A few years ago, Julie Moss never could have imagined what has happened in her life. A college phys. ed. major, she figured to go into teaching, a job that didn't particularly excite her. Now she is a leading athlete and city-hopping spokesperson for the whole new sport of triathloning, which combines three races - usually swimming, cycling, and running - into one.
Ironically, she achieved her status in triathloning not by winning, but by finishing second in her first big event, the ''Ironman'' held two Februarys ago in Hawaii, which she'll compete in again on Saturday.
Under normal circumstances, a runner-up doesn't receive much attention. This was different, though, because her second-place finish was among the most dramatic and heroic in recent sports memory. It also was captured by ABC and shown to a Wide World of Sports audience at a later date.
After completing a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a hilly 112-mile bike ride, and all but a few yards of a full length, 26.2-mile marathon, Moss was in the lead. But exhausation overcame her 11 hours into the race and she crumpled to the ground. She made several valiant attempts to get to her feet, only to see Kathleen McCartney pass her and go on to victory. Julie didn't give up, though, crawling across the finish line 29 seconds later in a heartbreaking, yet inspiring scene.
Today she carries a videotape of the finish with her as she tours the country , making appearances for a running shoe company. The firm has sponsored her as she competes in a national series of triathlon races, gives clinics, and generally talks up triathloning.
Asked how often she's viewed the tape, the freckled redhead from Carlsbad, Calif., replies, ''Too many times. It's what I show people during TV interviews , but it's just a real small segment. What I like watching more is the whole race. Because by the time you've seen the swim and bike race, the drama is really incredible for the finish.''
Paradoxically, Julie spends a fair amount of time undoing the impression her finish has left with the public. It bothers her to see triathlons referred to as ''the ultimate torture tests'' or ''gruelathons.''
''Because of all the attention given to the Ironman,'' she observes, ''when you mention the triathlon a lot of people only think of 'that big long thing in Hawaii.' Well, that's part of it, but the Ironman is only the Boston Marathon of the sport. There are many smaller triathlons that are not nearly as taxing.
''I've heard of triathlons with a half mile swim, 12 miles on a bike, and a three-mile run. It's really loose right now.''
The Ironman, in fact, is the only triathlon with rigid distances. It also is the sport's granddaddy event, if anything only seven years old can possibly be described that way. The original triathlon, alias the first Ironman, was the brainchild of Navy Capt. John Collins, who decided to settle an argument over which athletes - swimmers, cyclists, or runners - were the fittest by fusing Hawaii's three existing long-distance events.
Before immersing herself in the triathlon, Moss had been an avid surfer, but never more than an average athlete who tried out for a different team sport every year in high school. As a college P.E. major at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, she got interested in recreational running. After completing a half marathon on minimal training, she tackled her first triathlon (a half Ironman) with no preparation. ''I think my natural ability for endurance started to show through ,'' she says of her finish. ''I realized if I spent five or six months training , I should be able to do the Ironman (which didn't have qualifying standards until this year).''
Along the way she got some pointers from her boyfriend, a serious triathlete who was gearing up for the Ironman himself. She left school, arranging to complete her undergraduate degree by writing a paper on training for the Hawaiian competition. Her parents and grandparents paid for her flight to the Islands when efforts to gain corporate sponsorship failed. Since her memorable finish, however, Julie has become one of the few professional athletes in the fast-growing sport.
''Money-wise it's not the greatest career,'' she says, ''but it pays the rent and puts food on the table. Actually, I couldn't ask for a better job. I get to travel, meet great people, and ride my bike everyday.''