Tragedy inspired a passion and a new career for Suzanne Henslee, the high-energy
woman behind the Dunedin Sprint Triathlon, in 2004.
Before her husband Marc died of head and neck cancer in 2000, she had never
participated in a triathlon. Today, the sports are an instrumental part of her life. Henslee, the owner of Xanadu Race Management, serves as the race director for some events and handles the marketing and sponsorship sales for every triathlon with which she is involved.
The passion that fuels Henslee to advocate the healthy lifestyle of competing in triathlons started in 1994. That is when her father, who was a retired search and rescue diver for the U.S. Coast Guard, fought a nine-month battle with lung cancer. At the time, Henslee was dating her future husband, Marc. They were married in the hospital chapel so her father could attend. He died two weeks later.
Still grieving the loss of her father, Henslee received another blow when Marc learned that what he thought was just a sore throat was actually cancer. He beat the disease, and while the cancer was in remission in 1996, Henslee gave birth to their daughter, Jessica.
When Jessica was three months old, Marc was told that he had bilateral lung nodules. Doctors gave him six months to live. Marc died on Feb. 20, 2000. Henslee, who was 30 and a single parent to their 2-year-old daughter, became addicted to running.
“I started running to vent and think, and I also served as a volunteer high school cross country coach,” said Henslee, a former cross country runner at her alma mater, , where she graduated on 1987. “One day a friend invited me to compete in a triathlon (in Tarpon Springs), and I was immediately hooked.”
Henslee, who earned a sports marketing degree from the University of South Florida, worked in sales and marketing for the and other companies before her husband died. She wanted to get involved with sports marketing again, but never anticipated what would happen after she began participating in triathlons.
“I was surprised there were no sponsors at these triathlons, so I started finding corporate sponsors, contacting race directors and setting up the sponsorships,” 41-year-old Henslee said. “It became a source of revenue for me, and it was something I was excited about because it allowed me to get back into sports marketing.”
Henslee never intended to become a race director, until a situation she encountering an event slated for Tampa in 2002. She found a major sponsor, a well-known national company, and eagerly contacted the race director.
“He said he was encountering logistics issues and was planning to cancel the event,”
Henslee said. “He told me, ‘You can take over as the race director if you’d like.’”
Sure, Henslee said. She learned that the former race director was accurate about the
logistics issues. Though that event never took place, it sparked an idea.
“I thought, ‘Why not organize a triathlon in Dunedin?’” Henslee said. “I approached the Rotary Club and said I wanted to coordinate a triathlon that would serve as a fundraiser for the organization. I told them I would handle everything without pay.”
Determined to make the triathlon a success, Henslee assembled a committee, delegated responsibilities and oversaw the different areas behind implementing the event. The event was so well-received that it is now held annually. The eighth Dunedin Triathlon will take place this year on June 12 at .
Between 2004 and 2008, I launched 10 new multisport events in the Tampa Bay area. On May 10, 2008, she spearheaded the Youth Triathlon Series (YTS) for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
When Henslee started the YTS, it was not affiliated with Lance Armstrong’s
organization. That changed when she received a phone call. On the other line was Chris Brewer.
“He said that he was with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and that he saw on our website that we were looking for organizations to become affiliated with the series,” Henslee said. “Then he told me that he graduated from Dunedin High School and that he was a survivor of the same type of cancer that my husband had.”
Today, there are seven events in the YTS, which benefits LIVESTRONG.
“I am dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles and with the high rate of childhood
obesity, our triathlons encourage children to get active,” Henslee said. “As hundreds of kids swim, bike and run at our events, they are helping themselves and LIVESTRONG.
“Cancer is a scary word for adults, and it is even more frightening for children because a lot of young people know of or heard of someone who has died from the disease,” she added. “These triathlons make children realize there is hope when you have cancer. There are survivors who are triathletes and people can beat the disease.”
The YMCA expressed interest in the YTS, too, and now all events are held at YMCA
venues in the Tampa Bay area. There is also a YTS race at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Henslee manages the triathlons.
In addition to the YTS event, Henslee serves as a race director for adult competitive
triathlons. She also handles the marketing and sponsorship sales for events which she does not fill the race director’s role.
Usually, Henslee plans the triathlons well in advance of when they are held, and typically she is solely involved in coordinating and promoting competitive events. She made an exception when she was approached by Dunedin resident Chari Christie, who sells a whole food-based nutritional product called Juice Plus with her husband, Bill Christie.
Henslee learned about the story of a 15-year-old girl, Sydne Muschaben, who is battling Hodgkins Lymphoma. Before she was diagnosed with the disease, she was a cheerleader, National Honor Society student and softball player at Countryside High School. To raise money to help pay for Sydne’s medical expenses, Henslee is spearheading the Dunedin Duathlon on March 27. The event – which includes a 3K run, an 11K bike and a 3K run – starts and finishes at the Christie’s historic home at 937 Victoria Drive.
The inaugural Dunedin Duathlon is open to all ages and ability levels. Though the race will be timed, it is a non-competitive setting with no age group awards, but the first 100 people to cross the finish line will receive a commemorative medal.
“When Chari told me about Sydne’s story and it naturally touched me because of what I experienced with my dad and my husband,” Henslee said. “I fully expect that triathletes across the area will get involved for a cause like this.
“It will be emotional for me to watch everyone crossing the finish line because they are accomplishing a goal that is challenging, and many of them will be doing this for the first time,” she added. “Cancer is what led to my love for competing in and organizing triathlons, and with the duathlon and the YTS, I am able to be a part of something that contributes to the fight against the disease. It’s something that will always be meaningful to me.”
To register for the Dunedin Duathlon,$25, contact Henslee at 727-CAN-RACE or email@example.com.