Dede Griesbauer favors racing over finance
Dede Griesbauer remembers the day in 2005 when she told her parents she was going to quit her job to become a professional Ironman triathlete.
"They sat motionless with their mouths agape for about 53 seconds," Griesbauer recalled. It was a warranted reaction, given that, at the time, Griesbauer was a successful equity trader, trading more than $10 billion in portfolios for a Boston-based mutual funds company. She was also 33, an age by which most professional women have hit their stride after several years of climbing the ladder, and was relatively newly married to her husband, Dave, having celebrated only two anniversaries with him.
"My parents' visions of having grandchildren vanished, I think," Griesbauer said. "They were worried if it would potentially financially ruin us."
Parental worry acknowledged, Griesbauer quit her job on March 15, 2005, with her husband's blessing.
"He said, 'If you don't go in and quit your job, I'll quit it for you,'" Griesbauer said.
Becoming a professional in a sport in which it's notoriously difficult to make a living was a tough decision softened by Griesbauer's previous athletic accomplishments.
She swam at Stanford University from 1988 to 1992, leading the team to an NCAA championship as captain; won gold at the Pan Pacific championships and Pan American Games; swam in two Olympic trials; rode a beater bike across the United States with a boyfriend (they made it across; their relationship did not); matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business; and raced her first Ironman in 1997 at the age of 26 for fun the summer before she started working on Wall Street.
"I watched Karen Smyers run down Paula Newby-Fraser in Kona on TV during winter quarter of my second year of graduate school, and in the back of my mind I thought, 'I would love to do that,'" Griesbauer remembers of the 1995 Ironman world championship race that sparked her interest in triathlon.
More than four years went by before the Ironman bug bit again. Griesbauer raced in Florida in 2002 with no expectations -- and finished as the top amateur woman, earning a coveted slot in the world championship race in Kona, Hawaii. That is when she made the call that would begin her transformation from trader to top triathlete.
"I was like, 'Oh my God! I'm going to talk to Karen Smyers!'" Griesbauer remembers. She had exchanged a few emails with her triathletic hero after a friend suggested she contact Smyers because Smyers, like Griesbauer, lived and trained in Boston.
"It was obvious how motivated she was from the beginning," remembered Smyers, who is now 49 and still racing professionally. "She had a lot of talent and was very coachable. She reinvigorated my own training once I convinced her to turn pro."
With a little nudge from Smyers, Griesbauer found herself sitting across from her parents, revealing her plan to go pro, counting the seconds until they could form a verbal reaction.
Under Smyers' tutelage, Griesbauer raced well at the championship event in 2003, finishing in 10:29:45, which would have made her the 22nd pro woman, and hasn't missed a year in Kona since. Most notably, she finished among the top 10 women three years in a row, from 2007 to 2009. She also won two Ironmans on her way to her Kona starts, one in the U.K. and one in Brazil.
But this year will be different.
A crash this July on a rain-slicked cobblestone roundabout at Ironman Germany -- the race she targeted to qualify for Kona this year -- sent Griesbauer to an intensive-care facility for two days with a fractured hip, elbow and ribs. Griesbauer was devastated.
"If I close my eyes and listen carefully," she joked, "I can hear my fitness seeping out of my pores."
Smyers stepped in to help ease Griesbauer's anguish over being incapacitated at exactly the time when she would have been ramping up for her favorite race, as she had for the past eight years.
"Kona becomes such a big part of your motivation and life," Smyers said, "But I reminded her at least she wasn't training for the Olympics -- Kona comes every year!"
And with that extra little nudge from Smyers, Griesbauer, now 40, began planning her 2012 comeback. Griesbauer's time as a pro is not up yet.
"There are things I want to do in the sport still," she said. "I love the market and hope to go back to it someday, but I'll know when it's time."