By Greg Klein
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN – Sarah Groff made a quick change Friday at Bassett Hospital.
She’s used to that by now, though.
U.S. Olympic triathlete Groff took time out of her brief homecoming tour to meet the friends and colleagues of her parents — Dr. Gerald Groff and pediatric physician’s assistant Jeannine Groff — at the hospital’s Clark Auditorium.
Groff said she never imagined speaking to anyone as an Olympian, and she certainly wasn’t planning to spend too much time describing her fourth-place finish at the London Games this past summer.
Groffy, as she’s known to family and friends, shifted gears Friday after an inspirational introduction by Bertine McKenna. The Bassett Hospital COO included a story about her 12-year-old grandniece, who watched the Olympics on TV and wondered if she might be as brave as Groff some day.
"I am going to change my speech a little bit and focus more on the race itself," Groff said. "I didn't think I was going to talk about it because it is just two hours of my life, but what Bertine said about her 12-year-old grandniece really touched me."
Groff, who will turn 31 on Nov. 27, followed with a fairly detailed inside look at her Olympic experience.
"In a lot of ways, it's pretty routine," she said. "You show up in a random country, you line up while wearing your bathing suit and some random camera catches you with snot hanging out of your nose.
"Except there are hundreds of thousands of people there because it is the only thing that’s free,” she continued. “I don't know if you heard about the fiasco with tickets, but it was all over the news there. No one could get tickets. We couldn't even get tickets for things. And let's face it, a lot of Olympic sports have loyal viewers, but for the most part, people tune in only every four years. So instead of a few viewers, you’re being watched by millions.
"I wasn't that nervous, but when I got in position for the swim, I started seeing that a lot of the other women really were nervous. It actually helped ground me to know that back in Cooperstown, people were watching me."
Groff said the butterflies finally hit when she entered the water, slowing her down for the first half of the swim, but they were gone once she arrived at the cycling checkpoint. She said others weren’t so fortunate, though.
"On that one corner around Buckingham Palace, I don't know if they were trying to get a glimpse of the Queen or still nervous because they started to go down on that slick turn at the corner,” Groff said. “Well, the first time I avoided it, but a lot of other people didn't. Some of my friends went down. You can't imagine coming all that way and then losing your opportunity because someone fell in front of you.”
A couple of laps later, Maria Czesnik of Poland wiped out right in front of Groff. Whether it was instincts or something else, Groff made a split-second decision to keep going.
"I could have tried to turn my wheels, but the reality is I would have not been able to do that in time and I would have fallen,” she said. “Plus, I probably would have hurt her worse that way. So I just went for it and did a little bunny hop over her. And I don't mean it this way — it sounds so wrong — but as I was doing it, I was looking for the camera because I wanted to watch it later on YouTube."
Groff landed safely and continued the race, feeling, she said, "as if everything else was gravy. I could have lost my chance right there, and having it still, to keep going, I just felt so grateful."
Groff said she always has been known as a "swim-bike" triathlete, so her goal at the Olympics was to be among the top group of runners at the end.
"If anything, I set my sights too low because I should have been shooting for the podium,” she said. “You know as the race went on, the runners started dropping away from the group — and of course, you’re counting. Then all of sudden, there are four of you and you can do the math. One person is not going to get the medal.
"All of a sudden, the lead group drops me and there’s a gap," she continued. "They say the worst place to finish is fourth because you’re the first one off the podium. Of course it’s a disappointment and it hurts, but it isn't awful because my goal was to be an Olympian and then to be in the top pack of the runners."
Groff finished the triathlon season in October as seventh in the world among women, but she hopes to get even better.
"I'm still excited about my running training because I still have so much room for growth,” said Groff, who is dating a professional runner. “I don't get excited about swim training anymore. I've done too many laps in my life to still be excited about going back-and-forth in a pool. But run training gets me going.
"I just have so much more room for improvement," she continued. "In my heart, I know I can do better."
Groff said she’s planning to qualify for the Rio Games in 2016 and a trip to the podium will be her main objective.
She’ll always have time for her hometown, though.
"It is just so amazing for me to be speaking here," said Groff, who visited the Clark Sports Center on Thursday night and dropped in on Cooperstown Central later Friday. “I just think it is great for anyone growing up to be able to hear from an Olympian from their hometown that they, too, can do it. I would have liked to hear that as a kid. The fact that it’s me who gets to be the one to speak to them is just a fun aspect for me."
Maybe that’s because Groff is still a kid at heart.
"I nap, I snack, I wear the same clothes as a kid," she said while pointing to her Olympics sweatshirt. "I'm going to hate it when I have to go out in the real world.”