Interview with Sam Downey
Coach Laura: Let’s start by stating your long term goals, and then your goals for 2021.
Sam: I want to go pro in triathlon, ideally before I’m 30. But I won’t be upset if it takes longer because I’m also trying to develop my other career. I would love to race ITU and eventually join a pro training group and live that nomad lifestyle for a little bit. I know I have a ways to go but –
L: That’s ok, I just want you to state your goals. Don’t worry about the path. Tell me about your goals for 2021.
S: This year I want to win duathlon nationals and duathlon worlds, and that is going to be challenging for sure. But I –
L: Nope, don’t explain it.
S: OK no more editing. I also want to place top 15 at triathlon nationals for Olympic and sprint – non-draft-legal. For the draft-legal distance, I want to be top 5.
L: OK, great. Now tell me how stating them out loud makes you feel.
S: Having written them down a few days ago gives me a little bit more confidence to share them. I’m wondering if some of the goals I’m setting are too safe. I think that top 15 is striking a balance between reasonable and ambitious.
L: Huh. Timeout. This is not where I thought this conversation was going to go. I thought you were going to say “I want to be the best triathlete in the world” and then I was going to say “Hell yeah let’s talk about that.” And now you’re telling me that you have these super ambitious goals and you think they’re not high enough. So let’s dive into that!
S: I guess part of it is wondering if I work 40 hours a week, am I able to accomplish these things reasonably? Should I shoot for higher or is what I’ve set for myself enough? Because I do want to be the best triathlete but I think what I’m struggling with is figuring out the balance between my career ambitions and my triathlon ambitions.
L: Just for a minute, let’s compartmentalize. If you were to set a triathlon goal that you know you’re willing to work for, that both scares you and excites you, what does that look like?
S: I think it would be incredible to win triathlon worlds…
L: And what if you set that goal and failed?
S: I think I would still be pretty happy with myself and the effort I put towards it. I wouldn’t beat myself up.
L: How about your new scary and exciting 2021 goal?
S: Top 10 for triathlon nationals. Top 5 or podium for draft-legal nationals. Top 10 for worlds.
L: How does that feel?
S: Makes me nervous!
L: Excellent! And also excited?
L: I know for me personally, if I set myself a safe goal that I know I can accomplish, I’m not going to get out of bed for that. Setting high goals is uncomfortable but it’s why we do this, right?
S: Yeah, thinking about my experience at the last world championship – I wish I took a different attitude than “I’m just happy to be here.” I wish that I had asked a little bit more of myself in hindsight so I’m glad that we’re working together to re-frame things.
L: Yeah, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have gratitude. I know that I’m happy every single time I step up to a start line.
Is it hard for you to say your goals out loud?
S: Yes. It is. I’m really lucky in that my immediate family is incredibly supportive of my athletic goals. Part of that is because my sister is going after a pro soccer career. So I’m comfortable in stating my goals to my inner circle.
But when I try to explain it to other people my instinct (and maybe this is something that has been instilled in me as a woman) is to back off and say “oh but don’t think of me that way.” “It might not happen.” So I’m trying to resist this urge to minimize myself and to edit the intensity of how I’m actually feeling.
I’ve been feeling scared in ways to state my goals and commit to them in a visible way because I feel worried about what other people will think of me, and what happens to me when I fail … And what I’m working on is remembering that failure is inevitable so I just need to go for it and pursue something regardless of how guaranteed the success is.
L: I think that sometimes we hide our most audacious goals even from ourselves. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel unworthy, incapable, or not resilient enough to come back from failure.
S: It makes me think of when Gwen Jorgenson announced that she was going to get the gold medal in the 2020 Olympics in the marathon. So many people, including myself, were thinking the audacity of that statement is incredible! But the more I thought about it, now I think that’s so brave. I wish I had that level of self belief to commit to a goal that big so publicly.
L: You said you feel comfortable talking about your goals with your family (and with me obviously) but is tell me more about the hesitation to talk about it publicly. You know this interview is kind of public, right?
S: Yeah I guess so. I guess I’ve kept myself from thinking too much about the implications but I think in some way I’m worried that people will look at my triathlon career as it exists right now and think, “OK, but she knows that’s not going to happen, right? Looking at what she’s done so far, this isn’t attainable.” I know I need to move past that.
L: How do you feel about those concerns within yourself? Are you worried that your current results dictate your future ability?
S: I think I used to cling to those kinds of ideas about myself a lot more. I really got a good idea recently of how much work goes in behind the scenes of every huge performance. I know I’m not ready to throw down a 2 hour Olympic triathlon time quite yet, but I have a deeper appreciation, and with that a deeper confidence, in the amount of work that it takes and what that work can do for me. If I commit to the process, the process will work for me.
L: I want to talk about our relationship a little bit to give some background. I only started coaching you a couple months ago so we’re pretty new as a team. You decided that we would be a good fit because you thought that we would work on the stuff that’s the most important to you. Can you talk about what that is?
S: More than anything I was looking for someone who I’d vibe with and who didn’t balk when I said I wanted to win a world championship and be an elite triathlete. I did talk to some other coaches who really questioned me and wondered whether I knew what went into it. I sensed their hesitation and it wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. And you know maybe their approach is to be realistic but I really wanted someone who was willing to build me up and really encourage me to dream big and go after hard things because I can do hard things. I limit myself enough in my own thinking and I don’t need more of that.
L: One of the things that I believe from both my coaching experience and athletic experience is that our biggest limiter in both setting and achieving big goals are the stories we make up in our own heads. I don’t think it has anything to do with our work ethic. I think it’s about “do we believe that we can do it?” or “do we have too many limiting stories that are telling us we can’t do it?”
Do you have any stories in your head that you know you need to confront?
S: The thing that comes up for me is body image. I don’t feel like I look like most people that I compete against. The girls that are at the elite level that I’m going up against are tiny/muscular and people who radiate confidence. And I want to be one of those people who radiates confidence in herself on the start line and be such a force to be reckoned with that I can’t be overlooked.
L: Aside from having your technical skills dialed in, and maximizing fitness, what do we need to do to get you ready to step up to the start line believing that you can do it?
S: There are moments when I’m in the mix of things and I’ll have a little flash of panic. All of a sudden I’ll notice how close people are to me in the swim or on the bike and my first instinct is to pull away and try to compose myself. If I’m able to practice being in those moments, dialing back in and not letting the panic ebb out, I think that would be really important. Being able to train my reactions.
I want to be put in situations where other people kick my ass and I’m dying because that’s when I learn the most about myself, and I can carry those experiences into race day.
L: One of the hardest things to do in this sport is to know when to let go of the plan and trust yourself. We’re preparing to be able to peak in the race. You’re never going to be as fit in training as you are in the race. You’re never going to be as tapered and as fresh as you will be in the race. So if we want to get to the next level, we have to mentally detach from what we’ve done before as a limit. Training is simply a springboard.
Do you feel confident in knowing when it’s time to trust yourself and trust your body? Have you done that in the past?
S: I’ve done that a few times in the past and it feels great to know I’m still in this. In those moments, I end up shifting my focus less inwards to “who can I beat next?” “Who can I run down?” “What’s that line that I can hold?” I love those experiences!
L: Tell me how you’ve performed on some of the big stages in the past.
S: For worlds, I was really f&#$ing scared, and I really let the life stress of the previous few months affect my training and my confidence. Even though I had given myself a few days in advance to get settled, I was just very scared.
I have some unfinished business with race weekends (when there are 2 days of racing back to back). When you enter a 2nd day of racing, and you think of the day before and about how that went, you can get sucked into thinking about how tired you are. You have to trick yourself into thinking you’re fresh.
Tell me about your relationship with perfection.
S: Oh what a complicated one it is … When I was younger and started to really get competitive and hold myself to a higher standard, I would want to nail everything every time. When I wouldn’t I was so hard on myself that when it inevitably failed because my mental preparation wasn’t there, I would get really down on myself. It would lead to unhealthy behaviors. Then a couple years after that I kinda swung really hard the other way and thought why bother trying to do the absolute best – just get through it and do what you can. I wanted sports to just be something that I could use to blow off steam … but unfortunately I’m not wired like that! So recently I’ve been trying to find the middle ground of doing my best and also allowing myself to be human. Just keep showing up.
L: What about you as a person gives you confidence to pursue the goals that you’ve set for yourself.
S: Well I am really disciplined. And maybe this is up to you but I consider myself to be pretty coachable.
L: Yes, I love that you wrote that down on your goal sheet! Keep answering this question but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
S: I am also able to develop an appreciation for the process. I’m definitely goal oriented but as I’ve matured more as a person, I’ve come to appreciate the day in and day out work, and the joy of learning something new.
L: OK let’s talk about being coachable. This question on the goal sheet was: “What are your biggest strengths in triathlon and how can we capitalize on that?” It’s pretty ballsy to say to your coach “I’m really coachable.” You have to really know that about yourself to say that to me! But I completely agree. Tell me what that looks like though. What does being coachable mean?
S: It means trusting your coach. Trusting the person that has a vision for your development and the work that you’re doing on a daily basis. You have to believe that what your coach is doing and saying is setting you up for your maximum success.
L: Let’s talk about goals versus intentions. I’ve always set high goals for myself, too. But recently I’ve been leaning more into intentions because they are available to me right now. I have an idea of what I’m working towards in the future, and I am also leaving space for the path to change by staying focused on my intentions for who I want to be and how I want to show up in the world.
One of the intentions that you wrote is “I am taking risks and embracing the possibility of failure so that I have more lessons to learn from.” Tell me about that one.
S: In the years since college, I feel like I’ve been keeping it pretty safe. I know that intellectually there’s a lot more that I could be doing to stimulate myself and to better the world.
And failure – for me that would mean hard workouts with other people where I’m just desperately trying to hold on and not get dropped. And I want that fear to be real. I hope to use those experiences where I’m facing failure head on, and be able to reckon with them and say you know what I’m better than this, I can get through this, and I will.
L: What I think is really important about what you just said is about the fear being real. Trying to overcome the feeling of fear is not the point. It’s about being able to viscerally feel it and at the same time, know that it’s not going to hold you back.
S: Yeah those moments in races – I don’t know if they get easier. You just get more ready for them.
L: Another intention that you wrote down is: “I’m working to build up others, develop communities, and amplify the voices of marginalized peoples in the areas of sports and human rights.”
This is really what our community is all about. This is what Julie, Alison, and I believe in for NYX. Can you tell me what this is about for you?
S: I’ve been thinking lately about triathlon and how it’s such a rich, white person’s sport at this time when really I believe that it should be more widely accessible to all sorts of people – not just for health benefits but for the power of the community that is involved with endurance sports.
And outside of sports I’ve been thinking about ways I can challenge existing behavior and help people who are affected by some of the biggest problems in the world – help them be heard. I know that’s abstract, but that’s where my musings as of late have brought me. I’m in a position to be able to do more. I have ideas and community building has always been something that has been really important to me. I’ve always tried to go out of my way to try to make people feel involved and heard and like they are part of the community because I know how important that is to build relationships.
L: Well you just let us know when you’re ready to change the world and NYX will have your back.
OK I want to end with 2 questions. 1st: What advice would you give to someone who is a little hesitant to set a goal outside of what their current ability level is?
S: Oof! A.K.A. – giving advice to myself.
L: That was going to be my 2nd question! I was going to ask what advice you would give to yourself, so go ahead and blend them.
S: It’s really important to just get out of your own head, and get out of the echo chamber that is your mind. Stop allowing all these little negative thoughts to bounce around and be amplified because the more time you sit with those thoughts and give them presence, the worse it gets. You can do this by sharing with the people that are closest to you, and honoring the thoughts and intentions that will serve you best. Give them the space and room that they need to grow.
So I definitely need to take my own advice and get out of my own head, obviously. I need to not be afraid to admit my biggest goals and commit to verbally exploring that more for myself.