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ProFile: Timothy O’Donnell

  • By Julia Polloreno
  • Published May 23, 2014
Photo: Nils Nilsen

American Tim O’Donnell is widely considered the country’s top prospect for bringing home the Ironman world title. Inauspicious athletic beginnings as a swimmer didn’t stop O’Donnell from becoming a six-time Armed Forces National Champion while he was in the Navy, which led to an invitation to train at the Olympic Training Center. In 2009 he won the ITU Long Distance World Championship, and, after watching his now-wife Mirinda Carfrae win in Kona the following year, decided to make Kona his ultimate goal. A string of successful results at the 70.3 distance (he was the 2010 and 2012 Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro champ) has set a solid foundation for success at the full-iron distance. Look for O’Donnell at June 8’s Ironman 70.3 Eagleman in Maryland and as a member of a relay team at June 29′s inaugural Challenge Atlantic City (learn how you can bike or run on his relay team).

- Our family was living in California outside Sacramento in the mid-’80s, and even though my parents weren’t swimmers they decided to put us on the swim team. It was kind of the thing that everyone did in California. My older brother and sister joined the Roseville Sugarbears in 1985 and the following year they put my brother Matthew, who’s 11 months older than me, and I on the swim team. So I joined my first swim team in 1986, when I was 5 years old.

- I was the worst athlete in my family. Everyone always made fun of my coordination. We’d go to swim meets and I wouldn’t qualify for the championship meets so I’d go and lug the lawn chairs around. My early swimming career wasn’t the greatest, but I always got the award for my work ethic. Even though I didn’t have the results, my coaches always saw something in what I was doing—my dedication and love of what I was doing.

- I graduated top of my class in high school trying to be that AP student, and then I graduated with honors from the Naval Academy—in the top 5 percent. That’s how I earned my graduate spot to Berkeley. In the Navy I was part of the Explosives Ordinance Committee. Going back to my whole coordination thing, my parents were very worried that explosives would be more hazardous to my health than the average person. Luckily I stayed on the admin side and didn’t go through the technical bomb training. And then I got accepted into the World-class Athlete Program [at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego]. I was that one step away from giving my family heart attacks.

- Every year the military has the Armed Forces Championships at Point Mugu [in Southern California], and I successfully won that triathlon all six years I was in the Navy. I caught the eye of the Armed Services Sports Committee, and they were excited to have me be an ambassador of sport.

- The OTC was a great opportunity. It’s a really fantastic steppingstone for young athletes. I think if you stay there too long you lose a little bit of your hunger because you’re so well taken care of. I really just enjoyed the group of athletes there—Brian Fleischmann, Jasmine Oenick, Matt Seymour, Sarah Haskins, Sara McLarty.

RELATED VIDEO: Q&A With Mirinda Carfrae And Tim O’Donnell

- In 2009–2010 I still wanted to do ITU and still had the intention of trying to make the 2012 Olympic team. Both those years I was second at the ITU U.S. Pro Nationals, and I was considered an honest contender for one of those spots, but after going and watching Rinny win in 2010 in Kona I made the decision that if I could do one thing in the sport it is win Kona. With the level of competition now you can’t be on the fence—you have to be committed to trying to figure Kona out and trying to win that race. I went all-in and made half-Ironmans the logical progression, and in 2011 started getting into the Ironman stuff.

- In Brazil I felt good and knew I was ready to do something. I ripped my wetsuit about five minutes before the start of the swim—classic rookie mistake just putting the sleeve on incorrectly. I got to the starting line and had my arm duct-taped up to keep the sleeve in one piece. It didn’t get under my skin though. I kept calm and controlled, and I think that was a good sign for the day to come—that I was in a place mentally where those little hiccups weren’t going to get in my way.

- My mental preparedness is one of my stronger traits. Maybe it’s stubbornness, I don’t know. My family is awesome and a great support, but we also don’t hold any punches. Being the youngest of four, I think I got hardened-up by my brothers and my sister. I think I get that mental toughness from my family, and then in the military it was just further developed. I really think it all goes back to growing up in a family that wouldn’t let me be mediocre. Rinny is the same way—she grew up in a tough-love family and with older brothers who picked on her and kept her tough. I imagine there’s not going to be too many softy O’Donnells running around.

- Rinny and I met in St. Croix in 2009 at the race, and I’ve always joked that I had to win a race to get her attention. She sent me a Facebook friend request, and we were definitely interested in each other. I didn’t respond to her request for a little while—I let her simmer for a little bit and then took her out for our first date, which was almost a borderline disaster that we salvaged.  We went up to Film on the Rocks [outside Boulder, Colo.] and when we got there it was sold out. We were going to have a picnic up there, and she said, ‘Oh, we can just have our dinner on the side of the road,’ and I’m like, that’s not much of a first date. So we ended up finding a little European restaurant and kind of got lost in conversation. We looked around and the whole place was shut down and the chairs were on top of the tables. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to us that night.

- You see some people grind through winter in Boulder, especially those doing Ironman, and it takes such a big toll on your body and your mind. You need to be able to step back and absorb what you’ve done and have confidence in your fitness. It can get crazy in Boulder for the first few weeks of off-season. The good thing is that we all get it out of our systems! By the end of off-season you’re thinking, I don’t want to party anymore. You’re ready to buckle down.

- I got the flu the night before the wedding so I was getting treated at the medical clinic two hours before the ceremony. Luckily I rallied and it was an awesome day. A lot of stuff didn’t go to plan but I think everyone had a good time and it was an awesome experience.

- I’ve been working with TEAM RWB for more than four years now. Our goal is to enhance the lives of veterans struggling from PTSD and physical injuries coming back from war. It’s about building local, grassroots communities around them through sports, whether it’s rock climbing or triathlon or distance running.

RELATED: Race With Tim O’Donnell At Challenge Atlantic City

More Triathlete ProFiles.

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Julia Polloreno

Julia Polloreno

As Editor-in-Chief of Triathlete magazine, Polloreno oversees the monthly magazine’s content and production. A Stanford University graduate with an award-winning track record in publishing, Polloreno is a two-time Ironman finisher and has been a competitive triathlete for more than a decade.

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