[Excerpts from this interview appear in the August 2014 issue of Triathlete.]
A former high school all-American and collegiate swimmer and two-time Olympic Trials competitor on the ITU circuit, 37-year-old Dr. Amanda Stevens is best known for being first out of the water at nearly every race she enters. But she’s no slacker on the bike and run either, proving her three-sport prowess with a win at 2013’s Ironman Brazil. A native of Enid, Okla., Stevens turned pro in 2003, completed medical school in 2006 and relocated to Boulder, Colo. in 2013 to train with coach Siri Lindley and enjoy the Rocky Mountain lifestyle with her husband Randy and their dog, Dash.
You’re from Enid, Oklahoma–hardly a hotbed of triathlon. How did you get involved in the sport?
I grew up swimming, and I dabbled in a lot of sports. I knew a couple in Enid that were age group triathletes, and they’d seen me swim and would always say, “You have to try triathlon.” But I went to medical school. Swimming was still part of my life–I swam just for stress relief. There was a glass window on the second floor where I swam above the pool, and a group of triathletes would watch me swim. They would say, “You’ve got to do a triathlon. Triathletes can’t swim!” And I was like, “I don’t own a bike. I don’t like to run. I’m going to be a doctor–I just like swimming.” But that summer I tried my first triathlon–a super sprint in Bixby, Oklahoma–and I thought: That was kind of fun. My friend and her husband and I were driving back from the race and we were on this kick of: Oh my gosh, triathlon is the coolest thing! The next weekend was the inaugural Memorial Marathon and the conversation jumped immediately to Ironman and the fact that the end of an Ironman is a marathon. We decided we had to do the marathon the next week. We wanted to do it that year, the first year, so that we could be some of the people that said we’d done it every single year. 5k was the farthest I’d ever run in my life at that point, but I told myself that if I ran 10 miles on Wednesday, then I could do the marathon that weekend. And of course I had to have a goal, and I know that everybody talks about Boston, so I said, “I’m going to try and qualify for Boston.” I ran the marathon and I did qualify for Boston, and at that point I thought: OK, I guess I can run. I kept doing triathlons that summer, qualified for age group nationals, won my age group and then thought: Oh, I’m talented at this! At that time USAT was in their developmental stages with a collegiate recruiting program, and they contacted me. I was still in triathlon is fun mode. I was planning to be a doctor–I had hung up my cap and goggles a long time ago. But thank goodness they kept in touch with me that year. They said they thought I could be a potential prospect for the ’04 Olympics. So I went out the following summer to the Olympic Training Center, did a camp with them and then ended up training through the ’04 Olympic Trials. I kept doing ITU until 2008, and then after the Olympic Trials in 2008, with the way that going back to practice medicine would have worked, I had a couple months off first to play. I decided I would do all the races that I’d always wanted to do, so I did my first 70.3 at Timberman. It was the year after Chrissie had won her first Kona and I finished Timberman second to her. She totally killed me, but I realized I was better at the 70.3 distance than I was at ITU racing. So I ended up not going back to practice medicine. And here I sit, five years later!
You turned pro in 2003 and completed your medical degree three years later. How did you manage the overlap?
It was a lot of juggling! Today there’s no way I could juggle both of them. I was able to take a two-year leave of absence from school before the ’04 Olympic Trials, so that was almost full focus on training. Then I went back and finished medical school, so that was almost full focus on medicine. Then it was back to triathlon. I had a dry erase board (I’m the queen of dry erase boards!) and on it I listed my goals for the week. When I was doing an orthopaedic surgery week my triathlon training was maybe three 20-minute runs, two 1000-yard swims and I rode my bike to the hospital every day. And that would be the ultimate goal, to achieve those workouts! So in my mind I had a schedule and training goals, but I wouldn’t really call it training. But if someone said, “Amanda, you need to go get X-rays,” I would run outside for 10 minutes on the way. Then I’d say, “I had to wait on the x-rays,” or, “They sent me to the other building.” I just wore my running shoes to work with my scrubs. So I mixed in a little training, but I was mainly focused on whatever I was doing more of at the time.
Is medicine similar to training, in that you get out of practice or out of shape when you don’t do it regularly?
I think since I’ve been away from it for so long I kind of worry that I’ve lost it–but it’s all in there. It’s amazing how much it comes back. I’ve been in a couple of emergency situations, and there’s a fleeting thought of: Oh my gosh, do I know what to do? But then you click into that mode and you get it done. I was in Colorado Springs and I saw a car turn over. I was the first responder and that instinct totally kicked in. A nurse and a medic were also on the scene–at first everyone identifies themselves and I was like, “You guys probably know more than me.” But they said, “Nope–take over!” I was like: OK, this is for real!
When you ultimately return to medicine what will be your area of practice?
Over the years my focus in medicine has changed a little bit. Had I not discovered triathlon, I would be in the OR as an orthopaedic surgeon. But now I think it will be more on the preventive end of sports medicine and will incorporate a lot of alternative treatments and health and wellness stuff. I think nutrition wellness can do so much, and I want to have an integrated practice that can change the world of medicine and how we look at it. Yes, there’s a need for surgery, but you can do things before surgery so that people can have much better outcomes. By altering a person’s diet a bit or by having them exercise and feel better going into surgery, they can come out of it a lot better off. Instead, you see people having surgery and then two years later going back and having the same surgery again. I want to help them make lifestyle changes and get them to where they don’t have to be on medication their whole life.
You also have a passion for promoting health and nutrition to kids. Tell us about that.
I’ve been involved with Girls On The Run in Colorado Springs and in Oklahoma–I think they have 16 schools involved now, which is pretty awesome for Oklahoma–and I’ve done some stuff with the Boys and Girls Club of America, showing them how to fix a healthy meal or training kids for a 5k run. But eventually I would like to have something I envision as Amanda’s Health and Wellness Sports Mecca. Kids on sports teams would come in and compete and have fun together, and at the same time there would be education classes for their parents. Most parents come to their kids’ practices and games and sit on the sidelines, eating Doritos and gossiping or whatever they do. Instead, I want to educate them–have nutrition or healthy cooking classes for the parents, something that would interest them and also have a trickle down effect to the kids. The kids will see that Mom or Dad goes to nutrition class while they’re playing football, and that will become a way of life, rather than being abnormal. I want to promote “normal” as being healthy and eating well and taking care of yourself. Colorado is on the healthy end of the spectrum, but when I’m done with triathlon we’ll end up living back in Oklahoma, because I want to make an impact there. It depends on what markers you look at, but the state of Oklahoma is in the bottom five all the time in things like obesity, diabetes and childhood onset diabetes. I think you can get that trickle down effect from adults, and also if you empower children with healthy lifestyle choices, it can trickle up, too. If a kid comes home and asks, “Can we fix a healthy meal tonight? Do you mind if I help fix a salad?” the parent is not going to say, “No, we’re going to McDonalds!”
You struggled for years with a “mystery illness” which was finally attributed to multiple food allergies. Tell us about that, and what your diet looks like these days.
I’ve had GI issues forever. I went to the ER a couple of times as a young child and never had answers. I think I was 22 when I had my first colonoscopy and every upper GI test available. It became most noticeable when I was at the OTC and I was doing more intensive training than I had ever done. My GI tract started bleeding. Every doctor said, “Everything’s fine!” And as a stubborn athlete I thought: I’m fine, the doctor said so. But it was a roller coaster. I had my gall bladder taken out and I saw an initial improvement and felt great, but then I crashed. I would identify something that would make me feel better for awhile, but and then I’d crash–and the crashes were getting worse every time. Two years ago my GI was bleeding again, I had stomach pain and everything was going wrong. I’d be on the treadmill and every 10 minutes I’d have to run to the bathroom. And I just ignored it–it became normal to me. Lance Watson was coaching me at the time and I went to a training camp with him in Maui. Lance saw me and he said, “This is not normal. Go home. You’re not allowed to train. You’re not allowed to race. You’re not doing anything until you get this figured out.” That was a big wake up call for me–you can’t keep doing the same old thing and expecting a different answer.
So I called anyone I knew that was a specialist and I started researching everything I could. I spent so much time on the Internet and at the library and going back through old textbooks. I knew deep down there was an answer. During that process we found out that I’m celiac, but although I eliminated gluten I unknowingly substituted a lot of foods that I’m allergic to. Luckily I had food allergy testing done and discovered there are over 100 different foods that I’m allergic to. I’m allergic to quinoa. My body felt better because I wasn’t eating gluten anymore, but then I was just piling these other things on. Avocado is another food that I’m allergic to. You need healthy fat, so what do you eat? Avocado! And I’m allergic to spinach. I would fix a “healthy” salad at night, not knowing I was allergic to almost everything in it. So I found out about food allergies, and they say it takes six-nine months to really start healing and for the inflammation to go down. Then you get tested again and a lot of times you’ll have less allergies. My body was in such an inflamed and reactive state that I was allergic to almost everything! Let’s say you’re allergic to an orange–then anything citrusy might test positive. A test might show that you’re also allergic to grapefruit, when you’re not really. So then you can get tested again and take out only what you’re really allergic to.
What can you eat?
My main sources of carbohydrates are potatoes, potatoes…and more potatoes! Sweet potatoes, yellow potatoes, russet potatoes–there are lots of varieties of potatoes. And rice. That’s about it–no oats, no quinoa and no amaranth, which are generally the alternative grains for gluten free diets. Luckily I can eat most protein sources–fish, beef, turkey–all those work. For vegetables I’m good with broccoli, squash, zucchini, tomatoes and carrots. I have a fructose intolerance, so the higher fructose fruits are out. Mangoes use to be my all time favorite, but I can’t eat them. Bananas are a mainstay, and raisins are good. It’s a pretty limited diet, but since I’ve grasped what I can eat and learned how to prepare it and use different herbs and spices it’s been OK. And Randy’s been awesome with it. Ninety per cent of the time he’s eating what I’m eating and going along with it. He’s in the kitchen helping cook and trying to spice things up.
Do you eat out very often?
[Laughing] No. Very rarely. At Whole Foods here [in Boulder] I can go to the Asian Bar and pick exactly what I want, and you could take me to a restaurant and I could find something to eat, it’s just not always ideal or enough food or as pleasant an experience. When I travel to races, one suitcase is completely full of food, a rice cooker and a blender. At first it was so frustrating–I mean imagine having to read every label. You have to look at every last ingredient, and eliminate all this food that you’re used to eating. One time in Oklahoma at the grocery store Randy left me to go find something he needed. He came back and I was just weeping, saying, “I can’t eat anything!” Everybody was staring at us because they thought he was saying that I was fat and that he was restricting me or something! That was my biggest breakdown. But now I can go run and I don’t have to make a pit stop. I’m not bleeding anymore. It’s so worth it. I did so much reading in the beginning and everyone says you’re not going to crave the foods that you eliminate. And I was like: How am I not going to crave a chocolate chip cookie? How am I not going to crave a bagel? How is fruit going to satisfy my sweet tooth? But I eat cantaloupe now and it’s so sweet and sugary to me! It’s still hard, but your taste buds just have to go through the change. And if there was a chocolate cake sitting here in front of me I don’t have that desire anymore, because I know how bad it would make me feel. Given that, I will say that chocolate is my downfall–but as long as I eat dark chocolate that doesn’t have milk in it, I’m good. So that’s always in my suitcase, too!
You achieved a huge goal in 2013 when you won IM Brazil. But what was unusual about that day was that you didn’t lead out of the water, as is your signature style. Do you think it helped you at all not to lead from the gun?
Yeah, it totally did. I had only been with Siri for three and a half months when Ironman Brazil rolled around, but she had gotten into my head: Do you want to keep being known as a swimmer, or do you want to be known as a champion? I was like: What do you mean? I’m a swimmer. It’s what I do. But the way Brazil played out, I realized: Yes, I can swim and I’m still going to swim my heart out at every race. But there are eight more hours to a race and I’m a pretty talented athlete, so let’s take advantage of the whole thing. In Brazil I knew Haley was there and I was excited to swim with her. I read the waves a little bit wrong going out and I came out behind her, but I was totally cool with it because I had somebody to chase down. That never happens!
What did you enjoy most about racing in Brazil and the Brazilian culture?
I’ve been to Brazil a few times and for Ironman I got to stay with Ana Lidia Borba, a Brazilian pro. They put their triathletes are on a pedestal–I mean you go to transition and they each have their own car with their faces plastered all over it. It was an experience to see how different the triathlon culture is there. She was a rock star. Before the race nobody knew who I was, but her–I mean if it would normally take five minutes to walk across a room it would take her an hour, with everybody stopping her, taking pictures and asking for autographs. It was amazing! And Brazil is the only Ironman in South America, so everybody comes in for it. The expo is this huge affair because it’s the triathlon event of the year. People came from Venezuela and Argentina just to spectate–they didn’t have a friend or a spouse racing, they just wanted to be part of the experience. And you really felt that out there on race day. Everyone was going crazy!
You’re from a family of four kids, all of whom were collegiate swimmers. Are you competitive with one another?
[Laughing] Never! Never! We’re the most uncompetitive family ever! Since my brother is the only boy, he wasn’t as competitive with us in the pool. And he’s the oldest one, so the cool thing was that he had graduated college and was the graduate assistant coach at TCU when I was there. So I got to share my whole college swim experience with him, which was awesome. My older sister and I were in more similar events, so we were kind of competitive. My younger sister was a sprinter, so 50-free and 100-free were way to long for her! We go to the pool when we’re home at Christmas, and she won’t swim all year long, but she’ll still beat me in a 25. She just had her first baby so we didn’t go this Christmas, but usually every year she’ll do one swim workout with me. We’ll race a 25 and then she’ll say, “Go do a 1000 or a 1500 and I’ll sit here,” and then we’ll race another 25. Also we have an annual family Christmas Ping-Pong tournament. It’s full on–brackets are drawn, rules are followed.
And who wins?
My dad. Every year, without fail. He usually plays left-handed with us and he still beats us, but at least it makes the scores closer.
How did you and Randy meet?
We met at a 10k run in 2005. I’d done a few triathlons and so we had met previously but I didn’t really know him–he knew more who I was because I had led some clinics and stuff. But I knew his friend Phillip, and they were standing behind me at this 10k. They both had shorts on and it was like 30 degrees outside so I turned around and said, “You guys should have your knees covered!” He looked at me like: Who does she think she is to tell me to cover my knees? The race was a 5k and a 10k that both started at the same time. We were both doing the 10k, and Randy was running very fast at the time–usually at the front of the race–but he didn’t realize that the 5k started at the same time. So he took off with the 5k people and then they turned off and he realized he’d gone too fast. At the same time, the guy that was my running partner at the time sprained his ankle at around 2k. He was there to pace me, but he had to stop. Randy was the only person up the road, so a bull’s eye went on his back! I caught him at the turnaround and then I encouraged him to stay with me and work with me as we headed back into the wind. We got to 9k and again I was encouraging him: We’ve got to go! There’s only 1k left! And I think he was just so scared that he charged ahead. He ended up beating me by a minute in the last kilometer–he turned around and couldn’t even see me when he finished!
My running partner was planning to move, so Randy and I started running together. But we had both just come out of bad relationships. I was like: I’m done with this. I’m independent. I’m doing this on my own. We can run together, but we don’t even have to be friends! We just showed up and ran, and that was it. But everybody had been telling Randy that he had to ask me out–people that really knew me thought we would be perfect together. He wasn’t sure though–he thought I was “stuffy.” About a month after we started training together we did a 5k run. We were cooling down afterwards, and my apartment was a few blocks away and I needed to get something there, so he came with me. And this was the ultimate test–he decided that if he moved something on my kitchen counter, and if I came back into the room and moved it back to its original spot, it would be over before it even started. Well, I opened my front door and it was like a tornado had come through. I had to clear a path for him! So he thought: She’s not OCD. I can ask her out! He still claims he didn’t know I had a kitchen table for a month because it was buried underneath a bike case and a partially built bike.
Randy raced his third Ironman at Lake Tahoe last year, while you cheered from the sidelines. Did the role reversal experience change your perspective in terms of how you behave before a race or what it means to you to have people out there supporting you?
Oh yeah! He did Redman before we met, and then he did Louisville in 2009, which was when I had just done my first 70.3, before I even entertained the idea of racing Ironman. I still had this ITU mentality, so I watched the front girls and then when he finished I said, “That is the dumbest thing! Why do people do that? You guys were running so slowly to be in so much pain!” That was how I congratulated him. Now I understand it!
Tahoe was awesome! People always say you have to look at something from a different perspective to gain wisdom and knowledge and it’s so true. No matter what was thrown at Randy, he had a smile on his face all day long. He was like: I’m going to get through this. I’m going to find a way. Also the stuff leading up to the race–you realize how you get so worried and so worked up and stressed out about the littlest things that in the grand scheme don’t really matter. So those were the two biggest things I took away from that race.
Randy and I are definitely a little bit at opposite ends of the spectrum. I used to be totally stressed out–I had to do this, this and this before a race. Before he raced Louisville we were walking to the start line and I was saying, “We have to hurry! We have to get there!” And he was just like, “It’s my race. I want to take my time. Chill out.” So I’m learning to be more like him, more relaxed before a race. I’m still focused, but just more flexible and relaxed. Because at the end of the day, while it would be awesome to win, I’m there to do my best and have fun and do what I love. So really, instead of just saying those words, I’m trying to really live them on the day.
I also realized just how hard spectating is. It’s a long day! I’m amazed now to think about when Randy watches me race. He tweets and updates my parents and updates his parents and updates our friends and replies to texts…it’s hard! You take a picture, then you have to make sure it looks good, then you post it, then you call his mom, then you call my mom, then its time to hurry because you have to get to the next spot–and then it’s 10 hours in and you realize you haven’t eaten or drank anything! And although we’re out there racing individually, triathlon is such a team event–first to get to the start line and second on race day, with so many people out there supporting you, whether you know them or not. So I really enjoyed being in the support role and seeing that and appreciating it from the other side.
Let’s talk about Dash–who, based on your social media photos, has an exceptionally large wardrobe for a dog!
Just wait–we just ordered five new outfits for him! We figured out that in all the pictures he’s wearing the same clothes, so we had to update his wardrobe. We ordered a Batman suit, a camo outfit, a cow print outfit and a plaid one–those are all made out of fleece–and then one that’s just cotton with stripes. He’s a Whippet, so he’s very lean and doesn’t have much fur to keep him warm. Richie Cunningham is the reason we have Dash. Randy met Sam, Richie’s Whippet, down in Galveston, and just thought he was the sweetest puppy. And Richie said to him, “Just realize you’re going to end up buying clothes for your dog.” Well now we know! We also just bought him an electric blanket, it’s so cold here. We take him out in the snow and he wears boots and a full pajama set and a coat on top of it, and he’s so tiny that he still shivers.
Are there any secrets about Doc Amanda Stevens that you’re willing to spill here and now?
I like to chew my toenails.
Seriously? Are you flexible enough to put your toes in your mouth?
My whole family does it! [Laughing almost to the point of crying.] And my little sister just had a baby, and obviously babies are flexible, but he always has his foot in his mouth! And ironically we let Dash’s toenails grow out a little too long and he was nibbling on them. I took a video and sent it to my whole family and said, “See! It runs in the family!”