While pondering this article for the “elements” issue of Austin Fit Magazine, it dawned on me that, as an athlete, the most important element is fire, or rather the fire in your belly. It's what keeps an athlete motivated, and it provides purpose for training. It’s the predominant force behind a successful athlete’s competitive performance. While there are plenty of people with extraordinary athletic gifts and ability, talent by itself can only take someone so far in sport. Without the work ethic and driving force to get better every day, those gifted people will fall short of the top. On the other hand, it's possible for an athlete without phenomenal natural talent to become very good through his or her work ethic and will to strive for the top. It's when you have both factors (talent and fire) in a single athlete that the stuff of world champions and legends is made.
I put myself more as one of the driven rather than gifted, seeing myself as an athlete of average natural ability. It's the fire in my belly that has differentiated me in my growth and development and driven me to this point in my racing career. This may not seem immediately apparent, but a little personal history will illustrate my point.
Growing up, I struggled in school athletics. I wasn't big, fast, or coordinated enough for football. I didn't have the eye-hand coordination to be good at basketball or baseball. I was always near the last to be picked for a team on the playground. I tried track in middle school, and the coach made me a miler. Because the middle school wouldn't cut athletes, those of us not fast enough would race “exhibition,” meaning we turned our jerseys inside out in races, ran behind the varsity athletes, and our results didn't count in the meets. I also tried wrestling, thinking that my smaller size wouldn't be a detriment due to weight classes, but I really wasn't good at all. I wasn't physical or aggressive enough to want to slam my opponents. As I grew up, all of the indicators seemed to point out that athletics wouldn't be my thing.
Through all this, though, was hockey. I grew up in Detroit, aka “Hockeytown,” in a hockey family. All of the Detroit Red Wings were my sports idols. I started at the age of six and played until I graduated high school on our varsity team. I was actually really good at the sport, a starter my senior year who made All League and the second All State teams. The interesting part was that I don't think I scored a single goal my senior year. My shot was terrible, and I struggled to put a hard slap shot on net. Being aggressive didn't come naturally to me; as a youngster, I was so timid that my mom resorted to bribing me with a double allowance one week if I could get a penalty for roughing along the boards. I found my niche, however, in defense, where my job was to rule the boards in our own zone. Looking back through the perspective of the triathlete I am today, I can see why I found success in hockey. I was an excellent skater. I studied the sport. I always knew when and where to be; you wanted me on the ice to kill a penalty. I also had the best “plus/minus” statistic on the high school team, meaning I was on the ice for more goals for and less goals against than any one else on my team. I was a worker, training and playing with drive and spirit. When teammates were puking over the boards in our conditioning practices and giving up, I was still digging deep. I specifically remember after one important loss listening to the coach tell the locker room that, if everyone on the team played with half the heart I did, we would be state champions. I wasn't the biggest, fastest, or most talented hockey player, but I was a hard worker with a fire in my belly.
Fast forward 17 years, and I'm racing Ironman triathlons as my job. Many people who see me now automatically assume that athletic talent is one of the main reasons I’m a professional athlete. What they don't know is that's not really the case. I've found that triathlon, especially at the longer distances like Ironman, is a sport that rewards hard work and determination much or more than pure talent. It fits my strengths as a person.
I can't say for certain what is the root cause behind my fire. Maybe it's fear of failure or perhaps some other deep-rooted psychological factor that makes me want to succeed and get better every single day. While I've seen plenty of athletes come into the sport of triathlon with loads of raw talent, no athlete—no matter how gifted—can fake his way through an eight-hour race. He will fail unless he has worked hard every single day in training. Most don't make it because they don't have the drive or will to do what it takes to get to the top. I, however, continue on my path, working as hard as I can and nurturing that fire in my belly.