iron nun nike

Who Is The “Iron Nun” Featured in that Iconic Nike Ad?

In 2016 Nike, ran an ad featuring Sister Madonna Buder, a nun who also happens to be a record-breaking triathlete. If you’ve seen the video, you already know that Sister Madonna Buder is far from your average 87-year-old. She competes in triathlons. She runs proudly alongside athletes half her age. She won’t take “no” for an answer. And she most definitely lives up to her nickname, the “Iron Nun.” (Want proof? In her latest run, she forgot her sneakers and had to borrow someone else’s—and still finished the race).

But triathlons aside, who is the Iron Nun? Here’s a bit more on Sister Madonna Buder and the story that has resonated with athletes around the globe.

Records, records and more records

iron nun nikeIn 1982, at age 55, Sister Madonna Buder competed in the Ironman triathlon for the first time. More than 25 years later, at 82 years old, she became the oldest women to compete in the event. And there are more records where that came from. Here’s a quick list of highlights:

  • She broke the record for finishing time for the 80-84-year-old age group (16 hours and 32 minutes), a record that still stands.
  • She has completed more than 360 triathlons as well as 45 Ironman races (a 3-part race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a full 26-mile marathon).

But she didn’t just set Ironman records. The Iron Nun also forced the creation of the 75-79 and 80-84 age groups, which didn’t exist before she came along. Talk about breaking barriers.

What is Sister Madonna Buder’s secret to seemingly endless youth? She runs to church every day and braves a 40-mile bike ride to swim in a lake near her home. Aside from that daily cardio, she says she “listens to her body,” eats mostly raw and supplements as needed with protein powder.

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The Iron Nun’s first runs

If you think that you have to be a lifelong athletic superstar to accomplish what Sister Madonna Buder has, guess again. And that’s precisely what’s so inspiring about her rise to fame.

Marie Dorothy Buder was born in 1930 in St. Louis. As a teenager, she wasn’t into track and field, but was an equestrian and even placed at some national events. By her 20s, she had entered the convent; in 1970, she left her congregation to join 38 other sisters in non-canonical Sisters for Christian Community.

When she was 48, the Iron Nun recalls a life-changing conversation with a priest named Father John. He recommended she start running to calm down, relax and cleanse her mind and body. From that point on, it was off to the races—literally.

She spent the next hour years entering races, and competed and finished her first triathlon in Ireland at age 52. When she needed some extra motivation to finish that first triathlon, she said she looked to the grace of God. “I thought of the finish line as the entrance to the final finish line, into the Pearly Gates,” she said. “That’s what drew me to it.”

You might be asking yourself, is it ok for nuns to compete in triathlons? Sister Madonna Buder had the same question. To her relief, she sought a bishop’s blessing before her first run in 1977, and his answer was an enthusiastic “yes.” He told her he wished some of the priests would do the same.

What’s next for Sister Madonna Buder  

All signs show that the Iron Nun isn’t slowing down any time soon. After setting the record for the oldest woman to complete the Ironman, she entered the race the next year, broke her own record, and finished in under 17 hours. And she’s been equally busy with other pursuits. In 2010, she released her biography, The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun.

In 2014, Sister Madonna Buder was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. She’s also been keeping busy at the Ironman in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and a variety of other national and international events—many of which are of Olympic-distance. But where does the Iron Nun go from here?

“I’d like to give up, actually. I have no excuses, as long as God’s keeping me more or less fit. I feel like God’s puppet, that’s what I feel like. First I am down, then he pulls me up with strings, and then he pulls the strings to put me hither, dither, and yon,” she said. “I guess maybe he just wants people, especially as they are aging, to get off their duffs and do something.”

Just like any other athlete, the Iron Nun has had her share of injuries and disappointments, such as when she missed the bike cutoff time at the Ironman Canada in 2008. But she’s famous for never letting setbacks get in her way. In the 2009 Ironman Canada, she competed, finished and—no surprise here—set a record time for her age group.