November 12, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I don’t ever remember being bored,” says Denise Cerny.

She sits at her kitchen table for just a couple of moments before jumping up to pour a glass of iced tea. She sits again, then jumps up to grab her iPad so she can investigate something on the Internet.

The constant movement fits her well. Her parents are Ardith Smeal, 92, and the late Donald Smeal. Donald owned Smeal Fire Apparatus Co. for more than 50 years. The company is one of two in Nebraska manufacturing those bright red vehicles people see rushing to eliminate fires.

Along with their west Omaha home, she and her husband, Rod, keep a home in Phoenix. Denise gardens, often finding unusual plants to keep in pots on the back deck. She and her husband also golf avidly.

“Activity is important in our life and in our relationship with each other,” says a sister, Mary Lou Tomka of Lincoln. “My dad and mom had seven daughters, and five of us played softball at the same time. We’ve always been involved in activities.”

Cerny long kept in shape as a marathon runner. She ran marathons in New York, Los Angeles, Alaska, and Hawaii.

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“When the kids were little I used it as my down time,” Cerny says. “There’s something about being in the open air, focused on running—it keeps me going.”

Make that it “kept” her going. Five years ago, at age 58, her knees began to hurt after running. She did not admit it at first—she liked having strong knees.

“That was one thing I would always say. I would run, and I would look up and say ‘Thank you, God, for good knees!’”

She finally saw an orthopedist, also a friend of hers, who said, “You have osteoarthritis in both knees.”

Cerny’s heart fell. She had to quit running.

“It took a long time before I could drive past a runner and not be envious.”

She underwent surgery and spent several weeks on the couch recuperating.

“Before I had the surgery I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” Cerny says. “I had to be in the house.”

The surgery could not keep her down totally.

“I started playing Rock Band,” Cerny says with a girlish giggle. “I had never played a video game before…but you know what, it’s a lot of fun!”

After several weeks, she started moving again, even if the athletic activity switched gears.

These days Cerny’s great athletic passion is bicycling. She rides her bicycle frequently around Omaha and has ridden RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) every year for the past 12 years.

“I was still marathoning and my sisters (Renee Smeal of Omaha and Tomka) said ‘you ought to do this.’” Cerny says. “At that time I didn’t have a very good bike. After a couple of years I got a better bike. You would not believe how much easier that made things.”

Cerny’s definition of better includes lighter. The lower weight of the bike allowed her to ride faster and longer. This was especially helpful five years ago.

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“I had done RAGBRAI right before my surgery because I wanted to be in shape,” Cerny says. “And that worked!”

Cerny discovered that bicycling does not hurt her knees.

“I had to find other ways to take up that slack,” Cerny says of not being able to run. “I did RAGBRAI the next year after surgery and was still fine. I started working with a trainer because I thought I needed someone who knows what they are doing so I don’t hurt myself again.”

Bicycling gives her the outlet once taken up by running.

“Once you do it, you have to keep doing it,” Cerny quips. “The people of Iowa are so great with their pies and the parties they throw. The last day when you get to the Mississippi, you’re (geographically) as high as you’re going to be all week, and you want people to know how great this is.”

Tomka no longer rides on RAGBRAI, but Smeal and Cerny ride with a group from Omaha known as Team Angry during the weeklong party/bicycling event.

“My sisters talked me into joining a team for safety reasons,” says Cerny, who still rides solo during the week, catching up with the group at her own pace.

“It isn’t a race, and it isn’t a ride where you have to stick together,” says Smeal. “The only time we ride together is the last day. On the last day we like to enter the final town together. You ride in as a team and people cheer and you get your picture taken with your team dipping their front tires into
the Mississippi.”

No matter whether Cerny bikes, golfs, or plays Rock Band, she keeps a “can do” attitude in mind.

“I really like my life,” Cerny says. “I’m really lucky I can do that.”

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