Otterbein, who competed in her first sprint triathlon (typically a half-mile swim, 16-mile bike ride and 5-kilometer run) before starting at Towson, credits two members of the local triathlon club, Linda Anders and Sheryl Savage, for guiding her through the grueling training sessions required to run and swim and bike the longer distances.

“Having that companionship has been very inspiring,” Otterbein said.

Despite a 20-year difference in their ages, Otterbein's cause has had the same effect on Anders. The mother of two girls, ages 9 and 6, Anders said she was watching this year's Tour de France when one of her daughters asked whether Anders ever considered competing herself.

When Anders explained that the event was open only to men, the girls were dumbfounded.

“They were shocked that women weren't invited to it. They were like, ‘Whaaaat?'” Anders said Friday.

When Anders later saw Otterbein's Facebook post about the Tour de France flap, she pointed out to her children that “this is a very good friend of mine, and she's protesting the very thing that we were speaking about. It just really hit home.”

Otterbein said the idea of competing in a 70.3 Ironman has been “an ongoing journey. … Something kept tugging at my heart.”

Savage, the president of the Baltimore Area Triathlon Club, said Otterbein has gone from being a novice to a fairly high competitive level in a short time.

“We would go for 40-, 50-, 60-mile rides and Melissa would show up with a smile, one bottle of water and no nutrition,” Savage recalled Friday. “We would get two or 21/2 hours into a ride, and we'll turn around and say, ‘Where's Melissa?' She bonked six miles back because she just didn't have the education and training.”

Savage, who played softball at Bucknell and who earlier this year competed in a 140.6-mile Ironman event in Idaho, said she and others in the club spent time educating Otterbein about what she needed to do with her training and nutrition.

“It's amazing to see how far she's come in the last six to eight months,” Savage said. “She comes prepared, she knows her bicycle mechanics and now she's riding with our fast pack of riders.”

Another inspiration for Otterbein is a little more personal. Her older sister Lauren has Down syndrome and has been competing in Special Olympics events for the past 15 years. After returning from Las Vegas, Otterbein plans to cheer on her sister at a soccer tournament in Harrisburg, Pa., later in the month.

“She's been a very strong inspiration. She is just so enthusiastic about cheering you on,” Otterbein said. “She will call me up sometimes and just say, ‘I'm excited to watch you race.'”

Currently working as an assistant at a Baltimore AIDS and HIV clinic, Otterbein said she has taken a couple of graduate classes in public health, with a particular interest in “utilizing sport for development, learning about organizations that use sport to promote social justice, peace advocacy in international communities, including refugee camps.”

In one class, she wrote a paper on how volunteers at the camps will “use sport to promote health education, for refugee students to stay in school.”

Regardless of what she does in Las Vegas, Otterbein believes she is making progress — both personally and for female triathletes in general.

“It's a sport where women feel there's momentum now that there can be some real changes,” she said. “I do feel like we're just beginning to hit the surface.”

don.markus@baltsun.com