Weekend Warriors: Elite triathlete Sheri Branum also helps others re-learn how to walk and run
When she was little, Sheri Zimmerer Branum was a nonstop bundle of energy. She fell in love with sports shortly after she started walking, ran everywhere and became an avid soccer player. "When I was 2, all I wanted for Christmas was a Green Bay Packers football helmet," she says.
In high school she played soccer on the boys' team, then went to Bowling Green where she was a central midfielder for four years. Now 46, she's still the same high-energy athlete and person. Every day she bounces from her jobs as an occupational therapist and high school soccer coach to training and competing as an elite age-group triathlete.
"I love being busy," says Branum, who lives in Milan, Ohio, with her husband and two teenagers. "Every day I like to be busy and I look forward to being busy."
Many of those busy hours are spent swimming, biking and running in triathlon, a sport she embraced in 2003 after a former college soccer teammate dared her to enter a sprint-distance triathlon in Cleveland. Her time wasn't memorable, but that didn't matter. She was hooked by the challenge of trying to succeed in three disciplines while being inspired by the athletes all around her.
Thirteen years after her first tri, she finds it unbelievable that she continues to excel and improve. In September, she competed on behalf of the U.S. in the International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Grand Final championships in Cozumel, Mexico, winning the bronze medal in the Olympic-distance race and finishing fifth in sprint distance. "I never thought I would be able to achieve that level of fitness and competitiveness," she says.
Yet ever since those days as an energetic kid, her competitive streak has been part of her success story. A lean 5-foot-2, 100-pound dynamo under short, blond locks, she has always stood tall in sports. She says the support she received from her late father, Jerry Zimmerer, has been invaluable. "I race by Sheri Zimmerer Branum in honor of my dad, who instilled in me from a young age that I could achieve anything I wanted to, and that dynamite comes in small packages," she says.
Branum has been an occupational therapist for 21 years, treating patients who have suffered strokes and brain injuries, have heart ailments, and those with mobility-inhibiting diseases like Parkinson's.
"My goal is to rehabilitate people of all ages with various disabilities or disease processes to reach their maximum level of independence," she says.
She works for Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky, Ohio, traveling across the northern part of the state to aid people in their homes. "It's exciting what you can do for them to keep them safe and independent," she says.
The job also has given her insights into how to take care of herself as an athlete. As she has moved into her 40s, she listens more to her body when it sends signals that she's overtraining or might be close to an injury. She tries to heed those signals and back off. Plus, she has added more weight training to maintain strength.
"You might not tell by looking at me," she says, laughing.
What she learned in earning her master's degree in occupational therapy and through experience and continued study has been invaluable. "It's helped me with understanding the body holistically," she says. "To know everything must work together in order to perform your best."
That knowledge led Branum to change her eating habits about three years ago to fuel her long, active days. She now eats six to 10 small meals a day. The goal is to have a constant flow of nutrients and hydration.
"As the kids got older I was able to train more frequently, and then I noticed my nutritional demands changed," she says. "I was feeling lightheaded frequently, so I started always having food with me and making sure I was always snacking and eating." Immediately, she felt better and her performance improved.
"If I'm feeling sluggish, I usually eat 100 to 200 calories and I feel better," she says. Her menu is full of apples, bananas, peanut and almond butters, rice cakes, chicken, vegetables, salads and whey protein shakes.
Branum gets in some type of training every day. Even on an "off" day, she'll do a 30-minute bike ride. On most days she's up before sunrise, doing some laundry and house cleanup before heading off for a swim, bike or run workout. Then comes work, followed by two to three hours of soccer practice during the season. Sometimes, she'll sneak in another workout late in the day.
She has coached soccer for 15 years, since her daughter began playing. Now she coaches her daughter's varsity girls team at Edison High in Milan. Soccer was Branum's first love, and remains a big part of her life, but she no longer plays. Sometimes in practice her athletes will try to coax her into action, but she mostly declines.
Recently she was invited to play an indoor match and accepted. But she quickly benched herself. "I was like, 'This is a recipe for a serious injury and I'll be regretting my decision,'" she says. "So I played three minutes and told my daughter she could take all my shifts, because I didn't want to get hurt. That's the last thing I need."
Perhaps most impressive of all -- and in spite of her busy schedule -- Branum says she's a better triathlete now than she was 10 years ago because of her improved cardiovascular fitness and technical skills in each sport. In 2015, she was third in the sprint-distance (750-meter swim, 20K bike, 5K run) national age-group (45-49) championships. This year, she has taken first overall among women in nine regional sprint- or Olympic-distance triathlons or road races. She also set a PR of 1:26:20 in the Columbus Half Marathon in October.
Her highlight, though, was representing the U.S. with her performance at the triathlon worlds in Cozumel. To her it was a dream to enjoy the camaraderie of teammates while competing against athletes from across the world. "I was excited when I got [the USA racing singlet] in the mail and excited to wear it," she says.
Branum had never done an open-water swim in the Caribbean until her Olympic-distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run) race in Mexico. The current and buoys were shifting, which made for a tightly packed swim, and she came out of the water in 33rd place. But she poured it on in the bike portion with the 11th-best time before posting the top 10K run (41:34) to clinch her spot on the podium.
She has had one success after another the past two years. This year in Omaha, Nebraska, she again qualified for the U.S. team at the 2017 age-group world championships in the Netherlands. "When you start to believe in yourself, then you start to see even better results," she says.
The combination of belief and busyness has been a winning one for Branum, and triathlon has become her perfect passion.
"It's an amazing challenge to try to improve your swim and your bike and your run while being healthy and fulfilling all your other life goals," she says.