Credit: Wagner Araujo, taken in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Lessons from a Liquid Life by USA Triathlete, Joe Maloy
A desert camel raises it’s body temperature during the day and decreases it at night to minimize sweating, allowing it to save water. A 1,000-year-old California redwood absorbs fog moisture through its leaves. The American roadrunner conserves body fluid by excreting excess salt through its eyes. (Maybe that’s what helped it see through Wile E. Coyote’s plans?) It’s not hard to find examples of organisms rising to meet the challenges of their environment. As human beings, are we so different?
I grew up in a small shore town at the southern tip of New Jersey named Wildwood Crest. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit annually for a respite from the summer heat. Somewhat naturally, I grew up playing in the ocean at the end of my street—swimming, riding waves, and eventually working as a lifeguard. The swim prowess I honed getting tossed by those waves helped earn me a spot on Boston College’s varsity swimming and diving team from 2004-2008. After graduating, I continued working at Boston College as an Assistant Swim Coach until 2010, when I left to pursue a career as a professional triathlete. I’m currently on USA Triathlon’s National Triathlon Team, training with the goal of competing at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
I didn’t have to adapt to dire environmental constraints like the aforementioned camel, redwood, and roadrunner, but I’m still very much a product of my environment. You are too—look around. Each of our environments presents unique challenges. These challenges are the obstacles one must work either through or around if we want to accomplish our goals. On World Water Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to share three lessons that will help as you navigate the path to your goals.
1) JUMP IN
I am always nervous before my races. No matter if the starting line is drawn onto the Wildwood Crest sand, behind the blocks at the Boston College pool, or on the blue-carpeted pontoon at a World Triathlon Series race—my heart is thumping. I know I’ve invested a great amount of time and energy towards a result that is immediately uncertain. The key to overcoming this feeling is remembering what you can control, accepting what you can’t, and believing in your ability.
During my time at Boston College, our swim team developed a unique way to overcome this pre-race anxiety and channel it into productive energy. Moments before the start of big races, teammates lining the sides of the pool would start something we called “the slow-clap.” One person would start clapping, another would join in, another, and so on. The clap would slowly build, the frequency building until the clapping was so fast and so loud that it ended as a raucous cheer. This had a way of calming my nerves before I stepped onto the starting block. The cheer sharpened my focus on the present moment and reminded me that I was supported.
That Boston College slow clap did two things for me:
1) It set a deadline—as the clap sped up, the next step seemed inevitable.
2) It reminded me I was supported. I was by myself behind the block, but I wasn’t alone.
I’m not telling you what you should jump into, but I am telling you to jump—to dive, to step, to crawl, or to raise your hand. Intent is nothing without action. Jumping into a new activity, project, or mission is difficult because it requires that we surrender control to a future that is uncertain. That uncertainty is where growth happens and possibility lives. That’s how we adapt.
Set a deadline to motivate your action, and then use your tools and talents work towards your goal. This is exactly what I do when I race. The starting pistol is my deadline, and from there I need to trust in my preparation. By all means this is taking a risk, but it’s not quite as scary when you remember that you have a solid team supporting you.
2) EXPECT RESISTANCE
Swimming is a funny sport. The water that you pull against to move forward simultaneously works to hold you back. The more water you pull for propulsion, the more resistance you create. While throwing a ball faster simply involves recruiting more muscle fibers, more force in swimming doesn’t necessarily equate to speed. Swimming is an art, a delicate balancing act of propulsion and evasion.
In 2009 I traveled with my dad to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a chance to race at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. I wanted to win the race, but I knew it was going to be tough. Doubt crept in as I looked at hundreds of other fit, well-prepared competitors. My mind began to chatter, “My bike isn’t as nice as his…That dude has quads the size of my waist…The weather is going to be really hot by the time I’m running…” And then my dad started a slow clap!
Ok, he didn’t literally slow-clap, but he did remind me I’d prepared for this moment. The race start approached and I remembered I was supported. I had prepared the best I could, and it was time to test my talents! I pulled a lime green cap with #577 drawn on it, and I walked to the river for my race start. As soon as I jumped into the normally calm water, I could feel the water’s current pulling quickly downstream. All the time I spent in the ocean growing up made me pretty adept at these types of observations.
Knowing that a long length of the out-and-back swim course ran against the current, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to change my pre-race plan. Conditions had changed, and I needed to adapt to the challenges of my environment. I ignored the directional buoys and swam away from the pack. I swam in the deep water (where the current pulls stronger) while I moved with the current. Then, I swam all the way to the river’s bank for the swim’s 1000 meter portion against the current. The water was shallower along the sides of the river, so that meant I’d be swimming against a weaker current. I could move forward with less resistance. At the conclusion of the race’s first leg, the 1500m swim, I had built a commanding lead. I gave back most of that advantage to some other top competitors over the bike and run portions of the event, but I hung on at the end to win the day’s national title by 12 seconds.[After the race we learned the unexpected current existed because they had opened dams upstream to alleviate local flooding.]
There will always be resistance when you’re moving. Resistance is a sign that you’re moving, but unnecessary resistance only slows progress. Learn to recognize the difference, and decide what is worth working through and what you need to avoid.
3) GOALS AREN’T WHAT WE IMAGINE
I’ve focused my energy for the last 6 years on qualifying for the opportunity to represent my country at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. I’ve dreamed of the opportunity to race for one of those Olympic medals since I was a young kid, and I value the process that has guided my pursuit.
Last August, that process took me to Rio de Janeiro for a “test event” on the Olympic triathlon course. We were to swim in the ocean off the famed Copacabana beach, ride loops through the adjacent hillside, and run along the beachfront strip. The race was an opportunity to gain valuable qualifying points that would help me to earn a spot on the US Olympic Team.
One day before my international flight to Rio de Janeiro, a report on the water quality came out and drew the conclusion that I’d be swimming in poop. No, that’s not a typo for “pool.” Apparently bacterial concentrations for the water was tested and deemed unsatisfactory. The Brazilian government’s preparations for the games were behind schedule, and they hadn’t improved the water quality to standards befitting international competition.
I got on the plane not knowing if the race would start as planned. What had been the singular focus of my energies over the past few years was now in doubt. I was getting emails from team doctors advising a course of antibiotics to preemptively combat the water’s bacteria. Messages from fellow competitors urged me to consider boycotting the race over athlete safety concerns. This wasn’t what I had worked for. This wasn’t how I imagined events unfolding in the days before the biggest race of my life.
Once on site in Rio, I read a little more about the reports and consulted with my support team. I drew my own conclusions from the facts at hand, and I decided to race. The triathlon swim course is held in the open ocean. While not pristine, the numbers showed it was much cleaner than the lagoon where most of the media’s bacterial counts were collected. I avoided the ocean water pre-race, but when my slow clap built to a cheer, I raced. It wasn’t how I imagined things going that week, but boy did it feel good crossing that finishing line knowing I’d given it my best effort.
I had the best race of my life, to date, finishing 16th in the world. It didn’t automatically qualify me for the Olympic Games, but it helped my cause and put me in a position where I can make the Olympic Triathlon Team with a good race in the final qualifying event this May.
Goals don’t always give you what you expect. Things in real life rarely unfold the way you imagine. That’s okay. Accept that achievement alone does not define you as an individual. It’s the process of striving toward that achievement—the decisions we make and the people we impact along the way—that define us.
Joe was a four-year varsity swimmer at Boston College and was voted team captain for the 2007-08 Season. In high school, he won 12 varsity letters in cross country, swimming, track and field and tennis and was a First-Team League All-Star six times. After graduating in 2008 with a BA in English, Joe served as the assistant coach for Boston College’s Varsity Swimming and Diving team. While coaching the team, Joe worked towards a Master’s degree in Administration and began structured triathlon training.
In August 2009, Joe won the USA Triathlon National Age Group Championship in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He’s enjoyed personal and professional growth in the sport ever since. He’s competed in 17 countries on 5 different continents. He won his first USA Triathlon Elite National Title in Chicago, IL, in 2014. He’s currently a member of USA Triathlon’s Elite National Team and trains with The Triathlon Squad in Poway, California.