By Karl Ortegon '18
Many people head to Hawai'i to lounge by the ocean and take time off from their day job—that's not the case for Gretchen Millspaugh Cooney '83.
Cooney, who played field hockey and swam at Wesleyan in the late '70's and early '80s, recently returned home to Philadelphia after competing at the Ironman World Championships in Hawai'i. The race is synonymous with a super triathlon: swim 2.4 miles, hop on your bike and cycle through 112 miles of terrain, and finish it off with a 26.2-mile marathon. No breaks.
Cooney's trip to Hawai'i is even more impressive when considering what she had to do to get there. For the World Champs, one can only compete by first racing in a qualifying Ironman prior, and going fast enough at the qualifier to secure one of a few slots designated for one's age group and gender. For Cooney, there is typically just one spot for her age group, and she claimed it at the Ironman Maryland in 2016 to punch her ticket to Kona for this fall's World Champs.
An Ironman might sound like a daunting feat, but it's an essential part of life for Cooney. She has raced six Ironmans (including the World Championships in Kona), 15 half Ironmans (including the World Championships 4 times) and 20 marathons (including 3 Boston Marathons) so far. The training that is necessary to complete a race like the Ironman is not easy, but Cooney has implemented the work into her normal schedule, and it keeps her focused, disciplined, and happy.
"Triathlon and running have become an integral part of my lifestyle," she said. "Signing up for a race and then training for it gives me a goal to work towards. It gives me another reason to get out of bed in the morning. Training helps to keep me motivated and organized.
"Some things get put off until post-race, but it helps me to prioritize my life. Things like cleaning, household projects, and doctor's appointments get put on hold until after a big race, but as sociologist Ann Oakley wrote, 'Housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualization.'"
When she's not pushing her body to extraordinary heights, Cooney invests her energy in the environment, education and the empowerment of women. Her earth science major sparked her interest in nature, while her commitment to athletics at Wesleyan set the stage for her athletic endeavors. She credits Wesleyan's diverse, energetic, and creative community for initiating her passion for volunteer work.
Her business, Bucket List Training, offers training plans for those seeking to compete in anything from the Boston Marathon to an Ironman to someone's first 5K run. She's on the Board of Directors at the Riverbend Environmental Education Center, which facilitates a nature educational for children, and she serves on the Board of the Nantucket New School/Strong Wings Adventure School, which emphasizes experiential outdoor learning. She's also a member and board member of the Mullica Hill Women's Triathlon Club, the largest all women's triathlon club in the country.
Sports have always played an integral role in Cooney's life, and she was able to meet her husband Gordon Cooney '81 at Wesleyan, where he played lacrosse. She recounts fond memories of her time in Middletown, where she swam and played field hockey.
"My four closest friends are all women who I met on my first day on campus, on the field hockey field. We still see each other at least once a year, despite being spread out all over the world. I have also remained close to several of my swimming teammates. One of my fondest memories was the Induction of the 1980 Field Hockey Team into the Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame."
In 1980, the Wesleyan field hockey team notched its first undefeated season in program history and secured the Little Three title outright for only the second time ever.
Cooney marveled at today's athletic community at Wesleyan and commented on the programs in place to help athletes succeed after they graduate, like the A+ Athletics Advantage Program. She also commended the specific focus on empowering women to succeed at Wesleyan, on and off the field.
"From what I've observed among my classmates who now have scholar athlete children at Wesleyan, there is still a very strong sense of camaraderie among female athletes. I think [Athletic Director] Mike Whalen '83 has done an excellent job of encouraging female alumni scholar-athletes to mentor current undergraduate female athletes, providing them with guidance and advice as they near graduation. We didn't have a program like that when I was at Wes."
Wesleyan could not offer its indelible and unique resources to such a wide breadth of students as it does without support from generous donors like Cooney. She and her husband, inspired by their time at Wesleyan and the lasting benefits of attending the university, started the Cooney Endowed Scholarship Fund as one way to give back. The fund goes to financial aid, which goes a long way to ensure that students who want to engage in the Wesleyan experience can do so.
"My husband Gordon and I both had an amazing experience at Wesleyan. It was an opportunity for both of us to challenge ourselves academically in a diverse community. The Cooney Endowed Scholarship Fund gives us the ability to 'pay it forward,' and give talented, deserving students the chance to have their own Wesleyan experience."
Cooney and her husband reside in the Philadelphia area with their son, Jack, who is halfway through his freshman year of high school.
WITH YOU, MORE IS POSSIBLE
When 3,500 members of the Wesleyan community make a gift to any cause Nov. 18-28, trustee Marc Casper '90 will donate $300K to financial aid. Make your gift today to support student-athletes and score for financial aid! https://give2athletics.weseleyan.edu