Triathlete Defies Father Time

Lung ailment, retirement can’t stop Jeri Cavagnaro

  Jeri Cavagnaro often treks across the Bayville Bridge when she runs solo a few days each week. (Photo: Joseph Kellard) 

Jeri Cavagnaro often treks across the Bayville Bridge when she runs solo a few days each week. (Photo: Joseph Kellard) 

By Joseph Kellard

At 67 years old, Jeri Cavagnaro is speeding up. The Locust Valley runner and triathlete can prove it with an Excel spreadsheet charting her progress in various races.

“If you look at the graph, it’s just constantly improving,” Cavagnaro said. “So I feel like I haven’t reached my peak yet.”

Cavagnaro was an avid windsurfer, skier and tennis player before she was diagnosed with a lung ailment. It was corrected in 2006, and she endured 18 months of rehabilitation, after which doctors gave her the green light to exercise without restrictions. She found herself recalling her high school days, when she could barely run a quarter mile around the track. “It always bothered me that I couldn’t run,” she said of choosing a post-rehab activity.

When she first started to run, she was winded after three minutes. Then, in 2008, her son Chris, an Ironman triathlete, encouraged her to join him in the TOBAY Triathlon, Oyster Bay’s annual sprint race. They completed a relay together, with Chris taking on the first two legs, the swim and bike, while she did the run. She admittedly had to walk the hilly sections.

“I found it extremely challenging but I finished,” Cavagnaro recalled. “And then I got the triathlon bug.”

The next year, the duo teamed up with Cavagnaro’s aunt, 82-year-old Loys Green, for a generational relay in the TOBAY race. In 2010, Cavagnaro wanted to compete solo in the race that is approximately a total of 12.5 miles. But she faced a major hurdle: she couldn’t swim. She took lessons and learned, but used a mountain bike in her first full sprint. Later, she invested in a speed bike, a Trek that she purchased at Brickwell in Manhasset, which came with some customization.  

  Jeri Cavagnaro, at the center of the pack, ran in her third race this year at Cedar Creek Park in Seaford in March. (Credit: Jeri Cavagnaro)

Jeri Cavagnaro, at the center of the pack, ran in her third race this year at Cedar Creek Park in Seaford in March. (Credit: Jeri Cavagnaro)

“I had a better fitting for my bike than I did my wedding gown,” she said. “I went for three fittings.”

At the last two triathlons, she was the sole competitor in her age group (65-69), which made her feel a bit empty on receiving her gold medals. “Although my husband is quick to point out: look at all the younger people that you still beat in your time,” she added.

In addition to TOBAY, Cavagnaro runs in various 5K and 10K races, as well as half marathons. Last year, she competed in 16 races, many sponsored by the Greater Long Island Running Club (GLIRC), which has 4,000 members. At a March 18 ceremony, GLIRC crowned her champion for her age group for 2013, based on points she earned for running and placing in the most races.

“There was more than just her in her age group for the running, so that’s a big accomplishment for her,” said Debbie Blair, who coaches Cavagnaro.

For years, Cavagnaro only received some coaching tips courtesy of random runners she met. But that changed once she received a gift certificate for GLIRC. While she still ties on Nike Pegasus sneakers to run alone a few mornings each week, often trekking across the Bayville Bridge, for the past three years she has trained with fellow runners and trainers, some of whom are triathletes, nutritionists and physical therapists. They meet at parks from Eisenhower to Bethpage, where they run even on 20-degree days and snowy conditions.

“When you join a running club or any kind of club, you have this common mindset,” said Cavagnaro, who retired last year as program manager at Underwriters Laboratories in Melville. “Everybody’s in it for the same reason.”

Blair, a fitness instructor and run coach who sits on GLIRC’s executive board, helped spearhead this winter program, called Run Smart, in conjunction with Nassau County.

“People are always asking me if I can run with them,” Blair said. “So I thought that we should really have some place they can go and run together and have some programming.”

Cavagnaro said the club’s camaraderie, in which runners encourage others to reach new goals, helps sustain her enthusiasm and energy for running. Age also plays a role.

“For me, I think it has a lot to do with age defiance,” she said. “I’ve always been active and I just said: this body in motion plans to stay in motion.”

She’s already participated in three races this year and earned a bronze in each. Looking ahead, she plans to sit out TOBAY in August. She wants to focus instead on increasing her speed in all three activities over the next three years.

“By age 70,” she said, “I’m going to knock them dead.”


* This story originally appeared in the Oyster Bay Guardian in 2014.