It's 7:30 a.m. on a chilly morning in early June, and the gates at Frenchtown Pond State Park are still locked. Shivering, the swimmers gaze over the gray pond and help each other squeeze into wetsuits. The rain let up an hour ago and a dreary mist lifts off the grass as sun reluctantly rises. This is Monday, a recovery day, so the swim will be easy—by their standards. Wading into the calm, 60-degree water, they set out at a steady pace. In less than a minute they've rounded the jellybean curve of the pond, the black arms of their wetsuits flashing above the water like Canada geese taking flight.
Professional triathlete Linsey Corbin is out in front, followed by her young protégé Jennifer Luebke and two male teammates—the four lapping the pond in tight formation. After 30 minutes they head toward the dock. Leaving the water, their chatter is an oddly cheery contemplation of a problem common to cold-water swimmers: anticipated bleeding where their wetsuits abrade their necks.
Corbin is accustomed to pain and unimpressed by the minor bloodshed. In 2006 she lost eight toenails during her first Ironman—a race that combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Later that year she completed the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, while nursing a broken collarbone.
"I go into every race expecting pain and discomfort," the 28-year-old Corbin says. "I mean, who said doing an Ironman would be easy?"
Corbin just makes it look easy. Two years into her professional career she cemented her standing among the international triathlon ranks by finishing as the top American woman and fifth overall at the 2008 Ironman World Championships, securing her position as one of the top female triathletes in the world.
Corbin's swift ascent to world-class status has made her one of the very few professionals in the sport who makes enough money on races and endorsements to comfortably support herself, and she does it all from Missoula—far from sponsors, coaches, and elite professional communities in places like San Diego and Boulder. With a supportive community of enthusiastic endurance athletes, Missoula offers its own distinct advantages and helps shape a training regimen that, while unorthodox, has rocketed her to the top tier of pro triathlon and made her a legitimate contender for the world championship.
"People ask how I survive and train year-round here," she says. "I have found a way to make it work."
FORCE OF NATURE
A hyper-energetic blonde, Corbin inhabits a compact frame that seems ideally suited for a sport designed to push competitors' bodies to their limits, and her watchful eyes suggest the intense focus required to compete at sustained levels for hours on end. Even at rest, chatting in a coffee shop, Corbin seems alert in a way that brings to mind a kestrel, as if some darting, swooping part of her nature continually propels her to keep flying.
Originally from Bend, Ore., Corbin attended college in California before moving to Missoula in 2000, where she fell in love with the town and with Chris Corbin, the man who would become her husband. She dabbled in downhill ski racing in high school, and also ran track and cross-country, but nothing in her youth foretold her rapid rise as a triathlete. In 2003, on a whim, she entered Missoula's Grizzly Triathlon and won. Just three years later Corbin set a course record for her age group at the 2006 Wildflower Triathlon at Lake San Antonio, Calif., one of the largest and most prestigious races in the country. An amateur at the time, she was ineligible for the $3,000 prize her third-place finish would have earned, prompting her quick decision to go pro.
Since then, Corbin has enjoyed renown as Missoula's premier professional triathlete, a hero to the local multisport crowd and a favorite of the national press.
"She has definite star quality," says Brad Culp, editor of Triathlete magazine. "Linsey is one of those people that everyone likes. It's hard not to. She comes off as an everyday country girl who just happens to be really fast at swimming, biking and running. Linsey is definitely one athlete that we all look forward to seeing at the races."
Even fellow triathletes can be star-struck in her presence. Seattle age-grouper Phil Spencer joked on his blog that Corbin "demanded she get a photo" with him at this spring's Grizzly Triathlon, though it's presumable Spencer was the one begging for the snapshot. Corbin's growing celebrity springs naturally from a competitive zeal that never shuts down, on or off the racecourse. When she isn't putting in her 25 to 30 hours of weekly training—including a daily swim regimen, weekly distance runs and 100-mile bike rides—she's likely maintaining her Web site, keeping up a steady correspondence with coaches, sponsors and reporters, or teaching clinics for the local triathlon club.