Sister Madonna Buder’s Canadian Connection
Sister Madonna Buder is, in no uncertain terms, truly a sporting phenom. In a world where bigger, fitter and faster dominates the news cycle, Sister Madonna is an anomaly whose outlook and groundbreaking athletic achievements have inspired many. Hers is a long story of quiet determination and of relentless physical drive. She is a humble trailblazer who has managed to overcome boundaries and preconceived notions of the limitations of advanced age coupled with human endurance. At 86 Sister Madonna Buder has become an unlikely endurance sporting icon.
So much so in fact, that when global sports giant Nike was looking for a motivational sportsperson for a television advertisement as part of a Rio Olympic Games marketing campaign, Sister Madonna was chosen ahead of many other athletes across a wildly diverse range of sporting pursuits.
“They made that commercial in just two days,” explains Buder. “Day one was an 18-hour shoot and day two was 16 hours, all for less than a minute of TV time. I did everything they wanted me to do and I think, to be honest, I wore them out.” After receiving widespread acclaim for her efforts, Buder says, “I’m truly not sure what all the fuss is about, actually.”
Such is the persona of Sister Madonna, a beacon of what healthy living and determination can do, who to this day remains the oldest person, male or female, to ever complete a full-distance race – she finished Subaru Ironman Canada on Aug. 26, 2012 at the age of 82.
Born in St. Louis, Mo. on July 24, 1930, Buder entered a convent at age 23 and then, in 1970, left the congregation to join a group of sisters from different and varying backgrounds to establish a new, non-traditional community of Religious Sisters. This provided Buder the freedom to choose her own ministry and lifestyle. She began training at age 48 at the behest of Father John, who told her it was a way of tweaking, “mind, body and spirit” and for the “relaxation and calmness it can bring an individual.” She completed her first triathlon at age 52 (the same year she ran the Boston Marathon for the first time) and then competed in her first Ironman event at age 55. She has continued on ever since, earning her the moniker of the “Iron Nun.”
To date, Buder has amassed close to 400 triathlon finishes including 45 full-distance events and has opened up five new age-group categories in the process. She says, with a laugh, “And, surprisingly I held age group records in all of those categories.” In 2014, Buder was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.
Canada and, in particular, the city of Penticton, has become etched into the heart and soul of Sister Madonna thanks to the fact that she’s competed in 22 Ironman Canada events.
“I have a real affinity for Canadian people,” she says. “The people are so welcoming, they have sound morals, culture, and they’re so open to
To date, Buder has amassed close to 400 triathlon finishes including 45 full-distance events and has opened up five new age-group categories in the process.
LEFT Sister Madonna at the 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships
OPPOSITE Sister Madonna in Kona
embracing life. I have always loved visiting Canada.”
In 2008, competing in Penticton when she was 78, Buder missed the race cut-off time of 17 hours by mere seconds. In 2009, she completed the event in a time of 16:54:30, an accomplishment that saw her break her own record of being the oldest female to complete the full-distance. In 2010 at the age of 80, a wetsuit malfunction ended her race prematurely, and in 2011 she missed the bike cut-off by two minutes.
With relentless optimism and determination, in 2012 Sister Madonna wanted to open the 80+ category and be the oldest person, male or female, to ever finish an Ironman triathlon. On Aug. 26 of that year she achieved this goal by finishing Ironman Canada in 16:32:00, beating 81-year-old Lew Hollander’s record of 16:45:55, earned at the Ironman World Championship in Kona in 2011.
Despite “a slight urge” to open up an 85+ category, that event in Penticton in 2012 would prove to be her last successful full-distance race.
“I won’t be competing in any more Ironman races,” said Buder recently via phone from her home in Spokane, Wash. “I would be placing myself into too many vulnerable situations. I have suffered from numerous crashes (including being knocked sideways off the road during the bike leg of the Ironman World Championship) and have had hypothermia and swimming-induced pulmonary edema (SIPE) four times.”
But make no mistake, there’s still a competitive fire in Sister Madonna’s belly. These days she has her eyes on standard distance events and duathlons. She competed in the duathlon at the Canadian Multisport Championships in Penticton in 2016. She plans on racing the US Duathlon National Championships in Bend, Ore. in 2017 and plans to race the ITU Duathlon Worlds in Penticton in August, 2017.
“I stand a fair chance of winning that event, especially given I won’t have any age-group competition,” she laughs.
Asked about her training regime, Sister Madonna candidly explains: “There is nothing routine about my life. I don’t train specifically for triathlons. I only do functional training; I swim when I feel like it, I run to mass, I ride to do errands like shopping – except for when I buy eggs.” With a laugh she adds, “I learned that the hard way. I just aim to keep moving, to keep in constant motion. That is all.”
Highly regarded race announcer Steve King says: “What an amazing athletic legacy Sister Madonna Buder has achieved. In addition to her nearly 400 triathlons and duathlons, she has won a multitude of national and world championships. Her faith and spirit has provided her with the perseverance to overcome all, including the frustrations of being just shy of the swim or bike cut-off times. Even though there are no longer any full-distance races in her future, she still returns to Penticton to compete each year.”
“She has made many friends around the globe as an athlete, an ambassador for fitness, a champion for the less fortunate,” King continues. “Many times I’ve heard people ask for her to touch them or give a blessing – knowing she is a conduit or has a direct line to a higher power.”
Whatever the reason, Sister Madonna remains the effervescent, charitable, warm, encouraging individual she has always been, a trailblazer and beautiful guiding light in both life and racing.
Kerry Hale is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada.
Sister Madonna Buder in Edmonton for the ITU Grand Final Sept. 1, 2014
Buder at the 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships