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From Triathlon Triumphs to Advocacy: A Pro’s Journey Back to Healing

from triathlon triumphs to advocacy Ali Brauer
Ali Brauer
Year started: 2017
Favorite gear:

Castelli, blueseventy

From triathlon triumphs to advocacy was not the story I thought I would be telling. When I turned pro, I envisioned a world where I would be discussing how my triathlon successes led to triumph outside of sport. Unfortunately, my path took a different turn. It led me to places I was not prepared for. That journey started in college and continued as a pro. Today, the life I’m leading is different than that vision but I have grown. I’m sharing my story because I know it can help others in the same position I was in.

A Triathlete’s Academic Journey: Balancing Passion and Academics

My triathlon career emerged from a desire to get back into competitive sport while beginning my PhD at the University of Colorado Boulder.

A lifelong multisport athlete, I competed in swimming, track, and cross-country at Lewis & Clark College, an NCAA Division III school in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Though my sports were always very important to me, they were generally placed on the backburner in favor of academics, as I juggled a double major in mathematics and physics.

After completing undergrad, the pendulum swung further in the direction of academics. I spent nine very intense months at the University of Washington completing a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics. Throughout this time, I placed the entirety of my focus on school for the first time in my life. This left me feeling feeling incredibly unbalanced. My mental health had suffered due to my singular focus on academics and I felt a strong desire to get back in touch with athletics.

Rediscovering Athletic Passion: Joining the Club Triathlon Team

Thus, when I began my PhD at CU Boulder, I decided to join the club triathlon team. Though I thought I could do well in triathlon – and potentially contribute to CU’s dynasty of collegiate club championships – I had no aspirations of going pro. Triathlon was simply my newest competitive outlet. And it was everything that sport should be. Having never ridden a bike aside from my kiddie Walmart whip, it offered me a chance to try something new and scary. It put me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to overcome fear in a safe environment.

My social circle outside of academics grew and served as a release from life’s stressors. I was provided with endless adventure and the freedom to explore. That exploration was despite required team sessions. I always felt that I was given enough autonomy to take charge of my training and listen to my body. Winning races was never the focus, but we did win. A lot. In fact, winning a team national championship and qualifying for my elite license in my second-ever race were just the cherries on top of my collegiate triathlon experience. I had discovered a new passion and was determined to see how far I could take it. I was suffering from academic burnout and decided to leave my PhD program to pursue triathlon professionally.

From Collegiate Success to Going Pro: Embracing a New Challenge

As a new pro, I was enthusiastic about continuing triathlon at a higher level in a full-time training environment. But in this environment, everything I had known in the sport of triathlon – including my holistic relationship with sport – went down the drain. Performance was emphasized above all else. There were new, rigid rules set around training and our lifestyles as a whole, and it felt as if every aspect of my life was micromanaged. I lost my autonomy, and I lost my voice.

Additionally, I was pressured to go all-in. This meant that I drop everything in pursuit of triathlon – including any form of work. This happened before I was even close to becoming financially stable in the sport. I was told that this is what it takes to achieve success at the highest level. At the time, I was naive and inexperienced with elite sport, and I honestly believed this narrative. Thus, the pendulum swung all the way toward triathlon. Athletics became my sole focus for the first time in my life.

The Price of Success: Sacrificing Mental and Physical Health

It was easy to “buy in” to the culture of this training environment, because I saw success. Lots of it. My rate of improvement was rapid. In my first year as a pro, I achieved two 6th place finishes in draft-legal continental cups. Three years later – after many injuries, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a switch to long course racing – I landed two IRONMAN 70.3 podiums and 70.3 Worlds qualification. Partly because of this success, I shoved down any gut feelings that the environment wasn’t healthy for me.  I also swallowed any concerns about experiences that had impacted me negatively. Afraid to speak up, I rationalized it all away.

Ultimately, I realized that it was fully acceptable in this environment for mental and physical health to be destroyed if wins and podiums were achieved along the way. I also realized that my support in this environment hinged upon allowing myself to be controlled by others – and upon staying quiet about my concerns. Triathlon was no longer something I chose to do for myself. Instead, it was something I felt forced to do. Once my biggest passion in life, triathlon had become my greatest stressor.

Facing the Reality of RED-S: Struggling with the Consequences

After multiple years of chronic mental stress and improper training, I found myself with a serious case of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). I found myself scrambling to rebuild my entire life, picking up the pieces after many traumatic experiences. And I found myself trying to recoup the love I once had for triathlon and for sport in general. Thus, for the past year, I have been forced to take a massive step back from elite racing in order to repair my body and mind, as well as my relationship with sport.

Rebuilding from Loss: Starting the Healing Process

When I began my career as an elite triathlete five years ago, I never anticipated that life-altering trauma and serious health issues would completely upend my life and threaten my career. The personal loss I’ve experienced has been unimaginably painful at times. I lost my physical and mental health plus my livelihood. My love of sport disappeared as did a large part of myself. And due to my decision to speak out about my experiences, I lost an entire community. Relationships with people who once held important places in my life were now gone.

But despite all this loss, I have also gained a great deal. Leaving my previous environment marked the beginning of healing and of regaining my health, my voice, and my existence outside of pleasing others. I have been met with validation and understanding in places I did not expect. There is a new support system with new, more fulfilling relationships. This has provided new and exciting opportunities. I have rediscovered my love of sport. I know who I am and I know what I stand for.

Fostering a Positive Triathlon Experience: Empowering the Next Generation

I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m determined to stand on a start line again someday. In the meantime, I hope to take the focus off my own triathlon career . I want to go from triathlon triumphs to advocacy and focus on others. Nothing would be more gratifying than coming full circle to ensure young triathletes have the same sort of experience I did as a collegian: the experience that made me fall in love with triathlon in the first place. I hope to use my newfound voice to advocate not just for myself, but for all other athletes.