Watch: South Elgin triathlete swims, bikes, runs to top of national rankings
* South Elgin teen is No. 1 in her age group, and she's a great student, too
Don't let Audrey Ernst's smiley, bubbly personality and her penchant for all things pink -- shoes, helmet, bike handlebars -- fool you: The 16-year-old has an iron will as a fierce triathlon competitor.
The South Elgin teen, soon to be a junior at St. Charles North High School, has a resume chock-full of achievements to prove it.
Among the highlights: She placed second overall as part of Team USA at the European Triathlon Union Junior European Cup in June in Austria, three months after she got the silver medal -- and was the first American to finish -- at the CAMTRI Junior North American Championships in Florida.
Audrey is the top-ranked 16- to 17-year-old female triathlete in the United States, according to USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport, and in April finished second among girls in the USAT High School National Championships.
If that weren't enough, she's an honor roll student, a harp soloist with her school's chamber orchestra and a Spanish tutor.
"I'm definitely a perfectionist," Audrey said. "I'm so blessed to have had all the opportunities I have had through the sport. I'm so grateful to have gotten into it, because it's taken me places I could never have imagined. It's my passion, and I'm so proud to have worked so hard for it."
It all started four years ago, when Audrey signed up on a whim for a neighborhood triathlon -- and won. She had been hard at work at ballet for years and had just earned her pointe shoes.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, this is so cool. This is a bizarre feeling.' I had never been that much of an athlete or so much into sports. I was always the dainty one," she said. "Then I did triathlon, and it just lit this fire in my heart. I just developed a passion for it."
Her family was floored, said her mother, Mary Alice.
"She was the pink little girl twirling around the house in tutus from the time she was 3. We signed her up for soccer and she wanted to wear a skirt," she said. "She beat 13-year-old boys, big kids. We were crying laughing. It was a recreational thing, but she was out to kill it."
Put it simply, Audrey has the attitude of a champion, said Steve Brandes, head coach of the MMTT Triathlon elite team based in St. Charles.
"I coach quite a few athletes -- and quite a few good ones -- and she is just incredibly relentless with everything she does," he said. "Even if it's toward a single training session, or goals set at the beginning of the year, she works incredibly hard. Probably harder than anybody I've ever worked with."
John Osmanski, girls track and field coach at St. Charles North, agreed.
"She is really fun to be around, but she also has that complete inner drive that you look for in a top-notch athlete," he said.
Audrey also is immensely humble and has a do-gooder streak, Osmanski said. For example, as a freshman she prompted the team to become a sponsor for the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life fundraiser.
"Audrey said, 'We need to do this,'" he said. "So she made speech in front of the team to motivate them."
She sets extremely high standards for herself both in and out of the classroom, St. Charles North science teacher Natalie Rosin said. Audrey carries a 5.61 weighted GPA and wants to become a nurse anesthetist.
"She comes to class eager to learn and fueled with a desire to delve deeper into these disciplines," Rosin said. "When she misses the mark, she advocates for herself, wanting to go over the material and make sure she understands the intricacies so that she solidifies what is already a firm foundation."
Competing in triathlons has made her tougher, Audrey said.
"Swimming, biking, running, staying with it the whole time, staying focused and really having the toughness to kick it out through the end of the race -- it's something I've learned."
Among the three disciplines, swimming is her weakest, while biking is her strongest, said Audrey, who trains outdoors in summer and at her local gym and Sammy's Bikes in St. Charles in winter.
She practices the harp -- which she started playing at age 6 -- about three times a week, and last year she tutored a fellow student in Spanish.
"I have a lot of energy, and over time it's become a routine. Not like it's boring, because it's super exciting," she said. "Although it seems like I do the same thing every day, every day is different."
The swimming can get rough, such as at the European Championship last month, she said.
"It started with 30 (athletes) on the start line and we all go to one buoy. It was such a short distance, and it was so aggressive and crazy," she said. "That was definitely a struggle to stay calm."
Running, the final leg of the race, is also the toughest because you have to dig for all you have, she said.
"It all comes down to the run," she said. "There are so many great runners out there, and sometimes it gets difficult to maintain that pace, maintain the focus and intent for the race."
And yet, she's never considered quitting.
"It's so competitive, and it's three sports all together, so trying to improve on it is a huge time commitment," she said. "But every time I have a day off or a couple of days off, I always want to come back to it. For me, triathlon, it realizes me. It gets me motivated for other things."
Audrey's family plays a pivotal role in her successes, Rosin said.
"They offer her a lot of support and encouragement along with setting and meeting high personal expectations," she said. "I believe Audrey is the epitome of this and is truly a woman who works hard to achieve great things and has a heart of gold."
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