entire year making such a point to protect the Sabbath, so why was I struggling now? Why was I debating?” Still recovering from the race, and from learning 10 minutes after signing up for Kona that the event was on Sabbath, Alicia had made her decision.
She and her family stayed in Lake Placid for two days after the Ironman. Then they went home, with Alicia waiting—and hoping. She didn’t take her name off the official list, and eventually forfeited the $800 registration fee. “I didn’t reverse my decision with the Ironman corporation in hopes that the event might change and take place on Sunday.”
Alicia and her small family weren’t the only ones affected by her qualifying for Kona—or by her decision not to participate. Some friends sent money to help with the trip’s expenses, which would likely be at least $3,000. Several shared their opinions. Some were solicited and welcome, some were not.
The Trotts requested a meeting with their pastor, Mark Pekar. Pekar was respectful of their situation. He was also helpful, telling them, “If there wasn’t a struggle, there wouldn’t have been growth. That’s where growth comes from. And if there wasn’t that temptation, there wouldn’t have been a learning experience for you.”
Says Trott, “That was true. And I blogged about that, too. I wanted to be real with everyone who was reading my blog. I had a friend who flew to Lake Placid to watch me, and who started collecting an impressive sum of money to fund my trip to Kona. I knew I had to let my friend know what my decision was as soon as possible so she could return any collected funds to the generous givers. I thought, I’ve really got to make sure I do the right thing; got to really listen to God and what He’s telling me.”
Alicia felt pulled in different directions as she contended with her triathlon community, her family, and her church family. The triathlon community knew how hard—how almost impossible—it is to qualify for Kona. “They think Kona is the ultimate,” explains Trott, “and so many of them have been trying for years to qualify. Some of them were upset with me, and [refuse to] talk to me. I joined the group and did this training, and they knew I was a churchgoer—they knew I was a Christian. People would say things during the training, kind of slamming that a little bit, but it didn’t bother me much. And then just to see the success I experienced, even though they never saw me train on Sabbath; I just hope that they connect the blessings as being from God. I don’t know if they do, but I hope so.”
Church members also voiced their opinions. Alicia was surprised when some she thought would have been encouraging her not to do it were urging her to compete at Kona on a Sabbath. “We also had people upset at us, believing that we were considering it,” says Trott, “people who said they wouldn’t support us at all if we went. They were there to offer their opinion—and act as my conscience—because they were concerned about my salvation. Some of this was short and abrupt—and hurtful.”
The Ultimate Achievement
“Qualifying for Kona is the ultimate achievement in triathlon,” Trott says. “You can’t really go any further unless you become pro and you start winning multiple Ironman World Championships. There is no higher race or bigger race. Kona is the Olympics of triathlon. Similar to the World Series of baseball.” And even though Alicia hadn’t invested as much money as some in this purported “rich man’s sport,” with expensive equipment, health club memberships, and coaches, she and her family had invested much in time and energy. While Trott was able to come to the decision not to race on Sabbath rather quickly, the disappointment and the hurt she experienced took longer to resolve.
Alicia went to church on October 13, 2012. “This is the day Alicia would have been running, and she’s grieving,” said Rick Trott, her father-in-law. “It was the right decision, but she’s still grieving.”
“I definitely shed a lot of tears,” agrees Trott, “but when I look back, it all starts to make sense. Even the harsh words from some people really helped me listen to the small voice that convicted me to make the decision [not to race].” Trott describes being at church that day, reading the Bible, and praying. “I was thinking about Kona. But I was still so grateful for my decision. I didn’t have one regret and didn’t desire to be there.”
Trott is circumspect: “If it was on Sunday, yes, if things could have been different, yes. But having seen my influence on people, having the weight on my shoulders of having influenced them differently—that would have been horrible.”
Not only did Alicia share her decision—and her faith—with those she met and with those who read her blog; but she was able to share her experience during a church service a few weeks before the race day. After Alicia briefly explained the situation and the decision, church members presented her with flowers and a personalized card. The woman who had been interviewing Alicia during the service concluded with a request, saying, “Church family, repeat after me, ‘Alicia, we hold you in the highest esteem, and we support your decision.’ ”
“I told them, ‘This is more meaningful than the medal I got!’ ” remembers Trott. “Hearing the whole church say that in unison to me, I was just like Lord, how much support can I feel! And ultimately, even though there were some who said some things that hurt, ultimately I focused on that support. I came into my own that day. I walked out of that church just feeling so proud and so blessed to be part of that family—a family where I’d grown up, was baptized, and married.”
Alicia, who isn’t currently training for any triathlons, is gearing up for the next big challenge. She and Jamie will be welcoming their second child this month. She doesn’t know if she will attempt another Ironman anytime soon, but the lessons she learned this go-around will stick with her regardless. “I’ve matured,” Trott says. “I’ve accepted who I am. I’ve always been an Adventist; I was raised and born one. But in making my own hard decisions during this experience and after, my spiritual connection with God has grown. I’ve become thirstier for learning and getting to know Him better.
“I learned that a person can’t follow people. You have to listen to God. It’s hard to remember that all the time. People can be wonderful; they can be great influences; but in the end a person has to look to God.”
Several months after Alicia made her decision about Kona she learned she had also qualified for the Age Group National Championship. If she performed well at the Age Group National Championship there was a chance she could represent Team USA at the 2014 International Triathlon Union World Championships. Alicia felt honored and blessed once again to have qualified for such races, but every one of them took place on Sabbath. “This time it wasn’t as hard for me to turn down the opportunity to further my triathlon racing experience,” she says. “This time I felt assured that protecting the Sabbath is worth everything.”
What does Alicia think about other Adventists who may choose differently? “I don’t judge others for the decisions they make on Sabbath, because people are impressed so many different ways. But I was personally impressed not to. And having made that decision, and seeing what has happened after—how my choice affected people—I’m just so thankful!”
Alicia continues: “Some can justify [certain activities] they do on the Sabbath. My husband will tell you that I can’t race on the Sabbath and not compete to win. . . . [At Kona] I would not have been thinking about the Sabbath. I would have been thinking, Lord, please bless me, please keep me safe, please be with my family. But I’ve got to pass the next person; what’s my time? how are my shoes? how am I feeling? . . . the whole way through. I’m sure some people can really get immersed, and some can be OK. But I couldn’t. There’s no way I could.”
And more than personal concerns, Alicia shares that she thinks about other young adults, and what she will tell her children—how she will share her faith. “I find that my experience may be important for people my age who are starting to think a little more seriously about sports. It’s such a big thing, and we put it above so many other things so easily. I just, oh, so desperately want them to see the true meaning of life, what we’re here for. And sport is just nothing! None of that stuff will we take to heaven. My investments in heaven are my family and my friends and connections. . . . I didn’t have a lot of this point of view before I started this journey.
“Jamie and I need to show consistency with our children. I hope to impart to them that no matter what their success is, they must keep God number one. And then I’ll just explain to [them] all the joy and rewards we’ve gotten since that decision, how God has blessed us since then, and how that means so much more to me than having gone to Kona.”
It is clear that Alicia firmly believes that it’s possible to make a good decision and not only survive, but begin to experience blessings in life as a reward for faithfulness. “This is why my experience makes sense. Why was I doing this? If this changes even one person’s life or thought or one decision, then it’s all worth it for me!”
-Reporting by Bill Knott