From Depression to Triathlon

After battling depression, mother of three finds happiness finishing the Pacific Coast Triathlon.
Register columnist

There was a time when Suzanne Ohman would burst into tears just thinking about trying to swim in the ocean.
But not on this day. No way. No how. On this day, Ohman is ready for the Big Blue. On this day, the Chicago native who used to sit on the sand as her brothers surfed is not only going to swim in the ocean, she is going to race.
It’s almost as if her life depends on it. And, it a way, perhaps it does.
It’s Sunday morning, 8:15 to be exact. Ohman is standing on the beach in Crystal Cove State Park. Clad in a black wetsuit and a florescent green swim cap, she is with a cluster of women triathletes waiting for their wave to start in the 10th annual Pacific Coast Triathlon.
The race horn blasts. Sixty-four middle-aged men wearing yellow caps and wetsuits charge the water, arms and legs churning so hard swim goggles are knocked askew, accidental body blows feel like slightly muffled punches through the neoprene. The water is cold, 57 degrees according to the lifeguards. But the battle for position is so furious, few notice the temperature.
Three minutes later, Ohman is in the middle of a similar melee. She leaps into the white foam, dolphin dives through the waves and emerges in the clear turquoise liquid doing something she has never done before in her 39 years – raced with speed, with grace, with confidence in a body of water that stretches across 10,000 miles.
Ohman, a stay-at-home mom to three daughters, ages 8, 4 and 2, emerges from the half-mile swim portion of this sprint distance triathlon with the realization that the very part of triathlon that once scared her is now her favorite.
This is no time to dwell on the swim, however.
Ohman starts pulling off her wetsuit as she hits the sand. She jogs up a steep cement ramp to the transition area. She grabs her bike helmet and sunglasses, pulls on cycling shoes and jumps on her hybrid bicycle, a road worthy machine, but one that offers the ease and comfort of a mountain bike.
Twenty-eight minutes and 54 seconds into the triathlon, she starts pedaling. She pumps her legs with determination up and down the hills on Pacific Coast Highway between Newport Beach and Laguna, hills that in a car may seem like nothing but are formidable when muscle is the only fuel.
She does one six-mile loop. She does another. Her bike split is 1:05:19. The winner of the triathlon has already crossed the finish line, posting a 1:02:18 for all three portions.
A self-described “big girl,” Ohman is in the Athena class. Like the male Clydesdales, they are larger athletes who deserve more applause than lighter participants who usually finish sooner. By the time Ohman completes the bike leg to start the 3-mile run, she must weave between dozens of athletes in the transition area who already have finished the entire course.
Despite seeing others already relaxing, Ohman pushes on. She knows the toughest portion is yet to come. She even maintains her sense of humor.
“Hello, I’m in the race,” the Mission Viejo resident says. “Don’t ruin my time.”
Watching her spirit, it’s hard to believe this woman who married her high school sweetheart (Mission, class of ’86), was hit so hard with depression last year she was hospitalized for several days.
Ohman tells me after the race that depression is something she may have inherited, or perhaps it’s from hormonal changes after giving birth. Regardless, she is rightfully proud she is successfully managing it with a three-prong program of therapy, medication and exercise. Equally impressive is her courage to become a role model through this column for others suffering from the same disease.
By the time she puts on her running shoes and hits the beach portion, the course is so devoid of racers she feels like Tom Hanks in “Castaway.” Still, she knows the toughest chunk is still ahead ‚Äì a winding path that climbs the cliffs above the beach. To Ohman’s legs and lungs, it feels like the Grand Canyon. But she pushes on, one foot in front of the other.
After nearly 43 minutes of running the path flattens out. There are only several hundred yards to go. Her fellow “TriDivas” are lining the final stretch, yelling, cheering her on. Sarah Reinertsen, the first female amputee to complete. I may be in the back of the pack. But I feel great.”

Words of a champion.
David Whiting’s column on people and places appears Thursdays. Sunday was his first Pacific Coast Triathlon. He can be reached at 714-796-6869 or