For Adrienne Leblanc, age is truly just a number. This world champion triathlete, physical therapist and mother of three is intent on doing the sport she loves well into her 80s as she clicks through her healthy aging goals.
Leblanc, at 48, knows more about the physiological effects of aging than most. Her years as a physical therapist allows for a perspective on the body’s capabilities at every stage of life. She also knows that her lifetime experience as a competitor gives her a healthy edge as she heads into the second half of her life.
To fully understand her story, you need to know that Leblanc’s Southern California upbringing fostered a love for water at a very early age.
As a child, Leblanc was extremely shy. She spent hours pretending to be a synchronized swimmer in the family’s backyard pool – not an easy feat when you’re a solo act. That’s when her mother blasted her from the solitude of her backyard pool and into group swimming classes. You might say the rest is history.
“I loved it and started competitive swimming fairly quickly. I progressed really fast and got pretty good,” she says. “Swimming was all I wanted to do. I woke up every morning and said I wanted to go to the Olympics.”
While she didn’t make it to the Olympics, she certainly has been influenced most of her sporting life by competitors who have. As a young up-and-comer, she had the good fortune of being coached by 1972 Olympian Ann Simmons.
Simmons instilled in Leblanc a winning combination of drive and determination. And she let nothing stop her from achieving her goals. “She was such a hard worker,” Leblanc says. “She was competing in marathons and running while she was coaching me. I admired her so much for that. I wanted to be as dedicated as she was.”
She still remembers the day she won her first medal and the immense satisfaction that accomplishment gave her. “I can still picture getting that medal, and it made me just want more.”
Pool & School
From grade school through college, Leblanc’s life revolved around the pool and school. Her achievements ultimately landed her an athletic scholarship and a place on the Arizona State University swim team. There, she earned her way to national-level competition. As specialist in the 400-meter Individual Medley, Leblanc ranked among the top 3 women in her age classification
“At that time, swimming gave me the outlet I needed. I recognized that I love the feeling of competing and the sense of accomplishment that goes with it,” says Leblanc. “When you compete at that level, swimming is a tough sport. There’s a lot of disappointment. At the same time, when you have a great achievement, it’s amazing.”
That sense of achievement continues to quench Leblanc’s thirst for competition as a master’s level elite triathlete. It also fuels her confidence that even though her body is aging, her competitive spirit is as fierce as it was when she won her very first race.
A Season for Everything
She left competitive swimming behind when she graduated from college. “After college swimming, I felt a bit lost,” Leblanc admits.
“I decided to try a triathlon. But the second time I tried to go out on my bike, I fell off and broke my elbow. So I just quit. Instead, I went off to graduate school and tried to keep in shape by running.”
In the ensuing years, Leblanc poured her energies into pursuing her education as a physical therapist, moving across country so her husband, David, could attend graduate school, and raising three youngsters. Her life was full, yet something was missing.
The Missing Link
Nearly two decades later, Leblanc found that missing link in triathlon, a sport that has revived her competitive spirit and allowed her to excel as an older athlete.
“It was addictive,” Leblanc says. “I felt like I was back to where I used to feel as an athlete. It fulfilled my desire to be a competitor again. When I’m racing, I put it all on the line.”
Little did she know at the time that her newfound spark would light the path to a World Championship.
These days, you can find Leblanc swimming, biking, running or strength training six days a week. On the seventh day, she finds solace in her comfort zone with an easy swim. “I don’t do a ton of training hours, probably 12 on average during the week,” she says. “It all depends on the training period I’m in.”
She trains under the watchful eye of USA Triathlon coach Ken Lewis, who competes himself as a master’s athlete at the World Triathlon Championships as part of Team USA or Team Great Britain.
World Champion Triathlete
Leblanc’s first run at a world championship was in 2012 in New Zealand, where she earned 10th place in her age group in the Olympic Distance event.
The following year, she traveled to London for the world championship event. However, she tore her hamstring during the race and had to withdraw. The irony was she was holding a solid third-place podium spot when she went down. That injury plagued her through 2014.
When the 2015 world championships rolled into Chicago, Leblanc was ready to lay it on the line once again. That year, she competed in the shorter sprint distance triathlon world championships and brought home the gold. “I was so happy, and it motivated me even more,” she says.
But 2016 would not be her year. During that event in Cozumel, Mexico, she was holding the lead by a comfortable 6 minutes when she collapsed from heat stroke and spent the next several days in the hospital.
The way she sees it, 2017 just might be her time. Today, Leblanc is preparing for the U.S. national triathlon championships in August in Omaha, Nebraska. She has won the Olympic distance event in her age group four times and will return this year as the reigning national champ. If all goes well, Leblanc will represent the United States at the world championships in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, in the fall.
So where does this all lead for a woman whose passion is rooted to the sport of triathlon? Becoming a professional triathlete has crossed Leblanc’s mind, but the demands of that lifestyle are unappealing. “I thought about it, but it would take away the fun of it. And it would take too much time away from my family. I’m not in this to make money. I just love the sport.”
All in the Family
Leblanc’s family is a central source of motivation and support for her athletic passions. Her husband, David Leblanc, once a world-class swimmer himself, competed in the 100-meter and 200-meter breast stroke at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for the French national team.
Their three teenage children are also swimmers, all competitors on the national team for their swim club. They, too, have Olympic dreams.
Conversation around the dinner table, as you might imagine, turns quickly to swimming, competition and the day’s training and racing hurdles and wins. “We have these great conversations as a family about what we learn from races and our experiences,” she says.
Healthy Aging Equation
Leblanc knows that her athletic experience is a source of strength in the racing world, but she also recognizes that her body requires significantly more recovery time as she ages.
“I have to work hard on my recovery. I need a lot more time, especially after a high-intensity race,” she says. “I’ve learned my lesson. After a race, I need two to three days of low heart rate training to fully recover.”
When it comes to healthy aging, Leblanc believes three areas of life are key: exercise, nutrition and finding something you are passionate about.
“Exercise is number one, without a doubt,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be high intensity or racing. You just need to be doing something to move your body every day.”
She advocates for adding strength training to the mix as we age. “Even a little bit of resistance training is so important. I make an effort to be in the weight room more now because I know my muscle goes away so fast.”
Nutrition is the next key to healthy aging. “If you want to live longer, you have to eat well,” she says. A strict diet is unnecessary; simply incorporate more vegetables, fresh fruit, fish, chicken and healthy foods.
Lastly, find your passion. For Leblanc, that passion is found in triathlons and all that goes into the process of being a competitor. I want to do triathlons until I’m 80 or older. That would make me so happy.”