Author’s Note: I began working on this post in February 2020 prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. So while the current environment definitely made this evaluation process clearer and more obvious, it was not the impetus for my ultimate decision.
There is an inherent beauty and simplicity to being able to pursue elite sport as a profession and for a living. The opportunity to better oneself physically and mentally on a daily basis – and to be able to witness and recognize those improvements immediately through increases in performance – allows for a tremendous level of satisfaction and gratification for the hard work that you are willing to devote.
But there is also a significant downside that comes with that unique opportunity – namely, that the end of your career is not exclusively under your control. A pursuit based on physical ability does not last forever, and time is undefeated in that realm. Whether through injury, illness, burnout (mental and/or physical) or simply aging, what you were once capable of no longer is possible. And unfortunately, it often presents itself in the blink of an eye.
When I left my legal career to pursue triathlon professionally, I knew that the deck was stacked against me. Elite sport is an incredibly fierce and ruthless pursuit in and of itself; the fact that I was entering that arena with a known heart condition only made the likelihood of success all the more difficult. Yet I chose to face those obstacles because (a) I believed I possessed the mental resiliency to handle it, and (b) I wanted to see what I truly was capable of physically. High level sport had been taken from me as a teenager thanks to that heart condition; professional triathlon was my opportunity to take it back.
My early years as a professional were full of learning experiences – the highest of highs, but also the lowest of lows. I reached the podium at some of the biggest races in the sport, but I also was left scratching my head and wondering whether I made the right decision when events went horribly wrong. For sure, some of that was navigating the health issues ever-present due to my heart condition, but a lot of it was simply learning the ropes as a professional athlete as well.
Nonetheless, I achieved my initial goal. I learned to be more consistent in my racing, foster high quality relationships with sponsors and truly make a living in the sport. But more importantly, I simply loved the pursuit. I reveled in the daily grind, and I relished the opportunity to see what I could achieve. At that time, it seemed things could only go up from there.
Life doesn’t always work out as planned, however.
Just when all seemed so bright, a series of unfortunate (and unlucky) events greatly impeded my progress. I was hit by a car while on my final training ride before flying out to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, breaking multiple bones and tearing several ligaments, which sidelined me for over 6 months. Starting over was no easy task, but I religiously worked my way back to form and had one of the best seasons of my career following that accident…only to then have a recurrence of the remnants of those injuries prevent me from toeing the line at the next 70.3 World Championships.
I would like to say I was undeterred. But the truth is, it’s incredibly difficult to work as hard as is required at the elite level (or any level, really) only to have a freak event beyond your control have such a dramatic impact on your pursuit. I struggled mentally to come to terms with it, and while I didn’t notice it at the time, my perspective and outlook on triathlon changed to some degree.
Nonetheless, I picked myself up and kept grinding away simply because…well, that’s what my brain wanted to do. Not only did I get myself back to consistent form, but I reached the highest level of fitness of my career, and I was ready to showcase that fitness at Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga. Halfway through that race I was positioned exactly where I wanted to be, only to suffer a horrific crash as a result of a bird flying through my front wheel. As unlikely as it sounds, it did happen – and for those with a morbid curiosity, you can read more about it here: http://justinparkracing.com/best-laid-plans/.
The impact of the crash was incredibly substantial; beyond a concussion and being covered head to toe in road rash, I suffered a collarbone fracture that eventually resulted in nonunion, requiring surgery nearly 12 weeks after the accident occurred. All told, my left arm (my dominant arm) was immobilized for a total of 30 weeks in 2018.
Now, it’s one thing to return from being hit by a car on a training ride. While rare, those incidences do occur. And the more you ride, the greater the potential to be involved in one. But a bird through a wheel while moving at 32mph? What are the odds? I knew I would have to fight regularly with my heart condition in this sport, but do you mean to tell me I also have to watch out for birds?
To experience both of these incidents in a span of 2.5 years, it was a level of bad luck that was difficult to comprehend. In fact, while sidelined after surgery, I received an email from a coach that followed my career who said, “It is such a crazy collection of elements that occasionally combine into greatness in any endeavor. Not the least of which is luck. I’ve honestly never come across an athlete like you that had so many pieces of the puzzle together, except for luck.”
If the car accident began to change my perspective a bit, the bird through the wheel altered it drastically. After all, everyone wants to experience the fruits of their labor. The work required simply to compete capably at the highest level of triathlon is hard enough. To work your way back from the bottom only to have a bird fly through your wheel? It was a little more than I could take.
Perhaps even more significant than a change in perspective on the sport was the fact that my life outside of triathlon had changed quite a bit as well. Merely a month before the crash at Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, I accepted a position as General Counsel of an investment firm. Because the firm was new and had a relatively small portfolio, the position was essentially part-time but allowed me to begin to piece together my eventual shift into life after triathlon. I was tremendously thankful for the opportunity – it is not often that an athlete gets to develop a strategic plan for transition while still pursuing sport full-time – though, at the time, I still felt such a shift was miles down the road.
Unfortunately, the bird changed all of that. At first, the new position was a life saver; I actually had something to do while hung up with all of my injuries. There is no doubt that, without the outlet of other work, being immobilized for as long as I was would have pushed my sanity to the brink. But by the same token, because I was unable to train, I spent more time working at the firm and became more involved in the operations of the business as a whole. All of which began to blur the line of truly being part-time.
As I began to work myself back from injury (once again), the balance between law and triathlon was not too difficult. For sure, each of my days had to be planned more meticulously, but truthfully that fit the way my brain wanted to operate anyway. The bigger issue came in the pool – 30 weeks of immobility had done a number on my swim performance, and despite consistent focus on the swim throughout 2019 and early 2020 there was little to no improvement in the water. I wasn’t remotely even back to my level of swimming pre-crash.
And on top of that, I was tired. Tired of finding myself back at square one once again. Tired of all of my hard work not resulting in anything but random, unlucky occurrences (that often hurt…a lot). Instead of looking forward to my races, my eagerness began to fade with each passing event until racing started to feel like a chore.
Mentally I tried to fight against that tide, but in reality, what was happening was life simply moving on. Things had changed, whether I wanted them to or not. As I sensed my career perhaps coming to an end, there was a massive amount of frustration, anger and disappointment. I did not (and do not) feel like I remotely reached my ultimate potential in the sport. But at the same time, if I examined my emotions closely, there was also relief. I simply could not continue to fight this uphill battle against these freak occurrences.
So, today marks my retirement from professional triathlon. Currently, I no doubt review my career as one of lost opportunity. With time, however, I am sure I will find peace. I will move on, occupy myself in many new endeavors, and slowly that frustration of my career will fade. I took quite a big leap leaving the comfort of a law firm for the relative unknown of professional triathlon, and I made it a career. And with that, I can take satisfaction. But with the way the end came, I may never fully get over that. And that’s just the way it is.
Nonetheless, I will never regret the decision to pursue triathlon professionally. That decision has shaped the lens through which I view everything – following your gut instinct, being clear as to what matters to you, and pursuing something with a complete and unwavering focus. Those lessons will shape all of my pursuits in my post-triathlon life and career and will make me a better person for it. And for that, I am incredibly thankful.
Beyond the internal lessons, I have met so many incredible people on this journey who not only taught me a great deal, but with whom I also will remain lifelong friends. From sponsors, to fellow athletes, to spectators along the way, each encounter reminded me why I chose this path in my life, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I thank each and every one of you.
It has been an incredible ride, but now it is time to look forward. After all, time marches on.