Age / DOB
Jul 24 1980
There are lots of unexpected routes to the top echelon in triathlon, but Sarah Piampiano’s is up there with the best of them.
The American’s first event at the age of 29 was the result of a bet with a colleague as to who would win an Olympic-distance triathlon. And at that point she was a high-flying investment banker putting in 100-hour weeks at work. And a self-confessed chain smoker.
Just a few years later she’d cracked the top 10 at Kona – “my best sporting memory as it was so unexpected.”
Dreaming big and working hard were paying incredible dividends.
Since then Sarah has racked up a seriously impressive CV in the swim, bike, run world.
She’s a multiple winner at both 70.3 and iron-distance, has her sights set on rounding out her career in style before targeting a sub-2:30 marathon, ultra events and making her mark in gravel bike races.
Going all in – and reaping the dividends
A quick rewind to June 2009 as that initial bet came to be settled.
Sarah takes up the story: “I smoked a cigarette on my way to the race, but I beat him and that race changed my life. I quit smoking on the spot, bought a bike and started training. And the end of 2011 I quit my job and started training and racing full time as a professional triathlete.”
The results were dramatic – Sarah topped the age group standings in nearly every event she entered and made the top five in her category at Kona.
By now she was working with coach Matt Dixon at Purple Patch Fitness and her first race as a pro was at Cozumel in November 2011, where she finished seventh.
The 2012 season was a breakthrough one, as she won 70.3 New Orleans (which was held as a duathlon), placed sixth in Texas and fourth in New York and qualified for the World Championships in Kona, where she finished 23rd.
The following year continued the progress with top 10s in three IRONMAN events (Melbourne, Austria with a new PB of 9:07 and Mont Tremblant) but she swerved Kona to let her body recover from another tough campaign.
Things started well in 2014 with runner-up spots at 70.3 Pucon and New Orleans, but the year came to a juddering halt at IRONMAN Texas in May.
Sarah was in third place in the marathon, but two miles before the finish a problem with her left leg reduced her to a walk. She kept going all the way to the line, taking 10th place, but it was diagnosed she had a broken femur.
A return to racing later that year garnered top 10s at 70.3 Miami and IRONMAN Western Australia and she was soon back to winning ways in what proved a stellar 2015.
Showing her versatility, she won 70.3 New Orleans (despite two punctures on the bike), showed up well at IRONMAN Texas (sixth) and Austria (third in a new PR of 9:03) before heading to Kona where she cracked the top 10, a result she described as “so unexpected”.
She’d been 38th out of the swim and 17th by the end of the bike segment before the best second half-marathon split of the entire field powered her into seventh place.
And that performance was then underlined with her first IRONMAN victory at Western Australia to close out the season.
Further titles followed at 70.3 New Orleans and Qujing – as well as another seventh at Kona – but an injury early in 2018 made life tougher before she roared back to her best form yet at IRONMAN Brazil in 2019.
Not only did she power to victory there, but she did so with a 2:53 marathon, faster than the men’s winner and to top off a staggering PB of 8:40:48.
That raised expectations for Kona, but a frustrating day meant a quick reset, with Western Australia in December the target and a second place in 8:42:57 a fine response.
Her 2020 plans had included a crack at the Boston Marathon (a sub 2:30 time is a future goal) and an iconic 144-mile gravel bike race, but the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to both of those and left her with some major decisions to make.
Turning bad habits into good
“I’ve always dreamed big and had significant goals. And I’m not afraid of failing.”
Whether it’s investment banking or triathlon, Sarah Piampiano has set her sights high and done everything to achieve them.
“I look back now and trying to get to where I have has been so much harder than I anticipated. I think when you are first starting you make these huge leaps and then it plateaus. And each little improvement thereafter is really small.
“But I guess that’s a part of what makes triathlon so incredible. How rarely do you go to a race and feel like everything has gone perfectly? Because the race is so long, stuff is bound to go wrong and you’re going to have to adapt.”
And for Piampiano, the beginning of each event is a challenge in itself: “I hyperventilate at the start of every swim! I’m so scared of drowning. I have to calm myself down and then I can go about my business.”
It’s been a remarkable journey so far and she now devotes plenty of her time helping others replace their bad habits with good ones through The Habit Project.
The next phase of her life will be balancing the end of her pro triathlon career with starting a family, all amid COVID-19.
She’s admitted it’s “complicated” and “stressful”. Still, if anyone can handle it, it’s her – and there are lots of inspirational examples of women in the professional ranks who have come back stronger than ever after having children.
She also has many other options. Her business skills have set the standard for sponsorship activation and she serves on the boards of the PTO as well as i-Tri for Girls, a non-profit organisation focused on promoting empowerment through triathlon for adolescent girls.