There are few people in the world who are identified by their first name only. The person usually has a talent that allows him or her to own that name. Adele, Beck, Bono, Cher, Iman, Enya, Kesha, Liberace, Madonna, Oprah, Prince, Sting, and Twiggy come to mind. Alma, as in ALMA DARENSBURG, is another. She stands out in many ways.
One, in which she’s very comfortable talking about, is that she’s African American. That makes her very rare, indeed, competing at a very high level (has represented the U.S.) in the Wonder Bread white male dominated sport of triathlon. She’s is as her email address hints at, a chocolate chip in a sea of marshmallow.
She’s a very strong woman. That’s what one thinks of when first meeting ALMA DARENSBURG. She’s also older than some of the twinkies just finding their feet in triathlons.
At almost 50 years old (January 31, 1965) Alma’s been at this game for a while. She knows the ropes and knows the tricks. She also knows who’s dirty and who’s clean, who cheats and who doesn’t. When not racing, she’s a triathlon race official. She knows the rules very well.
She’s worked part-time for the Coppell Family YMCA for 11 years as a Personal Trainer and Swim Coach, and volunteers at her kid’s schools and local triathlons.
Her ad reads, “Alma Darensburg, Fitness Specialist. Certified Level 2 Swim Coach ASCA, All-American Triathlete, 5-time National Triathlon Team Member, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Individualized Fitness Programs, One-on-one or small group high intensity training, individual or group conditioning for team sports. Call or email for more details, 214-850-6028, email@example.com.”
And she also does work for the Special Olympics. She’s a busy woman.
The married Iron-woman has two kids, one girl, one boy (T.J. Jackson, 18, Freshman at LSU; Logan Jackson, 14, Freshman, Lewisville High).
“My most pleasurable accomplishment has been raising two children to young responsible adults. I have been very fortunate that my husband works really hard so it has allowed me to be there for our kids. They both have great moral values, determination and self-confidence. They march to the beat of their own drum. Each is different, but each has his own set of struggles. It is so hard growing up today with the social media, bullying, and the competitiveness to get into a college. My daughter is in the AFROTC program at LSU. She wants to be a fighter pilot. My son struggles with dyslexia. He wants to be a veterinarian and he wants to excel in the triple jump. They both are truly great young adults very caring and giving, and genuine.”
She’s considered black by race. As a black female in the white male dominated sport of triathlon she’s definitely in the minority. “I actually don’t know if half the people think of me as black,” she jokes. “I still get lots of people telling me I have such a great tan!!!! And that’s okay. I am so grateful to be in a sport, place, and time that people accept me for me. It’s so hard to be yourself because people are so concerned about what others think of them. I love competing because everyone competing is there looking to challenge themselves, [to be] daring, and unique in their own way. And If I didn’t do tri’s, I wouldn’t have met my best friends ever Victoria Piper, Stacey Dannels, Mary Lessor, and my DP [Diane Proud].”
Because you are competitive at the sport, did you feel like a role model?
“It’s not the competitiveness that makes me feel like a role model. It’s encouraging and getting others involved, no matter what walk of life they come from. You don’t have to be competitive, just open minded and determined. People just need a little encouragement to get started, the rest is across the finish line.”
As a kid herself growing up in Carson City, Nevada, she was a “shy tomboy.” But was extremely active. “You name it we did it. Swimming, running, skiing, motorcycle riding, ballet, jazz, and tap.” Later that developed into swimming and dancing, skiing, and motorcycle riding.
She graduated Carson High School in Carson City, then went on to graduate from TCU in 1982.
When she uses “we” Alma includes her brother, Shelton, who’s a year older. They were inseparable. In fact, not having Shelton around is what scared her most. It was because of her brother that she began swimming competitively when she was five years old. (She wouldn’t start running until middle school because “my friends were. Everybody participated in sports and you went from one sport to the next”, and cycling until she was 25, because, “my boyfriend, now husband, Randall Jackson, started riding.”)
Randall and Alma met while she was teaching aerobics. Vaguely she says, “The class went one way, he went the other.” He was a big influence on her athletics. “My boyfriend and other friends, that’s what we did instead of going out and partying.”
Her mom was a social worker and her father was in commercial real estate.
Her first triathlon was the Louisiana Tinman. She doesn’t remember how she finished because, “I didn’t place. I wasn’t used to not placing.” That inspired her to work harder and drive better. “It was good because I had lost that feeling with six-packs of Miller Lite.”
Her favorite races are simple for her to list.
Marathon – Big Sur. “It was the perfect day and so picturesque. The people on the course were so motivating.”
Triathlon (2) – Triathlon World Championships in Queenstown, Australia, 2009. “It was Diane Proud’s last race. [Proud died September 2011 of Lou Gehrig’s or ALS disease.]
– IM Canada: “My friends and family were there. I made friends on the course and we got through it together. It’s not the race, it’s the people you race with that make it an experience to remember.”
She remembers a lot of good times from her races over the years. Such as the road trip to Powerman Alabama Triathlon. They were in the parking lot with a friend pumping up a tire. “He is yelling, ‘Vic [Victoria Piper], Vic it’s so hard! When can I stop pumping. I’m getting so tired. My hands hurt. Vic, Vic!!!!’ People were staring at us. I peed my race outfit. We were rolling.”
Another time was at the World Championships in Australia with Diane Proud. Their friends made American flags that said, “Proud to be American.” “Everyone was crying. So this one old lady asked if I was her daughter. I said ‘Yes,’ and I am black. She said, ‘Ah, honey, I am from California. We do that all the time.’ It’s the people.”
Having been around since the days of the iconic triathlon, Tri Dallas, Alma has definite opinions on the state of local racing and its support, that is both refreshing and what most people think, but few give voice to.
“The races and the competition are mighty and strong. But I think the strongest competition is from the Master’s population. Our generation has a great work ethic, the desire, and the determination to see things through to the finish. The younger generation are list makers and are not committed. They compete to say they have done a triathlon, and move on to something else. They don’t have the confidence or sense of purpose to set the bar high and go for it.
“We are so fortunate to have so many resources available: cycling centers, pools, coaches, race directors, and great venues. I love the fact that everyone is starting to work together as a team and cares about the success of each other’s races. We need to support each other. It makes the sport stronger as a whole.” And the level of competition? “We rock!!! We have some of the best triathletes in the country in our area: Ann Dannis, Ashley and Tyler Johnston, and Amari Holmes. You don’t have to leave the city to get good competition, someone will always step up.”
At one time, Alma was a TCU Showgirl, the college’s dance team. She admits, “No boobs, but I got booty. Those were my conformist days. We had to do our hair, wear make-up, and have weigh ins. It was a lot of work. The best part was I was in the center, being one of the tallest. I was always in the pictures or press releases. I got a lot of dates without even trying. It was a good time.”
She holds her friends in high esteem. They’re a very important part of Alma’s life, even making a joke along the way. “Friends are God’s way of apologizing for your relatives. Through Triathlons I have made friends who have become my family. Victoria Piper, Stacey Dannels, Mary Lessor, and always in our hearts, Diane Proud. I could not imagine my life without these special people. I have been blessed. It’s not about the racing; it’s about the friendship and relationships that are forged. That’s why I do it and why I will continue to race.”
Mary Lessor has known Alma for over 20 years.
Victoria Piper admits to knowing Alma well, having been present when Victoria’s son was born. “She’s been one of my closest friends for years but we actually don’t see each other as much as we used to just due to life. Alma and I sleep very well together. Whenever we traveled, we’d stick OCD Diane Proud in the other room or bed, and cuddle. OK, maybe we didn’t actually cuddle, but we didn’t cross each other’s line when sharing a bed on the road.” She confirms that Diane Proud and Alma very good friends and rode together often.
The volume of Alma’s training is dependent on what her goal races are, and what else is going on in her busy life. “I plan my race season in February around my kids schedule leaving lots of room for flexibility. That way if something comes up, I can refocus.”
That training volume changes with the seasons as well. “I establish a good swim base during January and February, swimming 8-10,000 yds per week, biking 125-150 miles per week, and running 30 miles per week. It just depends what is going on with life.”
Speaking in generalities, Alma swims 2-3 times per week with the focus of one being endurance and another being speed; 80-125 miles of her bike training miles are lactate threshold work; and her run workouts include long slow distance, tempo, and speed endurance work. She also lifts weights twice per week and does TRX once (“Love it! Best thing ever!”)
5K – 19:10 (during a triathlon)
10K – 41:10 (during a triathlon)
Half Marathon – 1:31:13
Marathon – 3:17:58
Alma’s open about her age category when she lists her injuries: Haglund Syndrome that affects the Achilles tendon, plantar, and menopause.
Though she’d like to do the World Championship Ironman in Hawaii, she admits her only chance might be winning a lottery slot. Other future athletic goals include doing the Off-Road Nationals and some open water swim races. “I would also someday like to do some races with my kids. It would be great to kick their butts.”
At a triathlon early in her career, she was kicked in the face and her goggles shattered. Not a fun experience, she said. But she trudged on through the mile swim and found she didn’t need the goggles. It was the last time she has used them. All of her races since then, including her Ironman races with its 2.4 mile ocean swim, she does sans goggles. “It was enlightening. It felt natural. It is always a conversation starter at the start. I tell people I have an extra eye lid. Some people believe me. It breaks the tension.”
What does swimming, biking and running mean to her? “It’s my high, my joy, my drug, and my stress relief. It makes me a better person, mother, and partner.”
“It is so easy for me,” she says about getting out the door to start her training. “I love to train. I am not a social butterfly, so it is how I connect with others. There is something so real about sweating and working hard with others.”
While training or racing, her thoughts are on her kids. “And I think about Diane Proud. She is always in my heart and running with me, but just not as fast. Then I can hear her laughing. She was my training partner and part of the family.”
In the winter, she trains with teammates from the triathlon team, Team Loncar. She uses them for pool and stationary bike sessions. But that is her only time to have a regular training partner at all. “My schedule changes all the time. I just have to get it done when I can. I used to have a group, but they have moved on to other things; jobs and families to work around also. I am self-motivated, so it is easy to push myself alone. It gives me time to reflect. It’s my alone time.”
She has a life outside of triathlon. “Football! Especially college football! It’s all about game day.” There are also the movies, which she goes to once a week. “I love to go to the Angelika.” She attends Fellowship of Grapevine church, and likes some music. “No joke, I love me some Barry Manilow and Earth, Wind, and Fire.” And insists she’s “All about pizza! “I’m always in search of the best pizza. Fireside Pies, Grimaldi’s, and Pappa’s Steakhouse.” She’s also reading “Inferno,” by Dan Brown.
Did you feel you are equal or know more than your son’s coach?
“I feel equal because I have a coach’s and a parents perspective. When I was coaching swim team, I always encouraged my swimmers to challenge themselves in the pool and school. Kids just want someone to believe in them besides their parents. Simple encouragement, ‘Great job,’ goes along way. The best time I had as a swim coach was trying to tell a bunch of teenage girls that they can swim while on their period. We made a skit with Oprah and Dr. Phil, it was hysterical. Never heard another ‘I can’t’ on that time of the month again.”
Fashion conscious? “I do have to look good when I work out. Nike is the drug of choice.” But Asics is what she runs in.
She says she doesn’t “really clothes shop.” But when she does, it’s usually Macy’s or Nordstorm’s. “I love to go thrift shopping at the Buffalo Exchange off of Greenville.” For everything else there’s Luke’s Locker.
Her heroes have changed over the years. When she was growing up they were Tony Dorsett, Franz Klammer, the downhill bomber, and Tracy Caulkins. Today, she sites cancer survivors and their caretakers. “It puts everything in perspective when you think about what cancer patients or anyone with a devastating illness has to go through. It affects them, their families, and friends. When I start to feel sorry for myself over something really petty, I think of all those strong people fighting the race of life.”
She continues. “I admire people who don’t let society dictate their life, who think and make decisions based on what is best for them and their family. People who have genuine values and interests in your well-being. People who volunteer because they want to and not because it will further their social standing.” Alma makes a suggestion. “Be yourself and be with the ones who appreciate and accept you for you, no false pretenses.”
The strength of Alma Darensburg holds firm. Her confidence in place. She’s ready for her next race to take on competitors 20 years her junior. Let this be a wake-up call.