Ironman Arizona 2010. Eight months after. © Eric Wynn 2010.
Thanksgiving seemed an appropriate time to share this, because I am incredibly thankful to have been a part of Specialized for the past six years. Ironman Arizona 2009 was my first race on a Specialized. And Ironman Arizona 2014 will be my last. I don’t typically think that the changing of sponsors is noteworthy. Typically, an athlete simply announces a new sponsorship, and everyone is left just assuming whatever they want about what might have happened with the previous folks. Some relationships are, however, more meaningful than that, and I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the parting of ways. I also hope – perhaps fancifully – that talking about this now will also give me the chance to focus on the future when that time comes, rather than on, “what happened with Specialized?”, at least to the extent that anyone actually cares what happened.
I’ve known for a while now that this was the case. I had a sense that it was likely – my last two years of results have not been up to the standard that I know Specialized holds their athletes too; they haven’t been up to my standards either. But I had a tough – but understandable and polite – conversation before Arizona where I got the definitive word. In a testament to Specialized’s business acumen but also their caring, the reason they told me when they did was that once a decision had been made, they wanted to give me as much time as possible to craft a deal with someone else. Especially with what I – and they as well – had planned and hoped would be a big win in Arizona, they wanted to give the chance to strike while the iron was hot and to capitalize on that success. I appreciated that then and still do. The race wasn’t the sort of breakthrough I’d hoped for, but in that sense, knowing before also kept me from thinking that, “Oh, if I’d just had a better race in Arizona…” While I’m obviously disappointed – primarily in myself – to not be back with Specialized in 2015, it is hard to be disappointed with what I achieved during my time wearing that big, red “S.”
After my breakthrough win in Ironman Canada in 2009, Specialized was the first company to step up and say, “we want you to ride for us. And we will pay you to do so.” No one had ever done that before. And that was really the beginning of my career, since you need to earn a living to have a career. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby. At the end of 2010, after only one race back since my accident, Specialized renewed my contract for three more years, and what an incredible three year stretch that was.
More recently, I know, we’ve both faced challenges. I put myself in a big hole in 2013 and then kept digging. And I’ve spent most of this year climbing out of it and now – finally – feeling like I’m back to climbing up the mountain as opposed to climbing out of the ditch. Specialized has struggled, I think, to see the return on a massive investment in the sport and a huge commitment to athletes that has resulted in a lot of success, but also a fair bit of disappointment as well. I made a lot of changes – mostly good, some less so – in a struggle to find my own footing as an athlete. And I can completely understand Specialized’s decision to do the same in their business, at least their business within the context of triathlon. When things are not working the way they should, you need to make a change.
But sometimes decisions are made that go beyond business, and there is one story from my time with Specialized that will forever define my image of the company. When I got out of the hospital in 2010, a big box showed up at my door not long after. Inside was a huge poster, that I still have, with an image of an open road and the caption, “Best wishes on the road to recovery from your family at Specialized.” It was signed by more people than I could count. Not long after that box showed up, an even more powerful gesture came in a much smaller package. An envelope from Morgan Hill arrived in the mail, and inside it was a check for $4,000. I didn’t know why. So I called one of my friends who worked in sports marketing, and said, “why did I get a check for $4,000?” He said, “that was what was left over on your bonus cap for the year. We were sure you would have earned it if it hadn’t been for the accident, so we just decided to pay you on it.” I was floored. I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t bike. I couldn’t run. Mostly I just sat around the house being pretty depressed and wondering if I’d ever be any good again. I certainly didn’t have that faith in myself. But that gesture helped to return it.
After getting that check and being pushed (gently) by Bobby Behan, who built the Specialized triathlon program in 2009/2010, to go, I went up to Wildflower and stayed with Mark Cote (the “Aero Pharaoh”) and Bobby and the Specialized gang to watch the race, my first trip away from the house since getting out of the hospital. And from there I went up to Morgan Hill where I was a part of the introduction within the company of the global tri team, still unable to swim, bike, or run. It was there, in a hotel in Morgan Hill, that I said for the first time – “I’m gonna race again. I will race Ironman Arizona this fall and defend my title.” And I did come back. And I did race again. And I came back even stronger. When I was at my lowest, I was still important to Specialized. And I will never, ever forget that. Thank you. I’ll see you up the road.