World champion Gretsch finds balance

The USA’s two-time PT1 champion manages being a full-time student and athlete. 25 Nov 2015
Kendall Gretsch

Kendall Gretsch

ⒸInternational Triathlon Union
By International Triathlon Union

“It’s weird to think that I am a world champion, it has only been a couple years and my life has completely shifted.”

The USA’s triathlon PT1 world champion Kendall Gretsch graduated from college last spring, where she was enrolled as a full-time student studying biomedical engineering.

She now works full-time for Epic Systems in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, all while finding time to compete full-time in para-triathlon, where she holds the back-to-back World Championship titles in the women’s PT1 sport class.

Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the spinal cord, Gretsch spent much of her time involved in sports that would eventually led her to para-triathlon.

“I grew up swimming as my main sport, but when I was really little I played softball and basketball also,” Gretsch said. “In high school I swam for my school team, but I wasn’t super competitive about it. I stopped competing when I went to college and that is kind of how I first got involved in triathlon.

“The summer after my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to get back into sports, but I thought I would do swimming. I went to a swim practice and it just so happens that it was the very last practice of an adaptive sports group where I met an individual who helped found Dare2Tri. They invited me to a triathlon practice and a camp, so I started going to those practices after that camp and did my first triathlon and got hooked after that.”

After competing in that first triathlon, she went on to compete in local races. She noticed she may have a chance to take it further.

“Looking at my times, I knew I was pretty competitive and having that connection through Dare2Tri was huge because a lot of them were already competing, so they would support me and help me with knowledge that allowed me to make my job that much easier,” she said. “I decided in 2014 that I could not stay in local races forever so decided to make the jump into the ITU circuit.”

In her first official year in 2014, Gretsch won the world title and won it again this year September in Chicago.

She has yet to lose a race that she has contested. She was nominated for a 2015 Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award (ESPY) awards for Best Female Athlete with a Disability. Although she did not win, (that went to swimmer Becca Meyers) the honour of being nominated was a surreal moment.

“That was totally amazing and unexpected, that never even crossed my mind that would happen,” Gretsch said.

Gretsch has proven hard to beat in the PT1 sport class for women, and she has done so with a balanced act.

While working to win her two consecutive World Championship titles, Gretsch was a full-time student at Washington University. Enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Grestch became involved in a project that inspired and changed a 13-year-old girl named Sydney.

Started for the sake of completing a senior design project, Gretsch, along with two other students, successfully built a prosthetic arm from a 3D printer.

“The bioengineering department had just received a bunch of 3D printers and they needed someone to test them out. So I played with them all summer and learned how they worked,” said Gretsch on how the idea came about.

“We were looking for an idea and I had heard about someone who was printing prosthetic hands and I thought that was pretty awesome. I had always been pretty interested in prosthetics and orthotics, because of my background wearing braces myself. So printing the arms was building off of that original idea with the hand.”

“We worked with an orthopaedic doctor who worked at the hospital that was associated with the university and was connected with Sydney because she was one of his patients. They knew that she and her mom would be very willing to work with us and knew it wasn’t going to be perfect.”

Printing the arm meant that it would be made out of plastic, causing the arm to not be as durable as a regular prosthetic. But because of the single use, the cost could be significantly cheaper (about USD 200, compared to regular prosthetics that cost thousands.) But perfection was never a factor for Sydney, as she just wanted one thing: for the arm to be pink.

“The first thing we asked her was what colour she wanted,” Gretsch said. “She was really excited just to try it out, working with her and her mom, they both recognised that it wasn’t going to be like the final answer in terms of what she would wear forever, but they understood that it was a starting point and from there you can only build off of that. It got them really excited because they saw the potential.”

After Gretsch graduated, they passed on the printer to the next class, who has continued to work with Sydney to improve the arm.

“Working full-time now, that definitely takes up a lot of my time. So just finding the time where I can really get that focused training in is definitely more difficult,” Gretsch said. “I have really had to adjust my strategy for training because since I have started working I have just had to understand that my time is just not as flexible.”

Para-triathlon will makes its Paralympic debut at Rio 2016, but the women’s PT1 class will not be included. Still, the potential for growth in the sport is overwhelming, and Gretsch looks forward to competing and possibly earning a three-peat in the World Championships.

“It’s weird to think that I am a world champion, it has only been a couple years and my life has completely shifted,” she said.