Many triathletes find they know themselves through the adventures they encounter in the sport of triathlon. Perhaps not so many find they must know themselves in their inner lives before they can truly succeed at their sport. In many ways, triathlon at its highest level requires a lengthy apprenticeship in a single sport – preferably one of the three legs of swim, bike and run. Once the athlete has unlocked a combination of technique, persistent training, cool nerves under fire, and strategy, the readier they are to add the other two to the arsenal.
And yet, even better to have tried a multiplicity of sports growing up to better understand why they finally choose to pursue triathlon. Because if the heart is not fully engaged, even the best genetics are wasted.
In Part 2 of this Q&A, Rapp recounts some of the many pastimes and sports he tried on before he found that rowing best suited his temperament and served as his own best preparation for the rigors of triathlon.
Slowtwitch: Did you suffer any significant sickness, injuries or experience any personal losses growing up, and how did they affect you?
Jordan Rapp: No. I would say that my entire life until I got to college was remarkably uneventful. And in that sense, it was the ease of everything that really made rowing so dramatic. Because it was the first time in my life I ran into something where I was not immediately very good at it. So in that sense, I think I was instilled with a sense that I could do anything - because I never really had any adversity to overcome.
ST: What were some of the things that brought you joy?
Jordan: The thing that made me happiest in high school was snowboarding. I got a job as an instructor during my junior year in high school. And I was never as happy as when I was on the hill. I did alpine boarding (so not half pipe; the same kind of boards they use for the GS - a racing board with stiff plastic boots), so just big sweeping turns on the steeps. I loved that. I would ride for hours. Building radio control cars also made me really happy. I didn't actually like to drive them that much. But I loved building them.
And then, once I got to college, rowing brought me joy. And building things in the machine shop - either in school or at the garage where I worked.
ST: What things inspired you?
Jordan: I think the most inspirational thing I've ever seen was Lance's Tour de France win in 1999. He was supposed to die. But he won the Tour de France instead. That race was remarkable. It was before all of the politics about whether or not Lance was clean and all that stuff. It was before Lance was "Lance" and before he left his wife and became a celebrity and all those other things. In 1999, it was pure and unadulterated. I stayed up to watch the Tour de France replays on ESPN2. I've never been so captivated by anything as I was by that race.
But I don't think I was ever so inspired by anything else. And I certainly was never so inspired by anything during what I would describe as growing up (meaning, maybe, before college).
ST: What sports were you drawn to growing up? Which one’s did you like but were not so good at?
Jordan: I tried every sport under the sun. I liked hockey, but wasn't much good at it. I was a good skater, but not good with the stick. I would have been a better speed skater, which is probably my favorite sport now and the one I most wish I was really good at. I was drawn to swimming, but wasn't much good at it. And I stopped because of that, and because I didn't like the high school coach. I never really did baseball, but I am fascinated now by pitching. I would have loved to have been a pitcher. It's very technical. I just didn't know that at the time.
I wasn't actually much good at any sport until I started doing lacrosse and squash. And I wasn't really good at squash. I was just very consistent. And I didn't get tired. I was just like a backboard - hit everything back. Which works in high school. The first sport I think I was good at and really loved was lacrosse. I was a goaltender. And I think I was actually good at that. But snowboarding was the sport I really enjoyed the most. I thought I wanted to go the Olympics in the Giant Slalom. But then I saw my first slalom race, and it was so violent. I hated that it was really rather inelegant. You turned around the gates whether it seemed natural or not. I didn't get the same sense of flow I got from my own riding. And that was the end of that dream. I just didn't want to ride how racing required.
Generally, if I wasn't good at a sport, I didn't like it. I liked basketball, until I realized I was not good at it. Same with soccer. I liked it, until I realized I wasn't good. The only sport I really loved that I wasn't good at was football. I decided to play football my senior year in high school. My parents wouldn't let me play because my dad was worried I'd get injured. But my senior year I said, "I won't ever get any playing time. I hate soccer. Let me play football." So they did. And I loved it. And I was terrible. Really awful. But it was some of the most fun I ever had.
Jordan: Where did you go to college and what did you study and why?
Jordan: I went to Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. I studied engineering because I figured you get sick of whatever you major in, so don't study something you are really passionate about, like creative writing. It's easy to take electives in that sort of thing. I also figured you should study something that is hard to pick up outside of college. It's easy to pick up a copy of Moby Dick (well, not that easy). Or to take a course in photography. Or to study the Civil War. But it's much harder to learn something like engineering. I also thought that - eventually - I'd find something that I loved to do that would embrace engineering. But really, at age 18, what did I really know about what I wanted to do with my life? Nothing. So in that sense, I picked engineering because it was practical and made sense. During college - at least most of the time - I hated engineering. I really hated it. But now that I've found triathlon, I'm really glad that I took engineering. Many of the things I love about triathlon are stuff that is founded in my background in engineering - aerodynamics, rolling resistance, structural design of parts, etc.
ST: What sports did you play on a collegiate level and if so, what were your best performances in your own estimation?
Jordan: Rowing. My best performance was undoubtedly at the 2000 National Championships. We had a not great season behind us. But at IRAs (the national championships), we ended up in a sprint finish that we unfortunately lost by 0.15 seconds - about 3 feet - to Yale. I remember almost nothing about that race. I just remember being totally spent at the end. Never in my whole life have I been certain that I had absolutely nothing more to give. But in the moment after that race, I knew that was everything I had. We lost, but even in that loss, I was disappointed but satisfied, because I knew that I had done everything I could. There is a photo of us during the sprint finish in the new Princeton boathouse. Whenever I see it, I remember flashes of how it felt. The pain. The drive. And then the end - and exhaustion.
ST: What led you to rowing?
Jordan: I tried out for the lacrosse team. But I didn't make it. I felt at the time that I was cut - I tried out as a walk-on - because the coach's son was also a goalie (which is what I was) and there is less need for goaltenders, so it was easy to cut me, since he knew he'd never play me over his son. In retrospect, this was foolish. His son ended up being MVP of the 2001 National Championship winning team. But I was young and stupid. So I was drawn to rowing - my RA was a rower - because it had a reputation of being a sport where hard work was rewarded very clearly. There was no favoritism. Recruits were shit on by the coaches just as much as walk-ons. Everyone was shit. :D So that seemed like what I needed. It was objective , not subjective And I liked that. I would be successful because I was going to work really, really hard. And that's what led me to row. I wanted a sport where I felt like I was in control of my own destiny.
ST: Some people might think of rowing as one of the simplest sports that rewards dogged determination and strength above all because the range of motion seems to be limited. Please disabuse readers of that notion and explain the complexities and allure of that sport.
Jordan: Ironically, it's those very perceptions that led me to rowing. Because that is how I saw rowing. And, to some extent, it's how rowers want to be seen. But it's not really what the sport is like. That was enormously frustrating on numerous occasions. Because the illusion is what I really wanted rowing to be like. I wanted it to be about nothing but dogged determination and willpower and willingness to train over and over and over. In the most pure moments of rowing though, it's the ultimate team sport. What this really means is that it's impossible single any one out. The best rowing is when the boat is one entity. You have eight people rowing this really long, really skinny boat with these massive oars. And everything must be in sync. The oars must drop in together. Everyone must lock on to the water together. And then everyone must push at the same pace and effort as everyone else. And you must do this all while your HR is basically maxed out, your lungs are burning, and your legs feel like someone is stabbing them. So you have this maximally intensive sport that nevertheless requires this unbelievable rhythm and timing among eight people. But my favorite moments were not the races. It was those moments in training - usually in the early evening - when we rowed with "swing," which is when the boat just flows. Everyone is in timing. And the strokes just happen. It's beautiful. You feel like everyone is working together and you are achieving something greater than you could on your own. It's those moments that I miss. There is no individuality. There is no ball hogging or showboating. It's perfect synchronization. No other sport can match that. The closest analogy to rowing is really three-legged racing. Imagine the timing required to run with someone with two of your legs tied together. Now imagine eight people doing this, only you can't really see anything, and you rely on a little person yelling at you for orders. Now imagine that it can be done perfectly in sync. And that's rowing.
ST: How far up the ladder toward the Olympics did you climb in rowing?
Jordan: I was invited twice (after my junior and senior years) to senior national team selection camps. So I was basically invited to try out for a boat that would have gone to world championships. In both cases, I was invited to try out for the 8+ (+ means "with coxswain"). At the Olympics, lightweight rowers only row the 4- (straight - or coxless - four). So I would say I was two steps down. The next rung up would have been to make the 8+ for World Champs. And then the next step after that is to make the 4-. If you row the 4- internationally, you are an Olympic-caliber rower. So I would say I was third tier, if first tier is the Olympics. But that was after only three and a half years of rowing. I think I gave up on rowing too quickly, largely because it ended up being more about the elegance and cooperation and less about just dogged determination. And I didn't know how to get better at the stuff that wasn't just working harder.
ST: How did you combine this demanding sport with a heavy course load?
Jordan: I slept through more classes than I should have. I put academics behind rowing. I definitely compromised school for rowing. Rowing was the most important thing in my life. And I basically did as well as I could in school while committing 100% to rowing. This was definitely NOT as well as I could have done if I'd actually committed 100% to school work. Or even tried to strike a balance between the two. But I wasn't about balance. I was about rowing.
ST: I believe Samantha McGlone was a serious rower. Can you name other triathletes who rowed? What is it about rowing – physically mentally emotionally -- that helps create strong triathletes?
Jordan: Hamish Carter (2004 Olympic Triathlon champion) is the most successful rower/triathlete I know of. Hamish was probably good enough to be an Olympic caliber rower if he'd chose to keep rowing. New Zealand has a long rowing history and good programs and Hamish was a damn good rower - one of the best junior (high school) rowers in the country. He won the junior national championship. No question he could have been a world class rower if he wanted.
Rowing is like swimming. You do the same thing over and over and over again. And it's minimizing deviation from the standard you set that defines excellence. In a perfect world, every stroke is exactly the same, and every stroke is perfect. Even more than swimming where you have turns and strokes to work on, rowing is JUST about the stroke. This requires incredible focus, but it also requires you to be able to turn off your brain. And rowing is predicated on incredible suffering. It's like the mile in running. Or the 400 in swimming. Or the 4km pursuit in cycling. It's a bit longer than those, but close enough. It's way longer than you want to go for how much effort your are putting out. Basically about 30 seconds into the race, you wish it was over. But it isn't even close. And of course it also requires a massive amount of volume. You train an enormous number of hours for a very short race. So you just get used to discipline. You have to be disciplined to keep your stroke correct. And you have you have to be disciplined to train that hard, day in and day out. Our rowing season in college started the first day of classes and ended a month after classes ended. And we trained six days a week. Every week. Princeton had four breaks during the year. And we got only two of them. And I would often row through most of those two breaks as well. These are the same things that make for good triathletes.
ST: What relationship did rowing play with your swimming? Biking? Running?
Jordan: It crosses over well to cycling. Rowing and cycling are both pushing sports. And repetitive sports. And sports where a big engine glosses over a lot of problems. So I loved to bike. I bought a bike my junior year and loved to ride. A lot of rowers ride bikes. I know some rowers that raced and did quite well. Swimmers make good rowers. But I don't think rowing necessarily makes good swimmers. And a lot of things are similar between a swim stroke and rowing stroke. Only instead of an oar, it's your arm. But that doesn't cross over as well from oar-to-arm as it does from arm-to-oar. I'll claim that's why I swim so much better with paddles though! As for running? I'll tell you a quick story. My sophomore year, we had to run some for cross training in the fall, because they were renovating the boathouse. The morning after the first run, I jumped out of bed, and collapsed on the floor in agonizing pain. My calves had seized. You don't use your calves at all in rowing. They are very necessary for running. Rowers don't run. And they shouldn't...
Jordan: What did you do to make a living in your first years after graduation?
Jordan: The first year out, I took a job in Princeton because I wanted to keep rowing. I worked in Project Management for a software company called ALK. They made GPS navigation software. I made some good friends. It was a very relaxed work environment, so it was great because when I discovered triathlon, it was very free. I had no real emotional investment in the work. I showed up at work, and work began. I left work, and it was over. I didn't think about it for one second when I wasn't at my desk, which was great at the time. But I really didn't like the job. I actually wanted to quit after my first three days. I started on a Wednesday. I went home to my parents' house on Friday and said, "I want to quit my job." They told me I should keep my first job out of college for a year, or it would look really bad on my resume. So I did. But I really only cared about trying to row, until I got injured rowing, which made me miserable. I had no idea how to train without my coach. I just went as hard as possible every day. And one day - 45 minutes into an hour long workout - I felt something give. But I finished the workout. And the next day I couldn't pull a stroke. And that was when I knew I'd messed up. I can't even really think about the job. It was just what I did between about 9am and about 5pm. Looking back, it was totally wrong for me. I sort of gave up that year. But I learned a lot in the process. Like with bike fit, I now knew what I didn't want.
Once I discovered triathlon, I was hooked. And then when I decided - on the urging of the local coach - to go pro, I left my full time job and returned to work at Hudson Historics, the race car garage, because they were willing to let me work half days.