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Maryville University alumna Sr. Madonna Buder, ’52, is currently featured in a popular Nike ad campaign entitled, “Unlimited Youth.” The ad is making the rounds on social media, as well as television.
At age 86, Sr. Madonna has just qualified for the International Triathlon Union’s Triathlon World Championship, to be held Sept. 10 in Mexico. At the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships recently held in Omaha, Neb.—the qualifying event—she was the only competitor in the 85-plus age category.
Maryville University’s Buder Family Commons, a gathering space for the campus community, is named for Sr. Madonna. The following story about her amazing journey as the “Iron Nun” was first published in the Fall 2014 edition of Maryville Magazine.
Sr. Madonna Buder, ’52, a member of the non-canonical Sisters of Christian Community in Spokane, Wash., knew she wanted to become a nun at age 14. At age 52, she realized another calling—as a triathlete. Her extraordinary success in the sport was recognized this summer with her induction into the U.S.A. Triathlon Hall of Fame.
“I knew I wanted to be a nun. What surprises me is that I also became a world traveler and a triathlete,” she says.
“Doing an Ironman takes not just an iron will, but a steel spirit.”
Triathlons are multi-event competitions. Although Sr. Madonna came to the sport later than most, she holds 12 U.S. national and 17 world champion titles, and has competed in more than 366 triathlons, including 46 Ironman races, the longest-distance triathlons. Ironman features a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike distance, and a 26.2-mile run. She also holds the record as the oldest female competitor in the Ironman in distance, and has opened up six Ironman age group brackets. As far as she knows, Sr. Madonna’s nearest competitor is six years her junior. “I am my own competition, and it’s hard every year,” she laughs.
Looking back, her days as a student at Maryville may have signaled her later tenacity, feistiness, and athletic success. An accomplished equestrian, Sr. Madonna, then known as Dorothy Buder, earned impressive trophies and awards in the Maryville Horse Show, and she was a dedicated student. But she also sparred a few times with the nuns—some of whom were “sticklers” about rules, she says.
Since the 1980s, Sr. Madonna has served in prison ministry, but her grueling triathlon competitions provide additional opportunity for outreach. “This is a very specialized ministry because of what I represent faith-wise to so many around the world,” she says. “People are yearning to get close to God. In fact, I’ve had people write me and say they’re struggling with the very thing I used to: how can taking this time to train equivocate with what you should be doing with family, work, and prayer? What do you think about people praying for their race? I tell them it’s good to pray anywhere, anyplace, anytime.”
In answer to the other questions, she says, “It depends on the intention with which you do anything at all that sanctifies the moment.”
When Sr. Madonna—who is often referred to as “The Iron Nun”—competed last summer in the Challenge Roth triathlon in Roth, Germany, she was treated like a rock star. She was interviewed by countless reporters and signed autographs everywhere she went. She was invited to say the invocation before the race, which featured 3,500 solo participants and 600 teams. In all, 66 countries were represented.
“With 13.1 miles left to run they wanted to pick me up and take me to the finish line because they didn’t want me to miss the fireworks and running through the finishing arch in the stadium for spectators. I had only half the run down, but I wanted to be cooperative,” she says.
After the fireworks, they sent Sr. Madonna running alone into the stadium, where she received a standing ovation. She recalls people reaching over for high–fives, someone handing her a rose, and human arches compromised of triathlon pros and others greeting her.
“All this for a little 83 year-old. What is this all about?’ she asks. “To this day I cannot understand it. Perhaps, I’m considered a mascot for the races. Because I’ve been with this for so long I guess everybody knows who I am, and the fact that I’m sticking it out for so long, it is like I’m a symbol of hope for them as they age.”
Before retiring from the Ironman distance, Sr. Madonna had planned to compete in at least one more competition this past October — the Ironman World Championship race in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. She hoped to open up the age bracket for 80-plus competitors. Last spring, she became injured with a fractured pelvis, but just 11 weeks later she competed in an Eagleman half-Ironman Triathlon, a finish that qualified her for Hawaii. She was not able to finish the championship race.
Competing is not just about physical endurance, says Sr. Madonna. It’s also a question of spiritual and mental application—whether one finishes a race or not.
“Primarily, the desire has to be there,” she says. “Doing an Ironman takes not just an iron will, but a steel spirit.”