Innovation Quarter News

Research Technician Takes Flight as Triathlete


She’d devoted a year of her life to training, five and six hours worth of grueling strength and endurance exercises a day. Multiple triathlons a month in her effort to become a world-class triathlete and perhaps win a shot at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


It culminated in October 2012 in a trip to New Zealand for the World Triathlon Championship as a member of Team USA.

Amanda Gogolak, 27, competed in a sprint triathlon for the 25-29 age category, meaning she had a 750-meter swim (about half a mile), 20 kilometers of biking (about 12 miles) and a 5K race (3.1 miles).

After a good competitive swim, she took off on her bike. And then it happened.

Mile 2, her gear shaft disconnected. Because of the way triathlon bikes are constructed, there was no way to fix it. She had to ride the rest of the way in the lowest gears, requiring a tremendous amount of exertion, “burning my legs out.’’

“I just burst into tears at the top of the mountain, I figured the race was over for me competitively at that point.’’

Becoming a triathlete

Gogolak says her earliest memories of being an athlete are from beating all the boys in elementary school races. Her biggest thrill playing travel softball though middle school was stealing bases. And in high school, indoor and outdoor track was her sport, which she continued at Manhattan College.

Gogolak, a research technician who works with Linda Porrino, PhD, chair of Physiology & Pharmacology, puts it simply: “Our family has this athletic gene.” Indeed.

If her last name sounds familiar, it’s because her uncles are Pete and Charlie Gogolak, who in the ‘60s and early ‘70s both were placekickers in the National Football League, Pete Gogolak for the New York Giants and Charlie Gogolak for the Washington Redskins. Pete Gogolak was the first soccer-style kicker to play in the NFL.

Bitten by the triathlon bug

Gogolak says she got hooked on triathlons after seeing one four years ago in Clemmons just after moving here to be near her family.

“It was a local triathlon dedicated to family members or friends who had passed away, and instead of writing their entry numbers on their body (typical of triathlons), they wrote the names of their ‘angels’ on their arms,’’ she says. “It was incredible to see all these athletes, bikers and runners go by.’’

She spent the winter training and entered her first triathlon in spring 2009. She has strived to compete in two to three a month ever since.

A Tribute to Family

On the eve of a big race at Tanglewood Park, one of her grandmothers, Helen, took ill in New York. Torn about heading north to join her parents there, her mother advised her to wait and look for a sign. Her race entry number arrived. It was 328. Her grandmother’s birthday was March 28. She decided to stay for the race.

Although her grandmother died while she was in North Carolina, Gogolak decided to get a lasting tribute for both of her grandmothers—tattoos of a winged foot on both of her ankles, “so they run every race with me.”

In August 2011, Gogolak traveled to Burlington, Vermont, to compete in the national championships, and despite a painful herniated disk in her back that forced her to walk for most of the run portion of her triathlon, her time was still good enough for her to qualify for Team USA. That led to her training for the worlds in New Zealand.

Pat Rimron, a triathlete who began coaching Gogolak last year, says he believes she has “pretty much unlimited potential.”

“She really understands training,” says Rimron, 45, of Winston-Salem. “Her body and adaption to training are a huge advantage. Given that and her work ethic, she took really easily to becoming a triathlete.”

Never give up

Gogolak was accompanied to New Zealand by her fiancé, who lives in Mexico (they met while salsa dancing in downtown Winston-Salem).

When the gear shaft broke and she got to the finish of the bike portion of the triathlon, she says her fiancé “could tell by my face something was wrong.’’ But there was no time to share a word; she still needed to finish the 5K run. She says he told her “you look strong. Just keep going. Just keep going.’’

“If your body that gives out, you don’t beat yourself up so much,’’ Gogolak says. “But when it’s a mechanical error, it’s heartbreaking.’’

Still she finished the race and says she loved meeting other competitors in her class from around the world. The two-week experience gave her a taste of international, elite competition and she’s primed to make a run again at the 2013 nationals in August in Milwaukee. If she has a good enough time there, she’ll qualify for the 2014 worlds, which are being held, just like the 2016 Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro.

One thing she knows is that the peak years of top female triathletes tend to be in their early 30s. With that in mind, she says she hopes she can wind up in Rio de Janeiro in 2014 and 2016.

Back in the lab

For now, you can find Gogolak back at Wake Forest Biotech Place, running experiments on rats for Porrino, calculating data and testing neurological compounds. She’s already topped 5,000 hours in her three years working for Wake Forest Baptist, which is what she needs to reach her next professional goal—acceptance into veterinary school.

She’s hoping to apply and attend vet school in Australia, with N.C. State as a second choice. The competition, she says, is tough. There are only 26 veterinary schools in the United States and almost as many applicants as there are for medical school.

But then, Gogolak is used to competition.