Carson City’s Barbara Perkins making splash as top-ranked triathlete
Carson City native Barbara Perkins trots across the finish line, her waist cutting the white tape emblazoned with “Ironman Santa Rosa.”
Sporting a wide smile, Perkins raises her arms, lifting the tape over her head like a trophy. As she soaks in the atmosphere — the loud cheers from spectators, the long hugs from family — Perkins has a flood of emotions wash over her. Beneath red-tinted sunglasses, her eyes begin filling with tears.
It’s a sun-splashed Saturday in May at Ironman Santa Rosa and Perkins has just nabbed first place in her age group (30-34) and second place overall, clocking in at a personal-best 10 hours, 16 minutes and 23 seconds.
Soon after, Perkins finds out her Ironman performance — a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Sonoma, a 112-mile bike ride through Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley, and a 26.2-mile run along the Santa Rosa Creek trail — did more than just put her atop the podium.
The Santa Rosa win catapulted Perkins to a No. 1-ranking, for her age group, in the U.S. — and the world.
“It was hot outside, but I had chills and I was crying and trying to keep it together and soak in the moment,” Perkins, 30, said in an interview with the Nevada Appeal.
As of Aug. 23, she remains the top-ranked American in her age group and sits at seventh in the world.
“If you had asked me two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, I never would have told you that this would ever be possible,” she said. “It’s a little bit unreal.”
Indeed, the 2007 graduate of Carson High School has come a long way since her first crack at a triathlon a decade ago.
GETTING her FEET WET
It was the summer of 2009 when Perkins was persuaded by a friend to try a sprint triathlon at Pyramid Lake.
Perkins, a strong swimming alum from Carson High and the Carson Tiger Sharks club team and, at the time, a member of the Saint Mary’s College of California women’s water polo team, was confident she could handle the race’s half-mile swim.
She was right, leading the event as she came out of the water.
When it came to the biking and running, however, Perkins quickly found out she was out her element.
“There was a little 12-year-old girl that passed me on the bike — I got passed a lot on the bike,” said Perkins, who didn’t do herself any favors with her apparel choices. “I didn’t have any triathlon knowledge at all, so I wore a bathing suit over bike shorts for the race. And that was not a good idea, I can tell you that.”
Despite her struggles, Perkins said she “really enjoyed” getting her feet wet in triathlon competition. So much so that she wanted to find out what she could accomplish if she fully dedicated herself and became a student of the sport.
The turning point, when Perkins decided to fully commit to being a triathlete, came in 2013. That year she took fourth place at the Lavaman Olympic Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii; nabbed 61st at the Olympic-distance triathlon national championships in Milwaukee; and claimed another fourth place in her backyard at Ironman Lake Tahoe, her first full Ironman.
“I kind of got hooked,” she said. “And ever since, I haven’t stopped doing them.”
She’s not kidding. Each year, Perkins competes in at least six triathlon events, ranging from Olympic distance (31.93 total miles) to half Ironman (70.3 miles) to full Ironman (140.6 miles). And each year, thanks to improved training, coaching and tweaks to her diet (less sweets, more whole foods), Perkins gets better.
A milestone for the Carson native came in October 2016 when she qualified for the following year’s Ironman world championships with a first-place showing in her age group (in a time of 10:42.14) at Ironman Louisville.
Perkins found out both of these facts — her victory and qualification for the world championships — while laid up in the medical tent.
“I was lying in the med tent with an IV in my arm,” Perkins said. “My back was in so much pain I was shivering and convulsing. That was when I found out.
“It was really exciting. It was this dream I had been chasing for a long time and it was really happening.”
Perkins finished 21st in her age group at her first full Ironman world championships in Kona in 2017. After being slowed down by a torn labrum in her right shoulder in 2018, Perkins has returned to form in 2019.
In fact, she’s currently preparing for this year’s Ironman world championships (held Oct. 12 in Kona), which she qualified for after capturing the aforementioned title in Santa Rosa.
“She is a very focused and determined athlete with clear goals in the sport,” said Rachel Joyce, Perkins’ coach. “I like how Barbara is very considered: she may be quiet, but she knows her goals and puts energy into working out how best to achieve them, and then puts the work in.”
PAVING THE WAY
Perkins, who trains roughly 18 to 20 hours a week, said having a high pain tolerance helps, too.
“One of the things I discovered in the triathlon world is I’m able to suffer a lot more than other people,” said Perkins, pointing to a recent example. “After my (Santa Rosa) Ironman, I did a half marathon three weeks later and my hip popped out of my socket. I didn’t know it, so I walked around like that for a week and a half… So, I guess sometimes it’s not always a good thing if your pain tolerance is that high.”
When she’s not recuperating or training, Perkins serves as an assistant coach for the women’s Air Force Academy swim team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she resides with her husband, Matt Dillon.
She is also an ambassador for the Couer Sports, a women’s sportswear company. She uses her platform to help put on triathlon clinics and make the sport “more accessible to women,” she said. All told, a huge reason why Perkins works as hard as she does is to help pave the way for other young women, whether they’re an experienced triathlete or simply trying their hand (and arms and legs) at it for the first time.
“I really want to be an inspiration for other women and girls,” Perkins said. “I think it’s really important to have role models and to have people do things that other people think you can’t do. I want to be that example for other women.”