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Alumnus triathlete inspired by military hero – his father

Barry McNamara
Monmouth graduate George Van Hagen III is pictured with the photo of his father that helped push him toward the finish line of the sprint triathlon world championships in Australia.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – George Van Hagen IV could hear the voice of his late father as he competed on the Gold Coast of Australia.

A member of Monmouth College’s Class of 1983, Van Hagen was an age-group competitor in the 2018 International Triathlon Union Triathlon Sprint World Championships, held in September in Southport, Australia. He said his father was with him every swim stroke, bike pedal and running step of the way.

“Competing at Worlds was a conclusion in honoring my father,” said Van Hagen. “I certainly felt his presence. The race was more than a race to me. It was a commitment by a son to a father, fellow officer and my hero.”

Following his father’s footsteps

Van Hagen’s late father, George Van Hagen III, inspired him to follow in his footsteps and attend Monmouth College. The elder Van Hagen attended Monmouth’s Naval Flight Preparatory School during World War II. A direct descendant of U.S. president William Henry Harrison and a decorated World War II pilot, George Van Hagen III died in 2015.

The younger Van Hagen graduated from Monmouth after serving in the Navy and brief stints at Southern Illinois University and a Chicago-area community college. Now 63, he credits Monmouth for being “a place where I could get my foothold.” He competed for the Fighting Scots in cross country and swimming, but it wasn’t until about five years after he graduated that he “dabbled” in triathlons.

Coaching triathletes

Van Hagen’s interest in the sport took off a decade later. Now a physical therapist assistant at Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, Iowa, Van Hagen has broken new ground in training triathletes, conceptualizing and developing the first certified training center for USA Triathlon at Great River. A USA Triathlon-certified coach, he’s attended training at The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

His work with triathletes attracted his father’s interest.

“During that period, I coached an athlete who competed in the 2015 ITU Sprint Triathlon World Championships in Chicago,” said Van Hagen. “Ryan was an age group team member of Team USA, like I was in Australia. From his nursing home room (in Barrington, Ill.), my father loved to hear about every aspect of Ryan’s training and racing. His body was failing him, but his level of enthusiasm following Ryan’s progress gave us something exciting to discuss.”

That enthusiasm continued through race day, when father called son 20 minutes before the start of the competition.

“I said, ‘Dad, Ryan can’t talk right now. He’s just about ready to race,’” said Van Hagen. “Dad said, ‘Just let me talk to him.’ So he did, and all I heard from Ryan was ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’ I got back on the phone with Dad, and he said, ‘There, now he’s ready.’ I thought, ‘Well, what have I been doing for the last 10 years?’”

Van Hagen’s father died one month after the race from complications caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD.

“I’m convinced he held on as long as he did so that he’d know how Ryan did at the competition,” said Van Hagen. “He willed himself to stay alive.”

Return to racing

Although Van Hagen had turned his focus completely to training triathletes, his father’s voice got into his head, becoming a key source of inspiration as Van Hagen switched gears from coach to competitor.

“I was out of racing for 18 years, and my father had kept saying, ‘You need to get back into it.’ But I didn’t have my heart in it. But in 2017, I decided to return and that I would do it for Dad. That was my motivation. All the races I had last year, he was there to push me on.”

Van Hagen said that at his father’s funeral, “we had a beautiful picture of him saluting.”

“In the transition area where I set up my bike, I had that picture, inspiring me,” said Van Hagen, who is married to Monmouth alumna Terri Pieper Van Hagen ’83. “With that salute, I could hear my father say to me, ‘Go get them buddy, go get them!’”

Taking his father to Australia

In Australia, Van Hagen was not allowed to have extra items in the transition area, but by that time, his father’s salute was ingrained in his mind. Whenever the race – which consists of an 820-yard swim, 12-mile bicycle ride and 5-kilometer run – became difficult, all he had to do was imagine the photo to hear the inspiring words: “Go get them buddy, go get them!”

Van Hagen said the opening ceremony for the world championships was “phenomenal.” He was part of a 500-member United States team, who were among 7,000 triathletes from 47 nations.

“I remember looking down at my uniform and seeing the ‘USA’ on my chest,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was a very emotional moment to realize I was representing my country.”

His father, most certainly, would have been very, very proud.