From the ice hockey rink to the top American – the juxtaposition of Heather Jackson’s career is just as unlikely as her bubbly personality mixed with badass tattoos and bleached hair. How one leap of faith has brought Jackson from the a top age grouper in Kona to the top American.
By Kathryn Hunter
Short-haired, tattooed and all lean muscle, professional triathlete Heather Jackson looks tough. She has an impressive string of career highlights—most recently, a win at IRONMAN Lake Placid in July, where she bested the women’s course record by 10 minutes and first place at IRONMAN 70.3 Coeur d’Alene in June. In addition to her three previous victories at Wildflower Triathlon, two at IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside and one at 2013 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, she has a fifth place at the 2015 IRONMAN World Championships in Kona under her belt. She and her husband Sean Watkins (aka “Wattie”) co-own the Calfornia-based triathlon apparel company Wattie Ink, and Jackson’s brightly colored tri kits sport the Gothic script, skulls, snakeskins and other “in-your-face” design elements of the brand.
But she likes kitties. Laughing, Jackson says if you look at her phone, you’d see the daily texts between her and her younger sister, nearly all photos of cute kittens. I ask her if she has a cat. “No,” she says, laughing even harder.
If it’s difficult at first to reconcile this bubbly, feline-obsessed 32-year-old with the heavily inked, world-class athlete in a trucker hat, it’s inevitable to come around to the idea that Jackson isn’t who you were expecting. There’s no bluster there, no bravado—she’s the type of person who punctuates every other sentence with a bright giggle. Though she’s confident and fiercely competitive, her self-assurance seems more along the lines of an honest self-awareness: she owns both her strengths and weaknesses in one breath.
“Kona” is the elephant in the room, the kind that’s benign and sunny one minute, a dark and trampling force the next. All that pressure has been weighing down for months: it’s the big race, the banner over every hard effort, the refrain always on Jackson’s lips and at the back of her mind. In this Kona fixation she’s not alone, but for Jackson the single-minded focus it requires has marked a distinct shift in her training and career.
Last year was Jackson’s first to race the IRONMAN world championship as a pro (she raced Kona as an age grouper in 2008). While previously she had concentrated on 70.3s with a more specific, race-to-race mindset, now there’s one overwhelming arc to everything: Hawaii is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She admits it’s been hard to adjust to that way of thinking, that races she might have won in the past have become stepping stones in the long, inexorable build toward October. And she’s well aware, at the conclusion of that journey, of the uncertainty the talented field at Kona presents.
“There are so many incredible girls out there that you could easily place second or third, or you could easily place 20th. That’s how competitive it is.” It depends on the day you have, she says, and on whether you get fundamentals like nutrition right. This season’s headlong push toward one race whose outcome is so unknown has been daunting.
But Jackson is no stranger to the leap of faith. Her career as an athlete and the founding of Wattie Ink were a simultaneous, sink-or-swim gamble, one that has resulted in a very favorable roll of the dice. A 2010 LAVA Magazine story by Brad Culp profiled Jackson as a tenacious “rising star” in the world of triathlon. Now, without a doubt, she has arrived at her own spot in the sky. A podium at Kona, or even a win, doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
At first glance, Jackson’s background looks like one of privilege. Growing up in Exeter, New Hampshire, she attended Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most exclusive and expensive private boarding schools in the country, and followed that up with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. But Jackson is quick to embrace her blue-collar heritage. Phillips Exeter Academy’s typical students are Rockefellers and Zuckerbergs, not the locally based daughter of a New Hampshire state trooper and a teacher. Jackson’s athleticism opened the door to a classroom filled with the nation’s elite.
“All growing up, it was soccer, hockey, basketball, softball, tennis,” she says. “I played every sport you can think of.” By junior high she was on boys’ clubs teams for soccer and ice hockey, sports that would become her mainstays in high school. Her parents took out a second mortgage on their home to send her to Phillips Exeter Academy, which had the only high school ice hockey program in the area for girls “Without their support,” Jackson says, citing her parents’ efforts toward both her sports and her education, “I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Their investment paid off: Princeton offered her a scholarship and her achievements over the next few years seemed to mark her as an Olympic hopeful. Jackson didn’t make the U.S. women’s ice hockey team for the 2006 Winter Olympics, however, and in the year after college, she encountered the void that many athletes fall into when their days of collegiate competition are done and dusted. “There’s really nothing after college for women in hockey,” she says. “That was my life for 22 years, and then it was just over.”
With a nagging sense of unfinished business, Jackson soon found herself looking for the next thing. In late 2006, she was in Thailand teaching English for the year; when she met a group of amateurs training for IRONMAN Malaysia, she joined them. Though she’d raced her first few tris the summer before with her parents—who at the time had just begun competing in local running and multisport events themselves—this bout of training in Chiang Mai marked the beginning of her evolution from rough-and-tumble hockey player to endurance athlete.
Returning to the States, Jackson spent two years teaching ninth grade world history at a private school in San Jose, California, while also competing as an age grouper. She balanced workouts and travel to every weekend race within driving distance with the rigors of correcting 90 papers and corralling a classroom of 14-year-olds. Jackson says she liked teaching, but after she began dating Wattie and he urged her at the end of the 2009 term to move to San Diego to be with him and give triathlon a shot full-time, she turned in her notice the same week.
Jackson was equally supportive of Wattie when he resigned from his job as vice president of sales and marketing at Triathlete Magazine just a few months later, which left them both living that summer on savings, the occasional prize money and a dream. Starting out as part marketing agency, part tri team, the shared experiment in untested, largely unfunded entrepreneurship they called Wattie Ink was born in a small studio in Southern California. Wattie Ink now designs and produces its own line of handmade-in-the-USA athletic apparel, all field-tested by Jackson or other members of the elite tri team. In addition to the pro athletes, six age-group triathlon teams currently “Rock the W.”
While Wattie Ink was coming into its own and attracting notice from the triathlon public, Jackson was working her way up the ladder from freshly minted pro racing every weekend for a top five or top 10 to a hardened, well-sponsored favorite targeting the most prestigious 70.3 races. Her first big win came in 2012 at the Wildflower Triathlon, where she set a course record that still stands. That year she and Wattie also moved to Bend, Oregon, the city they continue to call home.
In May, the IRONMAN 70.3 North American Pro Championships in St. George, Utah, were supposed to be Jackson’s early-season “A race.” Conditions were cold and rainy, and Jackson experienced respiratory issues that her doctor attributed to a combination of allergies and hypothermia: breathing problems started in the water, continued on the bike and developed into a full-blown asthma attack by the run; the day ended with a DNF. The next week, however, she won at IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga, balancing out some of the disappointment, and her summer victories at Coeur d’Alene and Lake Placid provided the vindication any athlete on her way to Kona would hope for.
Though Jackson isn’t the underdog going into this year’s world championships, her history on the ice versus the pool, road or running track does mark her as something of an anomaly. As a former skater, her initial strength was on the bike (she also competed briefly in track cycling), and in the past few years her running has improved and surpassed her cycling abilities. At 5-foot-4 and roughly 120 pounds, she’s built well for the kind of temperatures Kona can dish out—or so says her win at the notoriously balmy 2015 IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene, when thermometers hit a record-breaking three digits. The swim has long been her Achilles heel, however, and her performance in the water at Kona last year was a particular disappointment, and what she hopes to improve on the most. For Jackson, pool workouts have become a near-daily vitamin: a minimum weekly dose is five to six swims, with an especially swim-heavy block of training during recovery periods. This good medicine doesn’t always go down easy, of course.
“I can’t wait to get on my bike or even go for a run most days, but I’m definitely not rushing out the door to get to the pool,” Jackson says with a smile.
Jackson doesn’t bemoan her late start or focus on the struggles of starting from scratch. Rather, she says her indirect route to triathlon gives her an enthusiasm for the sport she might otherwise lack if she’d grown up swimming and “staring at a black line.” The fact that she doesn’t have a litany of past injuries—many professional endurance athletes have a medical history that looks like a mobster’s rap sheet—has also been an advantage, though perhaps a double-edged sword in some ways. Playing hockey and soccer, she’d had a few concussions but no broken bones, overuse injuries or other complaints that took her off the ice or field long-term. That meant when it did happen—in 2014, a sacral stress fracture that took more than eight weeks of recovery and almost a full year of getting back to where she’d started from—Jackson felt like it was the end of the world.
“People who grow up in triathlon or running or endurance sports … Injuries happen and they’ve dealt with that,” she says. “They get over them and go on from there.” Jackson left the doctor’s office alternately screaming and crying, devastated. After a week-long bender on beer, donuts and cookies, she began the process of healing in a calmer state, now a proper member of the fascia-plagued, ankle-sprained, stress-fractured, torn, battered and bruised triathlon masses.
This year, as far as such things can be predicted a month before publication and two months before the big event, Jackson will be going into Kona healthy. She talks about race-day nerves much as anyone would, but anxiety seems to be an accessory to the excitement of finally being on the start line. It’s “do or die” at that point, she says, and she’ll know the work she’s done in the weeks and months leading up to the race and how she should be able to perform. Her Hawaii prep has been in large part this confidence building, proving to herself she’s arriving as ready and deserving as she can be.
The elephant in the room, on the road, in the pool, asleep or awake…Kona is worth its weight in gold, but that makes it a heavy weight indeed. Beyond the pressure of putting 100 percent into the most competitive and prestigious event on the race calendar, Jackson admits the IRONMAN distance isn’t her preference. In training, the long intervals in what she calls “the weird gray zone” lack the clear-cut intensity of her shorter work in preparation for 70.3s. She’d previously gone sans power meter (the numbers had started to do her head in, she says), and the past three or four years had been racing 70.3s purely by feel; this season, however, she’s back to looking at the watts, finding them more necessary for pacing.
How does she manage it, the grueling day in and day out? “There’s always a recovery day on the horizon,” she says. “Just a few more hard days, and then I can recover and have a rest day. It’s ‘Today, this is my job, this is what I have to do. I just need to get through these three things…’” Her training is scheduled out in blocks, sometimes with a mini-vacation between.
Jackson says, as a whole, the individual and sometimes lonely grind of triathlon is more difficult than the team sports she played for most of her life. “Triathlon is more what you can get out of yourself,” she says, “and it’s every day, are you getting more out of yourself.”
In spite of those days when she wakes up “feeling thrashed” or when a race doesn’t pan out as planned, Jackson still considers herself very lucky to be doing what she’s doing. No, she can’t have a kitten beyond the digital variety, and maybe she can’t drink as much beer as she’d like to (she’s a big fan of a good IPA), and certainly there have been other sacrifices and struggles along the way…but this is the life she chose, and she loves it. “If I ever get in a bad mood, I’m just like, ‘hello, wake up, look at what you get to do each day,’” she says. “It’s just like this make-believe world, that this is what I get to do for a living.”
Strength & Family
The koi fish and the tiger tattooed on Jackson’s arms are symbols of strength. The eight sparrows on her chest represent the members of her family—sparrows are said to fly together their entire lives as a group, never splitting up. Is Heather Jackson tough? As nails. But she’s also very human, and this close connection to her family perhaps best expresses that.
Jackson calls her 90-year-old grandfather “Daida.” In addition to Wattie and her parents, she says he’s one of her biggest supporters and is always in her thoughts. Whenever she’s training or thinking about Hawaii, Jackson says she pictures her grandfather at his television screen watching the race footage. She knows what she’ll be telling herself, during the race and the heat of the battle: “Just get to where you would make the film so Daida can see you racing Kona.”
But if Jackson is on the podium this year, neither Daida nor anyone else should be surprised. A bad day at Kona is easy to have, no matter how much training and blood and sweat go into getting there. But that rare good day when all the pieces fall together just right and an athlete sails the final miles to the finish line in a perfect fog of pain and elation, knowing she’s given it all she has and this time it’s enough…that’s the kind of magic an athlete lives for. With a foundation of hope, a lot of training and no shortage of good humor and kitties, Jackson will aim for the very top this October and, just maybe, find out what the end of the rainbow looks like.