Andy Potts went to work in corporate America after graduating from the University of Michigan where he was an All-American Swimmer and captain of the UM Swim Team. Placing 4th in the Olympic trials for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Potts stayed true to his loyalties with Jon Urbanchek and his teammates at Big Blue to finish up his tenure there. Eighteen months after beginning his journey as a triathlete, Potts qualified for the US Olympic Team at the World Championships in Madiera, Portugal in May 2004.
Andy Potts’ meteoric launch onto the US Olympic Triathlon Team raised eyebrows worldwide, as have podium finishes in 3 of the first four events he’s competed in this year. Andy Potts is currently ranked #5 in the ITU World standings and today he converses with Predator about his mental conditioning, dreaming big, the power of coaching, being relentless and what makes him squirm.
Podium: How did you get started as a young athlete?
Andy Potts: I’ve dreamed big since I got into sports. At five years old, I dreamed about being the best. When I was about ten, I wanted to make the Olympic team. I knew I wanted to be a swimmer, and that was my sport until I retired from swimming in 1999.
Podium: How did you get into triathlon?
Andy Potts: I didn’t fulfill the ultimate dream of [racing] as a swimmer in the Olympics. I thought it was over when I retired. I never thought, “Oh, I’ll just make it as a triathlete.” Triathlon made its debut at the Sydney Games a year and a half after I retired from swimming, and it took me about two and a half years after that [when] I finally decided to take up triathlon.
Podium: Was there any particular event or experience that drove that decision?
Andy Potts: I don’t know if there was or there wasn’t any particular experience that [pushed me]. What I do know is that the very first day I decided to be a triathlete, I wasn’t going to settle for anything other than the Olympics, and that was just my mindset. I was like, “I’m doing this sport so I can live out my childhood dreams of being an Olympian.” I believed it from day one, even though when I first started, I was terrible.
I didn’t get disturbed or bothered by minor setbacks. It was always about improving everyday. Incremental performances along the way started to build on top of one another, each and every performance. From the start of 2003 through 2004, leading up to the Olympics, it felt like every time I got on the race course I improved, or showed my improvement. I can’t really think of one particular race over another. It was all about a steady improvement from race to race.
Podium: You obviously had good success in swimming, and you even ran track at Michigan. We’ve assumed that the bike has the steepest learning curve for you, is that how you’ve experienced it?
Andy Potts: It still is the case. Every day in 2003, every time I got on the bike, I was willing to just take it. [To] take my body and just put it through absolute misery to improve, and I said this is how I’m going to improve, this is how I’m going to get better. And I took the mindset that I cultivated and honed throughout my years of swimming. I took it to the run, and I took it on the bike. And I [said to myself] “Listen. This is how I got to be a world class swimmer and I’m going to make it work, whether my body wants to or not.”
I was a little bit thickheaded in terms of [trying to] fit a square peg into a round hole, but I was going to make it fit. I learned a lot of lessons through my swimming days; mentally, [I learned] how to deal with adversity and success, as well as failure on the world stage. I was fortunate to bring that experience to the table when I first started triathlon, and I think every time that I would go out to run or ride, [I’d say], “Hey, you’ve got to improve today. If you want to live your dreams, then you need to improve today.” And that was it every day. Every day I woke up with that mentality. I know the common knowledge and thinking behind cycling and my way [of training] was counter to what a lot of cycling gurus would preach. But, the bottom line to improving so much [has come down to] me being relentless and bringing it every day. It’s about a consistent approach. You know what you get from me every day, and that is my very best.
Podium: Talk about your training.
Andy Potts: The way that my training is structured is that my coach, Mike Doane, and I look at training to [bring out] the best and go with what my body’s giving me on any given day. We look at a lot of different parameters, but I train a lot with my heart rate monitor. As soon as I start to adapt to a workload, then we will tweak something in some sport that will give me a new stimulus that will take me another two weeks to adapt to. We are always changing the stimulus and always looking for new ways to improve. Our defining point on growing stronger is how long my body [takes] to adapt to the workload. Sometimes I adapt in two weeks, and sometimes I adapt in twelve weeks. We focus on how my body is feeling and on what I’m getting from myself at that point. That will determine when we tighten the screws on the swim, the bike, or the run.
I may not be the most talented athlete that’s in the sport. I know I’m not, but I know that I work incredibly hard, and I take a lot of confidence in how hard I work. I’d say one of the attributes that has gotten me to where I am in the sporting world [is that I’m] relentless in training and in racing, never letting up, refusing to wilt or to crack. And I know that cyclists can relate to that.
Podium: That level of intensity is noteworthy, who do you give credit to for developing that?
Andy Potts: First off, I give the credit to my parents, just because of the work habits that they instilled in me, as well as the want or drive to try to be the best in no matter what you do. That was all cultivated by the [three] coaches I’ve had in my athletic career. They were my club coach in swimming growing up in New Jersey, Todd Kemmerling. Then my college coach, Jon Urbanchek and now my triathlon coach, Mike Doane.
I’ve forged great relationships with each coach I’ve had, and there’s a unique bond that we [have] created. I believe in what they’re selling to me, and they give me confidence, because they believe in me. They also know how to push the limits with me, and they get me out of my comfort zone probably on a weekly basis. Mike does it to either show me that I’m strong enough, or to see if I am strong enough, you know? It’s a test in both directions.
I’ve just been really fortunate to have three fantastic coaches – world class coaches – who weren’t afraid to fail with me. They weren’t afraid to fail and I wasn’t afraid to try something new. That ability to try something new and really make it work for you is something that’s really been valuable to my racing. My style [has] always been really aggressive and it is always my goal to win. I’m not afraid to say it, and I’m not afraid to try to win.
It doesn’t always work. I mean, I’ve got lots of races where I didn’t win, but the days when I do win, it is really satisfying and really gratifying to know that my efforts, and the style of racing that I’ve chosen to race works. In cycling, that guy [who goes] off the front 85% of the time it doesn’t work. The pack catches up, but that 10 to 15% of the time when it does work, it’s really an unbelievable feeling knowing that you put everything you had into that race, and it worked and you won, and you were the best that day.
I just got back from Japan where my goal was to win. I go with [that goal] every race. I want to win. And I’m not afraid to lose. And for me, I [always] give it my best effort. I can count the times on my hand when I didn’t give it my best. The same is true with practice, too, and that’s what I establish in practice.
Podium: You sound like a coach’s dream.
Andy Potts: I’ve felt with all three coaches, it’s been a team effort. We’re all in it together, especially now. As a professional, I take responsibility for how I perform, and when I succeed, it’s all about us; when I fail, I need to reflect on me and maybe make some changes internally and personally. Luckily, those thoughts are few and far between, but they do happen, and I’ve been fortunate to have three fantastic coaches. It’s always been a team effort, and we’ve always collaborated. They trust me to give them honest feedback as much as I trust them to lead me in the right direction. Plus, I think that they love to see their athletes squirm, and I give them plenty of opportunities to watch me squirm.
[Times]when I’m so taxed physically that they’ll get screams from me. I’ve been bent over my bike almost in tears, continuing to pedal, of course, but with tears running down my eyes, just wailing away, refusing to stop pedaling.
But if the workout calls for recovery, then I’m going to do the best I can at recovering. If the workout calls for an all-out effort, well, that’s what you get. [Whatever] is called for, I [am] going to do it to a “T,” how it’s prescribed whatever the goals of the session. Mentally I’ve just refused to take a session off or a day off. There is nothing taken for granted.
Podium: I’ve been told one of the biggest adjustments triathletes have to make is getting used to the open water swim. Talk about that.
Andy Potts: The biggest adjustment that needs to made is that you need to be able to create your own rhythm, regardless of outside influences. Open water swimming is all dynamic; it’s always changing and there’s nothing that you can really build off of, or queue yourself into to either speed up or slow down. Everything you do is [determined] by an internal clock, an internal gauge that you’re able to switch on and create your own rhythm, and your own tempo. [You must] trust that it’s going to be fast.
I don’t practice open water swimming. That’s probably not what the average person should do, but I’m very comfortable with my open water swimming to know that every day in the pool I try to create my own rhythm and my own tempo, regardless of what the clock’s telling me. I do that through stroke rate and stroke tempo. When I’m in a good groove, I know what times are going to pop up on the clock.
Podium: Tell us about racing.
Andy Potts: When I go out to race, [everything] that goes through my mind on the start line has to do with my preparation. All of the strength that I get on race day comes from how I prepare. I really believe in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. That it [my training] will bring me to the best possible shape I can be in on race day, no matter what day it is. I thought on June 5th, 2003, I was the best triathlete I could possibly be at that point in my career. On the day that I towed the line for the Olympics, August 27, 2004, I thought I was the best triathlete I could possibly [be] on that day. And when I tow the line on Sunday down in Mexico, I feel that I [will be] the best triathlete I can be on that day. (Potts placed 2nd in Mazatlan 5/6/06, scoring 33 points and moving up to 5th in the ITU World Rankings.)
That has everything to do with my preparation and my mental outlook towards racing. Am I better now than I was in 2003 and 2004? Absolutely! I don’t put limitations on myself as a triathlete, because there’s always something to improve upon, just because of the variety of the sports and what it takes to excel at all three, let alone when you put them all together.
So I don’t put limits on what I’m capable of doing, and I honestly believe wholeheartedly that I am training better than anybody in the world. So as I continue to get stronger and build more strength within each discipline, then my fitness will improve within that discipline, and on the overall as well. That just gives me more and more encouragement to know that the sky’s the limit.
Podium: How do you experience mental toughness?
Andy Potts: I’ve always set my goals high, and I’ve dreamed big since I got into sports. At five years old, I dreamed about being the best. So on any given day, I feel like I’m preparing better than anybody else in the world for what I do, and that’s what gives me a lot of mental toughness on race day. You can’t just show up to race day being mentally tough. You have to kind of prove your mental toughness through the battles and through the fire that you create on a daily basis. For me, being relentless in all my workouts, knowing that you are only as good as your last workout type of thing to give it everything you have. No regrets on this day, and never give in.
I may get beat, but that’s because somebody else was stronger that day. It wasn’t because I cracked or folded. I just keep on coming at you, coming at you, and the day that I’m the strongest, those are the days that are really powerful in my memory. So just being relentless and [having] a really strong desire to be the best I can be (an internal thing to me). I just try to be the best as I can be. I want to take full advantage of what I’m doing right now, and I don’t want to waste opportunities.
Podium: You experienced some distressing news in the past year. How do you deal with things that sidetrack a lot of athletes?
(Andy Potts wife Lisa, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and although responding well to medication, they remain “cautiously optimistic”. Lisa deals with low energy on a daily basis, but is a fighter and won’t let her cancer dictate how she wants to live.)
Andy Potts: I learned a lesson this last year in terms of not taking anything for granted. When the health of my loved one is in jeopardy, you learn to appreciate everything that you’ve been able to create in your life. So I don’t forget about that, and I have a daily reminder of how much love I have for my wife and my family and to always fight for what I want too.
One of my goals this year – and I actually bothered to write it down – was to enjoy where I am, what I’m doing, and who I’m doing it with. I only have four or five goals for the year, and that’s one of them. And it helps just kind of focus in on what’s important and [that I] really enjoy what I’m doing, because not everybody has the opportunity to do what I’m doing. I need to realize that on a daily basis.
I think that having such a great support group with my family and my coach, it helps me keep things in perspective, but also helps me go out and give my very best. I know that, just in talking with my buddies and friends that I’ve met along the way, not everybody has the luxury of doing what they love, and loving what they do, and allows them to travel the world, and meet new people, and experience new things all in sports. Friends tell me, “Hey, Andy, I love getting your race reports, just because, you know, I’m living vicariously through you, and don’t take any of this for granted,” and I tell them, “Believe me, I don’t.”
I try to enjoy every moment of it, even though some of the moments are pretty painful. I still find enjoyment out of them, and that kind of speaks to the masochistic nature of triathlon and cycling.
Podium: Your goals are process-oriented. Not being outcome-oriented, does it make it easier for you to focus so clearly in the moment?
Andy Potts: Yeah. The things that I can control, I try to control. If there’s something that I can control, [I do], because if you let them get out of your grasp, then you’re letting the race slip out of your hands. The things that I can control are my focus and my effort, and I can do that on a daily basis. Then when it gets to racing, it almost becomes automatic. But sometimes the clock doesn’t tell me what I want to hear, or some days I feel like I’m pedaling in squares, or running backwards, or shuffling. When that happens, the goal today is to just work hard.
You’ve got to always work hard, and the value will come, and the speed’s going to come, and the strength will come, as long as you’re able to give an honest effort. And for me, my honest effort has been able to yield improved results on almost on a monthly basis since I started the sport.
Podium: You’ve raced different formats this year, including the Half Ironman distance, ITU Olympic distance drafting and non-drafting events, and in Brazil you won an “endura-format” that repeats mini-triathlons. Do you plan on any Ironman events this year?
Andy Potts: You know, my first four races this year were all different, so that keeps variety and my interests alive, but my ultimate goal and my ultimate focus is Beijing and the Olympics in 2008, so everything I do leading up to that, and hopefully including that, is geared towards my performance on that day. So, with that said, I’m not going to do any Ironman this year or even before Beijing. I plan to race maybe another Half Ironman this year, and maybe next year, I’ll probably do two Half Ironmans, but that’s as far as I’ll go.
The reason I don’t do more of it is because it takes such a long time to recover. For me, I really enjoy racing, so you just can’t race as much, even in the Half Ironman Distance, especially not the Ironman Distance. It’s all about pushing the boundaries and learning what I’m capable of doing and capable of handling on any given day, soâ€¦
Podium: What has been your biggest thrill in Sport?
Andy Potts: For me, qualifying for the Olympics and participating in the Olympics was a dream come true. I was able to do it and really enjoy the journey with my family and my wife and coaches. When I qualified for the Olympics, I was in Madeira, Portugal, an island to the south of Portugal, and it was World Championships. That’s when I qualified for the Olympics. And I just remember crossing the finish line and being so overwhelmed with the fact that I made it happen for myself.
I got my hands on a telephone maybe a minute-and-a-half afterwards, and I couldn’t even articulate what I was feeling, and what I going through, but I got my wife on the line, and I just started crying. She was crying and I was crying, and it was just really emotional just being able to say that I did. And the next day was Mother’s Day so I got online, and I sent my mom an e-mail from the hotel where we were in Portugal, and I said, “Happy Mother’s Day. I did it. We’re going to the Olympics.”
Here’s the link to the podcast of this interview.