Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Real Life of the Pros: ITU Triathlete Colin O’Brady

by Kat Hunter

2013 Osaka ITU Sprint Triathlon Asian Cup

Lying in a hospital bed in Thailand, his legs atrophied to the point that they were the size of his wrists, 22-year-old Colin O’Brady told his mother that when he was healthy again he would race his first triathlon. She humored him, wanting to believe it was possible, all the while hoping for a more modest goal: that her son would walk again.

A talented athlete and native of Portland, Oregon, O’Brady had been recruited after high school for both Division 1 soccer and swimming. He chose swimming and was a member of Yale’s varsity team for four years, competing in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. After graduating in 2006, he had no plans to continue the sport seriously. He worked and saved up his money, and the following spring, he began what was meant to be a year-long backpacking trip around the world. The trip ended abruptly on January 14, 2008, on a fire-lit beach on the island of Koh Tao. 

O’Brady had joined other tourists in a hotel’s fire games on the beach, jumping over a 20-foot rope soaked in kerosene and set ablaze. At the time, the game seemed innocent and simple. But he tripped on the rope, wrapping it around his legs and splattering the kerosene over the rest of his body. One second he was skipping rope, and the next he was facedown in the sand engulfed head to toe in flames. An immediate, instinctive sprint into the ocean extinguished the flames and perhaps saved his life, but the damage had been done. Blackened skin hung in ribbons down his bloody legs. He’d suffered second- and third-degree burns to 22% of his body, primarily his legs and feet.

Koh Tao, a small island off the southwest coast of Thailand, had only a basic nursing station. Given penicillin and morphine, O’Brady waited for 12 hours before he could be transported by pickup truck and the morning boat to nearby Koh Samui, a larger island. The hospital on Koh Samui was similarly ill-equipped for serious burn injuries, and after about a week, he was transferred to a larger hospital in Bangkok. There, a month passed before he took a single step, and doctors told him he might never regain the full range of motion in his legs. At his bedside, his mother kept him busy talking and thinking about what he would do when he went home. O’Brady focused on the idea of his first triathlon, visualizing himself whole again.

The First Step

6 weeks post accident
After his return to the U.S., O’Brady took a job in Chicago as a commodities trader. For roughly a year following the accident, he focused on rehabilitation and learning how to walk again. Scar tissue had formed over his joints, and the muscles in his legs had all but disappeared after the extended bedrest. The new, fragile skin couldn’t be exposed to the sun, and any impact would cause it to break open.

“That first year, from January 2008 to January 2009, literally walking down the block or even a short five or ten minute jog would have been a big event,” O’Brady says. “The first year was just getting back to being able to do normal life things.”

In the winter of 2009, he joined a nearby gym and set his sights on the Chicago Triathlon that August. His goal was simply to finish the race as best as he could. He started his post-accident training with casual jogs and spin classes. Though his soccer and swimming background worked in his favor, all-out 10ks and 1500-meter open water swims were another can of worms, and he’d never raced a bike before.

In May, he transitioned to more serious and specific triathlon workouts, and two months later, on a borrowed time trial bike, he won overall amateur at a small sprint-distance tri in Racine, Wisconsin. The race, meant as prep for the Chicago Tri, qualified him for age-group nationals. Taking advantage of the unforeseen opportunity, he competed in the 2009 age-group nationals in Tuscaloosa, and his placing there qualified him for a spot on Team USA to compete at the 2010 world championships in Budapest. A week after racing in Alabama, he won the overall amateur title at the prestigious Chicago Triathlon.

The immediate and unexpected success was both satisfaction and a taste of something more, a new and tempting possibility.

Competing as a Pro  

Before the string of wins, O’Brady had been talking to his mentor Brian Gelber, who runs a large trading firm in Chicago, about other jobs in trading and finance. But after the Chicago Tri, Gelber asked O’Brady whether he was considering professional triathlon.

“In the early stage of any pro career, you need someone to believe in you from the beginning, and Brian was that guy for me,” O’Brady says.

Encouraging O’Brady to train full-time, Gelber became his sponsor. Within a month of winning the Chicago Triathlon, O’Brady was moving to Australia for a six-month training block in the Southern Hemisphere.

Growing up, O’Brady had often dreamed of the Olympic Games.  But for O’Brady, like many student athletes in the U.S., the end of college seemed to signal the end of the road for his athletic career. In some ways, after so many practices and laps in the pool, it was a welcome one. Triathlon, with its three different disciplines, made training fresh and exciting again, and also rekindled his childhood dream of competing in the Olympics. ITU, or draft-legal, triathlon was the natural choice of discipline within the sport.  

ITU triathlon is another world, a world many amateur triathletes never see. In the U.S., draft-legal races for amateurs are very rare, and the ITU series is limited to professionals. The general format of ITU may be the familiar Olympic distance (1500-meter swim/40K bike/10K run), but in most other respects, it’s very different from non-drafting triathlon, rewarding a separate skill set.
ITU Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic

“The amount of time spent swimming in a non-drafting race is a very small percentage of the whole race,” O’Brady says. “So if you’re a great swimmer but not so good of a biker, the strong biker has more time to actually use their strength than the swimmer, for example, whereas in ITU you have to be a very strong swimmer. With my background, I think that suits me.”

A good swim time is crucial because an athlete must make the front group on the bike to contend for the win. A speedy transition is also important. Make a mistake at any time—drop your chain, fumble with your helmet or shoes, botch a mount or dismount—and those few seconds can mean the difference between 4th and 40th place.  Typically, riders work together in a rotating paceline for the 40K bike, keeping speeds high, especially when a known threat doesn’t make it out of the water fast enough. From the bike, the front group starts head to head for the 10K run.

Unlike draft-legal racing, in ITU an athlete doesn’t have the luxury of following a specific race plan. “It’s more like you have to have plan A, B, C, D, E,” O’Brady says. “You’re adjusting in real time to what’s going to happen.”

On the bike, tactics often depend on who’s who in the front group and how you fared in the swim. If necessary, you have to be ready to do a 5- or 10-minute time trial to get back to the group, and you also need to have 5-second power for turns at the front. “So you’ve got to work a lot of different energy systems and be just very mentally focused throughout the race, rather than just going against the clock,” O’Brady says. “To me, both sports are great. I think that they’re just two separate challenges.”

ITU is an international circuit. Athletes represent their countries, wearing their national jerseys, and the maximum number at the start line is 75. With the small number of competitors racing together in every remote corner of the globe, O’Brady says the ITU scene is a kind of “traveling circus.” Your competitors are your travel companions and your friends, but at the end of the day, you also want to beat them.  

ITU athletes are ranked by a complicated points system, one that even the pros don’t always fully understand. There are three levels of the professional circuit, and to race at each higher level, an athlete must have earned the correct number of qualifying points at lower levels. In turn, races at the higher levels are worth more points, which means that the top athletes in the world focus on the highest of them, the World Triathlon Series. Points carry over for 12 months, and overall ranking determines an athlete’s eligibility for the Olympics. Unlike swimming or track and field, in which a time standard might qualify an athlete for the Olympic trials, in triathlon the Olympic trials are races in the World Triathlon Series; an athlete must have the points necessary to be one of the six or so Americans on the start line.  It’s a system that rewards consistency above any one breakthrough performance.

Working one’s way up the ITU ladder can take several seasons. O’Brady is currently racing a mixture of Continental Cup and World Cup races, with the goal of primarily racing the World Triathlon Series in 2015 and 2016, and qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games.  

The Pursuit of Happiness

Three and half years after O’Brady’s headlong dive into triathlon, Brian Gelber remains his primary sponsor and personal mentor, and O’Brady says he finds Gelber’s advice invaluable. The psychology of trading and the psychology of trying to succeed in sport offer a surprising number of parallels, O’Brady says. In many ways, it’s the same competitive, cutthroat environment.

ITU Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic
There’s no “clocking out” at the end of the day, however. “Everything you do outside of the actual swimming, biking, and running still has an impact on your performance and your job,” O’Brady says. “It’s something that, over the few years now that I’ve been doing this, that I’ve adjusted to and am used to, but I remember the very strong difference when I was trading energy futures, for example, and the market would close at 4 o’clock.

At 4 o’clock, whether I made a ton of money that day, lost a bunch of money, or nothing happened in the market that day, I couldn’t do anything until the next morning when it opened up again and the light switched back on essentially. So the feeling of the exact opposite of that, not only Monday to Friday but seven days a week having to be very conscious of what you’re doing the whole time, it’s challenging.”  

ITU triathletes have to train as hard as pro athletes from any other sport, but without the three to nine figure salary. Though athletes race for their individual country, the level of support varies. USA Triathlon sponsors only a small selection of the top athletes, and most competitors rely on personal sponsors to fund living expenses and travel.

Palembang, Indonesia
Triathletes who focus on non-drafting events can do very well racing domestically, but for ITU athletes, as few as four races a year are on U.S. soil, not enough to advance in world ranking. The majority of races are an expensive international plane ticket away. In addition to being a significant barrier for entry to the sport, the financial burden makes it a constant and very stressful gamble, where carefully laid, expensive plans are easily laid waste by random events.   

“My first pro season, for example, I flew all the way to Subic Bay in the Philippines, which is this very obscure place, feeling ready to race, and got food poisoning,” O’Brady says. “I was throwing up on the start line and had to withdraw. There goes, with the flight and travel and all that stuff, probably $2,000. And I didn’t even really race. I did the swim and got on my bike and rode back to my hotel room.”

But the globetrotting is also part of the attraction for O’Brady. “I love the lifestyle,” he says. “I’ve been able in my two years as a pro to race on every continent in the world, other than Antarctica, of course. And most of those continents several times. You get to see the world, and to me that’s amazing.”

O’Brady often travels with his girlfriend and manager, Jenna Besaw, taking advantage of homestays when possible. “From the end of June of last year through the first of this year, I think we’ve slept in 55 different beds, be that hotel rooms or different places,” he says.

He credits the larger triathlon community, the people willing to open up their homes to them, for making his career possible. “With endurance sports, I think as a pro that’s been one of the greatest things, the people I’ve met, not only the community of the athletes I’ve raced with, but even more so the larger community of just people who are interested in the sport or just do it recreationally that help you out along the way,” he says. “Because honestly, without that existing, I’m not sure I would be able to make it work.”

O’Brady says he still considers himself to be in the developmental curve of his professional career in triathlon, and learning to focus on what works for him versus what works for another athlete has been key. Though it’s difficult to avoid in an environment where everyone’s looking at everyone else’s training plan to find the magic ticket for success, trying to keep up stride for stride in training volume can quickly lead to injury and overtraining.

“In terms of volume, I think it’s a personal thing,” he says. “For me, I’ve found that somewhere between 20 and 25 hours a week, I’m getting maximum effort and building toward my fitness and strength without pushing myself over that edge. For other people, that number could be higher or lower. I don’t think that there’s a magic number out there that works for everyone.”

O’Brady says his philosophy on what’s important in training and competition, and life in general, has changed since his start in triathlon. “If you’d have interviewed me three years ago and asked the same question, I would not have had the same answer,” he says. “I would have said success, at the elite level of sport or business, requires 100 percent focus, and it is the same answer, and I do think it requires 100 percent focus, but it’s finding what that right focus is.”

Striving for happiness as well as accomplishment is key, he says. For O’Brady, that meant changing the way he treated his personal relationships. Jenna has been on the road with him for a little over a year, and he says that’s been a game changer. “I feel healthier, stronger, more balanced emotionally, than ever, and my recommendation to any pro athlete or any age grouper or really anybody who’s super focused on pursuing any level of success in any career, would be to really figure out the balance, really figure out what makes you stable. For me that is having a super positive relationship with my girlfriend and my family even though I’m traveling all the time.”

Colin & Jenna at the start line in Chengdu, China
“That would be my recommendation to any age grouper, whoever,” he says. “It’s awesome that you want to finish your first Ironman or sprint triathlon, or it’s awesome that you want to qualify for Kona... All those things are totally worthy goals, but not at the expense of forgetting the other things that make you happy. At the end of the day, if you cross that line in Kona and you have your family there that loved and supported you, and you’ve done that with them the whole way, that’s to me an amazing feeling. But if you cross that finish line and you go, ‘Well, in order to get here, me and my wife stopped talking to each other, and I didn’t get to see my kid’s soccer game.  I didn’t this or that...’ I think people will find pretty quickly that it’s very empty.”

Wintering in Austin

This year, O’Brady and Besaw were in Austin from January to June. The previous two years, O’Brady trained in Australia, where it was summer. Similar to Boulder, Colorado, in the North American summer, Australia is often the “who’s who” of triathlon that time of year, O’Brady says, and the local race scene is in full swing. He says he was looking for something different—a place with good facilities, weather, and athletes, but where he could be more relaxed and self-contained before the crux of the season began.

Winter training was a success, and O’Brady and Besaw say they’ll be coming back next year. They offered special thanks to Brian Lieb (and his awesome dog, Bode) for sharing his home with them, and to Pure Austin for their support, as well as other current sponsors Gelber Group, Primal Wear, MegaFood, Kiwami, Swiftwick, Athlete’s Lounge, and Upper Echelon.

Pure Austin Quarry Lake
O’Brady said he especially enjoyed the swimming options in town—from Pure Austin’s open water facility at Quarry Lake to the UT Masters swim workouts coached by Olympic gold medalist Whitney Hedgepeth—and the Lady Bird Lake trail. ATC’s Saturday ride was another highlight, he said, and Kendal Jacobson was the best sports massage therapist he’s ever had.  

Escaping Austin’s notoriously hot summer months, O’Brady is currently training in Kauai, Hawaii, and racing all over the world. Upcoming races include the Brazil Continental Cup (Sept. 29), Mexico World Cup (Oct. 6), and Puerto Rico Continental Cup (Oct. 13). Read more about his adventures on his website and blog,   


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