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First-year pros of the sport share the good, the bad and the ugly.
In 2014, 108 American triathletes “turned pro,” joining the ranks of the more than 2,000 current professional triathletes worldwide (as estimated by USA Triathlon).
After placing in the top percentile of certain triathlon races, athletes are offered an opportunity to take a “pro card,” industry slang for a USA Triathlon Elite License. The designation allows triathletes to race at the highest level of the sport for professional prize purses.
Though pro triathletes have long arrived from varying backgrounds, the 2014 rookie class was particularly diverse, touting young phenoms, collegiate stars and weekend warriors. Some had been racing triathlon for years before earning elite designation; others, mere months. One thing all new pros experienced, however, was a huge shift in training philosophies, resources and expectations.
Though Jason West denies any genetic predisposition to athletics, he was born with the tenacity found in so many triathletes: “When I was a teenager, my mom wanted to do a 5K race as a family. My dad and I, with our usual all-or-nothing attitude, thought it would be too easy, so we did a triathlon. We trained together for three weeks on mountain bikes, with no idea what we were doing. Race day was incredibly difficult, but I fell in love with the challenge.”
Within a few years, West’s overachieving nature helped him climb to the top of the podium at most of his races. Though experiencing great success as an age-grouper, West was hesitant when USA Triathlon notified him of his eligibility for elite status.
“When deciding to take my pro card, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t rushing into it. I think a big mistake a lot of people make is taking it just because they qualified, when really they aren’t ready. I think the most important question to ask yourself is, ‘Can I be competitive in a solid professional field?’”
In his first year as a professional, the 21-year-old West had to rein in his overachieving nature: “The biggest mistake I made in my first year was thinking I needed to train like the best guys out there. I drove myself into the ground, and the lesson slapped me in the face. I can only train so hard. There is nothing wrong with that, and I need to do what my body can handle.”
“Make sure you are ready. You will never regret taking extra time to develop, but you can easily regret turning pro too soon.”
Most 33-year-olds settle into stable careers and predictable routines. But Andrew Drobeck is not most 33-year-olds. In 2004, Drobeck took up running as a way to maintain his fitness for his work on his Hotshot crew, a specialized firefighting unit trained to battle wildfires. His success within his firefighting career earned him a coveted spot on the Missoula Fire Department, allowing him the time and salary to pursue endurance sports.
“Initially, doing a triathlon was a bucket-list thing,” he says. “When I did my first triathlon, I was pretty close to last out of the water but ended up finishing decently for a local race.”
Drobeck jumped to the front of the amateur ranks fairly quickly, consistently beating other amateurs by large gaps. “Some people would come up to me after races, kind of pissed off as to why I was racing amateur when I was placing among the pros. In my mind, though, I was a firefighter. I didn’t want to make a career out of triathlon. I just like training and racing as fast as possible.”
But as Drobeck continued to improve as a triathlete, he found himself longing for a challenge. “It’s pretty hard to push yourself when you’re 15 minutes ahead of the next guy 24 miles into the marathon of an Ironman,” Drobeck says. “Other pros explained to me that having your pro card doesn’t mean a guy has to quit his job, go all in, and try to make a living doing triathlon. It’s just an elite division where the fastest guys are competing against each other.”
Drobeck says his training has not changed at all since taking his pro card—he still works full-time as a firefighter, utilizing the same amount of free time to train as before. One perk of pro racing, however, makes Drobeck smile: “I have more fancy gear.”
“Don’t take your pro card just so you can tell your friends and family you are a pro triathlete. Ego should not drive the decision to turn pro.”
Destined for Multisport
“I knew professional racing was something I wanted to pursue after my first triathlon in 2012,” says 24-year-old Erin Dolan, a collegiate
national champion in distance swimming for Drury University. After four years of NCAA eligibility in swimming expired, Dolan took a graduate school scholarship to run for Drury’s cross-country and track teams. After one year, she decided to follow her triathlon passions, moving up to elite status and training with USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program (CRP), a talent identification and development initiative.
As a student-athlete, Dolan could comfortably find her way to victory; as an elite triathlete, she has to fight on a daily basis. The sheer talent of the athletes in the CRP, combined with an inherent passion for the sport, has proven to be the perfect setting for the competitive rookie.
“American women are extremely strong in triathlon,” Dolan says. “These girls are the best of the best, and no matter how much I have improved over the last year, I realize I have to keep working hard and continue to improve in order to keep up.”
“No matter how good you think you are, there are always people chasing you.”
From 9-to-5 to 140.6
For several years, Alyssa Godesky lived a double life: During the work day, she
analyzed data and crunched numbers; on weekends, she dominated age-group fields at triathlons around the United States. In spite of qualifying for elite status multiple times, the decision to quit her corporate job for a triathlon career wasn’t made until 2014, when Godesky felt confident her performance was within reach of winning prize purses in a professional field.
Though the rookie took home several cash awards in 2014, including one for an overall win at Beach2Battleship, she also faced fewer opportunities to compete for a paycheck than originally anticipated.
“In one year, I saw professional prize money disappear from Rev3 races, and Ironman consolidated their professional schedule to one which takes away chances pros have at winning some cash,” says Godesky, 29, referring to the elimination of professional prize purses at nine Ironman races and 11 half-Ironman races. “None of this was great news when I started my career. The year was full of ups and downs—I’ve embraced them equally for what they’ve taught me.”
“It is amazing how many more eyes are truly on you. Suddenly, before a race people are predicting how you’ll do—and then putting their opinions on blogs or forums or social media! Keep your blinders on and surround yourself with people you trust.”
What veteran pros wish someone had told them in their first year
Trevor Wurtele: Coming from a non-swim background, I wish I had known that a 20K swim week was not a big swim week. Not only was I limiting my improvement in the water, but I wasn’t fit enough out of the water to ride and run fast either. I figured that out four years ago and have slowly made improvements.
Meredith Kessler: If you have a decent race, it’s a misnomer that sponsors will automatically call and sign you to a contract. Treat your pro triathlete career like a business where you have to be the sales, marketing, human resources, travel agent and blue-collar worker for your entity; constantly network, update your résumé and sell yourself at every opportunity just like you would in a job interview.
Matt Lieto: Burnout can be high the first year if expectations don’t match ability. There is no such thing as race-day fairy dust—match your expectations with what you can do in training and set your goals accordingly.
Mirinda Carfrae: Plan out your season early in the year and be sure to include breaks. Five-day or week-long breaks after big races or training blocks allow your body to absorb the work you have done. They are also great for the mind, keeping you engaged and motivated for your next goal.
Jordan Rapp: Be true to yourself. Whenever I’ve made bad decisions, it’s because I stopped thinking in ways that meshed with who I was/am. That’s true both on and off the race course.