Transcript of the Tough Girl Podcast with Gale Bernhardt - USA Olympic Triathlon Team & Olympic



Sarah: Hello and welcome to the Tough Girl podcast, which is about motivating and inspiring you. I'm your host, Sarah Williams.

I'm absolutely delighted to be here with Gale Bernhardt. I know that you've had over 20 years experience with coaching athletes and helping them to successfully reach their goals.

You're a renowned Olympic coach. You help with triathlons, cycling, mountain biking and running. You do a whole host of amazing things. But I sort of want to take you back to the very beginning, so you sort of understand when you first got involved in sports.

Gale: Well, my first experience in organized sports was as a 10-year old, when I began competitive swimming, and that was the time when I really understood that I enjoyed being physically active. It was fun.

Sarah: Did you carry on the swimming, or did you try other different sports?

Gale: I carried on with the swimming through my high school years, and then really quit swimming when I went to college, but kept up with riding bicycle. My bicycle, even as a very young child, was not only a mode of transportation, but it was a way to explore, and the city I lived in at the time, which is the current city I still live in, was pretty safe, and I was able to explore by using my bicycle, all kinds of interesting places. I carried that sport, if you want to call it that, into college, because I used the bicycle as transport from wherever I was living to get to the college campus, and it was a way for me to get workouts, plus I just enjoyed being outside.

Sarah: Could you just tell our listeners where you're based at the moment, where I'm speaking to you from?

Gale: That's a great question. I'm in a city called Loveland, Colorado, in the USA, which is roughly 60 miles north of the capital of Colorado, Denver.

Sarah: Okay, and I know you've been on a bike camp over the past week or so. How was that?

Gale: It was great. We went into the mountains, a group of us, to train and get ready for the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race.

Sarah: Fantastic. Now, I know that you're a 10-time Leadville 100 Mountain Bike finisher. Are there lots of women in this race?

Gale: There are more and more. I have to admit I don't know what the percentage is today, but 10 years ago when I first began, there really were not very many women and I know the percentage has increased over the years, which is exciting. It's great.

Sarah: Absolutely. I think women, especially in the UK, they're getting more involved in sort of that, and they're running marathons, cycling races, doing obstacle races. I don't know if you have Spartan over in the USA, or Tough Mother, sort of things like that, so it is actually quite exciting to see some more women involved in sports.

Gale: Yes, I totally agree, and we do have those types of races here as well, and I think statistically in endurance sports in general, the percentage of women is increasing, which is fantastic.

Sarah: Well, just from your experience, why do you think that is? What are your thoughts on that?

Gale: I think it's probably a synergistic thing. There's more women see women doing sports, and they start to believe that they're able to do it, and also I have to say I believe that there are more men supporting women in sport, and getting them active and wanting them to be part of sport and business, and perhaps it's they see their daughters and they want their daughters to have opportunities that perhaps their mothers or grandmothers did not have. I think there's a lot of reasons why women are increasing participation in sport, and certainly, just like you, there's more women running businesses that are sport oriented. I think that also helps participation.

Sarah: Absolutely. I think you actually ... One of the first things you said, it's seeing women doing more sports, I think one of the problems that we have at the moment is there's sometimes not enough media exposure, so you never really see the women's football, the women's rugby, sorry, the women's soccer, all these things.

Whereas I think nowadays it's starting to become more easily available on the media, so it's easier to see. I know in the United States, soccer for women is a huge, growing sport, so that's actually fantastic.

Gale: Right, absolutely. You're right. Media is huge, and with the internet, that does make it easier for women to see other women around the world, really, participating in all kinds of interesting sports. Really before the advent of internet, it was much harder to get media coverage for women's sports for all kinds of reasons.

Sarah: Fascinating. You've moved into a coaching role. How did you move across into the coaching? How did that come about?

Gale: Really it began with my swimming. As a young person at age 16, I ... Well, really before that. Let me go back a little bit. When I began competitive swimming at age 10, I had a friend whose sister was involved in being a physical education teacher and she helped with the swim club in the summer, and really I looked at her and idolized the way she had impact on young swimmers, the way she was involved, and I admired her physical fitness. I thought, "Well, gosh, I want to be physically fit, and I want to influence involving others in sport when I get older."

I had that seed in the back of my mind, and I decided at age 16 that the first job I wanted was working at the swimming pool and teaching swim lessons to little kids and adults, and being part of the swimming world. That opportunity gave me a little bit of a chance to help with coaching of the younger age groups at swim club, and I quickly recognized that it was exciting for me and very rewarding to help other people do things that they either wanted to do or thought they couldn't do. I helped them harvest the ability out of themselves to be able to do those things, and I'm still very rewarded by that, helping people get a goal or achievement that they really want and they're just not really sure how to go about it. I find it extremely rewarding.

Sarah: I think that's so great that you actually found your passion when you were that age, because I do a lot of motivational speaking. I talk to a lot of young girls age from 16 up to their 30s and a lot of people still don't know what they enjoy or what is it they actually want to do. The fact you found that out when you were 16 is brilliant. How did you then continue down that pathway? Did you think, "Yeah, actually I want to continue doing the coaching?" What was the next step?

Gale: Well, I guess that's where the story is maybe interesting or maybe is similar to some of the women that you speak with, is I recognized that that was in me and I wanted to do that. I considered going to university to get a physiology degree or a sports medicine degree, but I have to say at that time, which was between ... This'll tell you how old I am ... Between 19 ... Really when I was making that decision it was probably 1975.

I had a guidance counselor that spoke with me and said, "Well, you know, there's pretty limited opportunities in the sports field other than being a teacher," and he recognized, he said, "You test extremely high in mathematics and the sciences." He said, "I think you ought to consider an engineering degree." I said, "Well, I don't even know what engineers do." He said, "Let's set you up with interviewing some engineers and touring some industry, and see if that might be something that you'd be interested in." The short story of all that is I went to university and have a degree in mechanical engineering.

Sarah: Oh wow.

Gale: At the time that I was going to school, I still had my finger in sport. I couldn't let that go, so at that time, I got a job instructing downhill skiing, Alpine skiing. I was doing that while I was going to university because I still had that need to help people, to help people be in sport. Meanwhile in university, I took some coursework in biomedical engineering because I was fascinated with how the human body works and I wanted to learn more about that. The short story of all that is there just were not the opportunities to go into a bio-engineering field, at least in a place where I wanted to live at that time.

I graduated university in 1980, and took a job in manufacturing engineering, which I took a job with Eastman Kodak Company, but or and I guess is really the right word, while I was doing a day job as an engineer, always at night I was doing some sort of sport instruction, teaching aerobics. I still taught a couple of seasons of skiing, and then I got involved, a friend invited me to watch a multi-sport, a triathlon. Said, "You've done swimming, you ride your bike to work all the time, you run 10Ks. Why don't you do a triathlon?" I said, "Gee, I don't even know what that is." She said, "Well, come watch it."

I went and watched a triathlon. I thought, "Oh, gosh, that looks just like a ton of fun." At the time I decided, "All right. I would like to do a triathlon, but I want to do a sprint one," and I found a sprint race close to me, and I looked for a training plan that would be easy for me to follow, something that existed for marathons and 10Ks at the time, but really there was nothing for triathlon like that.

The year was 1986. Triathlon was really pretty new as a sport. It was ... People consider it's birth in 1974, so the sport itself was just over 10 years old, and there was really not a developed process for how to train for the sport. There was a couple of magazines at the time, and most of the information came from professional athletes, but there was really not a lot of information for age group athletes, how to train and progress.

What I ended up doing is cobbling together my own training plan based on my experience with other sports. Completed my first sprint distance triathlon, and I was immediately hooked. I just said, "Oh my gosh, this is fun, and it's something I want to keep doing." That first year, people around me knew that I was involved in this endurance sport thing, and they began asking me if I could help train them for doing longer distance bike rides, which at the time, riding 30 miles from one town to the next, or riding 50 miles, was considered endurance sport, and also century rides were pretty common. Almost immediately upon beginning to do endurance sport myself, I started helping other people get in the sport. Maybe i was recruiting training buddies secretly, I don't know.

That's really ... That's a long story, but that's how I kept in a day job, if you'll call it that, and kept an endurance sports in the side, beginning in 1986. But my coaching involvement went clear back to when I first started coaching and teaching swimming. It wasn't until 1996 where I made a decision. I had a gut feeling ... I had been asked to write columns for Triathlete Magazine in 1995. Helping to educate and teach or give tools to age group athletes, how they could easily do a triathlon and it didn't take as much training as they might have viewed from words that were coming out of professional athletes' experience at the time.

I began to assemble training plans and put them in Triathlete Magazine to help people see how they could easily do the sport. That was really my first breakthrough into mass media and helping people understand how to train for triathlon.

About a year later, I had a gut feeling that the sport was going to grow, as would coaching opportunities around the sport, and so my husband and I made some lifestyle changes and said, "Okay, you have 2 years to try to make this happen. If you can't make it happen as a professional coach, then you'll have to go back to a job as an engineer." I was fine with that. It was like, "Okay, let's give it a shot." That's how it all began.

Sarah: That's so fascinating. I know you talked about the triathlon. You said you did your first one and it got you absolutely hooked. Can you try and explain what it was about the triathlon that sort of got you hooked?

Gale: I think it was ... Part of it was changing from sport to sport. I liked doing the swim and then changing to the bike and changing to the run. I found that more interesting for me than a running race only, and more interesting than a swimming race only. At that point, I had never participated in a bicycle race of any kind, but I found that changing from those sports and really being able to push myself differently was part of the attraction. Then I'll have to admit the people that were doing the sport were so friendly and inviting and helpful, and they wanted you to be there, and they were excited to talk to you at the finish line.

I have to admit, I did not find a similar comradery certainly in running races, and swimming was just different. Competitive swimming is a different sort of feeling. Gosh, the events take all day long, and they're short and there is some social aspect, but it was just very different from triathlon. I think all of those things attracted me. Additionally, because of my lifestyle, I found I could train for triathlon on my own pretty easily. I didn't have to show up for an organized swim practice. I could if I wanted to with the masters group, but really I could organize sport around my lifestyle, which at the time suited me really well, trying to figure out how to stay active while still working a day job.

Sarah: Yeah, and I think a lot of women these days ... One of the questions I get asked quite a lot is how do you fit it all in? How do you fit it around your life and having a day job and if you've got a family and children? That's really, really interesting. You mentioned when you were writing for your column that you used to give out tools and pieces of advice. Do you have any ... Just a few little pieces of advice for anybody who's thinking, "I'd love to get involved with a sprint triathlon?"

Gale: Well, I can tell you that people imagine that it takes a tremendous amount of training each week, and they'll have to ... Most people imagine it will take 10 or 12 hours a week to train for a triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and it's just not true. I've written training plans that help people begin from really not ... I call it dormant fitness, because I think there's really an athlete in all of us. We were all intended to move as human beings. I don't think we were intended to be stationary in front of a computer or sit all day long.

I think taking a currently dormant athlete to being able to do a sprint distance triathlon, it only takes a maximum of about 4 1/2, 5 hours per week, and that's the biggest week of training. People can say, "Oh, my gosh, well, I can certainly fit 5 hours a week into my busy schedule with kids and other activities, doing maybe 30 minutes a day during the week and not even every day," and then making longer workouts on the weekends when they're off work. I think it's pretty achievable for most folks.

Sarah: Definitely. I'd say I certainly agree with you, because when you think about a triathlon, you would think, because it's 3 different disciplines, it's going to involve hours and hours of training. But hearing you say that you can actually do it on 5 hours a week, from just a dormant start, is actually really fascinating.

You decided to make it a go as a professional coach. You gave yourself 2 years to do it, and you've obviously by this point, you've got a vast amount of experience with training from downhill skiing to the swimming to the triathlon, obviously, getting out into the media to talk about your opinion and write your pieces of information. What was the next step for you?

Gale: The next real big step was working with a road racer, a female road racer, her name is Nicole Freedman. She came to my doorstep really because another coach was too busy, couldn't take the time for her and he said, "Do you want to work with this woman? She's a fairly high level road racer, but I just don't have the time to work with her," so I said, "Yeah. I think she would be interesting to work with." I began working with Nicole and she was really an interesting woman in that she had lived at our Olympic training center as a resident athlete, and she felt like she was both over-trained and under-trained at the same time. The physiologist that she was working with there had her doing VO2 max intervals frequently, and she just felt really burned out.

Her goal at the time was to try to make the 2000 Olympic team for the USA, and she was really very much a long shot. What I mean by that is at the time the selection process was primarily national coach selection, and what I mean by that is the national coach had a very large hand in deciding who was going to be on the team and who was not. Nicole didn't have the best relationship with that person, and there were other conflicts going on at the time, and so there was literally 1 spot available on the Olympic team that could be gained by direct performance, like an Olympic trials process. She needed to win the USA National Championship in order to secure that spot on the Olympic team, and honestly no one gave her a chance in a long shot to be able to do that.

The short story is she won. She won that National Championship, which got her a spot on the 2000 Olympic team.

I was able to travel to Sydney, Australia, with my first Olympic athlete, and learn about the process of the Olympics, and learn about it from an individual coach perspective, and was absolutely enthralled with the Olympics. My love of the Olympics really began as a child watching Alpine skiing, because that was my sport at the time. To be able to go to the Olympics with an athlete that I coached in 2000, was literally a dream come true. It was something that I dreamed of doing, but couldn't, even in 1986, I couldn't imagine ever going to the Olympics, because at the time I really didn't know any elite athletes whatsoever. I think part of the point there is I wrote that dream down in a journal without having really any idea of how it would ever happen to come true.

I encourage the women out there to take a chance of writing down your ridiculous dreams, and keeping them in a notebook somewhere, because they have a way of keeping us focused and keeping those goals and dreams in the back of our mind and maybe in front of our face. Even though you don't know how you're going to get to that dream or that goal, I think we begin to make conscious decisions about opportunities that will eventually lead us to that goal. I wrote down that goal probably in 1990, somewhere between 1990 and 1993, so it was before I quit corporate, and it took a full 10 years for me to realize that goal to go to the Olympics to coach an Olympic athlete. But the point is, it happened, and I think no matter what dreams or goals women have that are listening to this podcast, they're possible. Don't hesitate to go after those and write them down, and make them come true.

Sarah: Absolutely. One of the things that I was thinking about what you've just said is that actually this opportunity came along to you when Nicole Freedman, when the other road coach couldn't take her on, and you had to ...

You know, she was a long shot, but then she went out to win the National Championship, and it took her to the Olympics.

I'm actually a massive believer in getting people to write down their goals, whether it's on a piece of paper that they stick on a Post-It note on the back of a door, whether it's they create their own vision board.

But if you do write it down, it gives you the opportunity to plan, have a thing to aim towards. As you said, it may not happen in a year or 2 years. It may take 10 years for your dream to come about, but it can still happen, no matter how crazy the dream is.

The Sydney Olympics, I watched that on the TV, and it was just absolutely phenomenal. How would you sort of explain what was the atmosphere like? What was it like to actually be there with your athlete?

Gale: It's really hard to explain an Olympic experience, because literally it is like no other experience you have in your life. Even attending a world championship event is not quite like an Olympic Games, because there's so much security, there's all the other countries there, there's complicating factors of sponsors, nationally and internationally. Because the United Stated, I believe is, if not the only country, one of the few countries, where the Olympic movement is not government funded. There's all kinds of complicating issues with sponsors and expectations of family and it's just a crazy, crazy environment. But at the same time, it's such a privilege to be at a place where the world sets aside its differences, just even for a short time, and does sport. It's fantastic.

Sarah: I always think with the Olympics is there's always two sides to it. You've got your physical preparation, but equally, which I don't know if you would say it's more important or just as important, is the mental preparation. How do you get your athletes mentally prepared for races? Whether it's the Olympics or a sprint triathlon, or a road race?

Gale: What I kind of do in training, is as much as possible, mimic the physical demands of the event, so that when they get to the event, all the dress rehearsal has