Six Business Lessons Rescued from the Ironman Swim

Imagine yourself standing on a beach at 6:55am. The cool dawn envelopes your senses and the damp sand to which your toes clutch feels like your only shelter. You are wearing a wetsuit, goggles and a swim cap, and though you are sharing your experience with about 2000 others, little comfort is to be found in their camaraderie. Over the next 5 minutes your heart will settle higher and more squarely in the back of your throat until a cannon blast will signal the start of your journey, a “race” beginning with a swim of 2.4 miles, followed by a bike ride of 112 miles and a 26.2 mile run.


Welcome to the swim portion of the Ironman triathlon (IM). Between 2001 and 2012, I raced 15 of these events, finishing 14 of them and becoming accomplished enough in that time to qualify for and compete on three occasions in the world championship event held in Kona, Hawaii, each October — the one you see on TV with all the inspiring human interest stories. While I lived the life of an amateur triathlete, I began to recognize that the swim portion of the event, which strikes fear equally in the hearts of the seasoned, the noobasaurs and those aspiring souls considering a dive into the sport, lent its lessons well to my growing career as a mortgage loan officer. Here are six concepts I encountered in the water:

  1. Don’t panic.  If you don’t read any of the other five points, just read this one over and over. Implement it as a mantra once you start whatever it is you’re doing. Yes, you’re going to get socked in the face — repeatedly. You’re also going to have your goggles kicked off. Swallowing seawater is to be expected, as is having your head pushed under just as you’re about to breath. Heck, you may even feel like your wetsuit is in on the conspiracy and trying to strangle you. It’s not personal, so get over it. But whatever you do, don’t panic.
  2.  Rely on your training. Chances are if you thought it was a brilliant idea to sign up for an Ironman, you probably also thought it might be wise to train regularly in the months leading up to your race. For me, Ironman was a 20- to 25-hour per week commitment. So just as in our business lives, don’t forget that by the time we toe the line, we have done the day-in-and-day-out work to be in our place. We have EARNED it. When the gun goes off, start demonstrating the skills you have learned and earned. Oh, and if you don’t want to or haven’t trained? Well, get off the course ASAP. You’re a liability to yourself and others.
  3.  Don’t let their chaos be your chaos. How many times in our business week do we deal with someone’s “freak out?” Maybe a colleague, a service provider or even an unreasonable client. But their lack of control does not have to elicit an equally unhinged response from us. In fact, in a chaotic environment, keeping our cool is everything. See the big picture, focus on what’s important and maintain forward momentum. Do not get in someone else’s hurry or panic. It won’t help you.
  4.  Be consistent.  The Ironman swim start is a physics-defying experiment that you can’t win. Picture hundreds of people standing in a rectangular area. Now ask them all to lay down in that same space. What? You mean they don’t fit? Competitors must jockey for position and the only variable that changes initially is the size of the box as the churning mass of humanity lurches forward. This is your time to be calm, consistent and work your plan. Eventually, as swimming ability thins the crowd, you’ll find YOUR open water and things will get easier. Churchill’s quote is apropos: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
  5.  You can’t win the race in the swim, but you can lose it.  Ironman attracts Olympic-level athletes to its folds and some have swimming backgrounds. But even with world-class talent, getting a few minutes on the rest of the field rarely pays off for the rabbits. If the energy expended to gain that initial time creates a deficit that cannot be restored over the balance of the day, which is by far when the bulk of the battle is fought, all is for naught. So when we look at our business plan, we need to make sure it’s sustainable over the long haul. Producing in a stellar fashion for one month, followed by burnout and a dismal slump for two months is not a recipe for lasting success.
  6.  If all else fails, slow down, look around and change your plan. One of my first races took place at Camp Pendleton. I got disoriented early in the swim and was quickly out of breath. My grand plan was unraveling at the same time the surf was raging and for a second, I thought I was lost in the ocean. I was so focused on staying with “the pack” that I swam outside of my ability and was now starting to panic. At a certain point, I just had to stop swimming. I popped my head up, took a few deep breaths, cleared my fogging goggles, and slowed everything way down. Ah, I could now clearly see the beach, the safety kayaks and the turn buoys. Everything was still in order and I was not going to swim off the edge of the earth after all. Yes, I lost a couple of minutes, but I regained my composure and got on with the day. In the end, I realized that sometimes it’s OK, maybe even essential, to hit “pause.”

Back in “the day,” all Ironman races had mass starts. That meant everyone; pros, amateurs, men and women, crashed forward together at the sound of the gun. Over time, race directors have migrated towards wave and rolling starts to lessen anxiety and congestion, and to limit physical contact and risk of panic attacks and water rescues. I don’t have a problem with their logic but I am grateful that I competed mostly during the mass start era. Like in business I found that having a plan and a honed response to the inevitable challenges gave me a slight edge. I was able to view the adversity piece as an opportunity, and for a guy who had zero swimming background and who took up the sport at 30-years old, I needed every fair and legal advantage I could get.

Where else in our personal lives do we learn valuable lessons that carry over to our business? I’m sure if you look, you will realize the opportunities exist just about everywhere. And I’ve found that when we seek to enrich one part of ourselves through any pursuit born of passion or desire for excellence we often touch the rest in the process. How ’bout you?

Anything is possible, 

Robert J. Spinosa

Vice President of Mortgage Lending

Guaranteed Rate

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