Sarah Piampiano's Unlikely Road From Investment Banker To Elite Triathlete
In the fall of 2009, Sarah Piampiano was having drinks with an old college friend who was getting ready to compete in a triathlon. Spurred on by a lifelong competitive spirit and a bit too much liquid courage, Piampiano bet him that she'd finish in front of him -- without any training at all.
Piampiano had been a nationally ranked cross-country runner and ski racer at Stratton Mountain School -- an elite high school ski academy in Vermont -- but by age 30, she'd become an investment banker rising in the ranks at financial giant HSBC. She worked 90- to 100-hour weeks, spending at least 14 days a month traveling to Asia, Europe and South and Central America. The long hours and time away had derailed multiple efforts to join a gym or play in a soccer league, so her health had taken a back seat for years. It didn't help that she smoked cigarettes and partied frequently.
And yet, Piampiano won the bet. She beat her friend in that race, and on that day, her life changed. Within three years she had completely reinvented herself as a professional triathlete and Ironman competitor.
"I was surprised how much I enjoyed it," Piampiano said of that first race. "It was really hard and there were points where I was kind of miserable, but I loved it. There's just a high you get when you put yourself in that environment and you accomplish something like that. It felt so good to do something active and healthy for myself."
A return to competition reminded her of her former life as an athlete, the life she'd left behind when her Olympic dreams fell short.
"It kind of brought me back to my days of running and skiing," Piampiano said. "Got the competitive juices flowing. And I'll never forget this: There was a woman who finished ahead of me who was 65 years old. I was so amazed and in awe that this woman was 65 and just beat me in this race. I thought it was incredible. It motivated me."
She sat in the back seat of the car on the way home from that race, reading a stack of triathlon magazines. She studied the times and stories of the world's best.
"I thought: 'I can do this. This is what I'm meant to be doing. This is my dream of becoming a professional athlete.' In one day, I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do."
She began slowly, training whenever she could find time. She did a second triathlon a few months later, cutting 45 minutes from her time and winning the overall amateur title. By 2011 she was really hooked. She requested fewer hours and less responsibility at work so she could give more time and energy to her training. Her company was supportive, but Piampiano knew if she wanted to go pro she'd need to give racing her all. She'd need to take a leap.
Everybody has bad habits and things we do that we want to change, but there's gonna be something -- and you're not going to know what it is -- but there's going to be something that's gonna motivate you to make that change.Sarah Piampiano
She quit her job in 2012 and moved to Santa Monica, California, to train full time. It was scary, giving up the security of big paychecks, but it was a chance Piampiano felt she had to take.
"I always had the dream of being a pro athlete and I was given the opportunity to do it -- even though some may look at it and think it's completely crazy," she said. "But if I fail I'll always know that I gave it a chance and tried to make it work. I'll never look back and wonder, What if?
"I think one of the things that keeps all of us from following dreams or goals or things we'd like to try is fear of failure," she said. "It's pretty scary, particularly if you're going to make a massive life change. Failure is always scary. You need to recognize that it's a possibility and be very realistic about what you need to do to either succeed, or if you're going down the route of failure, knowing when to pull back."
Piampiano hasn't had to do much pulling back. She won the women's championship at the 2012 Ironman 70.3 in New Orleans, shocking the racing world in just her third race as a pro. The great finishes continued as she established herself, and top sponsorships rolled in from companies like Saucony, Cervelo, Clif Bar and Timex.
Her first major hiccup as a pro came last year, when she was sidelined for six months with a fractured femur.
"A lot of my earnings still come from prize money and performance balances," Piampiano said. "So this year has been tough because I didn't race for so long. It was a pretty challenging time for me from a financial standpoint. Now I'm trying to expand outside of just the performance and branding aspects because I think that's where you start drawing in the bigger corporate sponsors and that's where the money really comes in. It's been a process."
She returned to racing in October and finished eighth at the Ironman Western Australia in December. She's trying to be patient with the process as she works her way back to top form. She's also devoting more time to a website she launched with two friends in late 2014 -- TheHabitProject.net.
"The Habit Project takes inspiration from my story, as someone who didn't have a lot of work-life balance, and how one thing inspired me to make big changes in my life," Piampiano said of the no-fee site. "While not everyone is going to turn around and become a pro athlete, I think if you make small changes in your life, sometimes it can lead to big changes for the positive."
Every week the Habit Project puts out three simple challenges -- one each for fitness, nutrition and lifestyle. Piampiano doles out fitness challenges, like signing up for a race or taking a nap at least once a week to improve the quality of training. Holistic health coach Zoe Keller handles nutrition challenges, like adding leafy greens to recipes or shopping only the perimeter of the grocery store. Stacy Trager, an organizational development and behavior expert and mother of three, assigns lifestyle challenges, like reconnecting with an old friend or setting aside a few hours a week for yourself.
For Piampiano, the small challenge that changed her life all started with that bet. One triathlon led her to rediscover her love of competition, get healthy and quit smoking.
"I'd been wanting to quit smoking for a while," she said. "Even though I wanted to, there was nothing that really motivated me. When I did that first race, it just gave me something that I wanted to work toward, something that excited me and motivated me. And I just stopped.
"Everybody has bad habits and things we do that we want to change, but there's gonna be something -- and you're not going to know what it is -- but there's going to be something that's gonna motivate you to make that change. That's why trying a bunch of different things or smaller things might actually inspire a change that's larger."
Piampiano hopes the Habit Project helps others rewrite their lives too.
"If you never take the chance and you're never afraid to fail," she said, "then you're probably never going to achieve the things that you really could if you just gave yourself a chance."