Ask 20-year-old Cornelius resident Heather Ekstrom what her dream job is, and she'll tell you it will have to be dependent on the weather.
Ekstrom, who is entering her junior year at the UNC Chapel Hill, completed her first triathlon at age 8 and has channeled her love of the outdoors into her environmental studies major at college.
"I would like to do something with wilderness experiential education," she said.
Ekstrom credits her active parents, Laurie and Richard, who both work in the health and fitness industry as her role models. She grew up hiking and camping with her family on vacations, and competed in cross country, swimming and track during her high school years at the Cannon School in Concord.
Ekstrom has spent the past three summers working at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which originally began as a school project for Cannon.
"We had to try something we had never tried before, and I thought it would be fun to train as a whitewater rafting guide," she said.
This led to opportunities working as a raft guide and with youth programs at the center.
After completing high school, Ekstrom set her sights on training for a half ironman race, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. She's already participated in a few and now plans to compete in the half ironman at the "Beach to Battleship" race in Wilmington this November, and is also training to run the Disney Marathon with her sister Jessica in January 2011.
She averages about four races a year and squeezes training in between studies and work at UNC. During the school year, she works at the Outdoor Education Center at UNC, where she helps lead college students on backpacking and whitewater rafting trips. According to the center's website, the goal of the center is to "empower outdoor enthusiasts through the process of 'experiential learning,' or 'learning by doing.'"
This past year, Ekstrom got a single dorm room so she could wake early for training without disturbing roommates, which was helpful in finding time to train. She also said she often puts on her running shoes, parks her backpack in a secure spot, and logs in a few miles between classes. This past year, she mostly trained on her own, but also occasionally meets up with members of triathlon clubs in the Chapel Hill area.
"I'm active every day," she said. "I'm always doing some type of activity, whether it's swimming, biking, running, or cross training like ultimate Frisbee. I try to change it up a lot. During the school year, it's just like having another job."
She hopes to participate in a full ironman competition in the future, when she has the time to properly train.
Ekstrom, whose family lives in the Patrick's Purchase neighborhood close to Jetton Park, said she is inspired by all the active residents in the Lake Norman area. Her mom is an avid cyclist, and her dad enjoys mountain biking and trail running.
"There are so many athletes that live around here. It's great," she said.