Wife, mother, daughter, Physical Therapist, Director of Sanford’s Women’s Health Center, world class triathlete, coach, motivational speaker, writer, friend, pianist, all-around nice person – this is Melanie Carvell.
Growing up in Mott, North Dakota (“the spot where the girls are hot”) shaped her for life.
“Often people ask how I do what I do, and I think the answer is Mott, growing up in Mott,” said Carvell. “When there are only eight girls out for track you have to throw the shot put and run the mile. I started playing organ in the fourth grade because an organist was needed. You do what needs to be done. There are pros and cons to growing up in a small town, but I really do think they develop people who know what work is, how to get things done without a whole lot of resources, and how to become a leader.”
Carvell cites her parents, Floyd and Eleanor Rixen, as strong influencers in shaping her. “My dad ran Rixen’s Bar and was a rural mail carrier who worked hard to provide for our large family,” she said. “He always treated everyone he came in contact with ‘like a customer,’ and that taught me how important good relational skills were. Mom was a stay-at-home-mother who was busy keeping the house running like a well-oiled machine and also volunteering in the community. If I wanted to visit with her I had to follow her around, from the garden to the kitchen, to the laundry room and canning room. She also taught me something about healthy eating and keeping fit – she walked three miles a day, out to the football field and back.”
Carvell’s parents still live in Mott and she says the little southwestern North Dakota town remains a great place, with beautiful farmland and prairie pastures all around that have avoided the oil boom, so far.
She met her husband, Chuck, there and after she graduated from UND in Physical Therapy, they married and moved to Scotland where Chuck was working on his PhD. “Our first child, Kelsey, was born in Edinburgh,” she said. “We were over there for a year and I was unable to get a job due to the different PT licensing requirements. Chuck still had a year left at the university, so Kelsey and I came to Bismarck because it was a place I could find a job as a physical therapist, plus I had family here.”
Her journey to become a physical therapist started when she had a bad cheerleading injury in eighth grade. “I ended up in the hospital and had the cutest physical therapist in the entire world,” she explained. “I was so grateful to him for getting me back on my feet. I remember sitting in the PT department thinking, ‘this is what I want to do, it looks so rewarding.’ It was just a bee hive of activity of people helping the sick and injured get better. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Was she always an athlete? “Well, that’s a stretch,” Carvell replied. “I was one of the weakest runners on UND’s cross country and track teams. In high school I never even qualified for the state track meet and we didn’t have a lot of options. Back then, sports for girls were just getting off the ground. I was a cheerleader, which was great for growing leadership skills, but that wasn’t a sport. We had track available to us, and girls basketball started the year I was a freshman. You can imagine how bad we were, with no background in the game. We were terrible. After having brothers who were great basketball players it was painful for my dad to even watch our games.”
Carvell did her first triathlon when she was pregnant with Kelsey, who turned 29 this year.
She got interested in triathlons when her friend Deanna Askew asked her to count laps for her at a triathlon in Mandan. “I had run my first marathon that summer and developed achilles tendonitis, so I had been doing a lot of biking. I thought, ‘It’s just swimming that I have to learn, how hard can that be?’ Really hard! I’m still trying to learn how to improve my stroke and get some speed in the water.”
But she does enjoy the training: “Just like other trends, you see so many techniques come and go, and you need to be open to possibilities and always learning. I love to try to teach and mentor others because it is such a great way to learn. I always leave with so much more than I give. Every time I teach a running workshop it benefits me tenfold. I really enjoy the day-to-day camaraderie of training. I had such a great summer because I have some amazing training partners who really push me! And sometimes I can return the favor.”
Her great summer culminated in qualifying for the World Championships, making her an All-American Triathlete for the fifth time, something she was not sure could ever happen again.
Carvell had major back surgery six years ago. She had dealt with a back problem since her children were born and it finally got to the point where she had to get it fixed. The first surgeon told her it was time for her to coach instead of compete. “I left there and cried,” she said. “Then I saw another surgeon who said he could fix it. He told me I was too young to quit doing what I love to do.”
After the surgery she had a lot of time on her hands because the only thing she could do was walk. She went from being a world-caliber triathlete to a mall walker. “Not that there is anything wrong with walking at Kirkwood Mall, but it was a tough, tough time.”
During that time, Clay Jenkinson was looking for some training tips to help him prepare to walk the Little Missouri River Valley from Marmarth up to the North Unit of TR Park. They started walking together. Carvell would tell him stories about her races and acquaintances and he would say, “You’ve got to write that down.”
“I thought it would be great to get as much written down about my experiences as I could so I wouldn’t forget it all, and because I didn’t know if I’d have any more like that,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would ever compete at a high level, or any level, again. It didn’t look like it.”
She had time on her hands to think about where she came from, what she had done with her life up to that point, and what she could do to move forward positively from back surgery.
Over time, Carvell’s collection of reminisces began to grow and she thought she might have enough for a book. Her manuscript is now in the hands of a publisher. She hopes the book, the title still a work in progress, will be out early next year.
Because she wrote most of it while recovering from back surgery, she has updated parts of it over the past few months. In particular, she added some things about her successful 2013 racing season. “I haven’t competed at this level since well before my surgery,” said Carvell.
“The last world championship I competed in was 2003 in New Zealand. One of my pie-in-the-sky goals last summer at Nationals was to become an All-American again. If you place in the top ten in your age category you are automatically All-American. Last summer I was having a good season, qualified for Nationals in Vermont and was having a great race, but ended up with a flat tire, lost a huge chunk of time, and came in 33rd in my age group. This year I had an even better summer training and racing, and at Nationals in Milwaukee I ended up seventh, out of 133 women that qualified for Nationals, in my age group.” Her finish qualified Carvell for the 2014 World Triathlon Championships in Edmonton, Alberta.
Carvell credits much of her success, ironically, to back surgery. “I came back with a different perspective, how can I run with less impact, more efficiency, and more economy – is there a way to run better? Another big change since surgery is that I now think of training as something not that I have to do, but as something I get to do.”
Carvell described how she researched, read and studied running techniques. “I now run smarter using ChiRunning and natural running methods. I never would have explored any of that. I learned you can use injuries and setbacks as an excuse, or as a spring board. For me, I don’t know if I would be where I am if I wouldn’t have had the surgery or other challenges. And it has been super fun for me to pass on some of these new running and swimming techniques. I’ve been teaching quite a few running workshops, trying to help other people make running easier and more fun, and hope to get certified as a natural running coach this year. I wouldn’t have looked into any of that if I wasn’t trying to figure out how to do it better myself because of the challenges I had.”
Carvell’s book is mostly a collection of stories and experiences. When she gets evaluations back from public speaking engagements, it is the motivation part of it that people like most, the stories.
She talked about what people will find inside the cover: “It’s about growing up in a small town, being part of a large family, moving on to a bigger stage, doing things never thought possible or even imagined, and people and obstacles, humor and joys encountered along the way. It will have a bit about my ancestors, the stock – immigrants, sheepherders, ranchers, farmers, housewives – I come from. I do think those that come before us leave something in the blood line that shapes us in a lot of ways. And for me, it was ways that I’m grateful for.”
While Carvell believes the book will be entertaining, she says it does have an objective. “I hope people who are struggling to become active will find hope and inspiration – some motivation to get moving,” she said. “Maybe people who are already working hard will feel a bond or some camaraderie with me, and people who are struggling with an injury or whatever it might be, will know there is hope for a comeback and that they shouldn’t rule anything out. It is not a how-to manual, I just hope it will motivate people to get up and do a little bit and then maybe a little bit more and then maybe they will feel the urge to give someone else a nudge. That is the best way to keep yourself going, if you can get somebody else moving, then you can’t really quit.”
Carvell also shares some stories about interactions with wildlife while running and cycling, including one in Montana with her son, Robert, as they rode in communion alongside a couple of wild horses, trying to match their speed and grace. “Another experience I had was out at Lake Tschida, where I love running on dirt roads because that is how I grew up running in Mott,” she said. “On a few runs at Tschida a small group of pronghorn antelope kept me company. Instead of fleeing from me, they kept sort of close by and seemed to want to play.”
One of Carvell’s goals is to get people outside. Being out-of-doors, she believes, is a tribute to where she grew up and where we live, enjoying it through all the seasons and making peace with it in winter. “Too often we go to the club, get on the machine, punish ourselves for a half hour, then the rest of the day we’re sitting. Too much sitting is a huge disease risk factor. We simply have to find a way to engineer more activity in our schedules. If we can, our lives will be so much richer. And having beautiful Bismarck and Mandan and western North Dakota just out our door, should make it a lot easier to do.”
Melanie still uses her musical talent and plays piano on Corpus Christi Church’s worship team. “It is fun to play for church because it feeds my soul, and it keeps me practicing. And now I have more time to give back to the community. My kids are 29, 27 and 24 and they soooo don’t need me as much anymore. My youngest son, Elliot, has his own place in Bismarck and to get him to visit more often I bribe him with his favorite meals. He is very independent. I feel pretty selfish sometimes because I did it all while I was juggling kids and getting my professional career up and running, and now I have more time on my hands to pitch in and do more things, and try to help other people.”
Helping others be the best they can be, just like she tries to live her own life.