Becoming an Olympian is not just about loving a sport or even being good at one. It's about lifelong dedication, time and passion. Greg Billington, 2016 Olympic triathlete knows that first hand. After many years of major wins and devastating missteps, he finally made his way to the Olympics in Rio for the 2016 games. There, he didn't reach the goal he initially set out to achieve but what he did gain meant so much more. Ahead, Greg tells us what fueled him towards the ultimate stage.
On how he got his start:
Being a triathlete was not something I began on a whim. It began when I was young, in the midst of the under nine-years-old, 50 Meter Fly during the Suffolk County Championships. I started dreaming about becoming an Olympian about one second after winning that race. So what if my older brother and I had started swimming because he was getting pudgy and my parents realized I didn’t like to shower?
At about 14, I was around 5 feet tall, so I figured swimming was out of the question. I picked up running in high school, where I set some records and won championships. Eventually, I qualified to represent the USA at the Junior Elite World Triathlon Championships in Switzerland, but there was always the question of whether I was talented enough to give it a shot. There was never a clear answer, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did not put in a concerted effort to qualify for an Olympic Team.
Throughout college, my Olympic goals maintained their fervor while I continued qualifying for the Under 23 National Team. In 2011, my senior year at Wake Forest (Go Deacs!), my performances were percolating and I started considering what it would take to make the 2012 London Olympics. That was until I was hit by a car while bicycling and broke both my arms.
Photo by V. Sloniewicz
On his first attempt at making the Olympics
My professional career was off to a rather inauspicious start and I spent an entire summer double-casted. They have invented these nifty large rubber ‘arm bags’ that allow a person in a cast to swim and somehow, within about four months of breaking my arms, I returned to a 4th place finish at the U23 Elite World Championships.
Suddenly, I was a dark horse for the 2012 Olympic Team. Having not raced all summer, my world ranking was essentially one millionth and I would have to race around the world in a 'Hail Mary' attempt to qualify for trials.
China, Australia, Ecuador, Peru… I was going everywhere, but it became decidedly inconvenient as the ticket fees mounted. The night after a race in Australia, I thought I’d reached the qualification standard when the requirements for the final Olympic Trials race shifted. I had to race once more, at the last chance points race… in Brazil.
Two weeks later, half a world away, I was at the mandatory pre-race briefing sitting with the three other kids who spoke English – Connor Murphy, Ethan “EZ Breezy” Brown, and William McJunkin Huffman. About the only things we gleaned from the briefing were that the rectangular swim had a brutal current and the bike course would probably have some stray dogs.
The next day, I’d put in a solid swim and was in a good position in the front bike pack. Sprinting out of a corner, suddenly my chain snapped.
Amidst the jeers of the local spectators, I dejectedly walked my bike to transition. A couple minutes later, however, I see… Connor Murphy. Riding very slowly. To myself, I say “this man looks like he’s dropping out.”
Sprinting after him, I shouted, “Connor! Connor! I need your bike!” He stops, stares at me and, being the nice Irishman that he is, says ‘for sure!’ So I jump on his bike. “Connor, my shoes don’t fit. I need your shoes!” We swap shoes. Now on a bike that’s much too tall and shoes that were much too small, I mash the pedals until I am a minute behind the front pack and it’s time for a 10k sprint.
Somehow, I end up on the podium. My world ranking jumped and I was last guy to score a spot on the 70 man (to be fair, I was number 69…) World Championship Series race that served as the final US Olympic Qualification Event.
I’d like to say this first attempt was successful, but sadly I ended up being the 3rd American on a two-man Olympic Team. So, essentially, just another man.
On his journey to the Rio
In 2014, disaster struck – I broke my femur from running too much, too fast. I started having terrible flashbacks to my experience in 2012.
These injuries are roughest not at the beginning, but about 2/3rds of the way through. It is then that the realization slowly sunk in that not only was I not good enough four months prior, but I’d be even worse now. I had a long way to go to be as fit as I had been, but in order to qualify for the Olympics, I would need to be much faster.
This is when I discovered Death Wish Coffee. I was broken, and in those six months of injury time, I immediately dove into GMAT study material, a steady stream of coffee, and then beer and Breaking Bad to pass out in the evening. Anything to keep my mind off the injury.
A 780 GMAT and Walter White’s absolute survival and total implication of a future series later, I was back at it. I finished the year with a win at the Hong Kong Triathlon and was thinking about going to the Olympics again.
I could not waste a race in 2015 or I would miss the qualifying races and my Olympic journey would be over. I started with 6th place at the New Plymouth World Cup and consistently finished myself in the top 10 to become one of the favorites as the US Olympic Qualification began.
To begin the qualification process, we had the Olympic test event in Rio De Janeiro. Every country used this as a qualification race, so it was essentially an Olympic preview. I had a solid day, ending up 15th and top American. This put me in the driver’s seat to qualify, but I wanted more. You don’t go to the Olympics to finish 15th.
Our next qualification race was at a major international triathlon in Stockholm. I was fitter, faster, leaner than in Rio but with 1k remaining of the race, I felt my foot break. I hobbled home in 21st.
I waited out the rest of painful season, watching my international ranking drop, but still leading the only thing I cared about – the US Olympic qualification race. I came back for the last race of the season, a necessary qualifier for the final qualifier the next year. Despite not running for 2 months, I somehow prevailed, sprinting to 5th.
2016 began. I was in the best position for the Olympic Team and had just finished my best season ever. I had a bit of swagger. I started out the season solidly, rolling a couple top 10 finishes against the competition I’d likely be facing in Rio.
Disaster struck shortly thereafter. My hip was in huge amounts of pain. I couldn’t run. Doctors had no idea what was going on, but the final trials race was approaching. I had no choice but to line up so I did. Luckily, with how many points I had scored while healthy, I could afford to hobble to the side of the road, drop out, and still qualify for the Olympics. I was on the Olympic Team.
Of course, just qualifying is never enough. The moment I knew I was competing, it wasn’t a wave of relief, but a deluge of responsibility and excitement. This was it and I knew the next few months I would have to put in a lot hard work. The only bright side of which was that work would necessitate a huge amount of coffee.
The hip pain, however, had not disappeared. I was diagnosed with another femoral stress reaction. This was no fracture, but it meant creative training and certainly no racing until the Olympics. I was not training as much as I wanted to, but I worked around the injury with time on a special treadmill, as well as additional swimming and more intense cycling.
Finally, the eight pounds of calcium supplements and 15 servings of dairy per day paid off and I was training sooner than expected. There were no excuses and nothing left to do except pound some coffee and put it all on the jittery line. I had devised a plan to maximize my potential at this race and there was no point in second guessing. I had either committed right, or I had committed wrong. When the race ended I would see if I had gambled correctly.
On the Olympics
Like coffee left in the freezer, I was flat, missing the main bike pack by seconds out of the water. I was fighting for the minor positions, but I had not spent this many years training to not leave everything on the course. Out of the 15 guys I finished the ride with, it came down to the least consequential sprint finish of all time and I dominated.
This was not the result I had trained to achieve, but I started this journey to find the best of myself and be pushed to the limit of my talent. There is no better way to accomplish those goals than to compete on biggest stage and train under some of the greatest coaches. I was lucky enough to have done that. Being surrounded by some of the world’s most talented, ambitious athletes had reshaped my definition of excellence and its pursuit. And, I mean, you can’t consume as many canisters of coffee beans as I had without learning something.