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Moms who made a difference: Meet two of triathlon’s most inspirational mothers

Beth James and Tracey Richardson prove just how much of a difference a mother can make for her own kids and others.

On Sunday we’ll be celebrating all of our amazing moms. Today we look at two mothers who used triathlon to make a difference for their children.

Beth and Liza James come into the finishing chute at Ironman Wisconsin, 2018. Photo: Getty Images for Ironman.

Team Liza

On July 4, 2004 Beth James was driving her car with her three children inside when two cars that were drag racing went flying by at a stop light. One of the cars just brushed her bumper, but it was enough to flip her vehicle. Two of the children were OK. Liza was not. She would suffer severe brain damage – “It is, quite honestly, a miracle that she is alive today,” Liza said in an interview with Bob Babbitt (below).

After the accident Liza, who was then six, ended up in a coma for over two months. While she is healthy now, she requires help to eat and drink. Three months after the accident Beth developed a non-cancerous brain tumour, which was eventually removed.

A Boston marathon qualifier and finisher, as she recovered from her own surgery, Beth got back into running and racing.

“I thought, ‘Beth, you need to get up. You need to care for the children. You need to go for a run. You need to clear your head,’” Beth told goodmorningamerica.com last year.

Beth ran a marathon a few months after her own surgery, then started to do events pushing Liza in a chair. That eventually led to the creation of “Team Liza” – the pair would compete and finish Ironman Wisconsin in 2018, and then competed at the Ironman World Championship in 2019. They managed to finish the swim and bike portions of the race in Kona, but didn’t make the bike cut off and were unable to finish.

While Liza cannot speak, she can communicate, and loves the racing she does with her mother.

“She immediately told me, ‘Don’t stop, mom. Don’t slow down, mom. Let’s go.,’” Beth said. “She so responsive, she loves the action, she loves the people.”

“Life is a gift,” Beth James said. “Each and every moment of each and every day is priceless. Don’t ever take it for granted. Do not ever complain. There’s always positives surrounding you.”

Tracey Richardson with Lisa Bentley. Photo: lisabentley.com

Tracey Richardson

I had the honour to meet Tracey Richardson and watch her amazing finishes at Ironman New Zealand and the Ironman World Championship in 2004. Richardson had changed her life around in 2002, having “hit the wall.” A mom with four children, two of them had cystic fibrosis. Thanks to the pressures of running her own business and caring for four kids, two of them very sick, Richardson was overweight and fighting depression.

“I had to decide if I would have the same life I’d always had, or whether I would try to change my life,” she said.

She started training for a short course triathlon and before she did it, she learned that Canadian Lisa Bentley, a pro triathlete who also suffered from cystic fibrosis, would be competing at Ironman New Zealand. Richardson decided she would make the trip down to the event to watch Bentley compete and introduce Makena and Cameron to her.

“I wanted them to see first hand what someone with CF was capable of doing,” Richardson wrote in her book “Going the Distance.”

Inspired by meeting Bentley, she entered Ironman New Zealand the following year and finished the race – along the way she lost over 25 kg. She raised money for cystic fibrosis research and care through her racing – Ironman New Zealand would serve as a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis for many years afterwards.

Richardson would go on to compete at the Ironman World Championship in 2004, and was featured in the NBC coverage of the event. To this day Cameron’s description of his reality for breathing in that feature – “it’s like breathing through a straw all day” – stays with me.

“When I come to that finish chute, my kids will be there and it will just mean everything to them and to me,” Richardson said in an interview with NBC. “There’s no greater accomplishment I’ve done in my life than to get here and to bring them with me on this journey.”

A few years ago both Makena and Cameron had double-lung transplant surgery – Makena’s came with a lot of complications and now she’s lost her kidney function. She’s soldiered on, though, and hopefully a compatible kidney will become available at some point.

Both Makena and Cameron have grown up watching their mom and people like Lisa Bentley are “capable of doing.” When I first reported on Richardson’s story, she wasn’t sure her children would make it to their 20s. Now, they are a few years short of their 30s – proving that they’re fighters just like their mom.