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Racing triathlon in the Olympics is nothing compared to making the team.
This article was originally published in the Sept./Oct. 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
I did not watch the Super Bowl or the World Series growing up. As blasphemous as that might sound in America, I thought they were boring. I could, however, be totally consumed by the Masters golf tournament, Wimbledon and the Indy 500. But in the end, nothing could ever compare with the Olympics.
I watched every Olympic Games—winter, summer, it didn’t matter. Swimming, track and field, gymnastics, skiing, hockey. Hell, even figure skating. Everything was captivating, simply because it was the Olympics. It’s real-life drama, with tragedy, triumph and everything in between.
I remember a hotel room full of Speedo-clad swimmers huddled around the television in between sessions at the 1984 Midwest Regional Swimming Championships, trying to catch a glimpse of Rowdy Gaines winning the 100m freestyle. He was one of many heroes that year, and heroes are what the Olympics personified to me. Not superheroes, but heroes nonetheless to a 13-year-old boy.
I did not dream of becoming an Olympian back then. I was a realist, even at that young age, and I knew that my swimming ability was never going to take me to that level. That understanding did nothing to abate my love for the Olympics, though. Ironically, that would happen much later, when the Games became a real possibility through the sport of triathlon.
I was still racing in the age-group ranks when triathlon became a real contender to be added to the Olympics. I knew that I had the potential to be one of the best in triathlon and could represent my country if triathlon were accepted.
First, triathlon itself had to undergo a transformation to even become an Olympic event. Essentially, it had to be transformed into a spectator sport that could be easily televised. Enter draft-legal racing. Yes, I considered it a deviation from the pure, true sport of triathlon that I loved and excelled at, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. I was willing to play that game.
My hopes of becoming an Olympian began to fade when the qualification procedures were outlined and implemented. The chase for points around the world was on! Athletes traveled to the globe’s farthest reaches with hopes of accumulating points to solidify their rankings and then possibly be eligible to participate in the Olympic trials.
It was quite different from how the sport of swimming operated, which was what I was familiar with while growing up: You swim an Olympic trials qualifying time, you race at the trials, and the top two represent the USA at the Olympics. Swimming is decisive. If you are “off” during the trials, if you have a cold or a family issue, too bad. It all comes down to one day, one race.
At that point, I was already racing Ironman events, but the sport had not become as specialized as it is today, so I was still a contender at the Olympic distance as well. I had already represented my country at the Goodwill Games and Pan American Games, both stepping stones to the Olympics. The problem was that I was still a young pro with a young wife, and I did not have the finances or support from USA Triathlon to travel around the world and be a part of the chase.
After suppressing my inner realist for a while (I chose professional triathlon over medical school after all!), I opted to continue down the path I was on. Having just placed third in Kona, I believed I could win there. Nothing was certain, but it looked much more promising and secure than the alternative of chasing points. Just like that, my Olympic dream was gone and some of my enthusiasm for the Games as well.
Have I looked back and regretted my decision? I can honestly say no. Yes, I won Ironman world titles that would take the sting out of any potential regret, but even without those, I am happy with my choice. I realize that there is much more to the Olympics than just being the best. Compared to making the team, the Olympic Games are the easy part.
When the Games approach now, most of the drama takes place before they even begin. I am shocked at how many athletes change their nationalities simply to participate. Besides going to war, the Olympics were considered the pinnacle of representing your home country. Now it seems that national pride is dead, and the Olympics are all about the individuals. In addition, disgruntled athletes are suing for the right to be included on their countries’ teams, and many incredible performances are mired in doping controversies, so it’s easy to be soured on what used to be the highest level of sport.
Of course none of this will keep me from watching this year’s (or future) Olympics. I may not call all of the athletes “heroes” anymore, and I definitely do not have the time to watch figure skating, but I am excited to hear the stories and see the athletes who captivate the world for a few weeks going for the biggest prize in sport: gold.
Pro triathlete Tim DeBoom is a two-time winner of the Ironman World Championship and the last American to win in Kona. Look for his “At The Finish” column in every issue of Inside Triathlon.