Once a U.S. Army officer, Wisconsin native Jessica “Jess” Jacobs made a career switch to triathlon, turning pro in 2007. Since then she’s tallied triple Ironman wins (Wisconsin 2011, Florida 2011 and 2010) and triple Ironman 70.3 wins (2012’s Florida, Racine and Steelhead). As if training and racing didn’t keep Jacobs busy enough, her number one priority is her seven-year-old daughter Kasey. The pair lives with Jacobs’ mother in her hometown of Green Bay while her husband Michael continues to serve his as an Army officer, recently completing his fifth deployment. Rounding out the Jacobs’ family are three beloved dogs, Sierra, Josie and Otis.
[Excerpts from this interview appeared in the July 2013 issue of Triathlete.]
TM: Tell us about your living situation and how you balance caring for your daughter with your career, especially while your husband is deployed.
JJ: My husband just came back from Afghanistan and he’s stationed in El Paso. But my daughter and I live with my mom in Green Bay. Kasey’s in second grade right now, so instead of moving her out of school in the middle of the school year to go to El Paso, we stayed here. Mike gets his next duty assignment in December, so we’ll see where we’re at then. We see each other when we see each other, basically. It helps having him back in the U.S., but at the same time it’s a different challenge. My daughter’s like, “Well if he’s back, why can’t we all be together and live together?” And I’m like, “No honey, because you’re in school and daddy’s at work.” So it’s good and definitely a lot less stress when he’s back, but at the same time we have to manage when he’s going to come visit and all those options.
One of the biggest reasons I moved back to Wisconsin is that my father passed away two years ago. My husband was getting ready to go to Iraq and my mom said to me, “Come home. You’ll have support and I’ll have support.” So it was really great because she ended up kind of learning how to live minus my dad shortly after he passed away with the help of my daughter and me. And I have her support. Plus my sister lives next door and I have three brothers that also live in Wisconsin. It’s been a really awesome situation. Outside of the winters being kind of harsh, Wisconsin really is a great place to train from April through November.
TM: Was Mike able to be there for some of your most significant races and victories or was he deployed?
JJ: Two things that really excited him were that he was there for my first Ironman win in Florida and for my first half Ironman win, again in Florida. He said, “I know I’ve missed some really cool things, but I got to be there for your first wins!” During Ironman Wisconsin he was able to watch the online feed all day in Iraq, but it just depends on where he is and how good the satellite is. There have been times I haven’t been able to talk to him for weeks after a race.
TM: I read that you’re a fan of Real Housewives. What is it that you like about that show and do you have a favorite version?
JJ: OK, I spend a lot of time on my trainer–let’s just bring that up! And so I have a little reality TV junkie tendency. Because you know what? It’s mindless entertainment. You can have it on in the background and just put your head down. And there’s something about watching people that I’ve always been intrigued with. I’ll be out to dinner with my husband and I’ll just be staring at people. He’ll be like, “Stop staring!” I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I think the psychology of people is so interesting, and so the Housewives are just hilarious. And you know what? They may have X, Y and Z things that you and I don’t have, but I guarantee you I’m a much happier person! I love Orange County and Beverly Hills. Atlanta just bores me – they’re hot messes–and the Miami girls are all crazy. So I’d say the Southern California ones are the ones I lean more towards. My mom will walk downstairs and hear the theme song and say, “Oh geez, I can’t believe you watch that. You should watch more Touched By An Angel. That’s a good show.” But I also watch A & E, the History Channel and Discovery–so I like those too!
TM: And what about Army Wives? I would guess you’re probably not the typical Army wife. Are your military friends supportive of your career–or do some see it as odd? Is there that built-in support network you see on the show when you live on a base?
JJ: Here’s what I think: when you live overseas, there’s a lot more support and camaraderie than when you live in the U.S. When you live in the U.S., people’s families are closer so people don’t tend to migrate towards each other as much as when you’re overseas. When you’re overseas you’re all in the same boat–you’re all very far from family. Whereas, say you were stationed in Ft. Benning, Georgia. A lot of those women may be a half hour to two hours from mom and dad, so they don’t need to depend on other people. You do develop a camaraderie with other people, but it also depends whether you have a lot in common. And let’s be honest: not very many people understand my job. A lot of the men are supportive–and most of my friends in the military would be men–but the women don’t necessarily get it. And you have to be really careful because some of the women could be jealous of what you’re doing or of how much you’re talking to their spouse. It’s a fine line. So the first thing I do–and this is true for military or civilian athletes–but the first thing I do when there’s a guy that I want to train with–let’s say go for four or five hour rides on a Saturday with–is befriend the wife. I make it very clear that I’m not trying to do anything with their spouse. It’s a whole different culture in the military. There’s known to be infidelity going on and you also have to be very smart about who you’re training with. Say you’re training with a soldier that works for your husband–it wouldn’t be a good combination to train with that person. Even though I don’t wear the rank, my husband still does and I have to respect that. It’s another set of politics involved with the military. It’s also a very small community. So if you’re seen training with a guy, and a whole bunch of soldiers see this, then the rumor mill starts. And that’s why 90% of my training is solo. I always say you better really like yourself or have a great playlist!
TM: What was your role when you were in the military?
JJ: I was a transportation officer with logistics. Basically I was in charge of the food, the fuel and the ammunition getting to the soldiers on the battlefield.
TM: You represented your country as an Army officer, and now you represent your country as a professional athlete? What does that mean to you?
JJ: I feel very blessed. I’m so happy that I did it that way. Because a lot of people, they’re professional athletes. They’ve never known how to put together a resume much less work in corporate America. I got the best of both worlds. I got to serve my country, and then when it was time to go pro and see what it’s like on this side of the coin I didn’t have any guilt or remorse. I served my country, and now I’m going to see how far this sport can take me.
TM: Which job is harder?
JJ: That’s a tough question! Well, I would say financially triathlon, because you’re always guaranteed a paycheck when you’re in the Army. Military salaries are not super high, but at least you know you’re going to get paid. You go to a race and you have no guarantee of anything. But you have different obstacles in the military. I would say triathlon is a tougher job than the military, because in the military you’re all in the same boat. If something goes wrong you’re all in it together. Although I guess it depends what your job is, too. Luckily I was never in combat–I can imagine that would be a whole different challenge to contend with.
TM: Was there a particular experience during your time serving in the military or during your military training that prepared you for the intensity, endurance and physical and mental roller coaster of Ironman?
JJ: You do a lot of physical training in the military, but I think patience is the name of it. You can do anything with your body physically. But mentally, what’s happening in between your ears is what’s going to make you a success. In the military and also being a mother you learn a lot of patience. And you have to stay emotionally and mentally calm, because once you lose that you unravel. In the military if you unravel in front of your soldiers you’ve lost all respect, you’ve lost all credibility. You just have to remember what mistakes you’ve made in the past, know who you can trust, know who you can go to as mentors, know who you can trust as a soldier and know who has the best skills. And it’s the same thing in triathlon. When you’re training or when you’re doing a race, you have to be able to go back and say, “Remember that workout you did that was really hard? You got through it.” On race day, if you take that book of confidence that you built up in your training you’ll have no problem racing to your potential. If you don’t remember–or if you didn’t do all those things in training–you won’t. For me racing is all about the confidence you build in your training going into race day.
TM: Tell us about sharing the triathlon experience with your daughter.
JJ: She doesn’t know anything else. In 2004 I won my age group at Ironman Wisconsin. That got me my ticket to the 2005 World Championships, but I got pregnant in November of 2004 and I had Kasey in August 2005. 10 weeks later was the Ironman World Championships, so here’s this 10-week-old baby in Kona while mommy’s competing. That was when you could cross the finish line with your family, so everyone was like, “Oh that’s cool, is she your niece?” And I was like, “No, this is my daughter.” They were like, “No way!” So Kasey doesn’t know anything else. She knows mommy competes and mommy goes to races. If anything, she’s totally bummed when I don’t bring her to races with me. But for example, tonight I have a 5000-meter swim workout. She’ll come to the pool with me and I’ll write out a workout for her to do. I’ll also bring rings and stuff like that, and she’ll always have a book with her or her iPod to listen to music. I’ll say, “Mommy’s going to be in the water for at least 90 minutes, minimum. Here are the things you can do, and unless it’s an emergency I can’t stop. If you need anything ask the lifeguards.” She just gets it. In fact, in the mornings if I take off and go and do a workout before she wakes up sometimes she’s mad at me. “Why didn’t you take me?” And I say, “Sweetie, you have school. You need your sleep.” You know how people sometimes tease about if you’re into gymnastics you become a gym rat? Well she’s like a triathlon rat! She already did her first triathlon in Green Bay last June. Of course she won! She’ll do it again this year. She just loves it. If I’m on the treadmill at home and I’m doing intervals or something she’ll come up to me and say, “OK mommy, what do you want me to do?” And I’ll give her a workout while I’m on the treadmill. We live in a three-level house, so I’ll say, “OK, you have to run upstairs, touch your door, run downstairs and touch the treadmill. Do that 10 times.”
TM: Did being the youngest of eight kids make you a competitive person early on? A lot of people I know from large families had to get a bit scrappy to get what they wanted!
JJ: Scrappy is the best adjective I could use. I’m very scrappy. I can tell you right now that having a name brand cereal was not anything that was available in our house. You had to wake up very early to get any cereal! You were just always vying for attention and very defensive, because everyone would tease you. I got teased a lot. And you want the attention so you do what your brothers and sisters are doing. You do anything to seek their approval. There were a lot of tears and a lot of bumps and bruises, but definitely my competitiveness came from that.
TM: Have you traveled to some pretty spectacular locations around the world in both your professions?
JJ: Oh yeah. In the military, I was stationed first in Korea and then Germany. We visited Bulgaria, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic. And then for triathlon I was in Abu Dhabi, New Zealand and Australia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Canada. I raced in Switzerland for my first Ironman. In Europe they all say, “Hup, hup, hup, hup, hup!” at the races. I was like: Why are they telling me to go up? But racing in Europe, you are like a superstar! You are like celebrity status as an endurance athlete. They respect the cycling and triathlon worlds on a completely different level than Americans. They really roll out the red carpet.
TM: Military personnel tend to be pretty tough. Is there anything that you’re afraid of?
JJ: What do I fear? I mean if a rattlesnake slid across me right now I wouldn’t hug it, but it wouldn’t freak me out. But the unknowns in life, I guess those are the things that I struggle with. People ask me all the time about my husband being gone, “How do you sleep at night? Don’t you worry?” Honestly, I don’t think about it. Because it’s out of my control. You could sit up all night long, but that adds stress to your life and takes energy from you, and you have to put that energy into other aspects. And I know this is going to sound really sad, but after losing my father a few years ago one of the dreaded moments of my life is the time I’ll have to say goodbye to my mom. I also have a 10-year-old dog, and I know that those times will be very difficult for me. Also, I would like to have another child when I retire. But I don’t foresee myself retiring until 38, 39 or maybe 40, so my fear is that either I can’t get pregnant or there would be complications or God forbid an unhealthy child. Those are my only fears in life.
TM: Did you learn to turn off your emotions in the military?
JJ: Psychologically you learn to turn things off very well. I’m not going to lie–you become robotic. They teach you to not be emotional. They teach you to put everything in check. And it can be good or bad later on. It’s probably why there are so many soldiers that have PTSD, because they shut it off at the time and then when they come home and everything is going back to normal all these things come up to the surface. I mean sooner or later you have to deal with your emotions. Honestly, I would probably be more apt to drinking, but I have triathlon. I always tell people that running or triathlon is my drug!
TM: Do you have any unusual personal quirks or eccentricities?
JJ: This is not something I have to do race morning, but I find it good luck if I can pet a dog before a race. That’s something that I kind of get excited about. If I see a dog as I’m heading over to the swim start, I pet him. There’s just something calming about an animal. Also, I would be the worst anorexic or bulimic because I love food and I can’t throw up worth a damn. If anybody ever told me that I couldn’t eat chocolate or cheese curds, I’d tell them to go to hell. That’s just not going to happen. I have had coaches that tried to limit certain things but I just don’t buy it.
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