Originally from Maine, Sarah Piampiano made the leap to professional triathlon in 2012, eschewing a lucrative career in finance that often saw her working 100 hours weekly. She packed up her pared down life and moved to Los Angeles and so far the sacrifice has paid off; Piampiano won 2012’s Ironman 70.3 New Orleans, placed fourth at 2012’s Ironman U.S. Championship and earned second at 2013’s Ironman 70.3 Pucón. Now Piampiano’s sights are set on the podium in Kona, and the rookie pro is hardly afraid to aim high.
[Excerpts from this interview appeared in the May 2013 issue of Triathlete.]
TM: Let’s talk about your transition from working stiff – or I should say high-end working stiff, since you worked in high finance – to professional triathlete. You traveled the globe for work in your prior career, so how is it different now traveling as a fledgling pro?
SP: Oh man. It’s so different. It’s like night and day. On an average trip in my finance job I flew business class. I stayed in five star hotels with all the amenities I could possibly want. I had an expense account so I could eat out at nice restaurants. Most recently, on my trip to Pucón, I flew coach and I stayed in a hostel where I spent $90 for six nights. I went to the grocery store and bought food so that I wouldn’t have to eat out. It’s a completely different world for me. But in a lot of ways it enhances the experience. You’re not afforded these luxuries, but you meet different people and it creates opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise. But there I was in Pucón nibbling on my carrots…
TM: Does that type of travel test your resolve in terms of knowing that triathlon is what you really want to do?
SP: Oh for sure. The funny thing is, as an athlete rest and recovery is so important. It plays a role in how we perform. So here I am as an athlete flying coach and staying in this crappy hostel, and meanwhile in my banking job I flew business class and got great sleep and I didn’t really need to.
TM: As you have more and more success, people become more aware of you as an athlete and a public figure in the sport. Yet I imagine it also takes awhile to catch up to that idea in your own mind and to become comfortable with that recognition. Are you ever surprised when people know who you are or know things about you? Have you had any funny experiences along those lines?
SP: A little bit. For example, when I was in Kona last year I was randomly talking to this girl and she was giving me complete attitude. We struck up a conversation and she was just looking me up and down when we started talking. She was like, “Oh, are you competing?” And I was like, “Yes, I am.” She said, “Oh, is this your first year?” She was totally giving me attitude! And then she asked my name. I just said, “Uh, Sarah.” She said, “Sarah what?” and I said, “Sarah Piampiano.” Her whole attitude completely changed. “You’re Sarah Piampiano? Oh my god! I follow you on Twitter!” She went on about what a great season I had and this, that and the other thing. It went from her being– well, you know–to being super nice to me.
It’s a pretty unique perspective, because for me coming in and starting to race triathlons as an amateur, I used to look at the pros and think: Oh my god! Linsey Corbin just said hi to me! Or: I just brushed shoulders with so and so! It’s like a big deal to be in contact with the pros. I don’t quite feel I’m at that level yet, but you do have to remind yourself that people do recognize you and they view you as a professional. So the perspective changes a little bit. It’s something I’m getting used to. It’s cool though. It’s exciting!
TM: Talk a bit about your experience as a ski racer and how that has helped you in cycling.
SP: I grew up ski racing, downhill and Super G. There are four events in downhill ski racing and those are the two fastest–they have the most speed and there are jumps and things like that. My goal was to make the U.S. ski team–that’s what I was working towards. I went to a private academy geared towards skiing. In downhill you go anywhere from 60-75 miles an hour. There are jumps where you might be five to seven feet off the ground, but you fly 300-400 feet in the air before landing. You learn about wind patterns and movements and you learn to become comfortable with speed. You learn the angles of turns. That’s something that has carried over for me on the cycling front, in terms of getting comfortable going at higher speeds and descending and being really comfortable with cross winds. They don’t intimidate me and I know that they scare a lot of people.
TM: You work with Matt Dixon as your multisport coach, but you moved to L.A. specifically to work with legendary swim coach Gerry Rodrigues. How has he helped you, and what is some specific advice he gave you on your stroke?
SP: When I started with Gerry, my first timed 100 was 1:29. [Embarrassed laughter.] It went to 1:05 in a 12-month period. It was a total overhaul! I was lifting my head, I was crossing over, I was wiggling…we changed everything. The one thing that Gerry always talks about is trying to make your body as taut as possible and also as aligned as possible. Not moving your hips and things like that. It was a really hard concept for me to grasp. I would say that just in the last two months, my development as a swimmer has changed such that I am actually able to understand and grasp the concept of tautness and alignment in a way that I wasn’t able to before. I can think about it and actively do it while I’m swimming, and it’s changed my swimming a lot. But it’s taken me a whole year of a lot of swimming to get to that point.
TM: Someone drawn to a career in finance would normally be very pragmatic. But you also obviously have a spontaneous side, given how you got into triathlon in the first place–a bet with a male age group friend that you could beat him in a race, without any real training. How do these two characteristics come together for you?
SP: I do think I’m pretty pragmatic in a lot of senses. For example, I put a lot of pressure on myself in races, but after a race is over I think I do a really good job of not being overly emotional about any particular result. I’m able to take a step back and say to myself: OK, this is what I did well. This is what I didn’t do well. This is why this race turned out this way. On to the next one. So I think I do take a really pragmatic approach in that perspective. But I’m a pretty big believer in living your life to the fullest and taking every opportunity that you can. There are things I feel that are just too big or too good to pass up. When I worked in banking I gave 100 per cent of myself to banking. I dedicated myself in such a significant way and I wanted to be successful at that profession and I loved what I was doing. And it’s the same thing with triathlon. When I discovered triathlon I wanted to give 100 per cent of myself to it. And when I figured out that I was good enough to race as a pro and potentially be successful as a pro, for me it was just–it’s an opportunity that so few people have, I just couldn’t pass it up. My parents think I’m completely insane! Because I had worked so hard for so long to get where I was in finance, and then I completely threw it out the door. I made such a good salary and there were so many good things going for me. But I feel like people get really comfortable in their lives and they’re too afraid to take chances and really take risks and go for it. My risks are generally pretty calculated–I’m not going to do something if I think there’s zero per cent chance of success, but I also like to do things that are going to really challenge me and really force me to put myself out there and risk failure. Triathlon is one of those things! It’s definitely something I can succeed at, but it’s going to take so much work and so much focus and so much dedication. It’s a calculated leap of faith.
TM: Are you superstitious at all?
SP: I am definitely superstitious. There are little things, like I always wear a new pair of socks in a race.
TM: Just on the run, or do you wear them on the bike also?
SP: No, I don’t wear socks on the bike. But the funny thing is, I wore socks on the bike when I won New Orleans and every race since then I’ve thought to myself: Maybe I should wear socks on the bike. It’s actually something that crosses my mind. Also I have this little elephant charm that my best friend bought for me and I carry it with me wherever I go. I always kiss it before I go to bed at night before a race. And my sister-in-law bought me a little stuffed animal from the 2012 London Olympics, and I carry that with me wherever I go. If I don’t have it, I really freak out. I have to eat the same meal before every race, and in the morning I always go for a jog and have to do these little exercises. I don’t even know if the exercises work or not, but in my head they do. I have to go through certain motions before I race to have a good day.
TM: There’s a great video on your website where you say, “I like to do things that are really hard-slash-virtually impossible.” Are there any challenges that you have actually backed away from, or anything that scares you?
SP: Um…no. And I think that’s because I’m so stubborn. Once I take something on I kind of refuse to fail. That’s my mentality. I’ll work as hard as I need to in order to succeed. I will say that with triathlon, I’m overwhelmed with the success that I had last year, but this is the hardest challenge that I’ve ever done. The success has not come as quickly and as easily for me as pretty much anything else I’ve ever done in my life. Well, not making the U.S. ski team was a goal I had and didn’t reach. But in terms of being scared of things, no, not really. Once I make the decision that I’m going to do something, I go full force with the belief that I’m going to succeed. And I don’t allow myself to doubt that. I just put my head down and forge ahead.
Actually there is one thing I’m afraid of–the ocean. I’m scared of drowning. But it doesn’t stop me. Part of it is a fear of sharks, but I’m less scared of the idea of a big fish grabbing me and more scared of the idea of being pulled under and not being able to breathe.
TM: Yet you’ve learned to surf since moving to California, so that fear obviously hasn’t stopped you.
SP: Nope. That’s where my stubbornness comes in. Even if I’m scared of something, I’m stubborn enough that I’m going to work through it and push past it.
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TM: What’s your ultimate triathlon goal?
SP: My goal is to win Kona, to win the Ironman World Championship. It’s a big goal and I’m nowhere close to being able to do that right now, but that’s what I want.
TM: You grew up with two older brothers, basically trying to emulate everything they did. What’s the dynamic now when you all get together?
SP: My oldest brother is 41 and my next oldest brother is 38 and I’m 32. And when the three of us get together, my two brothers literally become 10-year-olds. They gang up on me, they tackle me, they hold me down, they tickle me and they make fun of me. And they think this is so hilarious! These are grown men who are married with children. Every time we’re together it’s just constant competition–who can do things better than the other person. We’re always wrestling and betting on things and giving each other a hard time.
TM: Have they tried triathlon?
SP: My oldest brother did do a triathlon, before I ever did actually. He’s a really phenomenal biker. And there’s been talk of them both doing one recently. I think part of the reason they haven’t done it yet is because they’re afraid that they may get beat by me.
TM: I bet they’re proud of you, though.
SP: They are! It’s really nice to see. During every race, they’re at their computers tracking me religiously. And one brother will post things on Facebook about how proud he is of me. It’s really cute because my relationship with my brothers is a wonderful relationship, but it’s really all about giving each other a hard time. So to see them step back and give me that support means a lot.
TM: Do you have any unusual quirks or eccentricities that you’ll fess up to?
SP: Yes, I do have quirks and I’ll admit them. One thing is that I have this down vest. It’s red and I’ve had it since I was eight years old. I call it Pincher, because I pinch it. I sleep with it every night and I carry it with me everywhere. If I go to the movies, I carry Pincher with me. If I fly, it’s in my carry-on and I pull it out and pinch it on the plane.
TM: It’s like your blankie!
SP: It’s like my blankie. I don’t go to sleep at night without Pincher next to me. It kind of freaks my boyfriend out. He told me the other day that he woke up with Pincher on his face and was like: Get this thing off of me! So he has a really hard time with it. But it is like my blankie. That would probably be my biggest thing. I do think it’s kind of weird that I carry it with me everywhere.
TM: Where is it right now? [We’re talking on Skype and I see nothing red.]
SP: It’s in the bedroom. I keep it in the bedroom during the day. But if I was sitting here watching television I would definitely go get Pincher. My boyfriend asked me the other day, “Are you ever going to get rid of that thing?” And I said, “Nope.” Everybody knows about it and everybody makes fun of me for it.
TM: I think it’s good that you don’t hide it.
SP: Right? I mean I’m announcing it to the world right now! Me and Pincher. Another thing is that I’m a really bad dancer. I love to dance and I’m really bad. I have no rhythm, but I totally try to get down. I definitely try to grind a little bit and shake my hips, but I’ve got nothing. But I have absolutely zero shame, so I’ll get out there and do it. That’s another thing all my friends make fun of me for. One night in the off season we went out for drinks and I was feeling pretty good and I started doing the running man in the middle of the bar. Everyone just stopped and looked at me.
TM: I’m starting to see why you’re so tough. You’ve dealt with people teasing you about Pincher and your dancing; you’ve had your brothers ganging up on you…
SP: Everybody has their stuff, so I’m not ashamed to admit mine. I also sucked my thumb until I was 16 years old. I just couldn’t stop. The back-story on Pincher is that when I was little I would drag with me everywhere–literally everywhere, like out in the street–a down sleeping bag, and I’d pinch the down. So I’d be sucking my thumb, walking down the street and dragging this massive down sleeping bag. My parents were like: We’ve got to get rid of this thing! So one year for Christmas they bought me the replacement Pincher, the down vest, because obviously it’s smaller than a sleeping bag, and that’s what I’ve had ever since.
TM: But you don’t suck your thumb anymore?
SP: No, I don’t! But you know, it took me a long time to stop. My parents would entice me. They’d say. “We’ll take you to Florida to Disney World if you stop sucking your thumb.” So I’d stop, they’d take me to Disney World, we’d get home and I’d start sucking my thumb again. But finally I went away to boarding school and I couldn’t really suck my thumb anymore. And you can put that in the article. I’m not ashamed of that, either.
TM: Well I don’t blame you–look how far you’ve come!
SP: You see–thumb suckers, they’re bound for success!
You can follow Piampiano’s journey on her website (www.sarahpiampiano.com) and on Twitter @SarahPiampiano.
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