Olympic-bound Sarah Groff on talking triathlon

Delly Carr/ITU

Sarah Groff qualified for the 2012 Olympics with her seventh-place finish at the 2011 London World Championship Series.

All pro athletes spend a ton of time traveling. With training camps, competitions and sponsorship obligations around the country and the world, I end up living out of my suitcase for up to nine months of the year. You can easily spot me and my sporty brethren in airport lounges; we stick out like sore thumbs from the pale, well-dressed businesspeople. We have tans, sponsor-emblazoned apparel and big appetites.

I've always felt that one of the benefits of travel is the opportunity to rub elbows with people outside of my sport. Typically, athletes live slightly isolated lifestyles. Our lives are centered on performance and we're surrounded by people familiar with our careers, so we tend to live in a sport-centric alternate universe.

When I meet someone on a plane, almost invariably, I'll have a conversation that starts with this question: "So … what do you do for a living?" Ninety percent of the time, this question is posed by a middle-aged businessman, who is pleasantly smiling at me over his laptop. While I occasionally wrestle with the desire to create a titillating new persona -- possibly as a spy or a king crab fishing-boat captain -- I'm a truthful sort of gal, so the exchange usually goes as follows:

Me: I'm an athlete for a living. And what do you do, sir?

Random Stranger [RS]: (His eyebrows rise a bit with sudden interest and a swift appraisal of my very casual outfit, which usually consists of head-to-toe apparel from my sponsor, Saucony.) Athlete? Really? What kind of sport?

(At this point, RS might also take a stab at my sport of choice. Over the years, I've heard everything from soccer player to gymnast to volleyball player. Thankfully, sumo wrestling has not yet come up as a guess.)

Me: Triathlon.

RS: Oh. That's running and … um … what else?

Me: Swimming, biking and running.

RS: Whoa. You must be really fit.

Me: (Feeling very awkward) Um. I guess.

RS: (With pride as he digs something from the recesses of his brain) Wait … you mean Ironman?! Isn't that triathlon?

Me: Ironman is indeed triathlon, but what I do is much shorter and faster. I swim 1.5 kilometers, bike 40 kilometers and run 10 kilometers and it takes about two hours. What I do is called the Olympic distance.

RS: Olympic distance? Triathlon is in the Olympics? Are you going to the Olympics?

Me: (With a very slight smile) Yes.

I am incredibly proud of the hard work that went into my Olympic qualification, and it's an understatement to say that I'm really looking forward to representing the U.S. in London. As a kid growing up Cooperstown, N.Y., a small town known mostly for the Baseball Hall of Fame, any Olympic aspirations were beyond me. I was an active tomboy, playing sports and running around barefoot, but I never hoped to be a professional athlete. After graduating from Middlebury College in 2004, I felt as though I had unfulfilled athletic aims, and a background in swimming and running led me to the sport of triathlon. I loved the challenge of balancing three disciplines and quickly found that I had an aptitude for the sport.

It wasn't until I found myself able to potentially make the Olympic team in 2008 that I realized I was capable of representing the U.S. on the world's most important stage. From that point on, the Olympic dream was a governing force in my life, and many sacrifices came with it. Because of travel, training and races, I've missed the weddings of friends and family and the births of my niece and nephew. I've required that my loved ones be very understanding of my selfish lifestyle.

In August 2011, I finished seventh in the test event in London, thereby securing my position on the Olympic team. I had given up so much to make the team and knew that I was prepared to qualify at that event, so my Olympic berth wasn't a surprise, but rather something that I had earned through sweat and some tears. At that moment, my hard work and sacrifice were both validated and, at the same time, overshadowed by the satisfaction of achieving my dream.

When Random Stranger or other people give me the opportunity to share my story, it reminds me, so clearly, how big the Olympics can be. In London, athletes who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of athletic excellence will showcase triathlon and the other 31 Olympic sports. Instead of flying around the world, sharing our passion with our seatmates, we will have the opportunity to do so with millions of people around the world. It's an overwhelming feeling, to say the least.

Groff will be blogging for espnW throughout her training for the Olympics in London this summer. Check back in March for more on her journey.

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