By any measure Kirsten Sass of McKenzie, Tennessee is an age group star. At Chicago in 2015 she won the Female 35-39 Grand Final World Championship double at the Olympic and Sprint distances. In 2016 at the Cozumel Grand Final World Championship she won the Female 35-39 Olympic distance and placed 2nd at the Female 35-39 sprint distance. In 2016 she won the ITU Long Distance World Championship in the Female 35-39 category. And last year at Omaha she won the USA Triathlon Female 35-39 National Championship in both the Olympic and Sprint distances. She lost the overall age group title to 30-34 winner Alissa Doehla by 2:24.
Yesterday at Omaha, Sass returned to defend her Olympic distance 35-39 title and look for redemption in the women’s overall. After a 25:15 swim, a dominating women’s–best 1:02:10 bike split and a 38:57 run, Sass finished in 2:09:47 with a 30 seconds margin of victory on women’s overall runner-up and female 25-29 winner Jacqueline Godbe of Chicago, Illinois.
Modest to a fault, Sass gives much credit to the weather. “It was a beautiful day in Omaha,” said Sass. “It was cool. No wind. Swim was calm. Perfect conditions all the way around. The swim is not my strong point, so I had as good of a swim as I could have. Then I got on to my favorite which is the bike. The course had a good little hill right before the turnaround. So, I held it steady and went as hard as I could without killing my legs for the run. I was happy with my bike. I put in a good solid effort. On the run I just tried to find my happy pace and stay there. I take a running course with Bobby McGee so always channel my Bobby McGee running form.” Regarding what she learned from McGee, Sass says, “I work on my cadence. Pushing through my heels. A little forward lean. I really try to run as fast and efficiently as possible.”
Sass’s finish time was 2:01 better than her effort last year although 23 seconds slower than Doehla’s 2016 winning mark.
Sass admits the bike leg is her ace in the hole and her mastery began when she was attending the University of Western Ontario in Canada. “I didn't start cycling until I was in University. My father Volker Winkler has always been a huge influence. When I got into cycling he got me a bike for my birthday and we did an awful lot of rides and miles together. It started my love of cycling and I guess it just stuck through the years.”
Growing up in the small town of McKenzie, Sass says there weren’t many organized sports. “We didn’t have very many things like cross country or track or anything like that,” she says. “I played basketball for one year in high school and rode the bench. I did some T-ball and softball. That was the extent of it. But my father loved to run so he had me, my brothers and sister run the local 5k. So I stuck with running over the years. At University, my roommate said 'You should try swimming – it’s a really good form of exercise.' When I got in the pool, it was everything I could do to get to the other end. It was so difficult, I thought ‘Oh that is a good challenge!’”
Sass says she got a mountain bike to ride back and forth to classes and started to do some more riding. When she told her father, he got an idea. “When my dad found out he was so excited he signed me up for Memphis in May Triathlon in ‘99,” said Sass. “It was my first race. I rode my dad’s road bike and I finished dead last in my age group. But I was very inspired by the triathlon community – the challenge and the support of all of my competitors. I had fun racing with my dad and I thought maybe I could get a little faster if I trained a little bit.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in biology, she spent a few years in Utah doing massage therapy. She then became accredited as a Physician’s Assistant and went to work for her father, who has a family practice in McKenzie. She is married to Jeff Sass, whose favorite sporting pursuit is the Elvis Presley 5k in Memphis, made even more attractive by the post-race barbecue. They have two children.
Sass is cool under pressure but admits that the multiple starting waves format of a national championship makes her nervous. Sass started relatively early and had to wait for the 25-29 and 30-34 women to finish before she knew she had the overall title. “There are so many fast girls these days,” she says. “I know there were some out there tearing it up on the course – and some are a lot stronger on bike and run than I.”
On Sunday, Sass completed a rare double, winning the USA Triathlon Age Group Sprint Distance National Championship Women's overall title one day after her Olympic distance women's overall victory. Sass finished the 750-meter swim, 20 kilometer bike leg and 5 kilometer run in a time of 1:06:50 which gave her a 34 seconds margin of victory for the women's overall title over runner-up Kearci Smith of Plano, Texas.