MERIDIAN — Kulia i ka nu’u.
It’s not a typo. It’s a part of Emily Szurgot — literally. The Meridian triathlete has the Hawaiian proverb tattooed on the right side of her stomach. It means, “Strive to reach the summit.”
The recent INSPIRE, the Idaho Connections Academy graduate is certainly ascending. She was the only Treasure Valley college signee for triathlon this season. Szurgot will complete at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, this fall.
“It’s that work ethic,” stepfather Doug Szurgot said. “She will do anything that it takes and go beyond even that. And she’s always been that way. She just needed a little extra push and the confidence. Once she got that, she just ran with it.”
Szurgot, 18, wasn’t always a triathlete. The Boise native was a swimmer first. And it was her love.
Her mother, Kali, had her in lessons at 4. Szurgot was a competitive swimmer just four years later. She was swimming the 800- and 1,000-meter and mile races for Streamliner Aquatics in Meridian by the sixth grade.
Swimming was her escape, too. An escape from an abusive father. He allegedly became psychologically abusive when Szurgot was 10.
The abuse continued until her mother and stepfather got full custody of her in the sixth grade. The only things Szurgot could bring herself to say about the abuse were the words “traumatizing” and “terrifying.”
It’s why she legally changed her last name a month ago.
“I will say, now that I look back, I think of it as definitely making me a stronger person,” she said. “I don’t think I would be who I am today without those experiences and my mom and stepdad. I’m very thankful for them and everything that I have.
“I feel bad for the kids who have to go through the things that I went through. And I wish I could be there for everyone, but I want to make a difference and show it’s possible to come back from that type of stuff.”
Szurgot also had a love for running and cycling. She ran after swim practices just for fun, and picked up cycling as a freshman.
She combined all three loves the summer of her sophomore year at Rocky Mountain High School.
Her debut came at Emmett’s Most Excellent Triathlon at the Olympic distance and not the standard sprint.
The Olympic distance includes a mile swim, a 24-mile bike ride and a six-mile run. It’s 15.5 miles longer than the sprint distance.
She still finished 16th overall in the women’s division.
“I kind of jumped into the deep end and didn’t walk in through the shallow way,” Szurgot said while laughing. “But that’s when I really fell in love with it. I knew I could improve. I knew I could push my body harder. I knew I could get faster. It was like, ‘If I can do an Olympic distance race, I can do the sprint no problem.’”
So Szurgot left the varsity swim team where she had placed at state in each of the last two years and transferred to INSPIRE, a K-12 online school, for her junior year. The decision was made to accommodate her soon-to-be rigorous schedule.
She swims 4 miles, runs 8 miles and bikes 60 miles per week on average.
“I really fell in love with the different disciplines,” Szurgot said. “It allowed me to not just be good at one thing, but really perfect my technique and speed in swimming, running and cycling.”
But Szurgot needed one more thing to fully complete the transition over, one of a more permanent variety.
She searched for weeks before an eventual Google search of “Hawaiian proverbs” brought her to that motto of “Kulia i ka nu’u.”
Szurgot got the tattoo in March 2018.
“Hawaii has a special place in my heart, and the meaning behind that phrase just fit with how I strive to live my life,” Szurgot said. “To work hard and to be the best version of myself with everything that I pursue.”
Szurgot has certainly done that.
She came back to win Emmett’s Most Excellent Triathlon the following year by almost three seconds. Szurgot then posted three more top-3 finishes last summer, including winning the Oregon State High School Triathlon Championships.
Szurgot took 40th at the USA Triathlon High School National Championships in Tempe, Arizona, on April 6. She is fresh off a fifth-place finish at the Blue Lake Triathlon in Portland, Oregon, on June 2.
She also graduated on June 7 as the valedictorian of her class with a 4.2 grade-point average.
It all got the attention of Drury University. The NCAA Division II school is one of just 30 colleges in the nation that offers women’s triathlon.
“It’s such a dream come true. I honestly pinch myself every time I think about it,” Szurgot said. “I am very excited to be competing and training with the best of the best. It was my childhood dream to be an NCAA athlete and it’s coming true. I can’t wait for what’s to come.”
Szurgot has one more race before the 1,573-mile trek to the Midwest. She will compete in the Echo Triathlon in Utah on July 13.
It’s one of Utah’s biggest events. But Szurgot should be able to reach that summit, too. It’s written all over her.
“My first thought is always, ‘How did she do that.’ But I need to stop doing that,” Kali Szurgot said. “Nothing she does should surprise me anymore. I’m just so happy for her. After everything she’s been through, she deserves everything that’s come her way.”