Retirement From Sport: Tim DeBoom – Ironman World Champion
Over my years as a professional athlete I have seen so many athletes retire and move on from professional sport. Some have thrived in their next phase of life. Some have maintained close ties to the sport that they called their job and career for so long, while others have moved entirely away from it and shifted their focus and motivation all together – beginning an entirely new chapter.
Yet there appears a genuine lack of support for retiring athletes. Things like financial management and planning, career coaches, mentors, and advisors to help with resume writing are all things that would help athletes transition but don’t exist.
I recently began interviewing former professional athletes across a broad range of sports, focusing on their process of retirement – the ups and downs, the planning, the emotional and physical changes and more. In addition I have asked for their tips and advice for those who are considering retirement soon.
In this week’s interview, we hear from Tim DeBoom a former Professional Triathlete. Tim had an incredible career that spanned over 17 years from 1995 until 2012 that trips to the Goodwill Games, the Pan American Games and being named Triathlete of the Year. Tim competed in over 200 triathlons in 30 countries, all culminating with his wins at the Ironman World Championships in 2001 and 2002. Tim’s win in 2002 makes him the last American to win at the Ironman World Championships. In addition, Tim finished in top-10 at the World Championships 5 other times in his career, and is 2x Ironman Champion.
In 2012 Tim retired from professional sport. I particularly loved Tim’s openness and candor about the struggles he faced during his transition away from professional competition. From not feeling like he was able to soak up and enjoy the successes of his career because of the pressure he placed on himself to find his next thing, to worrying about whether he would find something that provided him as much happiness and satisfaction as he had found in triathlon, to the need for a “wind down” period from training coupled with accepting what sport meant in his new non-professional athlete life. Tim brings some amazing insights into this interview that I know a lot of people will be able to relate to.
Can you give us a bit of background about yourself. What sport did you play? At what age did you turn professional? How long were you competing for as a professional athlete? Did you go to University?
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. I 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. I did not have another career to jump into, but my wife had a thriving company and we did not want to have our daughter raised by nannies or full-time daycare. 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 the kids in track and cross country.
How did the sport define you? Did you feel like it was a big part of 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 knew that was the only way for me to be successful. I did not like to go at anything half way, 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 were you contemplating 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. I didn’t have the instinct to push as hard as I could, and I didn’t care that I had a crappy result. I walked away from that last race knowing I was done. I definitely could have been done years earlier. I always said that if I won Hawaii once, I could walk away. I guess I got greedy. Actually, 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 hind sight, I wish I would have walked away a few years earlier. 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 out of that box from the inside.
What were your feelings around retirement? Were you nervous? sad? excited? conflicted?
I definitely 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 more than racing. It’s not as easy for everyone else. I had reached such a high level as an athlete, that it is scary and humbling to think about starting at the bottom of something else, especially something that you may not be as passionate about.
Were you concerned at all about loss of identity?
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’s tough to understand at the beginning of the transition away from being a professional athlete, but now it’s more of the norm for me. 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 everyday. I need time outside everyday. I also know that having our daughter at the time of my career ending 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. Triathlon is such a selfish endeavor, and while single and young, that’s fine, but when you have others depending on you, it becomes almost humorous to think about the dedication I put into it.
What were your feelings around decreasing your training and exiting competition? How did you address that?
I consider what I did as a long gradual de-training process. It was hard to imagine my life without five hour bike rides and swims and runs everyday. 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. I still exercise twice a day most days. However, I count anything as exercise these days, 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 thats almost daily, and I only ride on dirt anymore. The biggest change was embracing all the sports I couldn’t really do while training for triathlon. I am fully immersed in the winter lifestyle here in CO. I pray for snow and spend more time on skis than anything else during the year. Being outside is a family priority.
When you retired did you already have a plan in place for what was next, or did you approach it only after retirement? If the former, did you find it difficult to both focus on your future while staying committed to competing at the highest level still?
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 best. If I had my daughter while still racing, I would not have been as successful. I could not have been able to be gone from her for weeks or even month at a time. I’m not wired that way. I am not a great multi-tasker. I give 100% to the thing I am committed to at that moment, so starting another career or a family would have limited my ability to perform at my best. I am in awe of those that can juggle it all.
How did you determine what would be next? What process did you go through to figure it out? Did you have a hard time seeing the path forward?
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 still think 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. I was lucky to have a job that I loved. It’s tough to even think about having a job that I wouldn’t be happy at everyday. That’s probably why I have just been noncommittal with another full-time opportunity.
What was your timeline for determining your next steps? Did you feel pressure or anxiety around this?
I think I put too much pressure on myself initially and it backfired by making me feel 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. On the other hand, I also. had to say no to a few opportunities that I really wanted to pursue because I wasn’t going to have 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 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. The first couple 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 that ego that is 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 feeling 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 you top 5 things you wish someone had taught you/ told you before you retired?
– 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.
– 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 entire new career for herself. I was not at the. time, but have become much more comfortable with it.
– 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. I didn’t feel that at the time because I wasn’t moving on to the next thing which felt somewhat like a failure.
– 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 a 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?
– 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, CO to South Boulder. It was like moving to a new town. New everything. Now, we just moved again as my wife is transitioning away from her job. We packed up and moved to our dream town, Steamboat Springs. A change of scenery can be the best fresh start ever.
Retirement for athletes can be a very scary thing – many people don’t know how to take that next step. Are there any resources you used that you found helpful?
I did not feel like I had any resources available to me besides just friends and family. I’m sure it would have been helpful to have some kind of counselor or “life coach” with experience to help with the transition.
Are there resources or tools that you wish had been made available to you or to others to help facilitate retirement and transition out of professional sport? What do you see as the biggest pitfalls for athletes right now?
I think it would be a great idea to have some kind of resource available to athletes to prepare for when they are done. The major sports in America definitely have that for their athletes, but the lesser ones seem to fall through the cracks a bit. Endurance sports definitely are not financial windfall type sports, so many athletes already have to somehow be prepared for what’s next. Someone to help with the final transition away from a career in sport, no matter how successful one is, would be helpful though.
Anything else you’d like to add or that you think is relevant to add?
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.