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Houston hospital partners with triathlon's Ironman

Triathlete Matthew Michelsen, foreground, works under supervision from strength and conditioning specialist Anthony Falsone at Memorial Hermann Hospital's sports medicine center Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in Houston. The hospital is partnering with the World
Triathlete Matthew Michelsen, foreground, works under supervision from strength and conditioning specialist Anthony Falsone at Memorial Hermann Hospital's sports medicine center Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in Houston. The hospital is partnering with the World Triathlon Corporation's Ironman, a collaboration designed to make quality training and sports medicine accessible to everyone from athletes to average people.
Pat Sullivan, Associated Press

HOUSTON — Until five weeks ago, Matthew Michelsen spent his day posting on Facebook for Lady Gaga, playing with his three sons and helping his wife with her business. Treadmill? Never. Running. For what? Biking? Unheard of.

Now, Michelsen — known in California circles as a social media guru for the stars — is in Houston getting a tailor-made intensive training program designed to prepare him for the premiere triathlon Ironman race in Kona, Hawaii. It's an example of how a new partnership between Memorial Hermann Hospital and the World Triathlon Corporation has made quality training and sports medicine available to everyone from athletes to aspiring pros.

"I'm 100 percent a novice," the 39-year-old Michelsen said in between running 3 miles on a treadmill and learning how to use a cylindrical foam object to strengthen his hamstrings.

Unlike typical partnerships, the collaboration doesn't give Memorial Hermann in Houston money for research or to construct a new facility. Instead, it provides the massive medical institution with access to thousands of athletes — and potential clients — who want to participate in a rigorous triathlon that includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. Many of them are middle-aged men and woman who have long neglected their health and fitness and may choose to train in Houston with the hospital's help.

And, possibly most important, it allows Memorial Hermann to use the well-known, prominent Ironman name and logo, helping the facility in its new quest to "brand" itself, the latest trend among hospitals struggling to survive in an ultra-competitive field while responding to demands they offer concrete examples of success and cost-efficiency.

"To brand and to have new directions is what medicine's all about," said Dr. Walter Lowe, medical director of the newly named Ironman Sports Medicine Institute at Memorial Hermann. "Medicine's under pressure at the moment and as competition rises ... everybody's forced to do these things."

The effort that has started in sports medicine, where working with a sponsor may seem more natural, will likely move to other areas like cardiology or prostate medicine, he said.

"I would expect to see more such partnerships, especially in cities like Houston where the large hospitals are heavily competitive," Lowe said.

In this case, Lowe said Memorial Hermann has not only committed itself to the partnership — getting two Texas races named for it — but also changed its philosophy. The collaboration with Ironman shows a "commitment to be bigger, a commitment to an organization that has helped people achieve their goals."

The partnership, he said, will yield performance-based research and physiology that will help sports medicine improve its programs and treatments for injured athletes as well as those training.

Craig Funk, chief operating officer for Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine, has been watching the field of medicine change for six years. The goal, he said, is to align with a brand that screams credibility and quality to a highly educated consumer.

"Being associated in the market as a premiere organization will be the only way to succeed," he added.

For Michelsen, the trip to Houston is part of a longer journey to transform himself from "average Joe" to Ironman. His story began in October 2009, when his 17-year-old nephew, Alex Capozza, was killed by a drunk driver.

The family struggled with the death just as Michelsen's endeavors with 50 Cent were taking off. The rapper arranged for a meet-and-greet with Lady Gaga for Capozza's younger sister, who was 15 at the time. That is how Michelsen began social networking for the pop star and other Hollywood notables. Through these connections, Michelsen was able to help his brother-in-law, Capozza's father, get a slot in the prestigious Ironman race in Kona.

He was so inspired by his brother-in-law's success he became determined to do it himself.

Last weekend, Michelsen completed his first mini-triathlon. During his two days in Houston, he'll work with doctors and trainers to design a more tailored fitness routine and ensure his body can withstand an Ironman race in the tropical Kona climate.

Through it all, Michelsen is documenting his metamorphosis on the web, tweeting, blogging and posting on Facebook and YouTube all the way. A photographer takes pictures of him learning to use the foam cylinder and massive blue rubber ball, his face turning red with exertion, his 39-year-old frame struggling for teenage flexibility.

"It will inspire individuals," Michelsen says smiling.