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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
All for nautical

By Jenny Everett

It was the summer of 2006 when investment banker Sedef Koktenturk, 32, walked into her boss's office at Goldman Sachs to announce that she was quitting. She had to leave the impressive gig in order to train, she told them, and hopefully qualify for the Olympics in women's windsurfing. Definitely a surprise. But it was the suited-up company's response that really shocked her: If you have a shot, you should go for it.

Koktenturk knew she had at least that -- a shot. She also knew that she hadn't raced in windsurfing in 16 years.

As a kid growing up in Turkey, Koktenturk was competitive. She even had her heart set on making the 1992 Olympic Games until she broke a wrist.

"This had been my dream since 8 or 9 years old, but after the injury, I took myself out of the game and focused on school and career in the United States," Koktenturk said. "But I still found my way to the water." She sailed on weekends with club teams on the Long Island Sound, keeping her knowledge of sailing -- and the tactical know-how that comes along with it -- sharp.

Even her decision to 'suddenly' go for it was partly strategic. After the 2004 Summer Games the Olympic committee changed the windsurfing equipment requirements, so Koktenturk realized everyone was going to need to switch things up, leveling the playing field a bit.

For three months leading up to her ditching corporate America, Koktenturk had been working out with in-demand New York City trainer Joe Dowdell of Peak Performance to see if she could get her level of fitness high enough to realistically compete.

Koktenturk had heard a lot about Joe. She decided to just show up at his office one day with one request: Help me.

"Olympic windsurfing is very physical. It's one of the top five highest-endurance sports at the Games, after sports like triathlon and cycling," she said. "It requires full-body strength, but primarily core. This is why Joe's style of training worked so well."

They trained together six days a week, alternating days of strength training and interval training, upping her overall body strength and endurance. Based on Koktenturk's V02 max, Dowdell set up a specific heart rate training regimen and prescribed moves that included pull-ups, inverted rows, kettlebell swings, squats, dead lifts, glute-ham raises, box jumps, and push-up and dumbbell row combos.

Immediately after walking away from her job that July -- and carefully explaining to her husband that they were going to split up for two and a half years while she trained for the Olympics -- Koktenturk picked up her equipment and moved to Turkey to train on the water. She kept up her fitness protocol with Dowdell via the Internet. Within six months her body fat had dropped from 25 percent to 14 percent and her sustainable heart rate (85 percent of max effort) had increased to 175 beats per minute for 45 minutes -- about the length of one race.

"When I showed up at the first practice I looked and felt ready," she said. "With this level of fitness I could train for six hours on the water, which is incredible given that when I first started I could barely stand 15 minutes."

Koktenturk continued to train with Turkey until November, when she returned to the States to work with American Olympic hopefuls. She did well, finishing fourth in her first race in January 2007.

"I really thought I was going out for the U.S. team, but I competed in the Turkish nationals at the end of January and, knowing the conditions there, did really, really well," she said. "They asked me to represent them, competing in the circuit that travels the world. That was it."

At that point, Koktenturk was optimistic she'd make it to Beijing.

"You can't afford not to be," she said. "It's a lifestyle. You're at the gym. You're on the water. You're training. You eat dinner. You go to bed. It's a huge sacrifice for friends and family, too. You're missing weddings and births. My life was on the water. It was a full commitment."

In early 2008, she finished 21st in the first Olympic qualifier; the top 20 made the team. Being so close gave her confidence that she'd certainly make the cut in the second Olympic qualifying race. But she didn't.

"This was a really tough time for me. I thought it was all for naught," Koktenturk said. "I was beating myself up for stupid mistakes, even though I did in two years of training what most people do in four, and I was the only one who was training for the first time." But then she realized that if someone else dropped out she would have a spot. So the hard work continued throughout that winter and spring as she waited, hoping for a last-minute invite.

"I got the call June 13 -- two months before the Olympics -- that a spot had opened up on the team," she said. "It was surreal." And, with that, she was off to Beijing.

While she didn't win a medal -- "Basically, I got last place!" -- she had met her goal, which, all along, had been to qualify.

"It was an amazing human experience to be at the opening ceremonies where there are 10,000 true professional athletes from countries I hadn't even heard of," she said. "Looking back I wish I had made my goal to qualify and finish in the top 10 or 15. The higher you put your goal, the better you will be."

Despite the dream experience, Koktenturk isn't making a bid for the 2012 London Games.

"While I considered going for another Olympics, I realized that another four years would take me out of my career and life," she said. "After all, the market crashed two weeks after the 2008 Games!"

Thankfully for Koktenturk, Goldman Sachs was eager to have her back, and hired her at their London office as an asset manager in early 2010. Koktenturk said the whole experience has changed her perspective and made her more valuable to the company.

"I believe the more diverse your experiences, the better employee you become," she said. "Olympic training improved my self-discipline, which is always a great skill set. There are many ex-athletes in Wall Street for a reason."

And now she can count herself as one of them.