Brian Cleven | ACSM's 2024 Certified Professional of the Year

Brian Cleven headshot and photo of him white water rafting

If Achievement is Good, More Achievement Is Better

Get to Know 2024 ACSM Certified Professional of the Year Brian Cleven

My sample size is still relatively small, but the more long-distance runners I interview for ACSM, the clearer it seems that endurance sports draw in people who, ironically, take life at a sprint. Louise Valentine and Dr. Michael Joyner come to mind. And now Brian Cleven, ACSM’s 2024 Certified Professional of the Year (CPOY), joins the ranks.

Cleven, a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Bellin Health in Marinette, Wisconsin, seems about as upbeat and motivated as they come — he shared with me that his alarm goes off at 2:55 a.m. — and has thrown his hat into a lot of rings. He chiefly works in cardiac rehabilitation, but he also finds time to lead the Bellin Health Marinette 5K Heart Run/Walk and the Tri City Event Series, run at least one mile a day (for nearly fourteen years and counting — he’s No. 286) and compete in Ironman triathlons around the world (twelve so far). He writes books too.

Oh, and he can fly a plane. We’ll get to that in a second.

Choosing exercise science

Though now thoroughly steeped in the world of sports medicine and exercise science, the ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist® initially had other career plans.

“Growing up, I wanted to be an airline pilot,” Cleven says. “And I got my private pilot license at seventeen.”

But an injury he sustained while playing high school football changed his flight plan.

“I had to have surgery on my shoulder, and I had to do extensive physical therapy,” he says. “So I saw the impact that health care has on people.”

His newfound interest in the caring professions eventually sent him to an exercise science master’s program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse under the tutelage of ACSM Past President Carl Foster, Ph.D., FACSM. Unsurprisingly, Cleven became an ACSM member in 2008.

He earned his degree the same year and soon began working as a clinical exercise physiologist at Bay Area Medical Center in Marinette. (Fitting, because he had been born in that very hospital.) It was there, too, that he met his future wife, Amy; they were both performing stress tests at the center, and a relationship blossomed. They would go on to have two daughters, Natasha and Kenzie.

The finish line of the Bellin Health Marinette 5K Heart Run/Walk

While at Bay Area, Cleven from time to time worked with cardiologists at his now current employer, Bellin Health Marinette. One of them, Dr. James Rider, FACSM (who would go on to write one of the recommendation letters that led to Cleven becoming the 2024 ACSM CPOY; his second nominator was Bellin Health Community Ambassador Team Leader Jody Anderson), approached him and suggested he come work at Bellin. So, looking to expand his horizons after eight years at Bay Area, Cleven (and Amy) made the move.

And expand his horizons he did. Inspired by the annual 5K and 10K Bellin holds in its headquarters town of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Cleven founded the Bellin Health Marinette 5K Heart Run/Walk, which brings together participants of all ages and abilities by offering not just the eponymous 5K but also a 1 Mile Community Walk and a Children’s Run. Originally slated to begin in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in the works, but the event is now on its third year.

Always looking to go the extra mile, Cleven also brought together the resources and sponsors (including the Green Bay Packers) necessary to found the Tri-City Event Series, which provides monthly opportunities for residents of Marinette County to stay physically active.


Cleven’s affinity for endurance sports began with a suggestion from a friend. 

Having pursued football in high school, Cleven hadn’t initially possessed a runner’s build — he played offensive and defensive line and was a kicker — nor any real inclination toward eating up the miles. 

“Going way, way back I used to be sixty pounds heavier,” he says. “I hated to run. That was a punishment type of thing. But after I graduated high school, a family friend encouraged me to do a 5K.” 

He got bit, and by the time he graduated college, he was running marathons. Ever on the lookout for the next achievement, though, Cleven decided he needed to raise the bar yet again. 

“I thought, ‘Jeez, I’ve done a lot with this running, but I want a deeper challenge,’” he says. 

In graduate school, an Icelandic friend had suggested triathlons. Cleven wasn’t too keen at the time, but in retrospect he thinks the comment planted a seed in him. At some point he started watching broadcasts of the Ironman on NBC and found himself inspired by the wide demographic range of the participants, from senior citizens to people overcoming an injury or disability. 

Brian and Amy Cleven finishing the swim portion of the Madison Ironman together

To dip his toe in the water, he entered a sprint triathlon and enjoyed it. But once again unable to resist a greater challenge, he set his sights on the Ironman. 

“I said, ‘Go big, or go home.’” 

Also: “I figured, ‘If I can do a sprint triathlon, I can do an Ironman. No big deal.’” He adds, “Except—except there’s a difference of 120 miles. No big deal.” 

Since he and Amy — who is also a triathlete — were now working at the same medical center, they began swimming together three to five times a week. (Swimming was Cleven’s weakest link.) He improved, and that year competed in the Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. 

“The rest is history,” he says. 

That history included a number of additional Ironmans over the years; he posted his best time in Madison, Wisconsin, (11:53) and was considering winding things down. But then a physician and fellow Ironman afficionado he’d long worked with, Dr. Tom Leow, passed away from cancer in 2016. (As I’m discussing this with Cleven, he begins to get visibly emotional.) Leow had wanted to compete in the Ironman legacy program in Hawai’i, which requires participants to chalk up twelve finishes. Inspired to complete Leow’s dream, Cleven kept at it. He finished his twelfth race in 2023 and will head to Hawai’i in 2026. 

As an author

If that wasn’t enough, though, Cleven has written one book and is working on a second. Since his family is highly involved in his triathlon competitions, his first volume, It’s Triathlon Time, shares the experience of a father’s training from the perspective of his eldest daughter (based on Natasha). The second book, still in the works, features a young girl modeled this time after Cleven’s younger daughter, Kenzie, who goes on runs to explore and learn with new friends from all over the world.

What’s next 

I ask him about his future plans. Besides the 2026 Ironman Championship, of course. 

“I want to keep growing my event series,” he says. “I want to keep growing my race; I want to get it up into the thousands instead of the hundreds. And from there, there are some projects in my area locally that I want to work on: a pedestrian overpass, different things to make it a better city to be physically active in.” 

As we begin winding down our discussion, Cleven shares an anecdote about how he came up with the tagline for the Tri City Event Series. He was riding his bike and mulling over all of the various businesses and entities that contributed to the program, from his own employer to the Packers to the local community pool. He settled on “In partnership, we all win.” 

“That basically sums it up,” he says. “In partnership, we do win.” 

I say, “I may land on that as the ending quote.” 

“Perfect,” he says. 

And so, as 2024 ACSM Certified Professional of the Year Brian Cleven puts it: “In partnership, we do win.”

line with grey, dark blue and light blue sections

Story by Joe Sherlock
Images courtesy of Brian Cleven
Published Feb. 2024