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Triathlete’s death ‘just so out of the blue’

Updated: November 20, 2011 2:19AM

Amy Martich, a 40-year-old hard-charging corporate executive from Elmhurst and the mother of three young children, jumped into the Hudson River early Sunday morning to swim her portion of the Nautica New York City Triathlon.

Two co-workers from Janus Capital Group waited on shore to complete the biking and running legs of the race as part of their relay team, and nobody had any reason to suspect Martich would have any trouble with the one-mile open water course.

A competitive swimmer since her high school days in Crystal Lake, Martich had been training hard and was in the best shape of her life, friends and family say.

But she didn’t make it.

Part-way through the swim, emergency personnel pulled an unresponsive Martich from the river and rushed her to a New York hospital with what police said were heart attack symptoms. She was pronounced dead there early Monday morning after her husband raced to New York to be at her side.

This has always struck me as a particularly tragic way for anyone to die: in the course of some activity that they were doing in order to be healthy and stay fit.

That it would happen to a mother with three young children — ages 5, 8 and 10 — is beyond sad, knowing that she would have undoubtedly traded anything for a chance to spend more time with them.

Yet it does happen. It happens in triathlons (a second person died in the same New York City race). It happens in marathons. It happens in fun run 5Ks. And every time, those who are left behind are understandably stunned, which isn’t mentioned here as any knock on exercise or competition.

Martich’s father, Fred McCullough, was still in shock when I reached him Monday by phone in Crystal Lake, and allow me here to thank again him for being gracious enough to tell me about his daughter, the oldest of his two children, at such a difficult time.

We kept it simple, sticking to the facts.

Martich graduated from Crystal Lake South in 1988 and Purdue University in 1992. Later she would pick up an M.B.A. from the Keller Graduate School of Management.

She and her husband Steve had been together since their college days at Purdue, her father said.

“Steve is a stay-at-home dad, and he’s a wonderful stay-at-home dad,” McCullough said of the son-in-law who gave up his career as a food and beverage manager not long after the first of their children were born.

They could afford to do so because of Amy Martich’s business success, most recently at Janus, where she was a director and vice president of the Denver-based investment firm.

“She’s been promoted quite a few times,” said her proud father, a retired Kemper Insurance executive.

Martich was “always a high achiever, always on the go,” McCullough said, and her job entailed a great deal of travel.

But he said Martich, who worked from home, still managed to find the time to emphasize her children’s school activities and her involvement with Epiphany Lutheran Church in Elmhurst, where she sang in the choir and helped manage the finances.

Before her death, the Martiches had been in the process of building their dream home. In fact, friends had to supervise the family’s move on Monday from the family’s current home, the sale of which closes later this week. The family is moving into another home temporarily until construction of their new custom house is completed.

Martich competed solo in the SheROX Naperville Triathlon in June, finishing 324th out of 1,469 competitors with a time of 1:35:56. The half-mile swim was held at Centennial Beach, a former quarry that serves as an outdoor pool, with Martich completing that portion of the race in 13:20.

Her father said he believed that was her only previous triathlon experience.

Because of her work schedule, Martich did much of her training on the road, rising early for her workouts before getting to her business meetings, he said.

She had no prior medical problems of which the family is aware, said McCullough, who is hoping an autopsy will help clear up how his daughter died.

I left it to Kerry Connelly, a friend of Martich since grade school, to make some of the observations that caught in McCullough’s throat.

“She was the strongest I’ve ever seen her,” said Connelly, godmother to one of the Martich daughters. “She had just a passion for being fit and healthy.”

“It’s just so out of the blue,” Connelly said.

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