When you meet Arrietta Clauss, ask her about her five children. Her eyes will brighten. Contagious, irrepressible laughter will echo as she shares stories gleaned from the zaniness of zone defense parenting. Her offspring are now grown and scattered from Wisconsin to Singapore, but they are still very much present in the lives of Arrietta and her husband, Allen.
Having shifted from a career as a chemist in the consumer-products industry to being a stay-at-home mom for sixteen years, she will be plainspoken about the challenges of raising a family even as celebration of her children shines through in every sentence. She will tell you about lost cell phones and annual Christmas letters in which she and Allen mercilessly tease each child in turn, to mutual delight. She will describe living abroad with the family in China and Japan for seven years. She will share parenting advice, saying, “Our objective in raising the kids was to give them as much independence as possible. It was theirs to lose.” She will stop mid-sentence and shake her head slightly at her good fortune, saying simply, “I’ve really had a charmed life.”
And then, ask her about sports. Watch her hands become animated when she describes her 2010 competitive cycling season or her longstanding devotion to swimming. Then, watch her become still and lean forward with deliberateness, quietly sharing a fundamental truth: “You have to have your own thing. It can be music, photography, whatever. That's what sports was for me. You have to have something that centers you.”
A lifelong athlete, Arrietta competed in swimming from an early age. She continued to swim competitively throughout all of her pregnancies and well into her childrens’ high school years. “My mom’s first sport was swimming, and most of our summer days as children were spent at the YMCA outdoor pool. My mom would get her workout in and then we would spend the rest of the day by the pool,” wrote Anna Clauss, age 26. “I am pretty sure that swimming is what kept my mom sane with 5 crazy kids in the house.” Rider Clauss, 24, wrote, ”She had previously been a masters national champion in swimming when we were all young children. She then started swimming competitively again when I was in high school and set just about every masters record in Wisconsin.” But by 2002 or 2003, Arrietta’s continuation in competitive swimming would have meant traveling to meets every weekend – and this was increasingly difficult given the younger Clauss’ forays into athletics. (Four out of five children would eventually compete in swimming or running at the collegiate level.) When she developed a shoulder injury, it sealed the deal. Competitive sports was off the plate for a while.
Which is not to say that Arrietta's interest in sports ever waned. Rider Clauss recalled a memory from his senior year of high school when he ran on the cross country team, writing, "Before every meet, as part of the warm-up, the team would jog the race course with our coach. As we ran, Coach would give us our race strategy...my mom, loving all things sports, wanted in on this...While all the other cross country moms were in the parking lot drinking coffee and sharing team gossip, my mom was out jogging the course with the team trying to learn more about the upcoming race. To date, I think she is the only team mom ever to warm-up with the team."
And when Allen and Arrietta marked their 25th anniversary, they wanted the celebration to involve both travel and time with their children. So in 2004, they signed up for a family bicycling vacation through the Loire Valley, France, capped off with cheering on Lance Armstrong's sixth win of the Tour de France.
Never mind that, in Arrietta's words, "We knew nothing about biking."
Despite this the family quickly fell into a cycling rhythm, with Allen and Arrietta splitting up sheparding duties to make sure that everyone finished the day's miles without mishap. Arrietta said, "It was just - the scenery was beautiful. We had a fun time as a family. It was something that Allen and I could do together. We liked it." Arthur Clauss, 21, wrote, "My favorite moment on the trip was when my brother and I took off from the rest of the family during the last fifteen mile stretch after along day of cycling. Although I could tell it pained my mother, she stayed back and rode at a leisurely pace with our sisters." Alluding to Arrietta's competitive side, Arthur continued, "It is not like my mother, despite the fact that we are younger and stronger, to ever let us beat her easily."
Upon returning to Madison, Arrietta and Allen decided to seek out more opportunities to bike together. They became regulars at the Wednesday Night Bike Ride series, which has a local reputation as being fast-paced. They enjoyed the time spent together, the rural scenery, the camaraderie, and the realization that they could in fact keep up with some of the swiftest riders.
But it wasn't perhaps quite the bonding experience that they had expected, because as it turned out, Arrietta could more than hold her own. She could sprint away from the pack - at will. "I mean, she was dropping a lot of guys from the tough bike rides, including me," said Allen. After a lifetime of aerobic training, it became evident that Arrietta had some serious biking chops. Demurely, she recalled, "All of a sudden it got very intriguing."
While some spouses might invest in flowers, Allen decided to splurge on a professional bike fitting and a VO2 max test for his wife's birthday present. The results of the testing left them dumbfounded. "She was off the charts for all women," said Allen. "And then we started to go to the male charts. And we started going down in age groups. And she would be a normal 15-19 year old male [based on] her VO2 max." Recalling their dawning realization, Allen said, "So then we started going back and saying, well she's got some real, natural talent, both genetic and honed by years and years of endurance workouts - she's got some incredible capacity."
They began to dedicate increasing time and resources to the sport of cycling, and Arrietta sought out professional coaching. She also began setting competitive goals and relying on the self-discipline that had served her not only through collegiate swimming and rowing, but years of parenting. "I don't know many people that I've met in my life who have the regimen and discipline that she has," said Allen. Echoing this sentiment, Eulalia "Layla" Clauss, 23, wrote, "She does not take any short cuts, but diligently pays her dues on the bike day in and day out, never losing sight of what she wishes to accomplish."
By the start of the 2010 season, she was working with coach Gordy Paulson and had decided to focus on time trials, the "race of truth" format that pits each rider against the clock. With all five children in college or living on their own, she also had for the first time in many years the ability to focus on her own personal goals. In her entry into the Focal Flame Photography "Honoring the Athlete" contest, her nominator stated, "Now she has time and tonnes of energy for her own training. She is training for Master's Nationals to be held in Louisville in Aug. - and I think she is going to win!! She is a tough, competitive woman with a big smile!"
Training six days a week for up to two and a half hours at a stretch, Arrietta carefully worked up to the USA Cycling Masters National Championship held during the first week of August. "This year, I went with a purpose, which was to win," said Arrietta. During pre-race preparation, she spent six hours studying every landmark on the time trial and road race courses. "I really studied [the time trial] course," said Arrietta. "It was a straight out, 180 degrees turn, and coming back, with some hills." She reviewed race strategy with Paulson. "This was the first Nationals that I had my coach there, and Gordy was familiar with the courses and could tell me even what gear to be in on some of the hills, which was helpful," said Arrietta. She also looked over her cycling equipment meticulously, and was grudgingly convinced by fellow cyclist Jeff Otto to change her wheels not long before the time trial. "He was saying, 'This equipment is better. It will give you a few watts.'" Concerned about the possibility of flatting a new tire, she insisted that Paulson change the tubes.
On August 3, the date of the time trial, the temperature climbed well into the 90s while racers launched themselves from the starting chute and hurtled into the heat. And for 29 minutes and 50.27 seconds, Arrietta drew on months of training, hours of pre-race preparation, a lifetime of exercising and relentless willpower. As results rolled in, a dream was realized. Arrietta Clauss was the new USA Cycling Master's Time Trial National Champion, clocking in at a hair under 25 miles per hour and setting a pace faster than any age group competitors, male or female, who raced the 20 km distance (all women age 55 and up, and all men age 65 and up).
The next day she competed in the road race, medaling again with a second-place finish in a mentally grueling race. Joined by her nearest competitor, Ann Marie Miller of New York, Arrietta attacked off the front to break away from the field on the third lap. "And then, [Ann Marie] continued to accelerate, and that was my breaking moment, when I thought, 'She's stronger, I'm not, I'm going to get second and she's going to get first,'" said Arrietta. "And then for the next three laps, we time trialed it." Miller finished two minutes ahead of Arrietta, followed by a minute-and-a-half gap until the third place finisher.
Photographer Clint Thayer caught up with Arrietta at her last race of the 2010 season, the Mid-America Time Trial Series Finale in Garden Prairie, IL on September 18. Though Arrietta had intended to finish the season with the ABR State Championship Time Trials, a death in the extended family prevented participation. The MATTS Finale gave one last opportunity to not only launch into full flight, but also to race an event along with her husband Allen and end the season on a high note.
On race morning, drizzles crescendoed in dramatic fashion when a fast-moving thunderstorm brought lightning, high winds, and in the words of the race director, "buckets of rain". The race continued over a 35-kilometer course. Slate-colored skies provided dramatic backdrop for Arrietta, who bowed over her bike into the wind, tires mirrored on water-slicked asphalt. Thayer recalled, "At one point I had moved ahead on the course, and had about thirty seconds to set up a shot before Arrietta would pass. Fifteen seconds before she arrived, I heard a ZIP-POP-HISSSSS then BOOOOM that literally shook the ground. I looked up at the top of a telephone pole not more then 10 to 15 feet from me and I saw the line had snapped - it was sparking and flying in different directions." Thayer turned his attention back to Arrietta, took the shot in a dead downpour, and continued. Despite the fact that the MATTS Finale was not a primary competitive objective, and despite the conditions - or, perhaps, because of them - the images show Arrietta at her most elemental: focused, relentless, and ferocious. In the end, Arrietta took overall women's first place. Allen also had a rewarding race with a fourth place finish for his age group.
When asked to comment on Arrietta's qualities and approach to athletics, her coach Gordy Paulson said, "Apart from her obvious physical gifts as an extraordinary athlete, Arrietta has a level of determination and commitment to both her training and competition that are unmatched. When Arrietta sets her mind to accomplish something, she approaches it with fervor, intellect, and passion. When Arrietta has done her training and preparation, by the time she lines up at the start, she has already got the race won." Rider Clauss expressed similar observations. "I guess I wasn't really surprised that my mom won the time trial at nationals," wrote Rider. "She seems to be able to accomplish whatever she puts her mind to. She has an amazing combination of athletic ability, discipline in training and competitive drive." Anna Clauss wrote, "I do not know anyone else who approaches life with as much energy as my mother. She even dusts as if her life depended on it (which set a pretty high standard for Saturday morning chores)."
When asked what she hoped to share with her children as a result of her cycling endeavors, Arrietta flashed a quick smile and answered readily. "When you put time into something, and effort into something, you can achieve great things," she said. "You don't have to be limited by your age." And her family? They've taken notes. "She has demonstrated that it is never too late to go after one's passion," wrote Arthur Clauss, 21. "No one expected a biking career to emerge from a leisure family cycling trip through France, but it did." Warren Clauss, Arthur's twin brother, wrote, "She has inspired me. Inspired me not to give up on my passions despite where I am in life or amidst all the obstacles that I am up against. That good will flourish from hard work, drive, and heart. And it is never too late to seek your goals." And when asked what one thing he would want to tell Arrietta about her sporting endeavors, her partner of so many years, Allen, simply said - quietly, and with clearly evident emotion - "I think I would say that you're a great role model. Your kids are really proud to have you as their mom."