Strong example
Stallworth adds Iron Girl to ever-growing list of the challenges she's met

What Kelly Stallworth has already accomplished in her life would be more than enough for most.

Stallworth, who grew up the youngest of six in Leavenworth, Kan., was a scholarship basketball player first at Stanford and then Vanderbilt. She played in three Final Fours and was part of Stanford's national championship team in 1992.

She started down the college coaching path after graduation, but set that aside to become a parent and, eventually, an elementary school teacher. She's now working toward getting her master's degree in early childhood education.

She overcame a nasty fall, sustaining injuries that caused pain to shoot down her legs, and ran a marathon.

She's also the mother of two girls - 10-year-old Jordan and 7-year-old Jaron - and they are perhaps Stallworth's biggest motivations for taking on her most recent challenge.

The 36-year-old Lawrenceville resident is competing in her first triathlon, the Iron Girl Atlanta on Sunday at Lake Lanier Islands Resort.

"The fact that this is my first one and it's all women, that to me is really exciting," Stallworth said. "Because young girls need to see themselves being strong.

"I just hope that girls are driving by when a pack of women go running by. I hope that they see, oh my gosh, that can be me. I can be 20, 30, 40, 60, however old, and be strong and active. That's what I hope. I've got my two best reasons at home that will be watching that day."

To take part in the Iron Girl meant not just training for the 18-mile bike ride and 3-mile run, but overcoming a long-held fear.

"When I was just out of college," Stallworth said, pacing her speech in a way that only hinted at the story's seriousness, "we had an incident ..."

She paused.

"...uh, where I thought I was going to drown," Stallworth said. "One of my teammates had jumped into the pool (and was in distress). Several of us went in to save her and she pushed me down under. I had a T-shirt on and she wrapped her hands in and pushed down on my shoulders so she could get up.

"Another one of our teammates really kind of saved me because she had been a lifeguard for years in California. But I never forgot that."

Stallworth isn't afraid to try things. But those brief and eternal moments under the water were keeping her from signing up for a triathlon.

"Any time I would swim, I would keep my head out of the water," she said. "So getting past that fear ... was big for me."

Her husband, Jay, was a football player at Vanderbilt and did a half Iron Man. Her sister, Lisa Dougherty, who lives in Loganville, played basketball at Kansas and had done several triathlons. They both wanted Kelly to try one.

"They've been on me," she said. "Not in a way where it's like pressure. I've been wanting to do it, but I don't think I trusted that I could do it."

It was the same kind of thinking Stallworth overcame in order to run the Los Angeles marathon a couple of years ago.

She comes from an athletic family. When Stallworth was 5, her parents and some family friends spent two weekends pouring concrete for a back-yard basketball court.

It became the de facto community center for Leavenworth where her family settled after her dad, a general, retired from military service.

"And five of the six of us went to college and graduated on basketball scholarships," Stallworth said. "My parents were awesome. They were always our coaches, you know, going through little leagues and that type of thing. We were just always a big sports family, playing and coaching."

Stallworth visited both Stanford and Vanderbilt as a high-school recruit and picked Stanford.

She went there for two years, winning a national title as a sophomore. But she decided to finish her career at Vandy - where she later met her husband.

"It was funny, the year after I transferred to Vanderbilt, we go to another Final Four," Stallworth laughed. "So that was a lot of fun. And I actually assistant coached for a year at Vanderbilt for the women's team. That's a crazy lifestyle, coaching. It's a lot.

"This was two years after I had finished playing. My husband and I, right after we got married, we knew right away that we wanted to start with having children. And we were like, "OK, this is not going to be the career for me.' Some women swing it I'm sure, but I was not going to sacrifice in that way to swing it."

Jay graduated from Vanderbilt in 1998 and got a job in Duluth, so the family moved to Gwinnett that year.

Two weeks after her second daughter, Jaron, was born, Stallworth was seriously injured in a accident at home.

"I fell down a flight of steps going to get a bottle at about 4 in the morning," she said. "I missed the first step and bam, bam, bam, all the way down. Crushed my coccyx (tailbone) and my pelvis wasn't sitting straight.

"For about three years, I was, off and on, in a lot of pain. But the main thing was mentally, I kept playing that same tape that said, "Your body's different, you can't do what you used to do.' That same tape kept playing in my head."

She would go for a job and pain would radiate down her legs.

"And I would say, "I can't do it.'"

But her sister, a physical therapist "put me back together" and Stallworth then spent the better part of a year training with her husband for the L.A. marathon.

Then, without another set goal, Stallworth said she didn't go to the gym for three months after the marathon.

"I think that's the biggest thing - you've got to ask, what's my next challenge?" she said.

The Iron Girl is Sunday and Stallworth is already setting new goals.

"I would like to do an Olympic-distance triathlon," she said.

And she's contemplating getting her doctorate.

First, though, is the chance to swim, bike and run with her sister Lisa and her daughters looking on.

"For me, finishing, saying I did it is the thing," Stallworth said. "The next ones we'll worry about time, hardware and all that. This time, I just need the T-shirt."

Stallworth isn't the average person in many ways. How many people can say they played in three Final Fours? But she's also no different in other ways. She gained 60 pounds with the pregnancies of her daughters, "fell more in love with ice cream than the gym" and had to carve the weight back off like thousands of other women. Now she's set to complete in the appropriately named Iron Girl.

"It's never too late for a comeback," Stallworth said. "It really isn't. You can decide today if you want different for your life."