2016 Olympian Joe Maloy recently decided to walk away from professional triathlon instead of trying to battle for another Olympic start and he talked openly about this decision and much more.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Joe.
Joe Maloy: Thank you for your interest in talking.
ST: You surprised many folks with the announcement of your retirement. Who would you think was most surprised?
Joe: Myself. All these “retirement” thoughts took me by surprise as they continued to build momentum towards this decision.
ST: I read that a church sermon gave you the final push to walk away from racing triathlon as a professional. However I somehow did not see you as the church going type as racing and training for your day job likely competes with that Sunday morning church time.
Joe: I think there are plenty of different church types. I’m not a front row, bellow the hymns guy (there’s nothing wrong with the ones who are), but I enjoy sitting towards the back and giving myself time for introspection. Church competed with the Sunday long ride, but you can’t train 24-hours a day. I could usually find an hour on Sunday nights.
ST: But talk about that sermon.
Joe: So I was sitting down during the sermon, and when I closed my eyes I saw this white light. A reassuring voice whispered, “You need to retire.”
I’m kidding--it wasn’t some wild, spiritual conversion. While I was listening to the priest’s sermon, his message just resonated. I think the words gave structure to a jumble of thoughts floating in my head.
The message was about trying to serve “two masters” and how it’s an unfulfilling approach towards life. I realized I was looking at professional triathlon as something that “took away” from my “life.” Before the Olympics, I’d viewed my full-time training and racing as something that added value to my life.
ST: Aren’t most folks doing triathlon or any other serious sport serving at least three masters? Sport, family and work?
Joe: I can see where you’re coming from, and that would be a huge mistake if they are viewing triathlon (or any other serious sport) in that way. I think this compartmental thinking is dangerous.
One of triathlon’s most powerful lessons is that it teaches you to balance three different things towards one ultimate goal. How do you manage your time and energy to achieve your best possible result?
Isn’t that the way triathletes need to approach their lives, too? Age-group triathletes are pulled in so many different directions that it’s easy to lose oneself in day-to-day busyness. Work, family, and sport all demand time, and one should be mindful about the way he/she spends that time.
There’s a saying that applies here: “The grass is green where you water it.” Having a single master is remembering that you are the one holding the hose.
ST: I would assume that something else or maybe a series of events led to the decision. As far as you remember, when did you first think that maybe you are ready to move on to a new chapter in life?
Joe: I always knew having more of a “career-focus” would be important to me after the Olympics.
When I decided to enter the professional triathlon world, I did it with something I’ll call a “healthy disregard” for reality. I didn’t care about people who told me I was too slow or too old to make it in triathlon because, win or lose, I needed to see if I could do it. I had a window of opportunity to race, train, and travel--opening my mind and body to sets of experiences that would not come again—so I jumped through it.
The decision to retire is more about looking forward than looking back. I’m not motivated to race long course triathlon--racing for an Olympic medal would be my motivation to continue triathlon. Four years from now, I think we’re looking at a 35 year-old Joe Maloy trying to figure out how to win a sprint triathlon. I don’t have the “healthy disregard” for reality that says I’ll win in that situation.
ST: What about long course racing is not appealing to you?
Joe: I just laughed to myself thinking that this readership is probably the only audience where I need to explain why I’m not excited about running a marathon after 112 miles of biking through lava fields...in 90 degree heat.
That being said, there is still a part of me that grew a little excited at that thought. I think I’ll do Kona someday, but I don’t want my result tied to my livelihood.
ST: I guess that means you not simply hanging up the running shoes, selling the bikes and just going to watch tv, eat junk food and get larger?
Joe: Honestly...none of that sounds good to me. In fact, one of the first things I did after deciding to retire was hop on the bike for a ride. I didn’t look at my kilojoules, though.
ST: How do you view that decision from the ITU to move more and more to Sprint triathlons instead of Olympic distance events?
Joe: I think it’s a terrible decision. Triathlon appealed to me because it’s really freaking tough, and I think the sprint distance takes some of that toughness away. I think of Julie Moss crawling across the finish line, of Jonny Brownlee forcing the London Olympic medal ceremony to be delayed because he couldn’t stand up, of Gwen and Nicola slowing to a ridiculous walk during a tactical chess match in Rio. These moments are uniquely “triathlon,” and I think you get away from the sport’s spirit by moving to a sprint distance. I think the ITU should concentrate the WTS into fewer, more iconic races, with smaller fields deeper prize purses. It’s tough to walk away without a paycheck after finishing 21st in a WTS. Instead of worrying about closing roads for half the time, I think they should pay more attention to developing athlete stories and providing a fan experience.
ST: Many athletes led by the Brownlees have voiced displeasure about this change. Do you see any chance of that tide turning?
Joe: Time will tell.
ST: You went to the 2016 Olympics in Rio representing the USA. What do you remember most fondly of that experience?
Joe: I remember walking past the Olympic rings set up on the beach and thinking, “I’m part of this. I’m not here watching...I’ve got an opportunity to create!” With feet on the sand in Rio, realizing my active role as a member of the US Olympic Team was pretty special.
ST: How much was it like what you imagined it may be like and what was different?
Joe: I always imagined winning the race, so finishing 23rd was different.
Still, it was an incredible feeling to connect with a wider range of athletes and fans. The Olympics “standardize” athletic performance on a level that many people can understand. It was fun to connect with/inspire a broader segment of the population.
ST: Outside of winning, what would have been a result that would have been acceptable?
Joe: The competitor in me says nothing, but that’s not exactly true. I envisioned finishing at the front of the race, but I never said 23rd wasn’t an acceptable finish. I’m very proud of my 23rd--it represented everything I had to give.
ST: Looking back at your triathlon career, which experiences would you say will be the ones to stay with you?
Joe: I’ve always loved connecting with people. Triathlon gave me a unique platform to simultaneously distinguish myself from and connect with others. It sounds crazy that fighting like hell during a race could actually connect you with other people, but that’s the beauty of triathlon. It’s a sport about going out and celebrating the physical limits - which differentiate us as competitors but unite us as human beings.
Winning Noosa and then trying to keep up with the Aussies at the after party, winning the mixed relay world championship and then hugging my teammates at the finish line, winning Alcatraz and connecting with the fans afterwards... I’ll remember both the moments themselves and the connections they inspired.
ST: Any negative triathlon memories?
Joe: Of course there are--but they were learning experiences. I wouldn’t want to throw them away, if that’s what you’re asking.
Here are two examples:
- At the 2011 USAT National Championships in Buffalo, NY, I was off the pace in every leg of the race and finished 33rd. “Are these guys that much better than me, or do I need to be better?” I decided I needed to be better. That negative result led to personal changes which set me on a track to 3rd place, 2nd place, and 1st place finishes at the 2012, 2013, and 2014 National Championship races.
- During a late May 2014 open water swim practice, I was having a really, really bad day. I’d gotten my butt kicked at the Dallas Continental Cup (27th) the week before, was having trouble with my girlfriend, and was generally dreading our upcoming altitude training camp. During one of the workout’s first efforts, someone kicked me in the shoulder. I proceeded to throw a grown man’s version of a temper-tantrum, proclaiming myself finished for the day. I blamed my shoulder, but my head was the problem. I was struggling with direction, and I felt like my race results weren’t validating my investment.
Paulo disappeared and came back about 5 minutes later with Subway’s biggest fountain soda cup--one of those monster 40oz-ers--filled with ice. He told me to wrap the ice in my towel and to put it on my shoulder. Before returning to coach the group, he complained how Subway had the nerve to charge him for the cup of ice. We both knew my shoulder was fine, but it was exactly the combination of support and humor I needed. After that altitude training camp, I won the 2014 Elite National Title in Chicago, IL.
ST: What will you do without Paulo?
Joe: He says he’s not coaching age groupers any more, but I’m going to send him an email in a few years and see what happens.
ST: How would you describe your relationship with USA Triathlon?
Joe: I have a great relationship with USA Triathlon. I know relationships with federations can be tricky, but I respect USA Triathlon’s mission of facilitating the best-possible international results while growing the sport at home. They have done a great job respecting and supporting my efforts towards that mission.
ST: What is next for you?
Joe: What fun is the story if you know how it ends?
ST: Not even a hint?
Joe: Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m making it up as I go along.
Having a contingency plan is not a great way to go about training for the Olympics. You need to “go for it” like success is the only option. You’ll either make it or you’ll miss. When you decide like that, you won’t have regrets that you could have worked harder or done something differently. You also won’t have a plan.
I prefer to move forward with no regrets.
ST: Your twitter handle is @joetriathlon and your website has the same name, what is next for them?
Joe: I'll keep them. Maybe some of you will want to stay in touch.
ST: Any closing thoughts?
Joe: Yes...I want to thank the triathlon community for their support--especially to the loyal sponsors who helped me take care of myself while I continued this mission. ROKA, Brooks, The New York Athletic Club, Pioneer, my sports psychologist, Mitch Greene, my agent John Jones, Cortney Martin, and of course Paulo and The Triathlon Squad.