As a triathlete, Mary Jo Harte is a great comedian.
She's no Ironwoman. She'll never conquer Kona. She is 55, overweight and, until recently, hadn't been able to jump. When she tried, gravity just said, "No."
Three years ago, when she told her friend Patrick Stein that she'd decided to do a sprint triathlon in Chicago, he burst into laughter. When she texted him that summer 2012 to say she was riding her bike to his house, his response was, "OK, great. I'll keep my eye out for the ambulance on the side of the road."
She poked fun at herself, too. When she first tried to put on a sports bra, she wrote it was like losing a wrestling match with "a pink straitjacket." Yet Harte completed the Life Time Tri Chicago Triathlon that year.
She was 1,032nd out of 1,033 women, and it took her 4 hours, 10 minutes, 19 seconds to complete the 750-meter swim, 24.5K bike and 5K run -- almost three hours after the winning woman. Her swim was more like a paddle, she had to stop often on the bike, and there was no running on the run. Her goal was simply to finish without medical aid.
"That was like it, period," she says. "I wanted to finish it and hoped they wouldn't be closing it down before I crossed the finish line."
Last year she came back for more, finishing in 3:41:59. On Sunday (Aug. 24), she'll do the race again, with a goal of 3½ hours. Her trainer, JP Bordeleau, believes that's doable. Even if she falls short, he says she's an inspiration to others.
"I'm so proud of her," he says. "I mean, she has every excuse not to do it. She was almost 300 pounds. It's easy for her to say, 'I can't do it.' That to me is more motivating than watching an elite athlete, an Olympian."
Harte, however, has her own inspiration, and it's no joke.
"My story around this is not fascinating for very long," she says. "It's really Patrick's story."
The athlete and the nurse
Patrick Stein was an athletic kid. Though he'd had a brain aneurysm while in elementary school, he was cleared for noncontact sports. He excelled at baseball and swimming. By his senior year at Loyola Academy north of Chicago, he was captain of the swim and water polo teams. He was an intense competitor and a funny guy who knew how to motivate his teammates.
"He's one of the most competitive people I've ever met," says his mom, Colleen Stein. "He challenges everyone around him."
But Patrick went to bed one night that senior year and woke up the next morning unable to move. A massive stroke left him paralyzed. He couldn't speak or even swallow. He could only move his eyes. His mind remained unaffected. Suddenly, the bright, competitive 18-year-old was trapped inside his body.
The name for his condition: Locked-in syndrome.
Patrick needed 24-hour care, including nurses and physical therapists. That's when he met Harte, who has been a nurse for 35 years. She's also dabbled in stand-up comedy and done some writing but decided years ago that nursing was her calling. She knew she couldn't stay up late trying to be "the next Ellen DeGeneres" and still get up early to go to work the next morning.