Leah Tarleton could scarcely believe she was a national divisional cycling champion in her first attempt, but a granddaughter’s ecstatic shouts and madly waving arms in the crowd told her so.
“That’s when I knew I had won, when I saw Mari’s arms above the huge crowd at the results board,” says Tarleton, an 81-year-old Bellingham resident.
It was an almost surreal memory for Tarleton, who won the 5K and 10K time trials in the 80-84 age group at the National Senior Games (formerly the Senior Olympics) in Minnesota in July 2015.
Results were nailed up the traditional way — on hard copy — and Tarleton recalls there was no way she could quickly fight her way to the front among hundreds of competitors in numerous divisions.
“So Mari fought her way up, and that’s how I learned I had won, when I heard her screaming, ‘Grandma won, Grandma won!” says the affable retired registered nurse.
I was the fastest runner of anyone, boys or girls, at my school in eighth grade.
Leah Tarleton, gold-medal bicyclist at senior games
Tarleton came of age in DeWitt, Iowa, long before most high school girls had extensive athletic opportunities.
“If anyone had told me then that I would do this,” she says, “well, I would have thought, ‘How could a girl do that?’”
Still, she recalls: “I was the fastest runner of anyone, boys or girls, at my school in eighth grade.”
A graduate of the University of Iowa, Tarleton holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. She worked for 17 years, until 1994, at the College of San Mateo, Calif. as director of the school’s health center and as a nursing instructor.
Starting in her mid-40s, she frequently ran distance races, including three marathons and San Francisco‘s famous Bay to Breakers race albeit “slowly but for fun and fitness,” she says.
Then, while she was preparing to join family in the Northwest two decades ago after her retirement from nursing, a garage door fell on her back.
“My back pain was excruciating when I would run” she recalls. “But I discovered that cycling did not cause me pain.”
She discovered Bellingham’s avid cycling community, including close friend and training partner Nancy Kuhn Fine, and a new phase of her life began. Tarleton and Fine have each won six gold medals at three appearances in state competitions for seniors.
“This was the first year that things worked out for us to go to nationals,” Tarleton says.
Fine took two sixth-place medals in the 5K and 10K time trials in Minnesota.
“Nancy also did very well at the nationals,” Tarleton says. “She was in a much larger and much more competitive division, in the 70-74 category.”
Tarleton learned to love being a fan of both sports and fitness in the 1970s when son Scott starred in football at San Mateo High School. She was also thrilled to see Scott’s daughters, Mari and Hanna, become sports standouts at Sehome High School.
Tarleton is also drawn to art, and now designs and creates beautiful art boxes, such as those used for jewelry and photos. And she loves to paint.
“What I also love doing now is painting old furniture that I find at the Salvation Army,” she says.