Running, Reporting, and Sharing: Michelle Bandur’s Three LovesApr 28, 2022 05:08PM ● By Jarrett van Meter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
The clock showed the time as a little before 9:30 a.m., and Michelle Bandur grew antsy. Races normally begin around 7 a.m., but given the size and magnitude of the day’s event, her start time was pushed back by more than two hours. It was a hot September morning but she was hydrated, rested, ready. Finally, her age group was released, and she high-stepped her way down the shore embankment to the crisp waters of Sand Hollow Reservoir. It was the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in St. George, Utah, a race she would not soon forget.
The water felt amazing in the heat. Her 5 feet, 10 inches frame began churning out big, powerful, clean strokes. The surface was choppy, more so than other races, but she assumed it to be the result of the 2,000 athletes who stirred it up before her. When she reached the buoy, the turnaround point for the swim stage, she was corrected.
“I’ll never forget, I turned at the buoy and the sky was black,” Bandur recalled.
The swim was even more difficult on the way back to shore, and as she emerged from the water she heard the event announcer urging spectators to seek shelter from the incoming elements. Was it over? Were they calling the race? Race volunteers continued to urge her forward through the course. She reached the transition area to prepare for the bicycling phase and found the racks of bicycles swinging like unlatched farm gates. She found her bike, hopped on, and could barely push forward into the oncoming headwinds. Then, the rain started…then the hail…then the sleet. Then came the heat again.
“Honestly, I just laughed the whole time,” Bandur recalled. “I kept thinking, this is hilarious. This is so funny. And I kept thinking that at least it’s not an Ironman, it’s half the distance of an Ironman.”
Bandur said the St. George race was the most challenging of her triathlon career, one that has seen her complete 20 half Ironman distance races and six full Ironmans (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run). Those numbers sound like a lifetime’s work, but Bandur, known to many for her reporting work in front of the camera for KETV, didn’t take to the sport until adulthood. She graduated from Westside High School before earning a degree from Iowa State University. Her journalism career took her to Kansas, Texas, and California before ultimately bringing her back home to Omaha, and her homecoming would serve as the jump-off for her endurance racing career. Her first race was UNO’s Try-Athalon, followed shortly thereafter by the Papillion Mayor’s Triathlon. She was drawn to the physical difficulty of the sport, the mental perseverance it demanded; but most of all, she loved the camaraderie it fostered.
“Even though it’s an individual sport when you are out there, it’s always been each triathlete is cheering each other on,” she said. “Also the volunteers too. There are people out there volunteering their time to make sure we finish the race and doing our best and wanting us to do our best. Just the overall excitement of it during the actual race and crossing that finish line, I just thought it was so cool. I was hooked.”
Her enthusiasm for the sport and the community it fosters has made her a beacon for triathletes around the city, veterans and rookies alike. Bandur encouraged Camila (Orti) Rutford, a former co-worker at KETV, to take up the sport, and insisted on accompanying her for training rides in the early going. The two now travel to most races together, including a half-Iron world championship race in Nice, France.
“She is so open and so comfortable with people immediately that you feel very safe around her, even being vulnerable and asking questions because she just wants to share,” said Rutford, who now works for Fox 12 News in Portland, Oregon. “She just wants to share with people, that’s just how she is. “
Even more important to Bandur than sharing the sport with her peers is passing it on to the next generation, particularly to kids who might not be able to afford the sport’s hefty entry fee. In 2018, after receiving a mean-spirited, anonymous note that criticized her physical appearance, Bandur founded the Ironhawk Juniors Triathlon Club, an eight-week summer program during which girls between the ages of 8 and 14 receive triathlon coaching, lessons, and equipment, free of charge. The session is capped off by an actual triathlon race. In 2018 the club had 213 active participants; in 2019 it jumped to 272; and, following a COVID-19 hiatus, Bandur expects the number to be even larger this summer.
Whether it’s turning insults into fuel for good or trudging through an entire elemental spectrum in the Utah desert, Bandur credits triathlon with giving her the self-reliance and perseverance needed to continue moving forward, and this is what she hopes to pass on.
“When someone asks me about it, I start recruiting them because I love it so much,” Bandur said. “The joy it brings me, the friendships that I’ve made and being able to challenge myself and build confidence, set goals and be disciplined, and know that I’ve been sacrificing and working hard, and that I am able to accomplish this. That sense of accomplishment really goes a long way…I want other people to feel that joy and build those friendships and feel that confidence.”
Search @IHjuniorstriclub on Facebook for more information.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.