TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the pleasure recently of talking triathlon with one of TCSD’s most active volunteers, AJ Lawson. I originally met AJ when we sang Christmas Carols at local assisted living homes and also while serving the residents of St. Vincent de Paul. AJ is an original Team Solana member and someone you should know.
Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon?
AJ: My athletic background before beginning triathlon included some interesting sports. I grew up in San Diego and always road around on my BMX bike. I also did all the typical San Diegan kid activities like surfing, skating, roller blading, and swimming. I feel like I was the last generation on that cusp where we would come home from school and go hang out in the neighborhood with our friends until it was dark or we got hungry. Cellphones were still not a big thing! I loved cruising the streets on my bicycle, but I also enjoyed running. It wasn’t until the end of middle school that I first played an organized sport. I started out with pop-warner football and played for the Alvarado Patriots.
When high school began it was a whole new world of sports because of how many options we had. I was an oddball in that I played badminton, wrestled, and played football through my high school career. I was best at badminton and used football and wrestling to keep in shape and keep my connection with my non-Asian friends. Badminton is known as being an Asian sport. As a Caucasian kid playing badminton I definitely stood out. Out of all the sports I did growing up badminton came easiest to me. I ended up getting a badminton sponsorship from the top badminton company in the world. I played badminton for fitness up until 2008/2009. I coached badminton and competed in lots of tournaments. I have a few trophies and medals but I wasn’t willing to give up my life to train for badminton so I never became elite.
Craig: What led you to become a triathlete?
AJ: While watching television when I was young I was able to catch the Ironman World Championship Coverage. I was fascinated by the athletes and what they could put their bodies through. It was at around the age of 12 that I put triathlon on my radar. I kept the thought of competing in a triathlon race in the back of my mind throughout high school and into college knowing one day that I had to race. I always wanted to do something extreme and triathlon fit the bill. In 2009 I saw a post for a triathlon team through the Triathlon Club of San Diego. That team was Team Solana and was a fundraising team for TCSD. I joined the team and paid the fees as fast as possible. I loved the thought of giving back to something while also having a group to train with.
Craig: What was Team Solana and how did that help you complete your first triathlon?
AJ: Team Solana was a random group of people with one goal in mind: compete in a triathlon race. I joined the team in 2009 which was the first year it was introduced. I believe there were about 20 of us who joined the team. There was an information session followed by a Q & A. I got enough information from that to know that I wanted in. Our coaches included two guys names Steve and one guy named Dean. The team had people from all walks of life, overweight and out of shape to hard core runner. I knew this had to be the group for me.
The program was simple: Take people who have never raced a triathlon, give them all the tools and training needed to complete their first race, and support the tri community. Our team coaches put together workout schedules for the week and threw us right in the mix. We had pool swims, group bike rides, group runs, and these odd things called brick workouts. I went out and bought my first triathlon bike, my first pair of swimming goggles, and my first triathlon wetsuit. After our initial workouts I knew I was hooked and would love this sport. Our schedule consisted of coached beginner pool workouts at the TCSD rented pool during the week. It was here that I learned how bad I was at swimming and how I wish I had been forced to swim growing up. I slowly gained swim fitness and got a bit better at swimming. Run workouts I mostly did on my own whenever I had free time. The running came easy for me. If I had to pick which of the three disciplines I was best at in the beginning, it would have been the run.
Cycling was a completely new concept for me. Growing up riding BMX and mountain bikes I never thought I would be one of those spandex wierdos who get in the way of cars and ride with traffic. Oh how one learns quickly! Our team coaches started taking us out on the 56 bike path to get us comfortable riding distance and to gain a bit of cycling fitness. I started out cycling in board shorts, I thought I was way too cool for spandex. After my first few chaffing experiences I quickly bought some spandex shorts with the largest pad available. After our first few rides I was talked into buying shoes and clip-in pedals. This is when I experienced my first no speed crash. I never thought it was possible to crash while not moving but man was I wrong. After my first crash I had to let go of my pride and embrace the cycling lifestyle. Our 56 bike path rides became my favorite training events. It was here that I became good friends with the Christansen family as well as James Ismailoglu, Al Allington, Paula Munoz, Gordon Clark, Steve Tally, and a few others. The rides turned in to a race each week and we all started to push one another. After a couple weeks we started running as a group when we finished our rides. We ended our couple month long training program with two transition clinics and a beginner triathlon before the Solana Beach Triathlon. Solana Beach was my first real tri and it was such a pleasure having a tri family to race with and cheer for. Being a part of Team Solana taught me what the true meaning of community is. Team Solana Originals for life!
Craig: What have been some of your favorite races over the years?
AJ: There are so many great triathlons around the world now. One of my favorite races has to be Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens. Ironman Lake Stevens was held in Lake Stevens, Washington, 20 minutes east of Everett and about 45 minutes north east of Seattle. The race started out on this crystal clear fresh water lake which happened to be used for water skiing. While doing the swim you really didn’t have to sight because of a metal wire they use for ski buoys. The wire was always my life saver because I am terrible at sighting during swims.
The Bike course was beautiful as well. It started out in the town of Lake Stevens and was one large loop into the country and back. It was awesome to be riding on two lane roads surrounded by greenery and large trees. The air was crisp and around each corner was the surprise of livestock or a hill. During the ride I got to see horses, chickens, goats, alpacas, llamas, sheep, cattle, and the occasional deer. The run course was scenic as well and went around Lake Stevens. The true reason why this was my favorite 70.3 was the fact that my aunt and uncle own a home on the lake. They would host my friends and I and were fascinated that we would travel to do a triathlon. They were the most gracious hosts and always let any of my friends or acquaintances use their shower or hose post-race. Unfortunately Lake Stevens 70.3 was cancelled a few years back by Ironman.
Some of my other favorite races outside of San Diego are the Wildflower Triathlon and Ironman Arizona 70.3/140.6 These races are within driving distance and have so much to offer.
Craig: What have been some of the dumbest things you have done as a triathlete?
AJ: As triathletes, I feel we do a lot of really silly things while racing. I think it is called race brain and I tend to get a serious case of race brain. As you know my first real race was Solana Beach in 2009. I try to race in the Solana Beach Tri every year. I must admit that the third time I did that race I wore my helmet out of transition and about half of a mile onto the run. I had no idea why people were laughing and yelling at me, I just smiled and waved… I was finally able to ditch the helmet when I adjusted my sunglasses.
You would think that I would know that course well for how many times I have raced there, but somehow I still end up making mistakes. On at least two occasions I finished the race with no one near me and got really excited only to realize that I completely skipped the entire second loop of the run. When I raced Solana Beach this year, 2018, I had a lot of friends racing as well. When I got to the finish line I was chatting with my friend and fellow TCSD member Whitney Roline. Whit said she got first in her age group, then said: “the run is only one loop, right?’’ We had a good laugh and I reassured her that I missed the second loop on the run two years in a row!
Craig: What obstacles have been most challenging for you to overcome as a triathlete?
AJ: There are many obstacles in the sport of triathlon. What I feel is the hardest obstacle is training. It can be so hard to wake up at 5am to get a workout in or to work a full day and know you need to put in time on your bike. What really helps with this obstacle is will power and friends. It has been so nice over the years to have friends who I can workout with, race with, and volunteer with. In the end though, it comes down to our own will power and how much we are willing to give to achieve our goal. I have learned so much over the years thanks to this sport. It has taught me that I can accomplish anything if I set my mind to it and I believe the same is true for each and every individual who wants to complete a triathlon. We all start our journey somewhere and are all working toward the same goal, crossing that finish line!
Craig: You seemed to get involved in TCSD as soon as you joined. What have been some of the volunteer activities you have done for TCSD?
AJ: I am all about being involved in a community in which I have the opportunity to give back. After Team Solana I knew I wanted to jump right into the triathlon world. I started out volunteering wherever I could. By volunteering I was able to meet so many great people and make new friends. Many of the Team Solana members went on to have key positions in the club. My friend Jay Lewis became the race director for TCSD for a few years. Having Jay as a friend I got to learn about what it takes to pull permits for races and create a race schedule a year in advance so TCSD members can put their race season together. I also became friends with this guy Joe who had a Rottweiler named Max. Joe organized the monthly cove potlucks which are held once a month after the Friday night cove swim. Joe was really great at handing me his dog leash and spatula so he could get his swim in. My friend James started to lead the TCSD beginner bike rides on the 56 bike path. I was always willing to go help other beginners at this workout because it is where I first learned to cycle.
More recently I have been filling in the gaps wherever needed. I guess it was a good thing that I learned so much about the inner workings of the club. For the last year I have been helping with expo coordination, race directing, club meetings, TCSD storage management, and volunteer coordination. My Triathlon Club of San Diego experience has been absolutely amazing and I owe it all to the outstanding volunteers who put in so much time and effort to keep this club astonishing and number one. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes and it is so rewarding being able to give back to something that gives so much.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over triathlon, what would you change?
AJ: If I could wave a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, I would make sure races always had plentiful cow bells and spectators. In Europe, Challenge Roth is a major event and entire cities stop what they are doing and go outside to scream and cheer for those racing. My wand would ensure that any long distance triathlon maintains that energy and lets those racing know that they are supported. I feel like a lot of the local races in the USA were or are being bought out and some are losing their home town feel. I would wave that wand so hard and make all those races feel the same. I guess I was spoiled by being able to do a few 70.3 races in small towns where everyone in the town comes out to cheer and scream. Much of the time you are digging deep and fighting a tough mental battle with yourself to continue pushing and the energy and cheering from the sidelines is what really keeps me pushing. Thanks to all those who cheer their hearts out and ring those cow bells for hours. Oh and Craig, let me know when I can pick up my wand!
Craig: Who have been the most influential people in your life?
AJ: I have been so fortunate with my life. I am healthy, surrounded by people I love, and am able to give back to a community which is so supportive. My biological parents always encouraged me to work hard and complete tasks. They set me up for success in life and always support my brothers and sister in all our endeavors. My parents were there when I did my very first triathlon and were there when I completed my very first Ironman.
When I needed advice outside of my family circle I turned to my god parents or my best friend’s parents. I loved growing up having the advice of three separate sets of parents. I still tell all my friends that I have three sets of parents. I get to visit with each parenting couple weekly and am grateful for the love and support they continue to offer me. Thanks Jon, Karen, Tom, Diana, Paula, and Mark for all the advice and support you have given me throughout the years.
Craig: Do you have any sponsors that you’d like to mention?
AJ: My friend James told me how great it was being on Team Zoot for the 2017 season so I went ahead and applied for the 2018 season. Zoot is the original triathlon clothing brand and really know what they are doing when it comes to triathlon gear. It has been a pleasure racing with other Team Zoot members this season. Their one-piece kit is the only one piece I have ever been comfortable in. I am looking forward to working more with Zoot in the years to come.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
AJ: I love triathlon as a sport and I hope to continue using it as a lifestyle. I love that I have the option to swim, bike, and run. I do plan to complete another Ironman in my near future. I have always wanted to do a destination race in a country other than the USA. I think Challenge Roth or Ironman Ireland, Cork are right up my alley. I would like to be a bit more involved in the club in the future. I am hoping to run for President of tri club and build an awesome volunteer team. I would love to see TCSD become a shining example of what a good club is all about as well as giving back to the community we all love and are a part of.
Craig: AJ, thank you so much for sharing your story. You do a lot for TCSD and the community. We are lucky to have you. If you happen to become TCSD President, I know we’ll be in good hands. Good luck!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.