Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Deseret News

Grandpa goes from being a non-athlete to world-class competitor

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011 5:40 p.m. MST
(Thursday, Jan. 20 Deseret News - Outdoor section)

Bill Billingsley says he's not an athlete.

"I didn't even make my grade-school football or basketball teams," said the 56-year-old, laughing at the description.

But despite being rebuffed earlier in life, he did enjoy athletics.

"I played intramurals in high school and college," he said. "So I was always fairly active."

He continued to play softball and basketball until his children started playing sports.

"Then I got out of the habit of playing myself," he said.

Then he did some work for the YWCA in Montana where he was living at the time and was paid with a membership rather than money.

"That was probably 12 years ago," said Billingsley. "I worked out there, and then when I went to work for the U., I got a membership at the rec club up there. My favorite thing to do was the rowing machine."

He might have continued to be a casual consumer of fitness if a free health screening hadn't jarred him out of his comfort zone.

"It showed I had almost high blood pressure and cholesterol," he said. "I didn't really eat in an unhealthy way, so I decided I needed to do something a bit more strenuous. That's when I started running."

He laced up and jogged around the track at the U., which quickly became monotonous.

"That was really boring," he said.

To keep himself motivated, the father of four and grandfather of five set a monster goal: run the Deseret News Marathon. Since then he's ended up running nine marathons over three or four years but said the luster of the 26.2-mile races quickly wore off.

"I would always be at the back," he said. "It was always fun at the start, but then five minutes later, when you running by yourself for five hours, it wasn't so fun."

Then someone mentioned the Susan G. Komen 5K, which is a fundraiser for breast cancer research.

"My mom passed away from breast cancer, so I thought it would be a good thing to do," he said.

He loved it so much he signed up for another and unlike marathons, he was competitive.

At the Art Attack 5K (associated with the Arts Festival), he placed second in his age group.

"I won a medal for the first time in my life," he said. "I also won a portable air conditioner. It's the biggest thing I've ever won."

It was just a few years ago that one of his friends mentioned triathlons. It was a particularly hot summer, and instead of running in the heat, the architect opted to swim during his workout at lunch.

He decided it sounded like fun so he bought the kind of bike he used to ride in high school — a 10-speed.

"I used it for my first three triathlons," he said.

He was not fast. He was not winning many medals, but he was lowering his cholesterol and his blood pressure, and he was having fun doing it.

He started looking at the times needed to qualify for the world championships in his age group and realized that if he improved his swimming, he could probably qualify.

"I swam everyday trying to improve my swimming," he said. "That's where I needed the most help."

He competed in the national championships in Newport Beach, Calif., and qualified for the U.S. Triathlon team in his age division. That meant a trip to the ITU 2009 World Championships in Gold Coast, Australia.

Suddenly, the "non-athlete" found himself representing his country in an international sporting competition.

"It was really fun racing for your country," he said.

He finished 35th out of 45 competitors.

"I just didn't want to be last," he said with another hearty laugh, but his journey into sport didn't end there.

He decided to try a BASH Winter Triathlon.

"When I heard of these, I had not cross-country skied before," he said. He found skis, "at a thrift shop in Park City for $5. I tried to start out low budget."

He watched YouTube videos and watched others skiing at Mountain Dell.

"That's how I did it," he said, admitting he still has work to do on cross-country skiing.

He borrowed a mountain bike from a neighbor and finished fourth in his age group — just one spot out of qualifying for the world championships in that category. He was determined to get better at skiing and qualify this year.

"To keep me motivated during the summer, I decided to do a couple of XTERRA Off Road Triathlons," he said. "The first year, I had such a hard time on the bike. I was really tired on the skiing. In the summer, I worked on my bike skills and rode off road a lot."

He has a lot of scars to prove he put in the training.

"It was kind of interesting," he said of taking up such a grueling sport at 56. "I fell off my bike a lot. … It took me a while to learn lessons."

Despite losing his nutrition, which fell from the spot he'd taped it before the race, he managed to qualify for the world championships, which will be held in Spain in April.

Meanwhile, he competed in another BASH Winter Triathlon two weeks ago at Soldier Hollow and finished second in his age group. That earned him a trip to the world championships on the U.S. Team in Finland in March.

If he finishes both races in March and April, he will be the only person in any age category to compete in all three world championships. That's not just in the U.S. — that's in the world. Still, he laughs at the idea that he has somehow managed to turn himself in to an athlete.

"I was the last on the U.S. team to qualify, so no, I don't think of myself (as an athlete)," he said, chuckling. "My attitude at the world championships was that I just didn't want to be the last person. I do it more for the enjoyment than the competition. If I can have fun while I'm doing it, that's why I do it. I don't push myself really hard because I want to finish well. So no, I still think of myself as a non-athlete."

Whether he realizes it or not, Billingsley is a long way from the monotony of that track where it all started. In addition to making his everyday life easier and more enjoyable, participating in triathlons has given Grandpa something to brag about at those family gatherings.

"For me, the fun of competing for Team USA, and the look of amazement when my kids find out that their non-athlete father is competing at a world championship triathlon event, is reward enough," he said.

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.comTwitter: adonsports