Thursday, February 9, 2012

Going Pro

Article I wrote for 3/GO magazine.

Going Pro
What prompts amateur triathletes to transition to the professional ranks? How does this change their approach to training and racing? Jordan Blanco caught up with a handful of women that have taken the leap and applied for a “USAT professional license” for the 2012 season. She also caught up with two relatively new pros, Meredith Kessler and Caroline Gregory, to hear their advice for new professionals.

In the 2011 season, Sarah Piampiano, Kim Schwabenbauer, Beth Shutt, Jessica Smith and Beth Walsh not only dominated the W30-34 category in Ironman and 70.3 racing, taking age-group wins whenever they toed the line, but they also dominated the overall amateur races. They collected 5 Ironman and 8 Ironman 70.3 amateur titles in total. The season culminated with Jessica Smith winning the overall amateur women’s title at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas and Sarah Piampiano scoring a 4th place in W30-34 and finishing as the top American amateur female at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

There were probably a few North American age-groupers in the W30-34 category that breathed a sigh of relief when after the Ironman World Championships race in Hawaii these top female competitors announced via Twitter and posted on their blogs that in 2012 they would be “Going Pro”.

When asked why they had made the decision to relinquish their amateur status, it is clear that all five athletes are excited by the new risks and challenges that professional racing presents. As Schwabenbauer, explains: “After winning two amateur titles at the Ironman distance, I had a feeling with some more training I may be able to improve my times, and although it might be a tough process to get on the pro podium, I’m willing to put in the time and take the risk.” Smith also saw “going pro” as the next step in a series of challenges she had set for herself: “I’m always setting new goals and looking for a new challenge. When I started in triathlon my goal was to finish an Ironman. Then it was to qualify for Kona. After that I realized maybe I could race as a pro. Now I want to win as a pro.”

Among our group of new pros, Piampiano is perhaps taking the greatest risk, leaving an investment banking job in New York to relocate to Santa Monica, California, to train and race full-time. “Such a small percentage of people in the world are afforded the opportunity and have the ability to be a professional athlete. It is a real honor and privilege. The chance to chase a childhood dream has been put in front of me, and for me to walk away from that I feel would be a mistake.”

The path to becoming a professional triathlete varies greatly among the group. Shutt found solace in swimming and biking while nursing running injuries before finally stringing the three sports together in a triathlon. Coincidentally, Schwabenbauer also came to triathlon from running, at the suggestion of fellow new pro, Shutt. Schwabenbauer recounts: “Beth Shutt, a good friend and fellow Penn State Cross-Country teammate, had shared with me that she had begun doing triathlons the previous year and really enjoyed the three sport disciplines vs. just being a runner. On a work trip to the Big Island, I saw the sign for the Ironman World Championship starting line and I said to my husband, “I’m going to do that race one day!””

At the other end of the spectrum, both Walsh and Piampiano had a bumpier ride to their current professional athlete status. While Walsh may have been athletic in high school, as she puts it: “College was a different story. I was on a strict training regimen of beer, Wendy’s, and half a pack of cigarettes a day. I used to heckle the girls in my dorm for working out and didn’t comprehend why anyone would do that. I slept past noon at least 3 days per week. I may or may not have gained the “Freshman 15”. I never in a million years imagined I would become a pro triathlete at age 31.” Things have clearly changed since her college days as Walsh ran the fastest female amateur marathon of 3 hours and 10 minutes at the Ironman World Championships in 2010.

Piampiano was a two-sport athlete in college, skiing Division 1 and ranking nationally as a cross-country runner. However, as she graduated and transitioned to the working world, her participation in sport fell by the wayside, succumbing to the long hours, unhealthy lifestyle and pressure of her Wall Street career: “My start to triathlon was a bit of a fluke, to say the least. In late 2009 my friend and I bet whether I could beat him in an Olympic distance race. He had been training for months and at the time I was smoking a pack+ of cigarettes a day and drinking like a fish. On race day I showed up on a bike my brother had bought in France 20 years ago for $200 and raced my heart out. I beat my friend, but more importantly I loved every second of the experience. I quit smoking on the spot and the rest is history!”

Racing as a professional affords these new pros much greater flexibility in planning their racing seasons, no longer having to sign up a year in advance and saving money on Ironman and 70.3 race entries since The World Triathlon Corporation (organizing body for M-dot branded Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races) charges a flat rate of $750 to each professional triathlete, regardless the number of races entered. These athletes are also happy that they will no longer be contending with the mass swim start of the amateur race. As Walsh colorfully puts it: “I won’t miss the trepidation that comes before an Ironman mass swim start where you know you are about to get clocked by 2000 of your closest friends.” Even the strongest swimmer of the group, Smith, is happy to no longer battle with thousands of others in the swim: “Goodbye 2,000 people kicking and hitting each other while desperately searching for clear water. Swimming might be one of my strengths, but it is still my least favorite part of the race.”

The new pros have been doing their homework to understand the different racing dynamics they’ll face this coming season. Shutt notes: “I talked with a few current pros to ask what they thought were the main differences of competing as a pro and most all said that the racing is tougher in the sense that you spend much more time on your own. I think it will also be a challenge to learn how to really push yourself even if you aren’t winning or competing for a Kona slot.” Walsh admits to a little fear: “I’m scared of swimming and biking alone in no man’s land for an entire Ironman. I tend to fall into a daze on the bike if I’m not around others who are pushing and motivating me. I may be doing lots of talking to myself and finding that “inner” strength.”

Their concern is not misplaced. Caroline Gregory just completed her first season as a pro triathlete and agreed with this view: “The pro race is so different from the age group race. As a pro you are often completely alone out on the race course. You have to believe in your training, and find the motivation from within.”

November’s Ironman Arizona was Smith’s pro debut. The day before the race, she caught up with Meredith Kessler, a triathlete entering her 3rd season in the professional field. Kessler shared some specific swim tips and friendly strategies: “The first 500 yards will be really fast. I’ll look to get in a pack with Leanda [Cave] and we’ll swim 5-7mins really hard to separate ourselves before dialing it back. Get on our feet at the start.” Smith acknowledges the change in pace and rhythm that the pro race implies: “I think racing as a pro will be challenging because the race will always begin when the gun goes off. At any point I will have to be ready to swim, ride, or run outside of my comfort zone to stay in [the race]... there is a lot more strategy involved at this level and I still have a lot to learn!”

Will our new pros miss anything about amateur racing over professional racing? We asked our pros for their thoughts. Kessler confessed that she missed some of the simplicity of racing as an amateur, but neither she nor Gregory hesitates to state that they love racing as professionals. In fact, they both acknowledge that it has helped to lift their game.

Kessler: “The bar is being raised in the sport on both the professional and amateur levels. Breaking 10 hours in the amateur ranks… is becoming the norm for many, which is just incredible! Especially, because amateurs typically do triathlon as a hobby on top of their already busy lifestyles. On the professional level, breaking 9 hours is now the new “black!” The sport of triathlon is making huge waves. Chrissie Wellington, among others, has raised the level of women's triathlon. The rest of us are working hard to be able to compete truthfully with athletes of her caliber.”

Gregory: “[Racing as a professional] is the opportunity to race amongst the best athletes in our sport, the opportunity to represent sponsors and brands to the rest of the endurance sport community, the opportunity to reach within and see what you’re really made of, and the opportunity to be a positive role model.”

Want to hear more about these women as they train and race in 2012? Check out their websites and follow them on twitter… and most of all, look out for them at the races! Website Twitter handle
Caroline Gregory @ckgregory
Meredith Kessler @mbkessler
Sarah Piampiano @SarahPiampiano
Kim Schwabenbauer @fuelyourpassion
Beth Shutt @bethshutt
Jessica Smith @ jesssmithtri
Beth Walsh @IMBethWalsh

Meredith Kessler’s five words of wisdom to keep our new pros centered as they challenge themselves in 2012:
BELIEVE… that you have what it takes to compete with the very best.
LIMITLESS… answers are limitless, find the answers you need in order to prevail.
GUMPTION… you might fall but it’s how you get up that counts and that takes gumption.
SIMPLICITY… keep it simple while figuring out what works best for you.
RESILIENCE… the body is resilient so your head needs to be too!