As a college sophomore, Heather Lendway pondered whether to stick with the swim team for a second year. She had no idea of how greatly the decision would impact her life.
Heather had been swimming almost her entire life – she was three years old when she first entered the pool and began competing at age eight. Propelled by the excitement of consistent victory and her naturally competitive spirit, she continued on through high school and her first year in college.
But Heather’s life was becoming more complicated. She was an adult now – there were other priorities vying for her attention. She thought it might finally be time to give up the pool and focus on other things, like preparing for a career in math and computer science.
Had Heather decided to quit the swim team that fall, her college and career accomplishments might have been quite different. But she didn’t quit – on the contrary, she went all in.
“It suddenly hit me how important being part of the swim team was to me – they were my family,” said Heather. “It made me want to dedicate myself more than ever. I began training on my own, outside of practice. I learned what it meant to work hard – to push my boundaries and really dig deep. That’s when I caught a glimpse of my real potential.”
Now everyone can glimpse Heather’s realized potential on the record board at her alma mater, Macalester College. Over a decade later, the All-Conference, All-American swimmer still holds the record in the 500-yard freestyle, 1,000-yard freestyle, 1,650-yard freestyle, 400-meter individual medley and 800-meter freestyle relay events.
In addition to a decorated swimming career, Heather graduated with bachelor’s degrees in math and computer science and a minor in statistics.
Finding career success
While Securian recruiter Ann Wolbert admired the fact that Heather competed on her college swim team, it was secondary to the other factors that made Heather an attractive recruit.
“Heather had great academics and a record showing she could multi-task. She was a teaching assistant, did an internship, taught swimming, was on the math team – I could tell she was a driver,” said Ann.
Securian has always had a high retention rate – in 2016, it was 95 percent – due in part to the company’s practice of promoting from within. According to Ann, in the IT department where Heather started, leadership positions are held by a high percentage of women.
“Almost without exception, every woman currently in an IT leadership position started as an intern or in an entry-level position and worked her way up,” said Ann. Heather is one of them.
“I’ve had the opportunity to move around internally to new jobs,” said Heather. “Being able to keep my mind churning by doing different things is definitely a plus for someone like me, who is always looking for what I can do next.”
“Heather is very diligent,” observed Andy Massaro, technical manager of application infrastructure services and Heather’s former manager. “She doesn’t give up on things. She really dives into a problem and won’t quit until she figures it out. I’m sure it’s the same way she approaches athletic training.”
Heather is now an analytics lead on the corporate digital strategy team, where she runs predictive models for a number of departments within Securian.
“My new job entails more analysis and there’s more room for creativity,” Heather explained. “I love taking a raw set of data and analyzing what I can do with it, which path I can take it down. I really enjoy it.”
Back into the pool
About a year into her corporate career, Heather was offered a part-time job coaching a high school swim team, which she did for a few years.
During her coaching, she encountered many swimmers who had great talent and potential, but just weren’t willing to work hard enough to fulfill it.
“It saddened me,” admitted Heather. “But then it occurred to me I was being a little hypocritical. After all, my older sister was entering triathlons and doing well. I hadn’t been swimming for four years. I was neglecting my own potential, just like some of the kids I was coaching. So I got back in the pool.”
Conquering the amateur triathlon world
Thanks to the turning point Heather experienced in her sophomore year, she knew exactly what to do next – she went all in.
She created training plans, tested herself, tweaked the plans and retested. When she was happy with her performance, she bought a bike and applied the process again, alternating between cycling, swimming and running workouts.
The training proved to be time-intensive, especially while working equally hard to advance her career. Thanks to a degree of flexibility in her work schedule and her manager’s support, Heather has been able to adjust her hours to fit it all in.
“I’ll start my work day a little earlier, take a longer lunch to get a workout in, and extend my work hours,” Heather said. “It’s nice to have that flexibility and be able to pursue personal and career goals at the same time.”
It wasn’t long until Heather began participating in triathlons, to remarkable success.
“Heather’s amateur rise was meteoric,” said Jerry MacNeil, triathlon writer, historian and editor of MinnesotaTriNews.com. “In 2012, she was named Minnesota Rookie of the Year by the Minnesota Multisport Awards Committee. In her next two amateur seasons, she won 21 of the 24 races she entered, including the USA Triathlon National Championships (twice), where she set the all-time female record, and the ITU Olympic Distance World Championship in 2014.”
As of 2017, 12 of the race records Heather set as an amateur still stand.
Training both body and mind
As many athletes attest, the physical challenges of competition are tough, but they’re certainly rivaled by the mental challenge.
“The mental side is really interesting,” said Heather. “It’s challenging because there is so much doubt in your head about whether you can really do it – win or at least finish where you want to finish.
“Plus, triathlons are very long races – a lot can go wrong and you have a lot of alone time in your head. You may need to problem-solve on the fly or continuously reassure yourself about your performance. It’s essential to control your thoughts and stay mentally prepared for the unexpected.”
There’s a direct connection between Heather’s mental toughness and the analytical skills she exercises at work.
“Analyzing data is what I do every day in my job, so being an analytical thinker definitely helps me in my races. It’s nice that I can apply the same skills I use in my job to help me stay focused during races,” Heather said.
Heather began competing professionally in 2015, often racing against the most elite female triathletes in the world.
Nonetheless, she soon stood on the podium in two major triathlons – the Los Olas International Triathlon and St. Anthony’s Triathlon, both in Florida. The USA Triathlon named her U.S. Elite Rookie of the Year.
The international triathlon community took notice. In 2016, she placed third in the Ironman 70.3 Pan American Championships in Panama, her favorite race thus far.
“Heather has earned the respect of her elite peers in the U.S. and internationally,” said MacNeil. “She was certainly one of the top five most talented and successful U.S. amateur female triathletes ever. Her swimming and cycling skills rival those of the established superstars in those sports.”
Beyond the accolades
Earning the respect of other athletes is nice, but Heather’s desire has always been more personal – to be a good role model for the next generation, and especially to her two young nieces, ages 8 and 4.
“I think it’s important they see that women can have opportunities in sport and be strong and fit,” Heather explained. “I want to show them that, if they work hard at something, they can achieve their goals.
“I try to be the best version of myself I can be – in my sport, my career and my life. I want to show them that a woman can be strong in general, independent and in control of her own destiny.”
To follow Heather’s achievements and read her race reports, visit her website.