There was a detour in the dream job career path for Karin Gardner — to yet another dream job.

With degree in hand and fresh out of the University of Washington some two decades ago, Gardner envisioned a career as a journalist covering sports. She found it tough, however, to find that dream job.

“I happened into the opportunity at Oppenheimer shortly after I graduated from college,” Gardner said. “It was a great opportunity to learn how to use my writing skills in business as opposed to journalism.”

Today, Gardner is marketing communications manager for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group, the only employer in her professional life.

Long forgotten is the sports writer’s job, as her duties at Oppenheimer “really started getting produce in my heart.”

“Every day’s different, every year’s different and we’re making partnerships with new growers all the time,” Gardner said.

Her efforts did not go unnoticed in house, said James Milne, who as director of business development and category director for avocados and citrus has often worked closely with Gardner over the years.

“Karin came in with a very strong set of disciplines,” he said. “She’s always been the consummate professional and is very astute, very good at picking up on the nuances within the industry and within Oppenheimer.”

Gardner also is driven, perhaps a byproduct of competitive swimming dating back to her high school years. She characterizes herself as a type A-minus personality.

“In the sense that I feel really passionate about what I’m doing, whether it’s working on a marketing communications piece or a press release or a website or going out for a long swim,” Gardner said.

She keeps that passion in perspective, however, while also making time for some fun, she said. Fun for Gardner, however, may be viewed by others as torment.

She is a nationally ranked triathlete and just last year captured third place among all women in the FIT 5K run at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit.

Dawn Gray, senior vice president of marketing and categories, has witnessed Gardner’s competitive spirit through what she termed a three-way mirror. They were competitors occasionally serving together on industry boards. Then they were associates when Oppenheimer began marketing apples for the New Zealand-based company Gray managed. More recently they have been colleagues at Oppenheimer.

“She’s a consistently top-notch professional,” Gray said. “When you see her in action, you see the incredible focus that’s required of an athlete of her caliber.”

Gardner is reluctant to claim credit for the company’s successes, even though she’s been integral to major changes such as the 2003-04 company brand relaunch.

“I think Oppenheimer does a lot of newsworthy things, and I’m just the person who helps sell the story,” Gardner said. “Because our business is so diverse — the many products that we represent, the growers from around the world – there’s always a story to tell.”

Gray does not find Gardner’s modesty surprising.

“She’s the epitome of grace under pressure,” Gray said.

Others in the fresh produce industry have sought Gardner’s expertise.

Her contributions include being a member of the Produce Traceability Initiative’s communications working group and co-chaired the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s consumer marketing and communications committee during her five years on the panel.

For Gardner, results are the motivator in both her professional and personal lives, she said.

“Train hard, and it shows on race day,” Gardner said. “If you prepare well when launching a product or creating a media campaign, the results will be good as well.”

Though she still aspires to compete in the grueling Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, demanding athletic events are not Gardner’s only leisure time activities.

“I can play a mean game of cribbage,” she said.

She also is a movie buff and book reader, fiction and nonfiction.

Of late, Gardner has swapped her swimsuit for snowshoes as she and her husband, Mike, relocated to North Dakota. That means spending more time on the telephone as her position with Oppenheimer continues.