AN ONGOING LOVE OF TRIATHLON
TRIATHLON COACH BARRIE Shepley recognized great talent when he saw teenager Kirstie Otto (now Kirstie Kniaziew) in her first triathlon. Their meeting sparked years of hard work and success as a junior, elite, age-grouper and master triathlete. Still going strong, she is propelled by a fierce determination to do her best and a genuine love of the sport.
Kniaziew credits several teachers for getting her to that first triathlon and, soon after, Shepley became a significant influence. “It was Barrie Shepley and his never-ending enthusiasm that got me connected with the sport,” she explains. Her brother Stefan began triathlons too and they trained together in St. Catharines, Ont.
Shepley first suggested Kniaziew might qualify for an upcoming world championship. “Although I did not qualify, it was the opportunity that I began to focus on,” she remembers, “and, a year later, under Barrie’s guidance, I made my first Canadian national team at the age of 17 and competed at the world championships in Australia and from there I was hooked!”
Kirstie won bronze in Australia and went on to become a three-time Canadian junior champion. Not much later came a race that really stands out for her, the 1995 Pan Am Games in Argentina, where she took home the individual silver medal and a team gold medal for the Olympic distance race.
In just a few years, this young woman had established herself as a phenomenal triathlete and she wasn’t about to slow down.
Kniaziew started racing professionally for summer work during high school. “With success locally, I was fortunate that my parents could fund my start on the ITU (International Triathlon Union) series,” she explains. “From there I earned a spot on the circuit for a couple of seasons, which involved a lot of time away from home.”
In 1995, she placed in the top 10 in the ITU series and then continued to achieve impressive rankings. When she missed out on qualifying for the Canadian Olympic Team in 2000, she decided to move up to the Ironman distance, more as an age grouper, as it suited her newly married lifestyle better.
You could say that triathlon played a role in her marriage. She met Duffy Kniaziew at a Kids of Steel race when they were teenagers. Part of a well-known triathlon family, more than a few of his relatives have filled the national team roster over the years.
“The Kniaziew family have been the perfect fit for me,” she says. “Triathlon and healthy lifestyle are an important part for all of us and my husband Duffy has obviously been the backbone to all my years of training and racing of which I’m very thankful.”
Between 2001 and 2003, Kirstie raced in three fulldistance races; twice at the world championship in Kona and once in Wisconsin. But the most memorable Ironman was her fourth, in Coeur d’alene, Idaho. There, in 2005, she not only finished as the first woman overall, but also completed the gruelling race under 10 hours.
Following this amazing achievement, she and Duffy began their family and she put triathlons aside for awhile. She kept up her love of running and, by 2013, she was back on the triathlon race course again.
Kniaziew is now coached by longtime friend and training partner, James Loaring. Of her strengths, Loaring recalls she would fiercely hold him off during swim sessions in the 1990s and he sees that incredible determination still as she gives her all to prevent competitors from passing her.
Leading up to Chicago’s 2015 world championship, Loaring says Kniaziew trained only about eight hours a week to win gold in the women’s 40 to 44 sprint. In 2016, she took gold yet again at the world championship, this time over the Olympic distance in Cozumel. Clearly taking time away to focus on family did not diminish her talent or drive.
Anyone meeting Kniaziew for the first time would see a laid back and humble woman, says Loaring. “But when the gun goes off,” he chuckles, “she’s a fierce competitor who knows how to put her best foot forward. She is a great inspiration because of her talent and the balance she maintains with triathlon, work and family.”
Not surprisingly, Knieziew’s children have an active interest in sports. “There is no doubt that our young children are heavily influenced by my continued training and dedication to the sport,” she says, “as well as the healthy lifestyle of the entire Kniaziew family.”
Clearly taking time away to focus on family did not diminish her talent or drive.
Helen Powers is a freelance journalist from Hamilton, Ont.