Former Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom opens up about the ups and downs of retirement and answering the persistent question of “What’s Next?”
Words By: Sarah Piampiano
With little racing this year, professional triathlete Sarah Piampiano turned her attention and energy toward catching up with some of triathlon and cycling’s favorite retired athletes to discuss what they've been up to since moving on from racing and how they've managed the ups and downs and the physical and mental changes along the way. Here, Sarah checks in with 2x Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom and learns more about how he launched straight into family-man after full-time racing.
Throughout my years as a professional athlete, I've seen many athletes retire and move on from professional sport. Some have maintained close ties to the sport that they called their job for so long, while others have moved away from it and shifted their focus and motivation all together - beginning an entirely new chapter. Former professional triathlete and Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom straddles the line between both worlds, keeping his toes dipped in the coaching realm while taking time to focus on his family since retiring in 2012.
Tim had an incredible 17-year professional career that spanned from 1995 through 2012 and included trips to the Goodwill Games, the Pan American Games, and multiple trips to Kona. He competed in over 200 triathlons across 30 countries throughout his career and earned two illustrious wins at the Ironman World Championships in 2001 and 2002 - making him the last American to win an Ironman World Championships title.
In 2012 Tim retired from professional sport. He speaks openly about his struggles during this transition and worrying about if he'd ever find something that provided as much happiness and satisfaction as triathlon. Tim provides some amazing insights into dealing with change and expectations, especially when you don't know what is coming next.
What is your sporting background? How did you get into triathlon?
I grew up in Iowa and played all sorts of sports. However, competitive swimming became my focus early on through high school and into college. I started racing triathlon while still in college, turned professional in 1995 at the age of 24, and raced my final season when I was 40.
What are you doing today from a career perspective?
I would not say that I have a true career at this point in my life. When my daughter was born, that was the impetus to be done racing. I did not want to travel anymore and be away from my family. My wife had a thriving company and we did not want to have our daughter raised by nannies or full-time daycare, so I became a stay at home dad and really thrived in that for the first few years. Today, I do some coaching, plenty of volunteering at my daughter's school, and coaching kids in track and cross country.
When you were racing full-time, how did sport shape your identity?
I think sport has defined me my entire life. As a competitive swimmer, I had to live and breathe it with morning, noon, and evening practices. The same went for triathlon. I wasn't the most gifted athlete, so I made up for it with hard work. I don't like doing things halfway, so yes, I defined myself as an athlete, and in many ways, still do. I'm not competitive anymore, but sport is still an everyday thing for me.
How long did you contemplate retirement before announcing your plans to leave the sport?
I never really announced my retirement. I just knew at the end of my last race that I was done. I didn't get nervous before the start or feel the instinct to push as hard as possible, and I didn't care that I had a crappy result. I walked away from that last race knowing I was done. I could have been done years earlier, and I always said that if I won Hawaii once, I could walk away satisfied. But I guess I got greedy. I always loved the lifestyle way more than the racing - I loved being outdoors all day and finding the limits of my ability. I still do. In hindsight, I wish I would have walked away a few years earlier because I probably would have been more excited about finding a second career before becoming a father. But I was still earning a good living and it's hard to see outside that box from the inside.
How did you feel about retirement?
I lived in fear the last few years of my racing career about what was next for me. I watched my wife, Nicole transition from a very successful racing career into a very successful entrepreneur. I thought that I needed to have that next thing ready to go for me to stop racing, but I realized that she was one of the lucky ones that found something she enjoyed even more than racing. It's not as easy for everyone. I had reached such a high level as an athlete that it scared and humbled me to think about starting at the bottom of something else, especially something that I may not be as passionate about as triathlon.
Were you concerned about losing part of your identity through retirement?
I think my identity as an athlete was self-imposed. Of course, people who only know my name and results in the small world of triathlon will only think of me as a triathlete, but those closest to me, the people who really matter, know me as who I really am. That was tough to understand at the beginning of this transition, but I was never one to enjoy the spotlight or attention, so losing that identity as a top-level athlete has been a relief, really.
Many athletes talk about falling into depression after their career has ended. Did you experience that at all?
I definitely have had to address feelings of depression. It has never been debilitating or damaging to my life, but I was aware of it, and my wife has noticed it as well. Luckily, exercise is a wonderful drug that helps me in amazing ways. I know that I need a certain time to myself every day. I need time outside every day. I also know that having our daughter at the end of my career was probably a huge help in battling what could have been worse. She gave me a bigger purpose and understanding of what true happiness is and what's really important in life. Professional triathlon is such a selfish endeavor, and while single and young, that's fine. Still, when you have others depending on you, it becomes almost humorous to think about the dedication I put into it.
How did you feel about decreasing training and exiting competition?
I consider what I did as a long gradual de-training process. It was hard to imagine my life with
out 5-hour bike rides and swims and runs every day. It took a long time to wind things down to where I am today. As my time became more and more limited, training became less and less important. I still exercise twice a day most days. However, I count anything as exercise, and the long endurance days are few and far between most of the time. I like to stay fit enough to be able to say "yes" to any adventure a friend brings my way. After a lifetime of swimming, that was the first to go. Running is the easiest to get in, so that’s almost daily, and I only ride on dirt anymore. The biggest change was embracing all the sports that I couldn't really do while training for triathlon. I am fully immersed in the winter lifestyle here in Colorado. I pray for snow and spend more time on skis than anything else during the year. But most importantly, being outside is a family priority.
Did you have any plans in place before you retired? Did you find it difficult to focus on the future while staying committed to competition at the highest level?
I definitely did not have a plan when I hung up my racing shoes. I was scared to think about it during my career, as I always felt that I needed to be 100% focused on racing to perform at my very best. If I had had my daughter while still racing, I would not have been as successful. I could not have been able to leave for weeks or even months at a time. I’m not wired that way. I am not a great multi-tasker, so I need to give 100% to the thing I am committed to at that moment. Starting another career or a family would have limited my ability to perform at my best. But I am in awe of those that can juggle it all.
How did you determine what was next for you after racing?
I'm still wondering what is next! I've come to a very happy place with where I am right now. It took a long time. Yes, I felt like a failure and loser along the way for not finding and excelling at something else as I did with triathlon. I did go back to school and finished my degree in Exercise Physiology, and I'm still thinking about a career in the medical field. I did not have a defined path forward, and I think it would have been tough to try to force that after an almost 20-year career in something that I really loved. I like to say that the tragedy of every athlete is age. For me, that was true. I was an athlete my whole life because I loved it, and I was lucky to make it my job. It's tough to even think about having a career that I wouldn't be happy with every day. That's probably why I have just been noncommittal with another full-time opportunity.
Did you feel pressure or anxiety around
finding something new to focus on after racing?
I think I put too much pressure on myself initially, and it backfired by making me feel like whatever I tried, I needed to love and be a huge success. I was lucky that I had my daughter to distract me and I could put my focus on her while my wife pursued her career. I also said no to a few opportunities that I really wanted to pursue because I wasn't going to let my daughter settle for less than a solid family. My wife was fully immersed in her business, and if I would have followed some new options that came my way, the family would have suffered. That was not an option. That's been tough to swallow sometimes as I think I would have really enjoyed the positions that I was offered, but I would not trade the time with my daughter for anything.
Do you look back with any regrets or wish you had done anything differently in this process?
It’s really hard to look back and have regrets. Life works out the way it does, and I've lived a fantastic life with absolutely nothing to complain about. If I could have seen out of my little box a year or two after winning Hawaii for the second time, I would have probably hung up my tri gear and pursued the medical side of things earlier or the mountain guide route that I also am fascinated with. It would have given me a chance to explore some options with a little more freedom before the family dynamic kicked into high gear. Who knows, though, I may not be in the same situation I am in today with family and lifestyle, and I wouldn't want to change that.
How long would you say it took before you felt like you had found your stride after retiring?
When I finally came to terms that it was okay for me to not be a world champion in everything I did, I had plenty of anxiety disappear. In the first couple of years after being done racing, I was still very fit and looking at myself as a professional athlete at times. Once I found some other sports and activities to dive into where I was a beginner again, I lost the ego that was associated with my past accomplishments. That also comes very easily the older I get. I don't compare myself with anyone anymore (especially my past self). I also live in a unique place where many of my friends are in the same boat as me professionally. They have retired from one profession and are still looking for the next thing. They were not athletes but successful in something else and have similar feelings as I do. We're just a bunch of trophy husbands shuttling the kids around these days while our spouses are hustling and bustling out there!
What are five things you wish someone had told you before you retired?
1. It's okay to not know what you want to do next. I probably hung on a little too long because I didn't know what the next chapter held.
2. Talk to people who have gone through what I was experiencing. My wife is awesome at seeking help and advice, and it helped her build an entirely new career for herself.
3. Take some time to decompress and enjoy your accomplishments. I never did. People were always asking, "what's next?" I should have said I'm going to soak it in for a while. Looking back, I am extremely proud of my career, but I didn't feel that at the time because I wasn't moving on to the next thing which felt somewhat like a failure.
4. Don't coach unless you absolutely love it. I never advertised myself as a coach and never thought I would go that direction when I was done racing. I did it during and after my career little bit because it gave me something to do and stay connected a bit to my former self. At the time, I thought it was the easy way out though, and I didn't really enjoy it. That totally changed when I had my daughter and have begun coaching kids in all different sports. I absolutely love sharing my knowledge and experience with them. It has also brought new excitement to working with adults as well. It’s all supposed to be fun and games anyway, right?
5. Lastly, I wish someone would have told me to move. Physically, get away from your old self. Whether it's across town, to a new town, or even a new country. To start something new, you need to start new. I really felt refreshed and much happier as soon as we moved away from my old everyday training grounds. We literally moved from North Boulder to South Boulder in Colorado. But it was like moving to a new town. New everything. Now, my wife is transitioning away from her job and we decided to move again. This time, we packed up and moved to our dream town, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A change of scenery can be the best fresh start ever.