JODIE CUNNAMA PROFILES CERVÉLO’S 2017 KONA TRIATHLETES
With her first child due in November, the former Ironman 70.3 World Champion is taking a break from competition. As one of the most popular pros with fans and competitors, and with husband and fellow Cervélo triathlete James Cunnama raring to rocket down the Queen K, who better than Jodie to profile the Cervélo pros headed to Kona?
TODAY: SARAH PIAMPIANO
Exercise keeps you young. Endurance racing makes you feel young. Then, 48 hours later, it makes you feel very, very old. No wonder it gives you grey hairs.
Look at the back of someone’s hands and you can quickly assess their endurance pedigree. Mine are wrinkled, sun-spotted and dry, like those of many other life-timers. These are the scars of sport.
It wasn’t until I interviewed Sarah Pampiano — aka “Little Red Racing” — that I learned that triathlon can also change the colour of your hair. Think of the money I could have saved on highlights!
“My whole life I had this deep red auburn-coloured hair, and one of my nicknames growing up, given to me by my ski coach, was ‘Little Red,’” Sarah says. “Over the last six years my hair has become more and more blonde from the pool, salt and sun. I wonder if it will go back to that red colour when I retire?”
I haven’t seen Sarah’s hands, but I imagine they too have caught some UV in their time. After spending years as a successful investment banker for HSBC, Sarah’s story is often told as that of a health convert who dramatically ascended to professional sport after repudiating meetings, money and cancer sticks and embracing physiological excellence.
In reality, Sarah had always been a brilliant athlete; she was born to race and compete. It was her exit from sport, due to pressure burnout, that highlights the first, less famous, metamorphosis of Sarah Piampiano.
“As a kid I was so gifted, particularly in running, and it seemed inevitable that I would go down the professional athlete path. Yet I took it so seriously from such an early age that I got completely burned out and needed a big break. And while I skied at a very high level, it became clear by age 17 or so that I was never going to be good enough to make the U.S. national team. So between the burnout in running and then just not having the talent in skiing to make it to the top, I felt sort of forced to change my life path. I gave up that dream and goal.”
Sarah’s resurgence from the disappointment of sports burnout intrigues me more than her transition from a corporate life to that of a sports star. Her story is far more complex than a life turnaround or career transformation. It is a rediscovery of passion and a comeback from desolation. Hers is a story quite different and magical to watch. Many young enthusiasts give up on their sporting dreams, leaving years of toil and abundant talent behind them and quietly have to accept a sedentary life. Sarah found a way back. That is remarkable.
“For a long time I didn’t miss running at all, and didn’t have any interest in running whatsoever. I became so serious about it at such a young age, with private coaches and diets and so many restrictions, that I felt isolated. I didn’t have a team of other kids who were running and taking it as seriously as I was, and I felt lonely and really began to resent the sport. In college I did come back to it, but I did it more for the joy of running than to really dedicate myself to a high level of competition. None of my results in college were that extraordinary. But it was my path back to running.”
There is a lot of extraordinary in Sarah. Firstly, her childhood talent. She was an elite downhill skier, enrolled in a specialist school through her teenage years. She came eighth at the U.S. National Cross Country Championships at age 14. Secondly, her innate ability to jump into challenges with both feet, as evidenced by her high-pressure corporate career, and later, by the risk she tolerated in moving back into professional sport. She is brave and she has been brave throughout her life. Thirdly, she is unashamedly competitive — in work, in life, in sport. Never mind Sarah’s return to sport; this lady should never have moved away from sport in the first place.
“I think I have always been driven by pursuits that require intense, extreme dedication and concentration, and I’m not afraid to fail. Where competition is high risk of failure is high, but success is possible. I really thrive in these sorts of environments. So when I moved away from sport, I was naturally attracted to a profession that was a high-pressure, cut-throat environment where you had to be willing to completely dedicate yourself to be successful.”
There is real joy in observing a natural-born athlete relish and thrive in their environment and opportunity the way Sarah does. Too many pros fail to grasp the reality of our trade: By doing what we love to make ends meet, we are the privileged few. To be a professional athlete is a choice we have all made, but it’s also a choice very few ever get to make.
Sarah’s choice is all the more remarkable because she was happy and successful in her corporate job. She didn’t follow a health kick to triathlon. She didn’t give up smoking or lose weight to live longer. She didn’t race a triathlon to turn her already great life around. She liked her old job, but she ferociously loves triathlon.
“While there are differences, and some things I do miss, I wouldn’t trade where I am now for anything. The people I have met, the relationships I have formed, the experiences I have had — it has been more gratifying than anything I have done before.”
Past lives left aside, each racer lines up in Kona as an equal. Racing doesn’t care for injuries, illnesses or our personal stories. It only considers ability and execution.
Sarah is a back-end burner on a course that, depending on conditions, can exaggerate swim advantage. In 2015, Sarah swam 1:10 on the Kona course. Even with the most dynamic bike and run in the world, that weakness cannot podium at the World Champs.
She went home, she worked and she improved. In 2016, that deficit was shortened by a whopping seven minutes.
“We spent a lot of time swimming open water and working on sighting and open water skills. It really paid off. Kona 2016 was the first time I swam with a group, which was really exciting for me! This year, that pressure still stands — where last year my goal was to get out within 10 minutes of the front pack, this year it will be 7-8 minutes. I will never be a front-pack swimmer (or even close to that), but if I can get to the 5-7 minute range from the front and continue to progress my bike and run, I think it will set me up well.”
With two consecutive seventh places from two attempts in Kona, Sarah has a good record. She seems surprising unperplexed by the heat — fair-skinned mountain goat that she is — and she remains calm under the pressure of chasing to produce well-paced races.
A better swim, a solid bike — cycling further up the field, surrounded by contenders — and a fast run will make her more of a contender. Just how fast can she run?
“I believe I have the potential to run in the 2:53-2:54 range here in Kona. This year, my target will be to run under three hours. As with anything, though, you just have to progress and keep chipping away.”
Low 2:50 marathons are hard to come by in Kona. One lady pulls them out every year — Mirinda Carfrae. If you start running those times close, even off a lacklustre swim leg, then the podium is not a possibility, it’s an inevitability.
Look for “Little Red” to come into her own as the day progresses. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t get eaten in all the versions of the fairytale, and Sarah isn’t planning to either.