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From a friendly bet to Ironman champion for Sarah Piampiano

Sarah Piampiano's bike has helped carry her from a high-pressure job in the financial world to the outdoors and sunshine. Korupt Vision/IRONMAN

There was a time when Sarah Piampiano took up smoking just so she could catch her breath.

It was after she moved to New York City in 2005 to work in mergers and acquisitions for HSBC. She was thrilled with the job. It was intense and exciting, an around-the-clock marathon of 14- and 16-hour days sprinkled with 3 a.m. conference calls to China.

"I can't even remember having anything in my refrigerator at home," she says. "All my meals were ordered out in the office."

When she wasn't working she was out late, drinking with friends. She started smoking just so she could leave her office for a few minutes, because going out to eat or for a walk wasn't part of the culture.

Smoke breaks, however, were OK.

"I was just so desperate for a moment to myself, a moment away from my computer, a moment to have some mental relaxation for a minute or two," she recalls.

For nearly five years, Piampiano was glued to that treadmill. She traveled for work, made good money, bought a Manhattan apartment and had it gutted and redesigned. She thought she'd be there for years. Her path seemed clear -- until she found something she liked even better: racing in triathlons.

Since doing her first in 2009 on a bet, Piampiano -- a 5-foot-7, 120-pound bundle of energy -- has thrown herself completely into the sport. She began working with noted coach Matt Dixon in 2010, quit her job and moved to California in 2011, turned pro in 2012 at the age of 31, and then won the Ironman 70.3 New Orleans in just her third pro event.

Now, after a brilliant 2015 in which she finished seventh at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and won her first full-Ironman distance race in Australia in December, the 35-year-old Piampiano now ranks among the sport's best.

She has brought the same intensity she displayed in the financial world to triathlon courses. It's what her younger brother, John-Mark, has seen since they were kids in Maine. As a competitor, Sarah would push through any pain threshold.

"If it hurt too badly, we were going to stop," John-Mark says of himself and his brother. "She didn't have that trigger. She would be willing to go almost to the point of collapse, even at a very young age."

'Ready to go world class'

Dixon, who runs Purplepatch Fitness in the Bay Area, says he wasn't surprised by her breakout year.

"It just validated the journey she's been on," he says.

He thought the breakthrough would be in 2014, but she suffered a broken femur that benched her for months.

"I said (in 2014), 'Watch out, this girl's ready to go world class.' And she did," he says of her 2015 season. "It was just reflective of her preparation ... Every overnight success is 10 years in the making and Sarah's a great example of that."

Aside from winning Ironman Western Australia and being in the top 10 at Kona in October, she had a third at Ironman Austria in June; a sixth at the North American Ironman Championships in Texas in May; won the Ironman 70.3 in New Orleans in April; and was second, third and fifth in three other 70.3s.

"I just kept getting stronger and stronger through the season," says Piampiano, who lives in San Rafael, north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now, as she revs up her training for her 2016 debut at the Ironman 70.3 in Monterrey, Mexico, on March 20, Piampiano is hoping to pick up where she left off. She's No. 6 in the world in the Kona Points Ranking System for pro Ironman athletes. This year's schedule has six half-Ironman and three Ironman triathlons, including the World Championships and Western Australia.

"My goal is to win Kona," she says. She knows that may not happen this year. She may still have to take another step, but wants to finish on the podium this October.

Her route to get there will be a bit different, though.

She's a weak swimmer, strong cyclist and excellent runner. She'll continue to work to improve her swimming -- she was second-to-last out of the water at Kona -- but she and Dixon believe she can keep climbing the ranks by honing her strengths.

"If I'm going to continue to be a weaker swimmer, that means I have to be that much stronger a cyclist, and I have to run in the mid 2:50s off the bike in Kona to be able to contend for a podium," she says.

"We're putting more eggs in a basket for what my strengths are, biking and running, because we think there's a lot of minutes to be gained in those."

In her victory in Western Australia, she was out of the water 7-9 minutes after the leaders, stayed close to the strongest cyclists (Mareen Hufe, Yvonne van Vlerken), and then pulled away in the marathon with a 3:01:18, almost nine minutes faster than second-place Hufe and 14-plus minutes better than van Vlerken. Her overall time of 9:03:46 topped Hufe's 9:09:15.

Piampiano thought she'd be emotional after her first Ironman win, but she wasn't. At Kona, she had shed tears for finishing top 10. In Australia, it simply seemed like the next step.

"It wasn't like it came out of nowhere," she says. "It wasn't this massive surprise. But it didn't take away from the satisfaction that I felt, and also just the relief of finally reaching the goal that I've had for so long."

A hard sell

Today, Dixon is Piampiano's biggest fan, but that wasn't always the case.

In 2010, when Piampiano decided she would get serious about triathlon, she contacted Dixon, a former pro triathlete who's coached some of the biggest names in the sport.

After considering her pitch, he declined.

"I think her best result was one or two podiums in her age group, in obviously amateur events," he recalls. "She had never raced an Ironman. I just felt I was too busy with my current crop of professionals."

Piampiano took that as a challenge. She flew to San Francisco, called Dixon and invited him to have coffee with her. She made another pitch. This time it was a strike. He knew within 10 minutes she had something special.

"She just had that magic kernel of grit and determination, that sort of aura of relentlessness," he says.

He became her coach with one condition: she had to wait to turn pro. He said she wasn't ready and he'd tell her when she was. She flew back to New York and juggled work with training (under Dixon's long-distance direction) through 2010 and '11.

In 2011, she was the top amateur (and 23rd overall woman) at the Ironman World Championships and was the No. 1 amateur in four other 70.3 or full-Ironman events. At that point, Dixon gave her the green light to turn pro.

In her professional debut she was seventh at Ironman Cozumel in Mexico in November of 2011.

At that point, she quit HSBC, said goodbye to her Manhattan apartment and moved to Santa Monica, Calif., to work with swim coach Gerry Rodrigues, whose Tower 26 program partners with Dixon's Purplepatch. Rodrigues and Dixon continued to oversee her progress until she moved to the Bay Area in early 2014 to work with Dixon on a daily basis.

The broken femur stopped her charge that year. It grew from a stress fracture near the hip, and she was forced to rest so it could heal. She didn't compete for almost six months. When she did come back, at the Ironman 70.3 in Miami in late October of 2014, she wasn't strong.

"It made me realize how much harder I had to work and how much further I had to go to get back to a level where I was going to be competitive," she says.

A year later, she was in the top 10 at Kona.

Betting on herself

She says now that she couldn't possibly have imagined 10 years ago that she'd leave the financial world to become a pro athlete.

Where once she had to puff cigarettes to get outside, now she spends every day under the sun, training and competing the way she did as a kid when she was a distance runner and skier.

Back then she'd dreamed of being an Olympic or pro skier. Now she's living that dream, but with a couple of plot twists.

"I feel like I'm pursuing something and doing something that my whole life I was supposed to be doing," she says.

When John-Mark learned his sister was abandoning her career to become a pro athlete, at first he thought she was making a mistake. He thought she had the talent, but that it was too late. She was a terrific runner but a relative novice as a cyclist and swimmer. He recalls thinking, "You missed your window."

But he's never doubted her drive. He says the Piampiano kids share an almost "unrealistic optimism" in tackling challenges. That attitude took Sarah a long way in a short time.

"We believe we can do things if we just put our heads down and put our minds to it and work really hard," he says. "It's especially strong in Sarah, on a level that even my brother and I don't have."

Which is what lured Sarah into triathlon in the first place.

One late night in 2009, sitting in a bar with friends, a former college classmate told her he was training for a short triathlon.

"One thing led to another and we were betting and all our friends were suddenly betting whether or not I could beat (him)," she says.

She was out of shape, didn't own a bike and couldn't remember the last time she swam, yet was convinced she could beat him. The bet: the loser buys dinner at any spot in New York.

"In the moment it sounded like a great idea," she says, "but as I got closer to the race I thought, 'What did I get myself into?'"

She struggled on race day, especially during the swim when the crowd made her nervous. Still, she won the bet and it was a life-changing moment. She says it reignited her competitive spirit and she was inspired by the older and overweight men and women who were racing, and loving it.

After that she started training, quit smoking and knocked 40 minutes off her time in her next race. She was hooked.

Six years later, Piampiano is still getting better. Dixon cites her "absolute professionalism," dedication and belief in herself. The overnight success has paid her dues.

Says Dixon: "In many ways, there's no better story than hers."