As water crept above Kathy Champion's waist, old anxieties started to kick in again.
Just minutes earlier, the former Army lieutenant colonel who had heard "too many" gunshots during her time in Iraq was nearly transported back to the war zone with the pop of the starter's gun.
But Champion — blind, half-deaf and fearful of crowds as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder — pushed through her fears to compete in Sunday morning's St. Anthony's Triathlon, well ahead of her goal to finish the race by noon.
A daredevil before she was disabled in Iraq, she had dedicated her triathlon debut to five men who died under her command.
"I didn't do anything other than what all those other people who crossed the finish line did," said Champion, 48, of Gulfport. "The only difference is I did it for five people who are 6 feet under because they died in combat. I will never forget the sacrifice they made."
It was the first triathlon for Champion's race assistants, Katie and Jeff Morrow, too.
Throughout the race, Champion and Katie Morrow said, the athletes were met with applause and encouragement from spectators who had seen Champion's story in the Tampa Bay Times.
"It was fun," said 28-year-old Morrow, who helped guide Champion through the swim and sprint run portions while her husband piloted Champion's tandem bike. "It was great to help her."
Among the highlights, said Champion, a Steelers fan since the 1980s, was a hug and kiss from Hines Ward, the former Steelers wide receiver and Super Bowl champion. The two started in the same swim wave.
After the race, Champion beamed and bounced from left to right as she excitedly recapped the day's events.
"I feel alive. Every inch of me is awake. It feels so good to be alive," she exclaimed. "What's next?"
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]