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Pro Jesse Thomas writes about the realization that family balance needs to be just as important as the pursuit of triathlon.
Three years ago, a very successful pro triathlete, whom I respect for his athletic and professional accomplishments, his sense of family and his down-to-earth personality, was about to race the last race of his long career in Kona. I’d gotten to know him a fair bit over my first year and a half in the sport. By chance, I saw him on Ali’i Drive an hour before one of his last spins before the race, and he invited me out to keep him company. I was excited to catch a glimpse of how he prepared to race on one of the biggest stages of the sport, and also for the last time of his career.
He was relaxed and, maybe not surprisingly, a little reflective. We talked about many aspects of his career and the sport.
On our way back into town, I finally asked him, “So what’s the one piece of advice you’d give to a new guy starting his pro career in the sport?”
He paused for a while, and looked down the Queen K. I waited for some amazing training secret, a sponsorship or business strategy, or some profound mental approach he’d taken to be so successful. And then, while still looking ahead, he surprised me by saying, “Protect your family.”
I paused, not really sure what he meant, or how to reply. After a few moments, he continued, “Of all the ups and downs and accomplishments and failures I’ve had in this sport, the main thing I wish I would have done a better job of was integrating my family into my career.”
He explained that when he started racing professionally he was single. The travel, the long hours, the dedication and sacrifice were expected and tolerable. Then he met the woman of his dreams, got married, and while it got more complicated, it was still manageable. He and his wife were independent and highly supportive of each other.
But when they had children, the balance became remarkably harder. They couldn’t just be co-independent anymore. He said, without realizing it, that he almost started living two lives—one in the sport and one at home. It was easier at first to let those lives exist separately, because wrapping them together was very difficult, required sacrifices to his independence and changes to his system that he didn’t necessarily want to make at the time. He was so used to the habits he built his success on that it scared him to change for fear of the effect it might have on his racing and success.
He said that, looking back, he could have made it better by trying harder initially to make his family a more habitual part of his triathlon routine, to integrate them into his racing life, and maybe to just pull back on some of the things that made the balance difficult. It would have been tougher at first, and might have affected his initial preparation, but it might have paid dividends down the road. Instead, as the years went by, the double-life divide deepened, and ultimately, it made his career and family life harder, creating a friction between the two that wore on him. And while there were many reasons for his retirement, part of it was his desire to close this divide.
I remember talking with my wife, Lauren, about the conversation. At the time, I was new to the sport, we were naïve and I admittedly underappreciated his thoughts. “It can’t be that hard,” I thought. We’re highly communicative, independent and have a deep mutual respect for each other. Plus, both of us are professional athletes, so we’ll have a better understanding of what it takes. We can make it work without much fuss.
Boy was I wrong. Three years later with a toddler, two professional careers—not to mention a co-owned business—it’s freaking hard. None of the characteristics that made our relationship a strong one—respect, independence, communication—have changed; we’re just living in a tougher environment.
Like most people experience with their careers, relationships and passions, it got a lot harder to balance everything with a child. Somewhat serendipitously, I broke my foot just weeks before our son was born. So for a maternity period, we got to experience (survive) those first few months without the strict responsibilities of professional careers.
But last year, as both Lauren and I dove fully back into competing, the reality of that conversation hit me for the first time. I was training a lot. I was traveling a lot. Lauren was doing the same. Picky Bars grew and had its own issues that needed our attention. Jude went from a 20-hours-of-sleep-a-day blob to a super fun tiny human that we needed to—and wanted to—spend lots of time with. We had too much to do.
And while we got through it, it was hard. Really hard. I realize in hindsight that the craziness of last year isn’t sustainable. In some ways, I began leading two different lives. And if I want my career in triathlon to be sustainable, and if I want myself and my family to be at its best, then something needs to give. I need to protect my family.
This column is called “Triathlife” because it’s about my constant balance of sport, work and family. Admittedly, most of my topics revolve around the sport/work side of the equation, but I believe that the best, most balanced pursuit of each results in the most success across all three. And I think that family is something that can (and easily does) get pushed to the subconscious when triathletes of any level pursue our sport with the dedication and passion that it elicits. It’s so easy to look at your schedule and slot in the time required for training, recovery, races, etc. It’s all at the forefront of your mind because it’s important to you. When you add work to the plate, it’s easy for family time to be small to non-existent. And it’s not because you don’t care—I think it’s just the result of trying to race a long ways across three different disciplines!
I clearly care about my family, but I still subconsciously fall into this trap. So this year, while I’ve still got big goals in the sport and for Picky Bars, I’ve also made family goals that I’ll pursue just as vigorously. Some involve better integrating Lauren and Jude into my triathlon routine, and some involve doing less of the things that keep me away from them, whether it be training, travel and/or work. I do this knowing that my family will benefit as a result, but also with the hope that that leads to better results in all aspects of my life.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, and figuring out exactly how and what to do will be an ongoing project that Lauren, Jude and I will pursue together. But it starts by coming to the realization that the family balance, time and consideration needs to be just as much in the forefront of my mind as my pursuit of triathlon. And hopefully, instead of finishing my career wishing I had tried harder to figure it out, I can tell the next up-and-coming pro all the tips I learned along the way about how best to make it all work.