This month we feature Sarah Rockwell - you will probably never meet a person with a bigger heart. Sarah is a perfectionist and pours her heart and soul into all that she does. Like many athletes, Sarah's drive for perfection is what lead her to a very successful season - but her drive is also the cause of anxiety for her -- we have worked very hard to overcome any doubts or fears that were holding her back. If you have ever felt a sense of anxiety or fear and yet are pushed to conquer it, then you can relate to Sarah's story - she is a perfect example of how the right support system can be all that is needed to reach closer to perfection. We can all learn a little something from Sarah.
1. What was your endurance sports background prior to coaching.
Something a lot of people who know me now may not know is that I used to weigh 230 pounds. I’ve always wanted to be a distance runner, but have always struggled with running and my weight. I’d lose some pounds, get faster, get injured, gain weight back, get frustrated, give up for a while, then something would trigger me to try again. After watching my friend Teresa lose weight and gain confidence through accomplishments like marathons and triathlons, I decided I wanted to try it out, too. I tried a few sprint distances and an Olympic, and while I didn’t perform well, I had a good time doing it. Then, as per my usual, life dealt me some setbacks and I let myself go to the point I hit my all-time highest weight of 230 pounds.
Embarrassed and depressed, I took a leap of faith and started taking spin classes and seeing a personal trainer. In fact, I used to take one of my Evolve teammates Gerald's class and he’s the first person who told me about the Saint Louis Tri Club! As I worked with my trainer and finally started listening and seeing results, I realized all I wanted was to get back to triathlon and complete a full marathon. We made that our goal and we were excited to get through the winter and back into tri season. But he didn’t get to take that journey with me as a drunk driver killed him the night of Thanksgiving that year.
Knowing my history, and knowing how far we’d come together, I was worried I wouldn’t recover from losing him. It’s hard as an overweight person to muster the courage to work out in a gym full of fit people, and it’s even harder to trust someone not to judge you and to genuinely want to help you. How would I find that again? I was lucky to have found Brandon in the first place…but I knew he wouldn’t want me to give up or lose the progress we’d made, so I returned to a new trainer, who is now one of my friends and biggest supporters. I lucked out yet again when I found Sam and the Evolve team.
2. Why you wanted a coach?
After getting through my first marathon and half Ironman-distance race without formal coaching, I ended up burned out but wondering what I was capable of. After a short stint with another coach, I realized I was in overtraining and wasn’t ready to get back to training. I took some time off and talked to Sam, who was not only open to working with my trainer, but EXCITED that I had a strength coach. This was what I needed. She also understood my unique nutrition needs and was willing to help me learn about proper fueling within the parameters of what I could and couldn’t eat. Her positivity and excitement, paired with her knowledge, got me excited to really dive into triathlon with a renewed energy and hope for improvement.
3. How has being coached by Evolve helped to shape you?
Heading into my first few months with Sam was scary. I think we all know her reputation as being an intense but awesome coach, but what no one told me was that she was going to get to really KNOW me, as a person and as an athlete, and would help me through so much more than technique and training plans. She helped me overcome an ankle injury to PR my second marathon by over 13 minutes. She helped me see how mentally strong I actually am, even though I still doubt it every single day. She is confident in me when I am not confident in myself – I get to borrow her faith in me and channel it into strength to just keep going. I know she’s in my corner and rooting for me, and sometimes that’s all I need to get up and get through one more workout.
4. What does Evolve mean to you?
This team is the most supportive group of people, but I gotta tell you, it’s intimidating as f*&k to be surrounded by such amazing athletes. It’s inspiring for sure, but sometimes being surrounded by so many awesome athletes scares the hell outta me. I’m not big on large group outings of any kind, so I tend to avoid group workouts, but I’ve joined some group rides this season that have both kicked my ass as well as shown me how important it is to be surrounded by a positive support system. Friday swims have also done wonders for me, but I still struggle with contact in the water - although I get over it in a few.
5. What workout(s) shaped your approach to racing this season?
My first swim camp was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I’m not an aggressive or competitive person (except with myself, which is why I’m drawn to this sport), so being dropped in a lane with lots of aggressive swimmers I barely knew (cough…Tim Fowler - my dear teammate…cough) triggered a lot of my fears and anxieties. I had moments of swimming while crying and getting run over (again, cough…Tim Fowler…cough), wanting to get out of the pool and not come back, and even a few moments of feeling like I belonged there. Getting through that was mentally exhausting and pushed me to my anxiety limits, but taught me a lot about myself and how to deal with things that make me uncomfortable. And Tim, you probably had no idea, but I was so happy when you moved lanes later in the session…it’s funny because now we swim really well together, but man…I kind of wanted to punch your face off that day.
6. What was your most memorable race this season?
Ironman 70.3 Ohio…I had never trained so intensely for something in my life. I’d dropped almost 20 pounds and was without a doubt in the best shape I’ve ever been for a race, but was TERRIFIED of the swim. I’d done many open water practices, talked to teammates about how they deal with open water anxiety, pictured a good swim, gotten in the water the day before to get a feel for it…absolutely everything I could have done in advance was done. And as I stood on the beach waiting for our wave to go in, I was shaking and crying and terrified of the swim. The ladies in my wave were so kind and rallied around me, telling me how scared they were too, and to just swim my swim. I knew the rest of the day would be awesome if I could just get through this terrifying ordeal. As we stood in the water waiting for the countdown, I started telling myself how strong I was and how I’ve swam this distance so many times before. I could do this. The countdown ended and I counted to ten again, hung outside and started my swim. The whole time, I was just telling myself to stay calm, go at a speed that let my heart rate stay controlled for now – we would hit high gear at the last turn, but I could take it slower now to stay out of panic mode. Every time an arm or leg hit me, I pointed out to myself that I didn’t die, so it was fine to get touched because I would survive. At the first turn, the sun came out and promptly made sighting insanely tough, but I’d practiced that. I ended up swimming wide enough to hit a kayak, but just put myself back on track and kept going. I was fine. The buoys changed color eventually, signaling halfway, and I told myself to focus on how strong I felt. Most swims I hit a period of time where my arms feel exhausted at the start, but I never felt that this time. I just felt strong and capable. Coming into the second turn, I told myself this was the time to dig deep. Get in the fray. Stay tight to the buoys and swim your heart out. These last 600 meters are nothing you haven’t killed before, so kill it again. I got swam over and under and hit and kicked and still pushed forward. I sprinted as much as I could at the end and could have cried when my feet hit the sand. IT WAS OVER. I DID IT. And when I looked at my watch, I was surprised to see that I was actually right at my projected time.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I rode the bike as hard as I felt I could to still be able to run, though I know now I could have pushed a little more. And when I got to the run, my feet were killing me from the bike, so the first mile was a bit of a question as to whether I was able to keep going, but once things calmed down, I hit my stride and stayed there, PRing my open half marathon time. HELLO? How awesome is that???
I cried again when I crossed the finish line, this time with joy instead of fear, knowing all the hard work I’d done paid off. I PRed by over 40 minutes and crossed the line with energy to spare. It’s an amazing feeling to know your body and mind propelled you across 70.3 miles, and it’ll be even more amazing next year when I finally accomplish what I once thought was impossible – 140.6!
7. How did being coached help you at your A race this season?
I doubted myself every single second leading up to Ohio, all while Sam encouraged me and told me how she knew I’d rock it. Then it was race day and we were going and it was happening…and I knew how to deal with every step along the way because Sam prepared me for it. I knew not to sweat the things I couldn’t control, to focus on what I could control and push myself. She was there, reminding me how many miles were built up in my legs, how capable I was of doing this, how worthy I was to be racing that day…I raced with a quiet confidence that was completely borrowed from the hours of training leading up to that day, the endless journal responses of encouragement and positivity and the knowledge that I was as prepared as I could be because I have the right team in place to get me to that finish line faster and stronger than ever.