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My Mentor Changed My Life Through Triathlon

The best tri mentors do more than give swim, bike and run advice—they transform you mind, body and spirit.

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The best tri mentors do more than give swim, bike and run advice—they transform you mind, body and spirit. Presenting three people whose mentors changed their lives through triathlon. 

The most iconic members of our sport credit their success to a mentor who held a mirror up to their potential. Without the unflappable faith of USA Triathlon recruiter Barb Lindquist, Gwen Jorgensen would still be an accountant instead of an Olympic gold medalist. Had 1979 Ironman world champion Tom Warren not taken a young Bob Babbitt under his wing, Ironman might still be an unknown event with only 15 competitors. Aussie powerhouse Luke McKenzie has said his success comes from emulating his friend and guru, three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander. But mentors aren’t just for athletes seeking podium spots (although Karen Smyers, right, certainly helped Dede Griesbauer get there); patient, caring gurus are a special catch all athletes would be lucky to find. Just ask these three triathletes.

Mike Nicholas, 37

Location: Portland, Ore.
Mentor: Dean Hinchliff, coach

When I met Dean Hinchliff in 2013, I was in an inpatient treatment facility for heroin and homelessness. As part of my recovery, I trained for and ran the Heartbreaker Half Marathon. This set in motion a series of events that led to me signing up for a “try-a-tri” event put on by local race company AA Sports in Portland. I was hooked. The race director connected me with Dean, who met me for coffee one day. He asked some questions about my recovery and agreed to coach me for a reduced fee. When everyone else saw me as this homeless junkie, Dean welcomed me into his family and helped transform me from a 33-year-old boy into a 37-year-old man. Today, I work for a non-profit organization as a mentor for those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and I go to school part-time for a bachelor’s degree in social work. I do my best to freely give back what Dean gave to me: hope.

Dede Griesbauer, 46

Location: Lincoln, Mass.
Mentor: Karen Smyers, Ironman world champion, three-time ITU triathlon world champion

While procrastinating during my second year of business school at Wharton in 1995, I turned on the TV. The Ironman was on, and I saw Karen Smyers run down a failing Paula Newby-Fraser. I was gobsmacked. The next day, I signed up for my first Ironman. Years later, when I qualified for Kona, I decided I needed a coach. A colleague at my job on Wall Street suggested I hire his friend Karen Smyers. He told Karen to e-mail me, and when she did, I nearly fell off my chair and uttered several four-letter words. This started a seven-year coach-athlete relationship, but more importantly, one of the most cherished friendships of my life.

Karen was so patient with my inexperience and relative stupidity. I just followed her around like a lost puppy: When Karen shifted, I shifted; when she drank from her bottle, I drank from my bottle. I emulated everything. Eventually I turned pro in 2004 because of Karen, and most of my sponsors came because of her, including Saucony and Infinit Nutrition. I have literally made a career of riding Karen’s coattails. She must be exhausted because that’s quite a load to tow.

Andrew Shanks, 33

Location: Atlanta, Ga.
Mentor: Matthew Rose, founder, Dynamo Multisport

I remember the first time I realized I wanted to be a coach. I was at a training camp, and I couldn’t help but watch Matthew Rose interact with his athletes. He knew exactly what motivated them, what made them tick and what needed to be said (or not said). He would personalize a message in a way each individual athlete would understand: If someone was having a rough day, he’d hand them a Coke and crack some jokes, or take them aside to remind them that even bad days of training are steps in the right direction. That’s when I realized that coaching is more than just writing training plans online. It’s a very personal thing, all about helping athletes become the best version of themselves. It’s the approach I use today as an NCAA coach for the Concordia University Wisconsin women’s triathlon team.