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Pursue Your Potential: Should you go pro?

Russell Pennock
Russell Pennock

Training with younger athletes reminds me of my own struggle to find my way in sport early in my career (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) before I was actually racing professionally (making money from my sport). I remember racing as an “elite” balancing a zero budget, university studies, international travel and worried parents with my intense desire to progress in the sport. Looking back, I never expected my career to follow the path it has. I love being around young athletes and I am constantly encouraging them to have the courage to follow their dreams, no matter how intimidating that seems.  Without trying to make it as a professional you are sure to fail, whereas giving it a shot at least gives you the opportunity to be successful.

The few athletes that make it to the top rise out of the ranks of beginners just as everyone else. There are a handful of athletes with outstanding success in the sport and many more with moderate to limited success. Challenging yourself to pursue the highest level in triathlon requires a considerable conviction, determination and, most importantly, resilience. It also requires sacrifice including financial hardship, postponing education, postponing other career choices, missing major events in life (birthdays, weddings, parties, etc.), physical challenges (injuries, illness, etc.) and strain on your personal relationships. These are all real costs associated with following your dreams.

This advice is not limited to those wanted to go pro–the same applies to amateur athletes going after their goals later in life. Whether you’re a young athlete pursuing the Olympics or a pro career, or an amateur who just learned to swim and wants to qualify for Kona, pushing your limits is important.  There are so many important life lessons packed into a sport challenge that will change you as a person.  I believe the experience is invaluable.

While working toward your goals, you’ll experience a journey unlike any you can have outside of sport. When you explore the world for racing, it looks a lot different than it does on a tour bus. Being an athlete allows you to meet a wide spectrum of people with whom you may not have anything else in common, but through sport you have an immediate icebreaker to help find a connection. Racing lets you experience places and events with an intensity that makes them hard to forget, regardless of your results.

The athletes I speak to who are in their early 20s often worry about delaying their non-sport careers. I tell them that exercise is a lifestyle they’ll carry with them into the boardroom. Cycling and triathlon are the new golf of CEOs. Companies are sure to see the value of an athlete’s commitment and ability to work hard. Who wouldn’t want an employee who understands the importance of goal setting? Athletes are the leaders of the future who are learning important life skills in sport.

Discussing the sacrifices a family needs to make for mom or dad to train for triathlon is more complicated than encouraging a teenager. Generally, I ask an age group athlete with a family, partner, or significant work obligations, what the people around them would think of their goals. If they have kids, I ask them what kind of role model they would choose for their kids. Parents pursuing their dreams and passion in life, certainly sends an important message to kids. Considering the needs of a family is necessary, but if training for sport can be managed it benefits and inspires everyone.

Not following your dreams also has a cost and many people don’t consider that as it’s much more insidious and subtle. Over time, not following your dreams can erode your happiness. Many people choose to quit because it’s safer and more predictable to choose a more secure path in life.   I believe doing so will leave you with unanswered potential and regret. The question of “what if” will always be in the back of your mind. This regret is potentially more difficult to live with than kick starting a traditional career later in life. There’s no guarantee you’ll be successful in sport, but you definitely won’t be if you don’t try.

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Removing the limitation of other people’s expectations will give you freedom to explore new challenges in life.  You can have your athletic goals and still be a great parent, become a doctor or get an engineering degree. Anything you choose to do can be facilitated with a plan, some organization and support from the people around you. Even if you never reach the level in the sport you sought, you will be happy that you tried. The effort, the failure and the lessons you learn will change your life.  So when asked “Should I go pro?”, my answer is always yes, followed by the stipulation: if you are willing to give it everything to be successful.