From Huskies to Ironman

Images of USM student-athlete alumni completing the 2018 Ironman Lake Placid triathlon.
(L-R) Troy Thibodeau '14; Darci Holland '05, '08; April Cohen '03; and Renee Heath Towne '04, '10.

Story by Christina Cracolici, Assistant Director of Athletic Communications

April Cohen '03; Darci Holland '05, '08; Renee Heath Towne '04, '10; and Troy Thibodeau '14: a realtor, a teacher, a registered nurse and a professional hockey coach.  Seemingly each of these four individuals are just that, individuals with little in common. However, there is a thread of commonality among them as they are each alumni of the University of Southern Maine, and former standout Husky student-athletes. 


The accolades – some shared - among the four former Huskies are impressive: William B. Wise Scholar Athlete, Husky Hall of Famer, Little East Conference (LEC) Champion, NCAA Division III World Series All-Tournament team, LEC Hall of Famer. And as of the third weekend in July, all four can claim the title of Ironman.  


A two-sport standout (field hockey & softball), Husky Hall of Fame and Little East Conference Hall of Fame member, Renee crossed her third Ironman finish line, while April and Troy, members of the women's tennis team and perennially successful baseball team respectively during their time at USM, traversed the distance of 140.6 miles (2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking and 26.2 miles running) to earn the title of Ironman for the first time.  For Darci, it was her second full Ironman alongside of her former field hockey & softball teammate in as many tries. 


Similar to their varied career paths their arrivals at USM have an unique story.  Transferring to USM and giving up a Division I field hockey scholarship to be closer to her family and for the chance to play two sports, Renee earned two bachelor degrees from Southern Maine and is now a veteran nurse in the Cardio-Thoracic floor at Maine Medical Center.  


Choosing USM because of its proximity to home, and the opportunity to play field hockey and softball in college, Darci bounced around a few majors before settling on teaching and honing her craft (finishing another set of graduate classes at USM this summer) and is teaching first and second graders using her expertise in special education to impact the lives of many.  


Originally recruited to the men's ice hockey team, Troy became a two-sport athlete and wound up playing a pivotal role for the baseball team during his four seasons on Flaherty Field.  Hockey has remained a constant in his life and he is embarking on a blossoming coaching career in the professional hockey ranks, recently accepting a position with the Tri-City Storm in the United States Hockey League. 


 And April, who came to USM under her mother's orders -  "she literally filled out my application," – with the full intent of transferring away, chose to stay after a tremendous experience with a history professor.  April is now a successful realtor who finds time in her busy schedule to give back to her community in a number of ways. 


Although they each chose USM for its educational and intercollegiate athletic opportunities for different reasons, as student-athletes at the University of Southern Maine, Renee, Darci, Troy and April, each demonstrated an ability to successfully manage their academic and athletic commitments at the highest level -  Traits that have surely carried over into their professional careers and that have assisted them greatly in their achievements in the field of endurance sports. 


As members of the Huskies' field hockey and softball teams, Renee, a seven-time All-Region athlete (four times in field hockey and three in softball), and Darci helped lead the field hockey team to its one and only Little East Conference Championship in 2003 – with Renee earning the LEC's Most Outstanding Player honor.  In addition, both Renee and Darci were starting members (third base and outfield, respectively) of the Huskies' school-record 33-win softball team in 2004.  


Helping Southern Maine to back-to-back NCAA Division III Baseball Regional Championship titles in 2013 and 2014 as an outfielder and an infielder, Troy also played three seasons of ice hockey for Southern Maine.  A hard-nosed player who found ways to contribute in each game, Troy was named to the 2013 Division III World Series All-Tournament team, helping the Huskies advance to the National Championship game.  


Not recruited athletically upon her arrival at USM, April caught the eye of then women's tennis coach Wayne St. Pierre while enrolled in the athletic department's one-credit tennis class.  Once on the roster, April made the best of her opportunity, serving as the team's captain in her senior year, and helping the Huskies win a Little East Conference championship in 2001. 


Like their paths to Southern Maine, each former Husky found their way to Ironman differently.  


Influenced by co-workers, and one of his cousins who was already a triathlete, Troy said that, "while working for a team building and leadership development company called The Program (a company made of former Marines and Special Forces officers that work with college sport teams and corporate business), I was impressed with their mental strength and drive.  It was very motivating, and led me to finding a way to challenge myself differently.  At the time, my cousin had been doing triathlons, so I told her I wanted to give it a shot. Fast forward three years, three sprints, an Olympic tri and one half-iron, we decided to go after an Ironman, and that's what we did."   


Watching the Ironman World Championship on television when she was a kid, Renee was immediately enamored with the sport, and entered the world of multi-sport in 2007 completing her first sprint distance race locally in Kennebunk, Maine.  A few years later, she raced her first half-iron in New Hampshire, meeting her Ironman idol, four-time World Champion Chrissie Wellington, post race.  After that first successful half-iron (70.3 miles), Renee chose to give the full distance a go in 2013 - also at Ironman Lake Placid – and since then she's completed another two Ironman races (2016, 2018), finishing in just over 13 hours this year. 


"You watch the stories of the professional athletes racing along side of the amateurs at the Ironman World Championship, and you can't help be inspired," said Renee.  "It's a real mental and physical test, and race day is amazing. It is truly a culmination and celebration of all of the hard work and effort over the months of training." 


Both April and Darci got their start in triathlon by competing in Maine's Tri for a Cure, but both contend that they were duped into longer distance events by friends.  


"Some of my friends, including Renee, tricked me with pizza," said Darci. "They told me that we could go for pizza if I came and did an open-water swim workout along side of them.   The next thing I knew I was agreeing to signing up for Ironman Mont Tremblant in 2016 … Actually, I am a long-distance runner at heart (Darci has completed a handful of marathon and ultra-running events), and I had dabbled in Tri for a Cure, but it was really too short – nobody likes to go all out and feel terrible at the end, so now I go really far and feel terrible at the end."  


After competing in the Tri for a Cure as part of her realtor company's sponsorship deal, April had a few stops and starts before getting into the longer-distance events, completing her first 70.3 (Half-Iron) in 2017. 


"I really enjoyed triathlon after completing the Tri for a Cure, and wanted to give longer distances a go, but I never made the full commitment.  I signed up for a 70.3 twice before completing my first in 2017," explained April.  "But with the encouragement and a lot of "bullying" from my friends, I completed the Maine 70.3.  And then from there it was a spiral.  I went out to Lake Placid for a training camp and I was hooked! I listened to Renee and Darci talk about their previous Ironman finishes and knew I wanted to make it happen.  I kind of feel like I got tricked into it, but it was a truly remarkable day." 


As student-athletes they all faced challenges and hurdles along the way to their success, battling injuries, slumps, challenging class schedules and time restrictions, but they each remember their time as Huskies fondly.  


"Beating Keene and winning the LEC championship in field hockey is a definite highlight," said Darci.  "But I also remember all of the road trips for games and Florida trips for softball, and spending time with your teammates who become lifelong friends – and now that I am balancing work, training and other interests, I miss the caf.  Really.  No one is making my meals anymore." 


Oddly enough, the dining hall in Gorham was a reoccurring note. 


"This is going to sound weird, but since I was a commuter, I never had a meal plan and the preseason meals in the cafeteria gave me a chance to really connect with my teammates," said April.   "I'm happy that I made the choice to go out for the team despite not being recruited. It is one of the coolest experiences and memories from my time at USM, and my co-captain, Sarah McLean, is still one of my best friends. Of course, winning LECs is also a great memory, and I also remember the time I slammed my racket off the court following a bad shot." 


The bonds of teammates and championship memories also play a significant theme in Renee and Troy's experience.  

"When I think of my time as a USM student-athlete the first thing that comes to mind is just the time you spend with our teammates: long bus rides, the hotels, the spring games for baseball – those are the times you miss the most," added Troy.  "Making the run to the NCAA Championship during my junior season is something that I will always be proud of and remember." 


"I love to compete and USM gave me that chance to do just that in two sports and at a very high level.  The championships and the accolades are fun to remember and talk about  – I mean, I still consider Keene a rival to this day," laughed Renee.  "But I will always be very proud to be a part of the first conference field hockey championship. Most importantly some of my best friends are my former teammates.  I love getting back on campus and playing in the field hockey alumni game when I can, and getting to campus to see the new softball stadium a couple of years ago was great." 

Each of their athletic and academic successes was no accident.  USM student-athletes are known for their ability to achieve athletically and in competition, so it seems natural that they would each be able to maintain a balance in their professional lives and while committing to months of Ironman training, which can often have workout schedules upwards of 15-20 hours per week. 


When asked about whether USM athletics helped shape and motivate his career path, Troy said, "I wouldn't be who I am today if not for attending Southern Maine. I credit a lot of who I became at USM to head baseball coach Ed Flaherty. His wisdom and coaching philosophies are something that helped me realize what it truly takes to be successful as an individual and more importantly as a team."


"Being a student-athlete at USM is one of the best decisions I made," said Renee. "It's such a supportive environment that has extended well beyond my playing career.  I haven't worn a Husky uniform since 2004, but my coaches and a lot of the staff members are still in contact with me, congratulate me on my achievements, and are genuinely interested in me.  With that sort of support, I always felt comfortable going after my goals."


With this most recent accomplishment behind them, Darci, Renee, April and Troy are relishing the achievement, and some of them are firming up definitive plans for more races in their future. 


"The feeling coming down the last mile into the Olympic Oval in Lake Placid was one of the best feelings I've ever had," said Troy. "As you run down the Ironman carpet with the finish line in sight, all I could think about was the journey it took to get there and all of the people close to you that supported through it all. It's a very emotional moment.  I can't say I'll never do another one, but I don't see it in the near future." 


And Renee, who was inspired by an Ironman World Championship broadcast as a child, sees no limit on her race day competitions.  "I'm planning on continuing, and will likely be back at Lake Placid in 2020.  I would love to race in the World Championship some day.  The sport is a tremendous outlet for me."


April and Darci are leaning towards another because they both feel like they have more that they can do in the sport. 


"I said I was done after my second," said Darci.  "But as soon as I crossed the finish line, I was already conceiving ways to improve. I'd love to finish an Ironman and feel 100 percent, and hang out in the finisher's area cheering on the final competitors."


"I feel like I can do better," said April.  "It's that strive for excellence attitude that I think a lot of USM student-athletes have."

 - cac -