When Billy Doherty flipped the calendar to January 2010, he had one major goal on his mind: becoming an Ironman in Florida in November of that year. For years, he had been competing in triathlons, and he felt it was finally time to push himself to the sport’s toughest challenge in the Ironman, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 marathon run.
But Doherty’s ultimate test wouldn’t be that triathlon, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment in the sport won’t be becoming an Ironman at all – although he’s determined to indeed do that – but making the sport safer and more accessible to area men and women looking for support.
'Safety in numbers'
Thursday, August 19, 2010, began with rain. Doherty, 42, needing to get in hours of cycling for his training, planned to ride the Huntersville Business Park before the sun came up and then head to Davidson for a couple more hours of riding. When he saw the rain, he changed his schedule to ride in the afternoon.
“I went to work early, and left around 2 p.m. My intention was to ride for two hours up in Davidson and then circle back and meet up with The Spirited Cyclist guys for their group ride at 5:30,” Doherty, who lives in Huntersville, remembers.
Descending Rocky River Road, Doherty was feeling strong when, suddenly, he was hit by a box truck, pulled under and dragged more than 50 feet. Grasping for survival, he reached for the drive shaft, pulling himself up. Eventually, the truck stopped, just before crushing his mid-section.
Aided by good Samaritans who were on the scene, some from the start like motorist Don Asberry, Doherty did not at first comprehend the extent of the accident. Once in the hospital, though, he learned of his numerous injuries, including a destroyed fibula, fractured ribs and a torn labrum in his shoulder.
And yet, Doherty’s thoughts were all about racing.
“I remember telling my wife that if I could walk by the end of October I would still race in Ironman Florida on November 6,” says Doherty.
Still, as people who cared about him came in and out of his hospital room, it occurred to Doherty that he didn’t want to train alone again, especially on the bike. Perhaps even more than that, he didn’t want anyone else to have to train solo, either. Doherty’s accident was not an anomaly. In the summer of 2010, a rash of cycling accidents occurred throughout the north Mecklenburg area, and many people were thinking about how to improve safety and increase awareness of cyclists among motorists. Doherty came up with the idea of a triathlon training club where people of all levels could come together for training. Through that, the Strong & Focused triathlon group was born.
“I do not want anyone to have to go through what I did or what I put my family through. There is safety in numbers when it comes to riding, and it is fun to hang out with like-minded people who share the same passions that I do – regardless of level,” Doherty says.
The group name comes from Doherty’s best friend, who battled pancreatic cancer. “Every time he ended a conversation, he would say, ‘Strong & Focused,’ ” Doherty explains.
Area triathletes united around the idea and the group began meeting for training and education this spring. From the start, triathlon novices and veterans joined the group, enjoying the company and information sharing and feeling more confident in numbers on the road.
“Everyone was really shaken up after his accident, but Billy never waivered on his positive outlook and love of the sport. We were fully supportive of him starting the club,” says Heather Sansbury, a scientist who lives in Cornelius and teaches the triathlon training class at the Lake Norman YMCA.
'A very supportive atmosphere'
Relatively new to the sport, Melissa Woods, 40, was searching for triathlon training support on the website Meetup.com when she came across the club. Though she lives in Monroe, the unique offer of education and training companionship appealed to her and so she travels to Huntersville to be a part of the group.
“At the first meeting, I just got this message that it didn’t matter where you are; we are all training together and learning. It’s been a very supportive atmosphere,” says Woods, who was one of ten club members to complete the Latta Plantation sprint triathlon in June as part of the public unveiling of the Strong & Focused group.
The atmosphere Woods felt is exactly what club founders wish to deliver.
“I definitely think Strong & Focused is a group for all levels. There is always someone to train with, and it is such a positive environment,” says Sansbury. With the Strong & Focused group’s support, Woods anticipates more triathlons in her near future. Sansbury will compete in a half-Ironman in Iowa on August 21 in hopes of qualifying for a world championships competition in Nevada in November.
And come Nov. 5, Doherty will spend his day completing Ironman Florida, finishing the race journey he began long before his mission became ensuring that every area triathlete could train Strong & Focused.
Learn more about Strong & Focused:
Visit these sites to learn about educational workshops and training rides, or to post when you are bike riding so that others may join you.