They’re people, too. Fast, inspiring people.
A few years ago, a number of triathlon companies cleared their pro athlete rosters. They didn’t want to sponsor professionals anymore, the logic went, because pros weren’t as inspiring as the everyday age-grouper. Pro triathletes have unlimited resources and time, which makes their accomplishments less impressive; we could all be that fast if triathlon was all we did (or so we like to think). Pros: They’re not just like us.
Except, of course, that’s not really true.
What is it that makes someone inspiring? Why do we feel motivated by some people and not others? Most of us were inspired by Gwen winning gold. And we can find inspiration in our friend tackling her first race, balancing work and family, training harder, and getting faster. But what if she gets too fast? Is she not inspiring anymore—until she makes the Olympics? Is she less inspiring if she takes her elite license and moves up than if she keeps racing (and winning) in her age group?
I started racing in the pro field this year, and I’m not that good. I’m certainly not inspiring anyone by making any podiums or winning any races. Things did not suddenly change or get easier. But, still, I’m not sure it would have been more inspiring to stay amateur; it wouldn’t have pushed me harder. And staying amateur never would have introduced me to the world of inspiring athletes I get to race against now.
We don’t relate to most of the pros because we don’t know them. We tend to think they’re nothing like us, but, in reality, they’re exactly like us. There are cancer survivors and single moms and military vets. There are athletes coming back from injuries and self-doubt, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Even the best pros, the ones who win Kona, who make a living simply racing and training, didn’t always. At some point, they had to make choices and take chances to try to be the best they could be. There is something inspiring in that too, in those athletes who have it in them to put it all on the line to see what we are all, as people, capable of.
I’ve never met a triathlete—professional, age-group, or the pseudo-amateurs in between the two—who didn’t also feel terrible at mile 22 of an Ironman, who didn’t think about quitting during a race. The only difference is the best of them have mostly learned how to push through it, how to go harder. Pros: They’re just like us, at our best.
I raced Ironman Mont-Tremblant a few months ago, and I saw a lot of inspirational athletes on the course. I got choked up watching the midnight finishers and cheering for people doing things they never thought they could do. I teared up a little for the local favorite, a blind woman who crossed the line as the crowd roared. But the person who truly made me start to cry was the third-place pro woman, Jennie Hansen. She’d come back from a horrific accident and multiple injuries in the last couple years, surgeries, and doctors telling her she might not do this again. This was her return to Ironman, her first in almost three years. And the look on her face when she crossed the line in third—like all the ups and downs had finally been worth it—made me believe in the power of triathlon again.
Tell me that’s not inspiring.