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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Triathlete Shows Her Mettle

September 02, 2000|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although no one knows how they'll react until the exact moment, triathlete Jennifer Gutierrez probably will give a quick glance to the heavens if she's presented with a medal at the Sydney Olympics.

Gutierrez's father, Johnny, was a Cincinnati Reds' farmhand who encouraged Jennifer to play sports in high school. He was among her biggest supporters before dying of cancer last year.

"He told everyone I was going to the Pan Am Games . . . and I hadn't even qualified," Gutierrez told NBC Sports. "It was quite interesting."

Father knew best. Gutierrez was fourth last year at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. She qualified for the Olympics by placing seventh--first among U.S. women--at the World Cup in Sydney in April.

Gutierrez, 34, enters uncharted territory. But so does every triathlete in Sydney.

This is the first triathlon in the Olympics and the women will receive the first medals of the Games on Sept. 16, the day after the opening ceremonies.

For Gutierrez, a former Pepperdine swimmer who lives in Denver, winning an Olympic medal would culminate six years and hundreds of miles of cycling, running and swimming.

She became a triathlete in 1994, winning two of four events, and turned professional the next year. Three-time world champion Karen Smyers encouraged Gutierrez to compete at the elite level.

"She said, 'Don't wait around for another five years. Go for it,' " Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez is ranked No. 12 in the world, is the top U.S. female triathlete and captain of the three-men, three-women American team in Australia.

The 5-foot-3 Gutierrez said she was selected captain because she is the oldest team member.

"I like it because I'm very fair," Gutierrez said.

She's also very good, especially in swimming. Gutierrez competed at Pepperdine from 1986-89 and held the school record in the 500- and 1,000-yard freestyle and in the 200 butterfly. She placed second in the 5,000 meters at the 1993 World Championships in Indianapolis.

A native of San Antonio, Gutierrez swam four years in high school and was amazed colleges offered her scholarships. She accepted one to Texas Tech and later transferred to Pepperdine.

Gutierrez has taken off several months from her job as an adaptive physical education teacher in Denver to train for the Olympics. She credits her husband, Bob Utberg, a dentist and former amateur triathlete, as her most ardent supporter.

He'll have his eyes fixed on the finish line in front of the Sydney Opera House when the triathletes arrive after swimming nine-tenths of a mile, biking 24.8 miles and running 6.2 miles.

"My competitive appetite is now stronger because I didn't compete in sports until high school," Gutierrez said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

JENNIFER GUTIERREZ PROFILE

Age: 34

High School: Holmes High, San Antonio

College: Pepperdine

Honors: Winner of Licanray triathlon in Chile and seventh place at ITU World Cup in Sydney in 2000; seventh place at ITU World Championships in 1999; fourth place at Pan Am Games in 1999.

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