Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, sports was a ticket to a better life. My athletic career began with cross-country skiing at the age of 2. I traveled with my mother to ski camps - summer and winter - and attended an elite sports school where training took precedence over everything else. At the age of 13, I was a nationally ranked cross-country skier and chosen for a select team in the Czechoslovakian Olympic sports program. Training with the team became a full-time job. We trained 2 to 3 times a day almost every day. Our select team had several coaches, doctors, massage therapists, nutritional advice, cooks - you name it. We always used the latest technology and philosophy in our training. We even used heart rate monitors back in the 1980's!
Sports - A Way Out
Growing up in a communist country in the 1980's, my goal was to leave and my dream destination was the U.S. So one week after my graduation in 1990 at the age of 18, I went to Switzerland with about $50 in my pocket. I worked at a ski station for the summer to earn money, applied for a visa, and soon I was on my way to Canada. I spent one year in Canada working every day of the week, learning English on the streets of Toronto and from books at home. My lucky break came when I met some people from Spartanburg, South Carolina who gave me a chance to come to the U.S. I had no idea where South Carolina was. I didn't care, as long as it was in the U.S.
I contacted several schools hoping for a cross-country ski scholarship. It's then that I found out it takes more than athletic training to get into college in the U.S.-SAT scores. So l got a job in a South Carolina textile mill, bought a few SAT books and started to study. Studying for the verbal part of the test was a nightmare. I didn’t know how to spell in English and hadn't heard 90% of the words. Somehow I persevered and succeeded.
Running - (I Missed Training and There Was No Snow)
Somehow life just didn't seem complete without training. Since there was no snow in South Carolina for cross-country skiing, I started running. I had no idea where to apply to college so I took out a map of the U.S. and started picking schools from California and New Mexico to Tennessee. That's when I got another surprise. Education was free in Czechoslovakia. I couldn't believe that tuition cost $20 to $30 thousand dollars a year for many schools. Once again my training was the ticket - this time it was my running. I was offered a half tuition academic scholarship so I could run cross-country for Wofford College in South Carolina.
Cycling - For Transportation, not Sport
The first two years I commuted on my $60 mountain bike - about 5 miles each way I worked in the school cafeteria for 4 years - about 30 hours a week. That way I didn't have to buy ANY food for 4 years. I didn't know much about bike maintenance so I was using PAM from our kitchen to keep my chain lubed!! It may not have been much of a bike, but I couldn't have managed without it. So I panicked the day somebody stole it. How would I get to school? My only option was to run. The next day I was running to school through a very bad neighborhood and I saw three kids riding my bike. I chased them down/got my bike, and went back to school. I was very lucky.
Cycling - For Sport and Transportation
After two years my grades were above 3.0 so I was given a full academic scholarship and an offer to live at the Baptist Student Union adjacent to Wofford College - only a one minute walk to my classes - if I would keep the building clean. I worked there 6 hours a week cleaning and 30 hours a week in the cafeteria, studied, trained and slept about 6 hours a night/if I was lucky.
I managed to save some money and bought a close-out bike for $700. It was great - a red 7-speed Cannondale. During the Cross-Country running season I would take my bike to our meets and would ride the bike back - typically 100 miles or more.
First Marathon Win -A School Project
My Junior year I proposed a unique project for my winter mid-term - run a marathon to study the mechanics and nutrition of running. The marathon was in New Orleans - the Mardi Gras Marathon. I won that marathon, my first ever in 2 hours and 33 minutes. I seemed to have mastered running. After 3 years on the cross-country team, earning 3 MVP's and one Academic All -America honors, I was a little bored with just running. I resigned from the college Cross-Country team, but since they were in need of a coach, I helped them out by designing workouts for them. Then I started to focus on triathlons.
Swimming - A Humble Beginning
Thanks to my friend's parents, I was able to go to the YMCA and work on my swimming. I had been swimming since I was 2 years old, but never competitively. I started slowly, learning how to breathe correctly and gradually increasing my speed and distance. In less than a year I was racing triathlons.
I started my triathlon career with a few half lronman distance races but I really wanted to try an Ironman distance race. I decided to train for the Great FloridianTriathlon. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was thinking "I can run a fast marathon, the swim is only 2.4 miles, which I can handle, and I used to ride 100 to 120 miles from our cross-country meets - so it shouldn't be a big problem to do an Ironman-distance race."
I finished in second place in 9 hours and 41 minutes. That was the start of my career as an Ironman triathlete.