TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I have wanted to do this interview for a long time. Life finally slowed down enough for me to sit down and talk triathlon with former TCSD President, Thomas Johnson. It was worth the wait. I hope you’ll enjoy the story behind the man who very successfully steered our club’s course over the past couple of years.
Craig: What was your athletic background before you got into triathlon?
Thomas: I grew up swimming in the pool, ocean and body surfing at the beach and couldn’t wait for our weekend trips and summer vacations on Balboa Island in Newport Beach as a kid. My father loved sailing and was a huge fan of water sports. He made my brothers, sisters and I all swim out to the buoys in Newport Harbor each year to prove our waterman capabilities before we could be left alone to swim and play in the bay, use the sailboat (Sabot), and our 50lb homemade 1960’s paddle board. The “swim test” was to swim from the shore out to the first set of anchored boats and touch or go around the buoy. No pulling up short! I was also really into “Action Sports” growing up: Skateboarding & BMX. I made the whole transition in skateboarding from steel wheels to clay to poly urethane. In my early corporate career I played a lot of golf and that was really my sport before triathlon.
Craig: How did you get your start as a triathlete?
Thomas: I got into triathlon by accident in the summer of 2001. The high tech start up I was working for in Boston collapsed and I suddenly found myself with a lot of free time. I had been swimming at the Cove for years and recently taken up masters swimming and the new craze of spin classes at the Sporting Club in UTC in 1996. Our masters swim & spin coach, Kevin Bree, suggested one afternoon while I was lounging at the pool that I should put my training to the test and do a Triathlon! I burst out laughing! He wondered what I thought was so funny. I told him I thought there was a huuuuge difference between doing a triathlon and taking a one hour spin class and swimming a few thousand yards in the pool a few times a week. I started talking about the ONLY triathlon I knew (Hawaii Ironman) and confirming the distances for each discipline. I hadn’t run or ridden a bike since I had a horrific crash in 1980 (9 fractures including a skin puncturing compound fracture) in my left forearm or run in twenty years. He then started laughing just as hard as I had. He said you don’t have to do an Ironman to do a triathlon and there are other distances in the sport. He mentioned that the Sprint Distance at the Mission Bay Triathlon was just a month away. It sounded like a great idea. I signed up the next day and proceeded to build a bike from scratch using a borrowed frame and a combination of new & used spare parts. That bike was a 61 cm frame. Later I was properly measured and fitted for the 56cm frame I currently ride. Next I acquired a pair of running shoes at Road Runner Sports. Then I spent the next 3 weeks “training” and finished the Mission Bay Tri in just under 1 hour 45 minutes. (2002MB Tri 1:13) I was nearly dead last in my age group but hooked on triathlon and endurance sports! I signed up and did Catalina Triathlon in November 2001 and then had to wait 6 months for the next Triathlon in San Diego. There really was an off season for TCSD and triathlon back then.
Craig: Please also tell us how you came to join the TCSD.
Thomas: I first met folks from TCSD swimming at the Cove in the late 90’s. I thought they were crazy and ALL training for Ironman distance tri’s. Jim McCann (TCSD President at the time) started up the last Friday of the month potlucks at the Cove which is now a hallowed summertime tradition for club members. Back then TCSD used one baby Weber grill for the entire group. Only one or two members could grill at a time. Jim offered me a few hamburgers over the summers which I loved. Food. The first ingredient of “TCSD’s Secret Sauce”. I was waiting for the club to start showing up again at the Cove in the spring of 2002. When they rolled in that May I ran up and asked “How do I join the club?” Jim handed me a newsletter and the last page was the membership application. I filled it out and paid right there. My next question to Jim was the fatal one and led to my long term volunteering in the club. “When is the first Pot Luck?” He put his hand on my shoulder and said “I have a job for you”. I was the Pot Luck Captain in 2002 and 2003. Next I helped with the club’s social activities for a couple of years until I was lucky enough to become the Open Water Swim Director in 2007. I led the La Jolla Shores Monday night swims and La Jolla Rough Water & Gatorman summer training sessions through 2012. I was elected President in September 2009 and served until August 2012. I am enjoying my retirement from the leadership role in the club. After a nice fall/winter break I’m stoked to be enjoying the club’s first class workouts, meetings and special events. After 12 years it is still great to be a member of the club!
Craig: You really did a great job as TCSD President! What things got accomplished during your 3 years in the position?
Thomas: Thank you. One of the main motivators that inspired me to run for office was I wanted our great club to be easily recognized at events like the awesome club we were. At the time it was very difficult to identify a club member during a race in our kits and find the club booth at expos. We had about 15 white pop up tents in storage and most of them were broken and in pieces. I had a vision for what I wanted to achieve but after consulting with some design folks I realized we needed to update the club logo in order to design the branded materials to showcase our club. I reached out to Fuston Creative (Arch & Christy) for some logo design ideas and they delivered. Using our new logo (3rd version since the club was created) we updated and unified all the club marketing materials and invested in quality pop up tents, table covers, flags, car decals, uniforms & social media sites. Now it is super easy to see and recognize the club at events at home and away and see and cheer on your fellow club members while training and competing in our uniforms.
Secondly we made a complete redesign and added a ton of functionality to the club website. We automated our membership application and renewal features; online race registration; member profiles; our galleries; and so much more I can’t remember all the enhancements. John Hill, our VP & CIO, personally led and implemented this major upgrade.
I can’t say enough about how proud I am that we were able to lobby and assist USA Triathlon in convincing the ITU to bring one of their 8 major races back to the United States and choose San Diego to host it. The club showed up in major numbers in all areas: members racing; members volunteering; 25 members in leadership roles as ITU Captains managing the critical areas of putting on a world-class first time event for TCSD in San Diego. TCSD dominated the large club division and captured First Place in the Triathlon Club Challenge.
We made some significant changes to our Sponsorship Program for companies looking to promote their brands to our membership and added a brand new category for Race Directors to promote their races to the club. These changes resulted in a significant increase of killer merchandise, vouchers, and race entries to our monthly raffles and provided us the ability to reward volunteers who have made significant contributions to the club with a comp entry to a race and so much more.
Finally we tackled the seriously outdated club bylaws project. Rob Kornegay and John Hill spent a ton of hours bringing the bylaws up to code and current law and in alignment with how the club was and is run. It’s a solid frame work for running the club and providing a biannual leadership change while retaining some continuity to ensure smooth transitions while continuing to offer opportunities for all members who wish to serve in a leadership position.
Craig: What accomplishment are you the most proud of as President?
Thomas: First the club is still stronger than ever, functioning very well and growing. i.e. I didn’t screw it up and crash it into the ground. What really stands out for me is that while the club has grown so much, we continue to focus on our main mission of offering the training, information and camaraderie for first time athletes regardless of age, weight, ability.
Craig: Often times what people perceive to be reality is not really the case. What are some of the realities of TCSD President that people might not be aware of?
Thomas: Being President of the “Greatest Club on the Planet” is a 7/24/365 day commitment. I did not really understand or appreciate just how much time goes into running the club and keeping all of the different components moving forward. The reality is the entire board and leadership team of the club make a huge personal investment into making the club what it is. I would really like to encourage all members to look into volunteering one or two hours per month/quarter to help the club run smoothly and efficiently. If you don’t see a volunteer position listed that calls out to you then create one and offer it up. We have so many hidden talents in the club we discover every day.
Craig: What were some of the funnier things that you experienced as President?
Thomas: This is a little embarrassing. More than a few times I would be at an event in town or out of town chatting it up and someone would mention I was the TCSD President and the individual I’m chatting it up with would say “You’re the Tri Club San Diego President?” the oldest and largest Tri Club on the planet? I realized that people’s expectations were that the President of the Tri Club must have the physique of the current Ironman World Champion. I’m still working on that.
Craig: What kinds of sacrifices did you make to be President? Was it worth it?
Thomas: Shortly after taking office in October 2009 my employer (Arrow ECS) decided to shut down its 3 California fields offices and offer relocation packages to Denver. I chose to stay in San Diego. The US economy was in a freefall and the job market tanked. I chose to start doing “Independent Contracting Projects” which allowed me the flexibility in my schedule and time to pour my heart and soul into the club living my endurance sports dream! Yes. I put my career on hold for a few years but they were 3 awesome years I will always cherish and feel great about! When you love what you’re doing it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I also got to meet the leaders, legends and innovators of Triathlon and Endurance Sports from around the world. Shhh…Many of them live right here in San Diego!
Craig: You had a great team of support help. Who were some of the people who made the TCSD look as good as it did during your watch?
Thomas: The club has and always has had an amazing team of people working in front of the camera and behind scenes creating the magic of TCSD.
First I would never have made it or achieved the results we did without John Hill. John is a pillar of reason and common sense. When things blew up, (and that can happen occasionally), John was there to provide guidance and help me work through the situation. Thank you John!
Thank you to the entire board: Mike Plumb, Wendy Harp, and Dave McMahon all gave more than I will ever be able to give back to them. Thank you Brian Wrona, our long serving Race Director, (Tri’s, Du’s, Aquathlons and Beginner Tri’s), your commitment to a lack of sleep on the weekends is immeasurable. Thank you Bob Babbitt, the Chief Muddy Buddy of TCSD, for your undying commitment to our club and our sport – whom without we would not have all the killer monthly guests at our meetings. A shout out to the Volunteer Leadership team (Listed in the TCSD Newsletter and on the Contacts section of the club website) you are the core of our club who make all of the daily, weekly, monthly events happen.
Now I’m going to mention a few names – you know what they do and I will apologize in advance for anyone I leave off here: Dean Sprague, Brian Long, Bob Cunningham, Jim Markwell, Steve Tally, Bethany Sotak, Craig Zelent, Dean Rosenberg, Ian Kelly, Deborah Wittich, Karl Johnson, Tanja Carter, Jim Vance, Trevor King, Darrell Steele, Dawn Copenhaver, Erin Hunter, Rachel Wills, Chad Homchen, Judi Carbary, Steve Banister, Gordon Clark, Richard Reilly, Cami Stark, Ken Schultle, Brian Maiorano, Amanda Scott, Bryan Diaz, Rick Summers, Jim Johnson, Bob Rosen, Jamie VanderBroden, Deborah Jones, Thao Vu, Linda Rich, Grace Van Der Byl, Ken & Anita Flagg, John Davis, Liz Olsen, Chuck Pateros. And ALL the ITU Volunteer Captains 2012. THANK YOU! I hear the academy playing the music… I could keep going but they are escorting me off stage…
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you like to see changed?
Thomas: As TCSD President I advocated hard for a race bib sale/transfer policy with all the race directors we interacted with, including and most importantly World Triathlon Corporation (Ironman). I am confident that WTC will be rolling out a sale/transfer policy in the next year as they finish updating their backend IT systems to automate this capability.
I’ve seen a trend recently with online registration tools charging multiple line item fee’s for race registration. I have never been a huge fan of Ticketmaster’s “multiple fees” for a concert ticket and I’m not loving this trend. I will be supporting races and race directors with my dollars that work to keep these fees reasonable and have bib transfer policies in place. Getting to the start line trained and healthy to race is 90% of the challenge.
Craig: How about in regards to the TCSD. What changes would you like to see for our club?
Thomas: Hmmmm… I would like to see the continued integration and embracement of social media and webtools to simplify and improve the communication to club members and sponsors of events, volunteer opportunities, training opportunities, clinics, nutritional information, and general sport related information. I would start with an upgrade/replacement of the yahoo email list. My dream addition: TCSD Mobile Application for Droids and iPhones.
Craig: You have been a long time member, what are your favorite memories as a TCSD member?
Thomas: My favorite memories are all at the finish line. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing someone who a few months earlier came to the club and had a dream of doing their first triathlon cross that line. I also cherish all of the people and friendships I developed through the club over the years. You’ve changed my life all for the better, I am so grateful for TCSD’s existence; I have grown so much and become a better person as a result of being a member of TCSD.
Craig: What do you do for a living now?
Thomas: I recently hung up my “independent contractor hat” and have taken a full time position at Websense in Sorrento Valley. I’m in sales and manage a territory in the Eastern time zone working 6A-3P. I’m really stoked about the opportunity and it’s perfect for all the training and racing I have planned.
Craig: Thomas, thank you for sharing your story. And my goodness – thank you so much for all you have done for our club and community. You absolutely succeeded in maintaining the friendly local feel our club has always offered, but also in giving the TCSD international visibility. The world is now watching us for the road map on how to do all things triathlon. You will always look like an Ironman World Champion in my eyes!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.