Last Word: Ironing Out a Path

Balancing dual professions — engineering and athletics — was an ability developed at Bucknell

By Leslie DiMichele Miller ’07

It’s June 5, 2016, in Nice, France. I’m rolling onto the Promenade des Anglais after finishing a 2.4-mile swim in the Mediterranean and a 112-mile bike ride through the Alps, the first two legs of the Ironman France triathlon. Starting the 26.2-mile run I’m in eighth place, 30 minutes behind the third-place athlete and a spot on the podium. I know there is not much I can do but put my head down and run as fast as I can. More than three hours later I’ve posted the fastest female marathon split of the day (three hours, five minutes), finishing in fourth place, just 30 seconds behind third. Though I’m disappointed, this is my best performance as a professional triathlete, and I feel it’s just a matter of time before I’m stepping onto the podium. Three months later, my hard work and dedication are rewarded with a second-place finish at Ironman Wisconsin.

To understand how I went from a swim-team walk-on at Bucknell to a professional athlete I have to backtrack to 2002, my junior year of high school in Ipswich, Mass. While visiting colleges that offered chemical engineering and competitive swimming programs, I landed in the office of Jerry Foley, Bucknell’s swimming and diving head coach. He made it clear that if I decided to try out for the team I’d likely be cut. Though disheartened, I still felt a strong connection with the school. Pursuing an engineering degree while competing at the Division I level remained my dream. Enrolling at Bucknell proved to be a turning point in my life and set the tone for my future.

What started as a personal goal to prove the coach wrong turned into something my soul fed on, as I thoroughly enjoyed my hours in the pool and time spent with teammates. Though I was not one of the team’s stars, my four years as a scholar-athlete were fulfilling, as I learned to balance pursuit of a varsity sport with the demands of a challenging undergraduate program.

Not surprisingly, as I transitioned from Bucknell to a career in engineering, I continued to seek ways to sustain my identity as an athlete. Shortly after starting at ExxonMobil, I signed up for my first Ironman competition, and as my career progressed, so did my development as a triathlete.

At first, I was racing only one Ironman per year, but by 2013 I was racing three per year along with many smaller races and traveling all over the country. I decided to turn professional in 2015, as I wanted to compete at the highest level, against the best in the sport.

Not unlike my time at Bucknell, I continue to pursue two demanding careers — as a chemical engineer from 8 to 5 and a professional athlete when I leave the office. I swim, bike, run 20 to 25 hours per week and coach other aspiring triathletes. It can be overwhelming at times, but I’ve balanced a demanding career and serious athletic competition for 14 years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s how I’m wired. Whether it’s sustainable is anyone’s guess, but I have no plans to alter the path set in that Bucknell athletics office in 2002.

Leslie DiMichele Miller ’07 lives in Reston, Va., and is a chemical engineer for the U.S. Navy while training for her next Ironman. She finished ninth at the Ironman North American Championship in The Woodlands, Texas, in April. Her next race is the Ironman Canada July 30, where she hopes to qualify for the World Championships in October.