Kathy Kliebert, a top La. health official, keeps fit as a triathlete

Louisiana’s health secretary Kathy Kliebert is a triathlete.

The self-described runt from a somewhat athletic family and mostly a couch potato as an adult, Kliebert took up the demanding swimming, cycling and running event at age 51.

“I saw this little flier ‘From couch potato to triathlete in eight weeks,’ ” Kliebert said.

“I used to bike around the neighborhood with my kids. … I did not know how to swim, and I never ran in my life,” Kliebert said.

That was seven years ago, and she’s been competing ever since. She’s finished first in her age group in several events.

“It’s clearly never too late to start doing something to get healthy and change your lifestyle,” said Kliebert, a petite, wiry woman who talks with passion about her sport. “It takes time, especially when you are someone like me who did not come from a background of being an athlete. Once you get there, it really changes your whole physical and mental state.”

Initially prompting Kliebert to get more active were the aches and pains she experienced in her early 40s.

“I started having a lot of joint pains, extremely stiff and swollen joints,” Kliebert said. “I ended up having to go to the doctor a lot.”

Kliebert said her dad had rheumatoid arthritis, giving her further motivation.

“I started doing weight training in my 40s,” Kliebert said. “It really built up strength. I started feeling better and better.”

When she hit her 50s, Kliebert said she felt like she needed to do more cardio. That’s when she saw the flier from Rocketchix, a Baton Rouge women’s triathlon group, and she decided to try.

“I really enjoyed it. Most importantly, I enjoyed how good I felt from the training and the energy I was building up,” Kliebert said.

And she needs that energy as the head of the state’s multibillion-dollar Department of Health and Hospitals.

The most daunting part of the sport came when she had to learn to swim. Kliebert said she had a fear of putting her head in the water.

“That physically was the hardest to do,” Kliebert said. “I’m in total panic … I kept saying to myself ‘I’m never going to get this.’ It was difficult to watch everyone else swim. I’d get into this water and panic. … It is an irrational fear.”

“What I could do is back stroke,” Kliebert said. “I focused more on running. I figured I could backstroke the whole thing.”

After 18 months, she could swim freestyle in practice. It took 2½ years before she could swim in a race, and she said she still sometimes feels that sense of panic set in.

Early riser

Kliebert leaves her Thibodaux home between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. weekdays headed to Baton Rouge for training — swimming or running or biking or some combination — before going to the office.

Most of her training is done on the LSU campus in the Rec Center or running around the LSU Lakes.

She said she sleeps in on weekends — until 6:30 a.m. — before going biking or running. Her husband has started exercising with her on weekends.

Kliebert said she’s kept up the pace as she’s advanced through the ranks of DHH as an assistant secretary, deputy secretary and now secretary.

Kliebert competes in five to six triathlon events every year. Her favorite is a 400- to 800- meter swim, 18 miles on a bike and a 5k run.

In August, she’ll compete in the River City Triathlon in Shreveport. Come October, she’ll be competing in Santa Rosa, Florida. And there probably will be some meets in between.

She’s come a long way from being the “runt” who failed every skills test in high school and never had to even carry in the groceries because she was “really weak.”

“I certainly didn’t think I would be doing any kind of athletic competition in my 50s,” Kliebert said.

“All those aches and pains and joint problems, I can’t tell you the last time I went to the doctor for them in the last seven years,” she said. “That’s what’s so good about the triathlon. You do some weights, swim, bike and run, and that takes care of everything. The most important thing I wake up every morning with energy that gets me through the day. Clearly it wasn’t like that 10 years ago.”

“If I don’t exercise, I don’t feel as good during the day. If I go three days without exercise, my joints start tightening up,” she said. “You have to keep moving to be able to keep moving.”