Brett Zimmerman is training for his professional career in triathlon. Brett is a 10 year Navy veteran who worked on nuclear submarines. He's the first AO athlete to move to Raleigh specifically to train for his elite career and he spends his off season's in Arizona. The Chris Farley song about living in a van down by the river isn't far from the truth with Brett, but it fits his lifestyle and personality. Have a look and if you like what you read, buzz him on social media and maybe he'll be a little more active...but don't count it either! Enjoy the interview!
1. What led you to want to pursue elite level racing triathlon?
In November 2016, I was 5 months from finishing my time in the Navy and I didn’t have a plan. Should I go back to school or start interviewing for a job somewhere? I had an interest in going to grad school but had no real passion to enter the civilian work force at the moment. If I went to work, it was probably going to be something I wouldn’t enjoy. Then I quickly found out that college admissions were due in early January so not ideal to cram for the GRE. Enter the little twinkle of professional triathlon. I had taken a hiatus from triathlon from 2013-2015 while I was on submarine duty. I got back into triathlon in the summer of 2015 when I got a desk job off the sub. I wasn’t great at the sport by any means. I hadn’t done any training for years except to pass the Navy’s physical fitness test. I started to build an interest in hiring a coach and a friend I worked with recommended Jason Kilderry out of Philadelphia. I called him, filled out his ridiculously long 18-page application and the rest was history. Within 6 months of being coached, my fitness skyrocketed, and I qualified for the IM 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba, Australia. I was really enjoying triathlon throughout 2016 and I had the funds saved up so I made a proposition to Jason about pursuing triathlon full-time with the goal of earning my elite license with USAT. I wanted to finally pursue something I was passionate about. I never found that with my military duties. This was my time to unwind, focus on myself and really give my all to something I care about.
2. Coming from a Naval career of 10+ years to full time triathlon training, what kind of advantages do you think your Naval career has given you?
One would think that the advantages would be structure, baseline physical fitness, and shear grit or something like that but I don’t think it’s any of those. My naval service is really defined by the people I met, worked with and became friends with. I’ve got friends spread across the world that I’ve been able to call and crash at their place while traveling or racing even if we haven’t talked in years but we reconnect like we were in the service yesterday. It’s awesome to have made those friendships. Also, living in a submarine made for a pretty easy transition to #VanLife.
3. Out of all the ports and places you've visited which city/region that you visited in the Navy, you look back and think "this would be a great location for a tri" (and no you can't say Hawaii)?
But Hawaii is the best! That’s a hard one, though. The only foreign places I’ve visited in an official capacity were Guam, Singapore and Yokosuka, Japan. I’d have to go with Singapore. I don’t know much about the Singapore International Triathlon but I could put that on the bucket list. Singapore is just a unique place and I could use another tailored suit and an original Singapore Sling from there!
4. You recently rode Mt. Lemmon on the same day and just about the same time Lionel Sanders set the KOM in March, what's it like to compare yourself to an athlete like that?
Oh man, so infinitesimally small! He was descending into Summerhaven as a friend and I were cycling up and out of there. At the time I had no idea he was going for the KOM but he looked determined as hell when we saw him. I was really happy with my PR of 1:45 but after looking at Strava and seeing him beat me by 29 minutes on the 21-mile segment, I was just blown away. That’s just a whole other level of fitness. Then we saw Sam Long just starting the ascent when we had finished at the stop sign at the bottom. It was a wild day!
5. What most excites you about a potential pro career?
For me, it’s the completion of a dream, a goal I’ve set that seemed so far out there that could actually become a reality. I actually never thought my fitness would come this far when I set out on this in 2017 but it has been a wild ride! I don’t want to rest on my laurels though. I still want to improve and become the best triathlete I can be, whether I become a pro or not. But then becoming a pro and lining up on the starting line with the likes of Lionel Sanders and Sam Long, that is definitely an exciting prospect to know I’ve earned that spot next to them. After than it’s just going to be to try and give them a run for their money!
6. Going into USAT LC Nats last Nov, you were in peak form, the training numbers were there, the mindset was there, and then BOOM you get hit by a truck and laid out on the tarmac 4 days before the biggest A race of your career......what keeps you wanting to come back and doing this?
I feel like I got robbed, you know? Crashes have never bothered me much. I used to race motocross in middle school and high school. At one race, I had an awful crash that had me black out for a few hours, ruptured a kidney and snapped a femur into 3 pieces. Within 4 months, I was back on my dirt bike cruising around again.
Leading up to Miami, we were coming off a great race in Lausanne at the Age-Group Olympic World Champs, crushing the training sets, totally dialing it in, really expecting to be competing at the top of the race and then just nothing, sitting on the sidelines. It was a tough cookie to swallow but as soon as I hit pavement I knew the 2019 season was over. I’ve still got the dream. That hasn’t changed. Even with the pandemic going on now, nothing in my life has really changed. Training still happens, it’s just adjusting the schedule to accommodate all the postponements and rescheduling of events. Triathlon isn’t over for me yet.
7. So it's gotta be asked, your among a sub culture living the "van life" throughout most of the year, like some pretty famous pro's like Eric Lagerstrom ...what's one of the biggest advantages no one thinks about?
I don’t know what people are thinking about nowadays but I just think the simplicity of van life is what I like most about it. When I left Hawai’i, I liquidated most of my possessions. I knew I was going to live in a van so I consolidated everything I wanted to keep into an 8-foot-by-8-foot storage unit. Just getting rid of all that other stuff was freeing in a way. To me, all that stuff inadvertently caused me stress. Downsizing is a good thing. Plus, being able to park at a race site the night before leads to more sleep come race day. Although, that’s not always the case, depending on the event. Getting a knock in the middle of the night sleeping in a tin can will wake the dead.
8. Who's helped you along this journey, any sponsors and what is your social media handles?
My mom, Gail, has been my biggest supporter. She’s volunteered at the finish line for most of my races so it’s awesome to cross the finish line and have her be the one to put the medal around my neck. And my parents let me crash with them in Phoenix in the winter so that’s awesome and nice to get out of the van for a couple months. I gotta thank my buddy Jeff for getting me back on the saddle when I got off the sub by having me sign up for Cycle to the Sun with about a weeks notice. So many friends have let me stay with them and have fed me over the years: Bill in Amsterdam, Arianna in Paris, Tia in Sicily, James, John, and Sarah and John in Charleston, Jeff, Owen, Rob and Lisa, and Constance and Travis in Raleigh, Joey, Justin, and Jared and Alyson in Norfolk, Megan,Dane and Kayla in D.C., Pam and George in NJ, Carly, Don, Bob and Stephanie, and Joel and Libby on Oahu, Beth and Con over on Maui, my Hawai’i roommate Annie, my cousins Amy, Paul, Greta and Devin in Austin, Billy and Steph in Indiana, Mike, Louise, and Betty and Andrew in San Diego, Quay in Colorado Springs, Steve in Gainesville, Erienne and Shane in Flagstaff, and a shout to the friends I made in Romania - Joszi, Sorin, Erick, and Florin - those guys made my time there just incredible! I wouldn’t be here right now without the foundation made by Jason Kilderry and Megan Smith at ETA Coach and a big thanks to them. Thank you to you too Brooks for building on what Jason and Megan did with me. You’ve really brought my fitness into its own over these last 12 months. And lastly a big thanks to Kari for supporting me since we met at tri camp back in March 2018. She’s my biggest fan and feeds me all the time! I know I’ve missed some people and I’m sorry to those that I’ve missed on this list. Call me, tell me “how could you forget?” and I’ll give you a proper praise! I’m a proud member of US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) and Enve Racing. USMES is an amazing non-profit for active duty personnel, veterans, and their families and highly recommend them if you’re a donating type of person. Enve makes some of the best wheels in the industry and their lifetime crash replacement warranty and 5-year limited warranty can’t be beat. They just came out with the Foundation line of wheels that are a bit easier on the pocket book.
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