Sharon McDowell Larsen ’84 has always been on the move. Born in Zimbabwe, she moved back and forth between Africa and the United States as a child, and then to Canada. During college, her homebase shifted from Canada to Kansas. As a young adult, she found herself in her adopted home state of Colorado, where she still lives. All the while, moving her body and participating in team and individual sports propelled her to peak physical performance, and she’s shared the gift of wellness with countless others throughout her career and personal life.
Larsen got serious about fitness after enrolling at Union. She jokes that she was bribed to switch colleges; she was attending another school when her father moved to Kansas, and he invited her to transfer to be closer to him. “He said, ‘If you go to Union, we’ll give you a car.’ I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know where Nebraska is; I hope it’s close to mountains or the ocean.’ But it turned out to be a good move.”
A good move, indeed, for her career and personal wellness goals. She joined the running club and was motivated to train for the Lincoln Marathon. After that, she was hooked. An article about an Ironman Triathlon piqued her interest, even though she didn’t swim or competitively bike. So she signed up for swimming lessons and got a bicycle. After a few years of training, she competed in the Ironman Canada, and her time qualified her to compete in the 1988 Hawaii event.
At Union, Larsen double majored in math and biology. She wasn’t sure at first what she was going to do with the degrees, but she loved the subject matter and, as a result of her interest in running and triathlon, she went on to earn a postgraduate degree in exercise physiology from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). After graduation, she accepted a job in the sports science lab at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
All the while, Larsen kept up her own active lifestyle. She traded triathlons for trail running and mountain bike racing, eventually competing in XTERRA races, which combine swimming, mountain biking, and trail running in off-road triathlons.
Larsen embarked on a career with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), where she headed a program for executive-level corporate managers. The week-long courses emphasized the importance of maintaining good health and fitness to meet the demands of high-powered careers and to fuel executives throughout every stage of their lives. “If you look at chronic conditions and the state of health in this country, a lot of diseases, like Alzheimer’s, dementia, cancer, and diabetes, happen over years and years due to poor lifestyle habits,” she said. “When you read the research, particularly brain-health research, the admonition is to start as soon as you can to eat a healthy diet, get regular physical activity, and other lifestyle factors that are a very powerful combination in terms of predicting long-term health outcomes.”
To achieve those outcomes, Larsen says what goes in is key. “I’m in my early 60s now, and I’m very passionate about the dietary side of wellness,” she said. “Most of my focus is on a nutrient-dense, high-quality, plant-based diet. It helps sustain my ability to train hard and be competitive.” And she loves to share this information. “It’s cool to hear how clients turned their health around, lost weight, their blood pressure went down, they’re off their medications, they have more energy, feel better, and think better,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to see it play out in people’s lives. It kept me in the job for 20-plus years and impacts my own life every day.”
Larsen officially retired in March 2020, giving her more time to focus on training. Last year, she once again qualified for the XTERRA Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii, 33 years after her first time competing in the race. She won the 60-64 year old age group with a faster time than the winners of three of the younger groups.
She also remains on-call for some clients and continues to share the importance of physical activity, including how it impacts personal development. “There are lessons to be learned in challenging yourself, taking risks, thinking like a team player, and taking the wins with the losses,” she said. “You can be extremely talented, but sooner or later, you’ll bump up against competition that is better than you. Winning is great, but even if you lose, you’ve still done better than 99 percent of the population by just trying.” She adds that the skills of pushing through adversity, embracing challenges, and trying even when failure is likely are all lessons she’s learned and taught as an athlete and coach. “We’re designed to move, and physical activity optimizes our bodies and brains.”
Union College recognizes this and has reiterated its commitment to health and wellness by unveiling plans for an expanded wellness center that will give students, employees, and the community more opportunities to increase and optimize their fitness levels.
“College-age people don’t realize how critically important it is to take health seriously and engage in positive life behaviors,” Larsen said. “Having opportunities to get people involved in activities and sports can carry on through your life.” And she knows this is true from personal experience. “I appreciate the opportunities Union offered me in terms of learning to swim and be part of the running club, playing tennis, and learning to windsurf. They provided opportunities to do things that I wouldn’t have done by myself, and that led me to greater things.”
For more information about Union’s Fit for the Future wellness facility revitalization campaign, visit ucollege.edu/fit.