‘SHE STAYED WITH ME THE WHOLE WAY’
They were teachers during the school day … and were known as Batman and Robin after the final bell.
But Dawn Schroeder and Marcie Kjoller, inseparable action heroes for local causes, could never agree on who was the sidekick.
“We were always going back and forth about that,” Schroeder said with a laugh.
She did get the last word last spring while delivering an emotional eulogy at the memorial service for her former UCSB teammate. It did take her a while to get through all the benevolent and inspirational deeds the All-America swimmer had accomplished during a half-century of life.
“No argument,” Dawn concluded while speaking directly to Kjoller’s husband and two daughters, “Marcie was and will always remain the true super hero.”
Four months later, however, in a courageous act performed in memory of her best friend, Schroeder earned her own title of super-hero:
“Dawn Schroeder,” the loudspeaker blared as she crossed the finish line in Whistler, British Columbia, “you are an Ironman!”
The Canadian Ironman —l a triathlon which entails a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 marathon run – is no easy task in the best of circumstances.
But when attempted for the first time at age 53, and just six months after major surgery, and while burdened with the heaviest of hearts … it would seem to be a mission impossible.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, for sure,” Schroeder said, “and that includes childbirth.”
The quest was, in fact, the fulfillment of a promise made 14 years earlier to her first-born child.
“We used to go to Hawaii as a family, and a couple of times we watched the Ironman World Championships in Kona,” said Grant Schroeder, who is now a 24-year-old medical student at UCLA. “I thought it was one of the coolest things ever.
“As a kid, I told my mom, ‘Let’s do this some day!”
Mother agreed, but that promise got lost in the course of every-day life. She helped start a triathlon training group for ordinary mothers. Grant played water polo at Dos Pueblos High and Cal before switching to the triathlon team, becoming the Golden Bears’ team captain.
He graduated first in Cal’s Class of 2017 with a perfect grade-point average of 4.0.
“He was 8 when he did his first Santa Barbara Triathlon, and he was about 10 when he asked if we could do the Ironman,” Dawn recalled. “I had told him, ‘Well, we’d better do it before I turn 50 and before you’re 25.’
“I reminded him of that last October and asked, ‘Were you really serious about doing it?’ He said, ‘Yes! Let’s do it this summer!'”
That best laid plan of mother and son, however, went awry in January when Dawn had to undergo an emergency hysterectomy.
“I told her that we could postpone this,” Grant said. “I said that we didn’t have to do it now, that the most important thing was to make sure she was healthy.'”
But Mom was having none of that. She even begged her doctor to clear her for the endeavor.
“I told her that I thought the Ironman was going to save my life, although I didn’t know why exactly,” Dawn recalled. “She looked at me as if I were crazy … She said that I’d be out for eight weeks and would have only five months left to train.
“I told her that I believed I could still do it.”
A few months later, she learned why she would need such a grueling task. On March 31, her best friend Marcie drowned while swimming off East Beach.
“She was pretty lost after that,” Grant said.
Their bond had bordered on the supernatural, their friendship having been rekindled during an alumni swim event.
Kjoller, known as Marcie Fuller during her days at UCSB, had set the school record in the 50-meter freestyle. Schroeder, a San Marcos High graduate who qualified for both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Trials in the breaststroke, was known as Dawn Price when she transferred to UCSB from UCLA.
“I was actually pretty intimidated when I first saw Marcie,” Dawn recalled. “She was the biggest, loudest cheerleader on the deck.
“She had that ability to both lead and perform, which a lot of elite athletes can’t do.
“She brought out the best in everybody who came in contact with her.”
They were both pregnant when they reconnected as alumni – Dawn with Grant, Marcie with Alanna.
“We discovered that we were both teaching first and second grade,” Dawn said. “We decided then to swim together to stay in shape. That turned into running together, and that turned into doing triathlons together, and that turned into coaching others in triathlon.
“It was a 30-year friendship. Eventually, we were even finishing each other’s sentences.”
It would get comical when someone couldn’t remember who was Dawn and who was Marcie.
“They’d give up and just call us ‘Darcie,'” Schroeder said.
After Kjoller died, she realized that she really did need the Canadian Ironman “to save my life.”
“It truly gave me a reason to get out of bed every day,” Schroeder said. “I had to get up and put in my miles.”
She turned the Canadian Ironman into a fund-raising crusade, asking people to donate a penny per mile – $14.06 total – since she and Grant would be swimming, biking, and running a total of 140.6 miles.
Schroeder said the Marcie Fund will “benefit the four things she loved most: UCSB swimming, the Alpha Resource Center, the Red Piano Music Scholarship, and Heal the Ocean.”
“We’ve raised about $4,000,” she said.
Schroeder, whose daughter Erica runs cross country and track for the University of Washington, also wanted to fortify the bond with her son. They decided to arrive at Whistler 10 days before the event.
“We wanted to check out the course and bounce ideas off each other,” Grant said, “getting as ready for the race as possible. We wanted to talk ourselves through each stage of the event.
“But it was also nice to just catch up with each other. We’re usually both so busy, but when we got there, we were able to just sit down and relax and spend some time with each other.”
He did become concerned for his mom while on a training ride on the first of the course’s two cycling loops.
“It was really hilly, and biking is probably her weakest leg,” Grant pointed out. “I was like, ‘This is no joke … This is a tough course.'”
Although they went at their own paces – Grant finished four hours ahead of his mom – she carried her son’s words with her throughout the course.
“He really had the science of this all down,” Dawn explained. “The best advice I got was that I needed to treat it like an eating contest. He calculated the calories that we’d be burning and I just followed what he said about eating.
“All day long, I was eating Gu blocks, gels, waffles … Gu everything. … I really don’t want to see another Gu product for a while.”
Her soul, meanwhile, was fed by the No. 14.
“It was Marcie’s favorite number,” Schroeder said. “Her birthday was May 14. When we were to meet at a certain time, she’d say, ‘I’ll pick you up at 5:14. She would turn everything into a 14.”
Schroeder looked down at her race watch when she pushed off from the starting line. It read, “6:14 a.m.”
“My transition time was 6:14,” she said. “My average pace from the bike was 14 miles per hour. My predicted time to finish the bike was 14:14. I got passed by 14 cyclists in my age group.
“I knew she was with me.”
Grant, whose father Richard won gold medals in swim relays at both the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, was tearing up the course. Although it was also his first ironman, he would finish third in his age group (18-to-24) and 23rd overall with a time of nine hours and 47 minutes.
“I really didn’t expect that,” he said.
He was hoping to see his mother on the course, since each leg would loop twice.
“I was trying to guess the whole time where she was,” Grant said. “I figured that our paths might cross on the run, but I got nervous about it because I was going a lot faster than I’d anticipated.
“I was getting bummed with about a mile to go because I was a quarter-mile from where the trail would veer off to the finish line.”
But right there, coming around the corner, was Team Darcie.
“I stopped and hugged her,” he said. “It was definitely a fun moment.”
Dawn, however, still had 20 miles to go.
“He felt badly for me, knowing the pain I would still go through,” she said.
She began thinking about Marcie’s reaction to her entering the Canadian Ironman.
“Right then, I said out loud, ‘I know you thought this was crazy!'” Dawn recalled. “And literally at that moment, I looked up at this street sign. It said, ‘Crazy Canuck Avenue.’ I could feel her again, right there with me.”
The run soon became “a death march.”
“I was really starting to hurt,” she said.
But then, at mile 14 of the run, her guardian angel sent help.
“No one on the course is talking at that point, they’re just trying to keep going,” Dawn said. “But this guy comes up out of the blue, reads the name on my back, and says, ‘Hey Dawn! Want to talk?’
“I said, ‘Yes! It’s how I train … I talk while I train with people … We’ll go out on a long bike ride and talk, talk, talk, talk to get through it.'”
He asked Dawn to tell her story. And after she finished, he told her his.
“He’s married with two kids,” she said. “I know about his job and where he lives in Portland. Thank goodness Marcie sent me a friend.”
It got her to the end. As she approached the finish line, hearing the announcer dub her as “an ironman,” she could see Grant waiting for another hug.
She flashed a one with one hand, and held up four fingers with the other.
“When you do something like this, you’re always wondering if your body is going to hold together,” Dawn said. “Is your hamstring going to hold up? Is your Achilles going to hold up? And everything did.
“No flat tires. No mechanical problems on the bike. I remember how stunningly gorgeous it was during the swim.”
It felt like heaven.
And when she finished, her time read 13 hours, 43 minutes, and FOURTEEN seconds.
“That was crazy,” said the Robin to Marcie Kjoller’s Batman. “She had stayed with me the whole way.”