I may be known as a triathlete, but no discipline or event defines me.
On a late summer day, before my junior year of high school, I opened the door to my house to find the school cross-country team staring back at me. They had come to ask me to join the team and help them win a state title.
Growing up, I showed promise as a runner. In elementary school, I set city records in distance runs. I ran a 5K race as a 10-year-old and placed third overall, breaking 20 minutes. During high school, my swim coach had us run timed miles on the cinder track every week as part of our pre-season training. I consistently ran in the low four-minute range. The track coach told me I had a shot to win the mile at the Drake Relays, one of the most prestigious track meets in the country.
Why then, when the team came knocking, did I say no? “Sorry guys, I’m a swimmer,” was what I said. I didn’t even like swimming all that much. When I was a kid, my father had to bribe me with toys so I would go to swim lessons. Sure, I had some success, but I was not headed to the Olympics. Yet, I had labeled myself a swimmer, and running track and cross-country did not fit into the plan.
During my peak years as a professional triathlete, I again had a label: “triathlete.” Anything else would just get in the way. It was a little more understandable that time around, as it was my job, and I was pretty good at it. However, I definitely missed some opportunities that probably will not come around again. I passed on bike racing for fear of crashing and getting hurt. I passed up an opportunity to try car racing because it would interfere too much with my training. I lived in one of the best places to ski in the world, but I literally had contracts that forbade it. As a triathlete, by definition, I was supposed to be a multisport athlete, but it sure felt like I was labeled as a one-sport athlete all over again.
“Regret” is not a word I use lightly. I’m confident in most choices and decisions I make and have made. I truly appreciate all of my accomplishments as an athlete and otherwise. However, I do sometimes ask myself, “What if?” What if I had joined that cross-country team? What if that had led to a collegiate running career and maybe even running success beyond college? What if I had become a “runner”?
On the other hand, what if I had said yes to the team, gotten injured or burned out on running, and never found triathlon? The “what if’s” are endless and meaningless. They are however a reminder and an opportunity to do things a little differently now.
I watch how the triathlon calendar has grown to fill all 12 months of the year. Athletes go from one race to the next with no clear break to give themselves (and their bodies) a proper off-season or possibly try a new sport. When I was racing, I hiked in the mountains and rode my mountain bike in November and December, but even those “outside-the-box” activities were done with the intent of building back into my next triathlon season.
Although I absolutely love all three disciplines of triathlon (swimming is a very distant third at the moment), and I can’t imagine missing my daily run in the mountains, I have to believe that a month or even two away from these activities, during my peak years of racing, would have been beneficial in some ways. I definitely lost some freshness in my later years that may have been revived with a true break. It probably would have been a lot of fun too, which is what it’s all about anyway.
Nowadays, “multisport” has definitely taken on a new meaning for me. I prefer the term “all-sport” athlete—no one discipline or event defines me. My immediate answer to an opportunity is never “no” now. Most often, it is, “Yes, I’ll try that!” Ex-professional triathlete Brad Kearns took up the high jump when he retired. I love the thought of him down at the high school track working on his approach. I might just try to discover my potential in the triple-jump next spring. I think I’m built for it.
Tim DeBoom is the 2001 and 2002 winner of the Ironman World Championship, and the last American to win in Kona.