Defying Adversity: How triathlon became the ultimate calling for two determined athletes.
USAT’s National Triathlon Week celebrates the sport of triathlon and all of the incredible folks involved in the sport – from race officials to support crews, passionate coaches to die-hard supporters.
In honour of #TriWeek, we are highlighting two incredible athletes and members of the FORM community. Read Michael and Lisa’s stories below, we dare you not to get inspired:
FORM Member Spotlight, Michael Smith
Michael Smith’s triathlon journey began with what was supposed to be a relay (as is the case for many soon-to-be triathlete's). But – in an unsurprising twist for anyone who knows the retired Army Veteran – he ended up racing the whole thing. He’s not the kind of person who does things in half measures – when he goes in, he goes all in.
When Michael heard his name called out at the finish line of that first race – the Augusta 70.3 – he was overcome with emotion after completing what he described as “the hardest physical race he’d ever done”. He was hooked, and thinks if you give it a try, you just might be too.
You have some big goals when it comes to triathlon. Can you tell us about them?
Michael: When it comes to racing, I want to make it to the big stage: the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. But my ultimate goal is to inspire anyone that crosses my path in this sport. To show that anyone can do a triathlon, and that race, gender, height, weight, or sexual preference should not be limited factors.
This is a bit of a pivot, but being a swim company… we have to ask! One of the biggest fears folks have around triathlon is the open water swim. Do you have any tips for overcoming that?
Michael: I’m no expert, so I can only speak to what has helped me. But as someone who did not grow up around water, let alone knowing how to swim, the best tips I can offer are: get involved in open water clinics, surround yourself with positive and experienced open water swimmers, and swim with others of all abilities so that you don’t feel alone.
If I do start feeling anxious, it’s good to have breathing techniques to help calm you down, and I do find the FORM goggles help me by giving me something else to focus on: I can focus on the data instead of my anxiety about being in the open water.
Lastly, I was told at my first open water swim at the Augusta 70.3 that they have never found anyone at the bottom of a lake, river, or ocean with a wetsuit on [laughs].
That’s amazing advice. Any other tips for first time triathletes?
Michael: It’s you against you. You have nothing to prove. Have fun!
Simple – we love it! Last but not least, what is your favourite thing about triathlon?
Michael: Triathlon changed my life, and in a lot of ways, it saved my life. I love the grit and grind. I love that you get every bit out of triathlon that you put into it. I love how this sport holds you accountable. I love that in every second of a race, you have the opportunity to be great.
FORM Member Spotlight, Lisa Thomas
If you’ve been around triathlon long enough, the chances that you’ve encountered Lisa Thomas, or “Momma Lisa” as she’s affectionately known, are pretty good. You can’t miss her brightly dyed hair – red, white, and blue at the USAT National Champs, or yellow and red stripes to match the local flag at IM Arizona – or her contagious smile. She is joy personified.
As the mother of six children with special needs, Lisa knows – perhaps more than most – about the power of being of service. In addition to being an advocate for those with special needs and their families around the world, she serves the triathlon community by creating a warm, welcoming, and inclusive environment. In a sport that can feel incredibly grueling, when you spend time with Lisa, you can’t help but embrace her personal motto: I will never be defeated.
You’ve always been involved in activities, from basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, to trumpet. What inspired you to get involved in triathlon?
Lisa: I got a phone call from my oldest brother, Master Chief Ken Thomas, and when he calls, you answer! Ken challenged me to do a Sprint triathlon with him, and at that time, I wasn’t familiar with triathlons at all so I just started asking all the questions. My main concern was swimming.
Tell us more about that!
Lisa: When Ken told me that the first race would be in a lake, my heart started pounding! When I was 11, I had a near death experience after being bit by a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin [a species of semiaquatic pit viper] and I knew that getting back into the water would mean facing one of my greatest fears.
And it was a journey! But it was my heart's desire to face my fear and jump into the lake and swim. So a year later, after taking swimming lessons and working with a coach, I traveled to Kentucky to visit Ken, and we jumped into the lake together. I have never turned back. Since then, I’ve swam in the Pacific Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. I always tell myself: just jump in, do it afraid!
“Do it afraid” is a pretty amazing motto for someone getting into the sport. Do you have any other words of wisdom for first time triathletes?
Lisa: Race your own race! Don’t look at the athlete next to you and think you should swim, bike or run faster. Enjoy each discipline, one at a time. Try your best to stay calm, relax, and take it all in. Enjoy your new journey into triathlon – your life will never be the same.
Triathlon training takes up a lot of time! Do you have any tips for maintaining balance?
Lisa: I have gained so much from triathlon, but there are sacrifices that come with this sport as well. Triathlon takes a tremendous amount of time! And that means that sometimes you have to miss out on gatherings, which can be hard for your loved ones to understand.
Involving your friends and family in the sport makes a huge difference! Invite them to race or ask them to tag along on a few of your training days, and remember it’s okay to take a moment out of your training schedule to spend time with your people. This will make a huge difference in keeping relationships strong, healthy and balanced.
Your love for this sport is so special. Why do you want to share your triathlon journey with the world?
Lisa: Triathlon is truly life changing! I get super excited about sharing my experiences with people anywhere and everywhere because I hope it encourages others to get involved in the sport. For others to have the chance to experience what I’ve experienced? That would be pretty magical.