Q&A With Olympic Triathlete Joe Maloy: Identity, the Process, and Transitioning from Amateur Sports

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

By Taylor Covington, Swimming World College Intern.

On the macro-scale, an athlete’s time in competitive sports occupies a rather narrow sliver of life. Some are ushered out by the middle school “cut lists” taped to the gym door, while others fall victim to the abrupt finality of injury. Many retire with the emergence of a diploma and desk job, while a privileged few hold fast until biology has its say. Inevitably, though, true competition has a way of blotting out its participants to make way for each new and fresh wave of talent, disappearing in one precious, fleeting blink of an eye. There’s something truly formative about the athletic experience in that it defines us in various respects for the rest of our lives. Swimming World sat down with former World Champion and Olympic Triathlete, Joe Maloy, to discuss the relationship between sport and identity as well as the transition out of amateur and elite athletics.

A former Boston College swimmer, Maloy pursued the elite and Olympic dream after collegiate competition–in a different sport. While triathlons proved to be a natural transition for Maloy, who debated running track or swimming collegiately, he has always attributed a large portion of his success to his time as a Division I swimmer. During his professional competitive career, Maloy represented the USA in 21 different countries across six continents. He anchored Team USA to its first-ever world championship in the mixed team relay and competed at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He has won numerous races of prestige, including The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and The Noosa Triathlon. His win at Noosa marked the first time an American male or female triathlete won the world’s largest triathlon. Joe retired from professional competition in 2017 but is looking forward to returning to the sport in multiple facets.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

Swimming World: How do you think collegiate swimming impacted your life and your career as an elite athlete?

Maloy: It was huge. I came to Boston College in 2004, and I was from a small town where no one really understood the recruiting process. I was debating whether I should swim or run track collegiately, but there was just something about the swimming mindset that I’ve always really related to. That’s carried me throughout my life. I think swimming is the only sport in the world where athletes think shaving their legs and tapering makes them 30 percent faster, but it works because it serves as a sort of energy you can get swept up in. It messages that there’s something within you that you’re able to tap into, as long as you’re in the right environment and have the right support network. Boston College swimming offered that to me, and it taught me to love the process. Some people come out of the sport hating it, and others come out just wanting to make money. I came out really wanting it to still be a part of my life, which guided me to everything I’ve been able to do thus far.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

SW: You’ve said in previous interviews that you chose to shave and suit up for most dual meets at the end of your senior season. Why? What was your mindset as you prepared to transition out of amateur athletics?

Maloy: I didn’t know that I was going to pursue a career as an elite athlete until after I graduated. It’s kind of funny, but I viewed the back-half of my senior season as the taper to my swimming career. I knew swimming would be a part of what was next for me, but I just couldn’t put myself in those shoes yet. In hindsight, I think it was my way of coping with what I thought was the end of my competitive career. I had been an athlete chasing results and victories for as long as I could remember. It was such a core part of my identity, and I knew I wasn’t ready to give that up. If I was forced to, I was going to go out with a grand finale.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

SW: Similarly, many collegiate athletes report struggles with retirement because they have trouble separating the self and the sport. Most athletes place at least some of their identities and self-worth in their athletic performances. How do you grasp that distinction – especially as a professional athlete whose sponsorships may rest on sports performance?

Maloy: I wish I had a good answer for that. It’s hard, but it’s also not a problem specific to sport. I would actually argue that it’s healthy to tie your identity to the process of sport but very unhealthy to tie your identity to your results. Sports preparation is linked to a lot of advantageous qualities: work ethic, reliability, etc. And I think there’s really something to attempting a feat that seems hard, conquering it, and doing it over and over again until it becomes easy. I often draw from the John Steinbeck quote from East of Eden: “So often men trip by being in a rush.” You have to identify those “difficult and subtle act[s]” that you find desirable, but then, you “forget [them] completely and concentrate solely on the means.” That’s the process, and that’s where you should focus and grow.

People are hesitant to assign themselves an identity based off of their actions, but if you quit during practice, you’re a quitter. If you push yourself in practice, you’re a hard-worker. But again, you have to be cognizant of the distinction between the process and the result. When [our relay team] won the World Championships, we were the best team in the world that day. I was at the top of my sport, but I want people to know that that’s not all there is. That part doesn’t change you. Accolades feel good for a few minutes, but at the end of the day, you’re still the same person with the same insecurities. You can address that by tying your identity to the process.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

SW: What was that decision like to retire from sports at 31 years old in 2017? How was that transition out of competition?

Maloy: Well, I still don’t know for sure if I’ve retired or quit, but I have had a really hard time with this. After the 2016 Olympics, I came back to my lousy studio apartment above someone’s garage where the electricity was so bad, I had to pay attention to where I plugged things in or else I’d trip the breakers. On one hand, I had everything I had ever wanted, but I was just so sad. I remember sitting there and thinking, “This all isn’t worth it.”

I’ve always wanted to think that I was more than what I was doing, but I got to a point where I wanted this Olympic dream more than I wanted a relationship, or to see my friends get married, or to go home for Thanksgiving. I prioritized my training and recovery over all of that. I was also drawing from this perspective that I hadn’t achieved what I wanted. No one thinks about going to the Olympics and getting twenty-third, but I think athletes’ minds are trained to think of what they don’t have. Of course I’m proud, but I needed some time to be out of it and realize the importance of sport in my life. I also needed to see how I made decisions when sports weren’t my top priority and relate to people who weren’t doing what I was doing every day. There’s a cost to everything. I paid the cost. I was a winner, and I got what I wanted. I realized that while I was grateful for that, I wasn’t ready to pay that cost again.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

SW: If athletes benefit from tying some aspects of their identities to the process – and given that collegiate and/or professional athletics aren’t feasible for everyone – what advice would you give to swimmers preparing to transition out of organized, competitive athletics?

Maloy: I would encourage those people to think about what aspects of their environments make it easy and enjoyable to swim each day. Decide if it’s being around your teammates, having the accountability of a coach, or if it’s just convenient to get to the pool. Find those things you take for granted and what things disappear when you no longer have the structure of your sport. Then, try and create that structure for yourself. Even if you’re forced into something completely different, keep that sports mindset. Maybe instead of the satisfying post-practice chocolate milk, you celebrate a good work day with happy hour before getting back on the subway. Find the areas of the sport that tick your boxes, and try to mimic that in your daily life. Decide if swimming is the priority, and then try to understand what it is that keeps you saying “yes” to commitment.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

SW: Your iconic motto is “Racing for a good time and a good time.” What does that mean to you?

Maloy: For me, the first “good time” means going a best time and performing my very best. The second “good time” means that the experience needs to be worthwhile. That was born out of the culture on our swim team–results were important, but the process was super important. The fact that swimming practices were fun maybe wasn’t important for its own sake, but the fun led to consistency, and consistency led to results. In that way, fun is a tool. A “good time” and a “good time” may seem like two opposing thoughts, but they are one and the same.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @joemaloy

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Greg Nystrom

    Totally relate to the story. He is so correct in that you have to find that thing in life that makes tick outside of athletics, eventually. For me that was law enforcement . This is a topic rarely discussed, but one so critical to the well being of so many who identify as athletes. “Create that structure”, that you love about athletics and incorporate that into your life . Refreshing to hear and accomplished athlete admit sports are not and shouldn’t be the top of the mountain , or you are missing something. Great message , Joe Maloy.

  2. avatar
    Tony Sparks

    So many facets of this story for swimmers and other athletes to relate to on so many levels. Sports are a flicker in our life, and I tell our athletes constantly, sports are not life but a part of our life. I salute Mr. Maloy,in a time where winning is all that matters is a popular stance, istating it’s not the only thing that matters. Thank you for reaching out and being real.

  3. avatar
    Brendan Heller

    Joe – You are a great role model for swimmers & triathletes alike. Thanks for candidly sharing your story. And Taylor, thanks for writing it.