Sam Kristensen: Playing for a Purpose
by Brad Culp
Ed. Note—Wattie Ink Elite Team member Sam Kristensen gives everything he has to the athletes he coaches, and then he gives away their money to the greater good. Chief storyteller Brad Culp returns for a window into the life of an incredibly altruistic triathlete.
The best coaches have one thing in common: they’re not in it for the money. Sure, a handful of triathlon coaches have done pretty well for themselves, and rightfully so. Helping achieve something like a world championship or Olympic medal should come with a modest reward: at least enough to continue coaching and avoid getting a real job. Think back to your favorite coach growing up, whether they focused on swimming, soccer, track, or whatever other sport led you down the road to becoming a triathlete as an adult. Chances are they weren’t rolling up to games or meets in a brand new S-Class. If they had a car, that meant they were pretty good at saving money.
“High school coaching is essentially a volunteer job,” says coach-turned-triathlete Sam Kristensen. “You’re basically making enough to cover your gas.” Kristensen would know. He has been coached or he’s been a coach for practically his entire life. He grew up playing baseball in Southern California, and he’s spent his adult life mentoring kids on the baseball diamond as a coach, as well as in school as a high school counselor in Boise. He’s since added “triathlon coach” to his resume, but he has little in common with the typical fanatical triathlete who gets a USAT coaching certificate in hopes of cultivating a humble side-hustle.
Not that he isn’t hustling. Since doing his first race in 2015, Kristensen has finished 31 more triathlons and has carved out an ample amount of the coaching business in a town is tailor made for tri. From newbies gearing up for their first sprint race at the local YMCA to Ironman veterans aiming for PRs, he coaches roughly a dozen athletes at a time, providing training plans as well as advice on gear, nutrition, and every other nuance of sport.
It appears Kristensen’s coaching business is booming, except that he hasn’t made a single dollar. His clients do indeed pay him for his services, but every dollar that comes in immediately goes right back out to a local charity. Sometimes it’s a charity an athlete is passionate about. Take Dawn, a healthcare worker from Utah. She hired Kristensen to help get her to an Ironman finish line, and when all was said and done, he donated his coaching fees to a hospice in Utah that helps homeless people with terminal diseases die with dignity and comfort.
If an athlete doesn’t have a particular charity he or she is passionate about, Kristensen donates the money to a local charity in Boise. A personal favorite is the Boise YMCA, which he sees as vital to the continued growth of the sport in his hometown.
“Not only are they helping lower income families live healthier, more active lifestyles, but they’re an integral part of the triathlon scene here in Boise,” he says. “They put on sprint races with pool swims that help bring new people into the sport.”
In Kristensen’s eyes, coaching and giving are one and the same, and it’s something he’s experienced firsthand since growing up as a baseball player just north of San Diego. That led to college baseball at the University of Redlands, assistant coaching as a graduate student, and then high school coaching (as well as a stint as athletic director) in Boise. Now 39, Kristensen has spent most of his life surrounded by coaches, and he’s learned that good coaching is about a lot more than just performance results. He’s now trying to instill that principle in the next generation, starting with his former high school in Escondido, Calif., where he’s created a scholarship for two first generation college-bound students. It’s a modest amount—just $1,000 for a pair of students each year—but it’s about the message as much as the money.
“I work with the faculty to look for students who have been active in the community and have the ambition to contribute through volunteerism. We want to find those students who are engaged with helping others,” he says.
He calls it all “Playing for Purpose,” and while it’s not likely to become triathlon’s next mega-charity, it’s a small way he can give back through the sport that has helped him find health and happiness as an adult. Five years ago, he was your typical American high school athletic director. He was working long hours and steadily gaining weight, because that’s what you do when you’re a high school AD.
It was only after he ballooned to more than 220 pounds that he decided enough was enough, and he could no longer ignore the fact that Ironman 70.3 Boise was quite literally in his backyard. He quit working as AD to get back to coaching and counseling, signed up for his first half-Ironman, hired a coach (of course) and shed more than 50 pounds training for that first race. The lighter and leaner Kristensen proved to be a multisport natural, and he even nabbed a roll-down slot to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Austria at his first race in Boise. His second race ever was a world championship 5,400 miles from home. He was hooked.
After working together for a handful of other races, Kristensen’s coach, Antonio Gonzalez, realized his new prodigy was as much of a natural at coaching as he was at tri, and asked him to take on a few of his growing list of clients. Thrilled about the prospect of coaching athletes in a new sport, Kristensen flew to Seattle to get his USAT certification and began taking on a few of Gonzalez’ athletes. As word of mouth spread and his list of clients grew, Kristensen had what could’ve been a profitable side business, but the thought of spending the extra income on new tri gear or maybe a home improvement project never crossed his mind. He didn’t get into it for the money, and now he had an opportunity for his new passion to contribute to the greater good, even it’s just a few hundred bucks at a time.
“My passion is that I’m an educator, and that’s my income,” he says. “Triathlon is something that I happened to fall in love with, and I’ve always been an educator and coach. I’ve always been around coaches who have given up their time and talents basically for free. Seeing how that impacted me as a student athlete, coach and athletic director, it’s always been hardwired into me to do what you can, even if it’s not much.”
Find out more about Playing for Purpose at www.playingforpurpose.com or follow Kristensen on Twitter at @samMOvember