The (New) Business of Being a Professional Triathlete

Entrepreneurial pros are leveraging their knowledge of the sport to create gear by triathletes, for triathletes.

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Entrepreneurial pros are leveraging their knowledge of the sport to create gear by triathletes, for triathletes.

In the past, the business of being a professional triathlete was centered around swim, bike and run. Prize money and sponsorships were the bread and butter of a professional triathlete’s income, and both of those were directly linked to success on the race course. In other words, if you wanted to get paid, you best nail your training.

Though there’s no doubt that success on the race course is still of utmost importance, it’s not the only way for a professional triathlete to make a buck these days. Entrepreneurial pros are leveraging their intimate knowledge of the sport to create new and exciting products that address gaps in the market.

Take, for example, the newly-launched WYN Republic, a triathlon apparel company helmed by current pro Luke McKenzie and his wife, retired pro Beth Gerdes McKenzie. Racing in various sponsor-provided kits over the years made them feel like Goldilocks: nothing was ever “just right.”

“For years, we searched for key features in apparel that we desired, but nothing ever really met our expectations,” says Luke. “There came a point at the end of 2016 where we decided it was time to start our own label and develop the products we truly wanted to wear while we were training and racing.”

Hillary Biscay, founder of Smashfest Queen, echoes those sentiments: “In 10 years of racing as a pro, with all kinds of different sponsors with different kit requirements, I wore a lot of clothing that left something to be desired, but also a lot of clothing that had a detail or two that I did like.” She kept a running list of those details, and eventually decided to create her own apparel line with her friend and business partner, Michele Landry.

Not all pros set out on the path of entrepreneurship. For husband-and-wife pros Alicia Kaye and Jarrod Shoemaker, a chance encounter led to Endurance Shield, their line of skincare products for athletes:

“My massage therapist had gifted me a facial, and the esthetician commented on how sun damaged my face was,” recalls Kaye. “I listed off all the reasons why I often chose not to wear sunscreen and she put me in touch with a local spa product developer who makes natural sunscreen products. Long story short she had a sport sunscreen and we loved it, within a few months we were launching Endurance Shield.”

These types of products, along with other pro-developed brands (Skirt Sports by retired pro Nicole DeBoom and TJ Tollakson’s Dimond Bikes, to name a few) find near-instant success in the triathlon community. Triathletes like to support their own; they also appreciate knowing their gear is created by someone who knows firsthand what they need.

“You can bet that in 66 Ironmans, I have pretty much been chafed in every possible place there is to chafe,” laughs Biscay. “I am hyper-aware of potential problem areas, and we have a thorough product-testing of our garments.”

“Our background as professional triathletes means we tested our product in the most extreme circumstances,” says Kaye. “We were testing in hot humid conditions of central Florida, with multiple applications in one day, in all three sports.”

As it turns out, being a professional triathlete has advantage beyond keen insights and hands-on testing. Without realizing it, professional triathlon provided a crash course in entrepreneurship, says McKenzie.

“Both require an enormous amount of self-discipline, risk-taking, problem-solving, and initiative. We both approached the business the way we approached triathlon from the beginning—you need to invest in yourself, take risks and spend money to make money. In racing, we never chose races because they were convenient or local or safe—we always looked at the best business decision, weighed risk vs. reward, and made it happen, even when it meant a little more initial investment on our part.”

“If you are a professional athlete, you are essentially an entrepreneur,” says Kaye. “You’re your own boss. You need to manage your brand and promotion of the brand through your website, interactions with people, social media outlets, and the like. It’s up to you whether or not you get outside and execute your training and recovery. The failure or success of your career rests squarely on your shoulders, and running your own business is very similar.”

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