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Iron Women of Ironman Part 1: Cherie Gruenfeld And Giving Back

September 09, 2023 5 min read 7 Comments

Iron Women of Ironman Part 1: Cherie Gruenfeld And Giving Back

Cherie running with Isi Ibarra more than a decade ago. The smiles tell it all. Isi is a graduate who comes back to help out Cherie's organization, Exceeding Expectations. Photo by Lee Gruenfeld.

 
(first in a series of two stories)

Why you should read:

*Cherie carves a powerful story of giving back.

*Gruenfeld is the oldest woman to finish Ironman World Championship in Kona.

*She has 14 Ironman World Championships to her credit.

 
By Ray Glier

You have the stout-hearted Cherie Gruenfeld who finished the rigorous and fulfilling Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October, 2022 at 78 years old.

Then you have the warm-hearted Cherie (shuh-REE) Gruenfeld, who started an organization, Exceeding Expectations, in San Bernadino, Ca., for at-risk youth. It uses her sport, the triathlon, as a stimulant to get them to pay attention to their education.

It is this double drum beat of “stout” and “warm”—Sports and compassion by a Geezer Jock—that is worth writing about here.

Exceeding Expectations is thriving after 23 years while Cherie continues to do half-triathlons at 79. Her story can be a guide for Geezer Jocks who want to give back to their community, but might not have the full appreciation of how to combine their passion for staying fit with helping out.

Cherie took her passion for a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run across the Big Island in Hawaii and converged it with a moral obligation of lending a hand. She started Exceeding Expectations from authentic footing, which was her love of the sport.

“My first piece of advice would be make sure that this really is a purpose in your life and not just something that you want to do because now you're retired and not working,” said Gruenfeld, 79. “You’ve got to be gutsy and you got to stick with it when it gets tough. If it's not a purpose in your life, and or a passion in your life, you're not going to stick with it.”

And then she said this, which is big:

“If you come into these kids’ lives and say ‘I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that’ and then you lose interest, or your life changes, or whatever, and you walk away, you have done a great damage. Now you're just another one of those people in their lives who let them down. So you better deliver on what you promised and build the trust.”

I could fill up this space writing about Cherie being the oldest woman to ever finish the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, or her 14 world titles, or her 22 events at Kona, a “mystical place” where you have to actually qualify to participate.

But if any of you are done with your three 20-mile bike rides for the week, or whatever activity, and are still looking for purpose, I need to write about why Cherie found her purpose in helping children exceed their expectations.

She was driving some kids (5th, 6th graders) through San Bernadino and was talking to them about going to college and then having a good job.

The youngster in the front seat looked at her blankly and then said, “Cherie, why are you talking to us about that? That's for other kids. It's not for us.”

Cherie considered it utterly implausible that the children in the car that afternoon could be so hopeless as to not even consider finishing high school, let alone go to college.

“These kids lived in a world where not a single person in their families had ever graduated from high school,” Gruenfeld said. “The expectation was that they would drop out of high school and try and get a job to support the family.”

Several years earlier, while speaking to a room of 200 5th and 6th graders from the same at-risk neighborhoods, Cherie had showed them a video of her triumph in Kona that year (2000). The kids were enthralled at the athleticism of the woman standing in front of them. Gruenfeld was enthralled by their enthusiasm and founded Exceeding Expectations.

“I ended up with a life that had a lot of opportunities and I've always believed that if I had the opportunity to give some of what I have to benefit someone who hasn't been that lucky, I would do that,” Cherie said. “I realized that here it was, this was my chance to do this. So then I dive in 100%. This has become such a priority in my life.”

Kona is a high bar for an athlete, and requires religious devotion. Cherie left a terrific job in computer software—an early AI company—to train six months for her first Iron Man in 1992.

So she set a high bar for the kids, but built a ladder of small steps to get them there. Short runs, short bike rides, and short swims.

The swims were challenging for the many Hispanic kids in the program, even though they lived in southern California. There were times Cherie put them on her back and swam to get them past the fear of the waves.

“They would go back to their neighborhoods and some people would say to them, ‘Why are you doing this, that white woman doesn’t care about you,” Cherie said. “We did care about them and they knew it.”

They craved the attention and Gruenfeld made sure it was consistent effort by her and her volunteers. She rounded up bikes for them and took them to competitions, but the goal was staying in school, not producing triathlon champions, Cherie said.

Academically more confident children started to emerge from Exceeding Expectations and some went on to college. Finishing high school was now a foregone conclusion. Children who graduated from the program, who are in college or in full-time jobs, come back to coach.

Gruenfeld stopped full Ironman in 2015 when she was 71 and realized she might be getting too old for Kona. On a training bike ride in the summer that year, which was through the desert near her home, the temperature was 115 degrees. Cherie had picked up an escort, a local fire truck, and the firefighters said they were going to follow her the last 10 miles as a precaution.

“I made the commitment right during those last 10 miles that I was going to work really hard to be ready for October of that year,” she said. “I needed to have a race I was really proud of in order to walk away on my own terms. So that October, I went to Kona and I did have a very special race.”

After the 2015 race, Gruenfeld started doing half Iron Man races until October 2022 when she came out of retirement for one more full world championship ride in Hawaii. Back spasms during the run dragged down her time, but she won her age group and finished...again.

It’s advice for Geezer Jocks everywhere. If you start it, finish it. Cherie knows how to finish.


7 Responses

flo meiler
flo meiler

September 25, 2023

What an inspiring women she is. Congratulations, Flo Meiler

MOLLY ANN THORPE
MOLLY ANN THORPE

September 22, 2023

We all need heroes – She is mine. Thank you for sharing the story of a woman who is bigger than life and with a heart to match.

P. Ben Vassantachart
P. Ben Vassantachart

September 22, 2023

In 1999, during a training for my first full distance Ironman, I was hit by a truck while riding. My dream to do Ironman vanished. Then a lady, that I never heard of, named Cherie Gruenfeld, reached out to me in an email and gave me encouragement. When I recovered from the injuries, she gave me a tailored training program and even trained with me. Helped me over many fears, including biking on the road. She was there at Camp Pendleton beach early in the morning, in 2000, cheering on my first Ironman. Even my swim time was almost twice as long as the elites, she waited for me to emerge out of the sea to cheer me on. Finished my first Ironman was not easy but this remarkable lady offered help to a total stranger allowing me to finish the dream. THANK YOU, Cherie.

Jeff Perlis
Jeff Perlis

September 22, 2023

🎉 Cherie has been my hero for many years… and continues to be. She inspires me and many others to, show up, bloom where you are planted, keep your agreements, and simply keep pedaling.
She is an Iron-Woman in all that she takes on ❣️

Barbara Wintroub
Barbara Wintroub

September 22, 2023

I’ve known Cherie from the beginning. She is a very special person and great athlete. So glad you could tell her story.

Mike Lavigna
Mike Lavigna

September 11, 2023

There are people who win championships and then there are CHAMPIONS! TRULY, a GIANT!!

Perhaps if stories like this were told EVERY night on mainstream news, our world would be transformed!! Thanks Ray, thanks Cherrie🫶

Dixon
Dixon

September 11, 2023

Wonderful story about a woman with determination and success

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