by Brad Culp
Ed. Note—we couldn't be more proud or stoked today. Andy Potts, US triathlon legend, announces today that he's signed with Wattie Ink. Potts has won at every distance for a decade-and-a-half now, represented the USA at the 2004 Olympics, won 28 70.3 races and seven Ironman events, and was 70.3 World Champion in 2007. Not content to simply race his competition into the ground, he's a dad, a husband, and a coach, too. We are lucky to have him, and cannot wait to see Andy rocking the W at races everywhere this coming season.
They say Father Time is undefeated, but every now and then we get evidence of the contrary. In sport, there’s no better example than Tom Brady, who is vying for his record sixth Super Bowl title at the ripe old age of 40. Triathlon has it’s own version of Tom Brady—sort of—in 41-year-old Andy Potts, who just so happens to have lived two floors above Brady in the dorms at the University of Michigan. Clearly there was something in the water.
While Potts’ triathlon accolades haven’t garnered him quite the same fame and fortune as his classmate, his accomplishments are perhaps even more impressive from a purely physical standpoint. Six years ago, at the age of 35, Potts finished seventh in Kona with a time of 8:31. Last October, Potts finished seventh again, but in a time of 8:14. The 41-year-old Potts proved to be 17 minutes faster than the 35-year-old version. It feels pretty good to pull off a win against Father Time.
The Michigan Man
As a swimmer for one of the best programs in the country, the Olympics were always the end goal for Potts. Michigan Swimming breeds Olympians, and Potts wanted desperately to be one of them. He came within inches of achieving that dream after his freshman year, when he finished fourth in the 400 IM at the Olympic Trials. The top two finishers—one of whom was the event’s world record holder—got to compete at the Atlanta Olympics. The third-place finisher got to go as an alternate. Potts got the honor of saying he was the first one left off the Olympic team. That sort of sting stays with you.
Adding to the sting was the fact that Potts’ roommate at Michigan was a guy named Tom Malchow, who is one of the greatest butterfliers in history. Potts may have been one of the best swimmers on the planet during his time in Ann Arbor, but he wasn’t even close to being the best swimmer in his own dorm room. Malchow won silver in the 200 fly in Atlanta and gold four years later in Sydney. He briefly owned the world record in that event before some 15-year-old kid named Michael Phelps broke it. No one but Phelps has owned that world record for the 18 years since. Those are the kinds of people Potts spent his college years comparing himself to.
After graduation in 2000, Malchow headed off to his second Olympics, Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots to be their back-up quarterback, and Potts moved to Chicago to take a sales job he despised. With his Olympic dream dead and gone, he ballooned up to 220 pounds and spent most nights out drinking late with friends, just like every other recent college graduate in the Windy City. His self-esteem dipped, his productivity plunged, and he was sure he would be fired before he made it through his first year. Instead of serving him with a pink slip, his bosses offered him a raise. He couldn’t take any more.
“That was my first taste of corporate America,” he says. “They figured that with a little more money, I could be OK at something I hated. That wasn’t how I worked. I quit that day.”
The Tri Transformation
Most Olympic dreams die as soon as an athlete enters the real world, but that doesn’t happen when you swim for the University of Michigan—especially not when you miss the Olympic team by one spot. Potts walked out of his office and decided then and there that he was going to make the Olympics in triathlon. The only problem was that he had no idea how and he’d never done a triathlon. He bought a bike with his final paycheck and signed up for the Cheyenne Mountain Sprint Tri in Colorado, which was only three weeks later. Even though he had no idea how to perform a transition, he managed to finish around 20th overall, but he was nowhere close to race-winner Hunter Kemper. A friend told him about the Life Time Fitness Triathlon in Minneapolis a few months later, and with a little tri-specific training, he managed to finish as the third overall amateur.
That result was good enough to spark USAT’s interest, and he was invited to compete in an ITU race in Japan in October of 2002. Draft-legal racing proved to suit his strengths, and USAT was so impressed with his swimming prowess that they offered him a few more starts at points races around the world. He turned professional in 2003, and one year later he found himself on the start line of the ITU World Championships in Portugal. He finished as the second American (behind Kemper), earning him a spot on Team USA for that summer’s Athens Games. He finished a respectable 22nd on a grueling course in Athens, and then flew home and had the Olympic rings tattooed on his shoulder. He’d achieved his lifelong dream. Now what?
The Middle Act
Potts married his college sweetheart, Lisa, after the Athens Olympics, and with the arrival of their son, Boston, two years later, triathlon became more of a business than ever before. There was no way he was going back to selling payroll services from a cubicle. His yeoman-like approach to his profession earned him the title of Ironman 70.3 world champion in 2007, and the following year he began a decade-long quest to win the biggest race of them all in Kona. It’s been a quest filled with highs and lows, but over the last 10 years, he’s been arguably the most consistent performer in the world on the Big Island. He’s only missed one race, in 2013, when a stress fracture forced him to pull out on race morning.
“I remember trying to run down the hallway of the Sheraton to test it and see if I could race at 10:30 the night before,” he says. “I couldn’t even make it 50 yards. That year was tough.”
Throughout the good times and the bad, his family has been there to provide perspective. Lisa, a gymnast who went on to perform in the Cirque du Soleil production of “O” in Las Vegas, survived a cancer scare in 2005. “After that we decided to live our lives on our own terms,” he says. After a particularly painful race in Kona in 2010, Boston was there to snap Potts back to reality. After shuffling across the finish line in 21st place, Boston tackled him and exclaimed, “Daddy—you won!”
“I was questioning everything in that moment,” he says. “I thought I’d never figure the race out and that I wasn’t cut out for it. But in my son’s eyes I was still a champion. That meant everything to me.”
The Final Chapter
So what’s left to prove for a guy who’s won 57 career races, a Pan-Am Games gold, a 70.3 world title, and has been unquestionably the most dominant American triathlete of the past decade? Quite simply: nothing. And that has Potts coming into 2018—his 16th season as a professional—feeling lighter than ever before.
“A lot of my attitude now has to do with the fact that everyone I’m racing against is so much younger than me,” he says. “Some of these guys are half my age—and I just don’t care. I don’t think about that when I race. I want to beat them as much as they want to beat me.”
With the wisdom of age comes modifications to his training routine, which has evolved throughout his career. He reintroduced weight training during the off-season in an attempt to boost his testosterone and enhance recovery, and he’s moved past a decade-long focus on keeping it lean.
“I think 40-year-old Andy would tell 30-year-old Andy to be patient and stop being so concerned with being skinny. The weight will be proportioned eventually when you’re doing the right activity to support your racing,” he says. “But I’d also tell myself not to be too patient, because I think there’s value in thinking your next race could be your last. You need that hint of urgency. Maybe now I could take a few lessons by my 30-year-old self when it comes to being crazy hungry.”
That hunger that’s been with him since he was a teenage swimmer isn’t going away anytime soon. Just because he’s 41 doesn’t mean he’s retiring this year or next. If Potts has his way, he’ll be racing well after Brady wins his final Super Bowl ring. There’s a lot Potts still wants to accomplish as an athlete. He wants to try an Xterra, even though he’s admittedly a terrible mountain biker. He’d also like to run a stand-alone marathon and thinks he can finish in 2:20. And he has every intention of returning to Kona and finishing in the money again.
“I’ve always said I’ve got seven more years in me. I think I’ve been saying that for eight years,” he says. “I think I’ve got two or three more years where I can be as good as anybody on one day. Maybe I can’t be as competitive day in and day out, but on any given day, I’ll still be able to put up a fight. This gig is too good to give it up anytime soon.”