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What's an Athlete?

By Steve Jonas | March 18, 2014, 12 a.m. (ET)

On February 22, 2014, The New York Times published an article on champion NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson titled “Jimmie Johnson Does Triathlons, but is He an Athlete?

And so in this context I thought of the question, “what is an athlete?”

Is it that Johnson happens to do triathlons and works out rigorously in all three sports on a regular basis that makes him an athlete? Or are racecar drivers athletes on their own merits. In the article, Donovan McNabb, a former NFL quarterback (and a pretty good one too), was quoted as saying: “He sits in a car and drives. That doesn’t make you an athlete.” But even though it’s not the same physical skill as throwing a football or swimming, cycling and running fast, he does have to have a physical skill to do what he does - keep a 3000-4000 pound car going at 200+ miles per hour for up to four hours with a bunch of other cars in very close proximity.

So what does make an athlete? McNabb was able to throw a football to a precise spot down the field where his chosen receiver was headed, throwing it well before the receiver got there. Or the great Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera had one pitch, a slider, but boy could he locate it across the plate. Or the man who in my mind was the greatest pure hitter ever in baseball, Ted Williams. One of the great umpires, I believe it was Bill Klem, when asked how he called balls and strikes on Williams, said “if Ted doesn’t swing at it, it’s a ball.” Then there are the great triathletes, like Dave Scott, physically skilled in three sports. Or the boxers, or the swimmers, or the pole vaulters, or in my view, the race car drivers. Because there is one aspect of sport that they all have in common: the mental aspect. 

For McNabb, Rivera or Williams, it’s hand-eye coordination. That’s mental. For Scott, it was the ability to focus in both his training and his racing. That’s mental. Recall that Mark Allen described winning an Ironman as “an exercise in pain management.” That’s mental. For Muhammed Ali, it was both the ability to plan the fight, and then to know exactly where he in the ring and in relation to his opponent, every second of every round.  And for Jimmie Johnson, it’s knowing where he is on the track every second of every race. 

On top of that, according to The New York Times, “During an average race, Johnson’s heart will beat 140 to 150 times per minute for about four hours as he drives a racecar whose interior temperature can reach well past 100.  Endurance is crucial; if Johnson loses mental focus, he could hit a wall at nearly 200 miles per hour.”  Oh yes, I forgot to mention, that in his sport one can never be sure one is going to finish the race alive. Getting in the car in that circumstance?  That’s mental for sure. He has hand-eye coordination. His heart-rate is aerobic, for up to four hours at a time, in intense heat. But his primary skill is just the same as that of all other athletes: it’s in his head.

And so it is for all of us who are triathletes and duathletes, fast, slow like me, or in between.  Sure we have physical skills (some more, some less!). But we have to plan our race schedules, plan our training programs and then stay with them, plan how we are going to do a particular race, and then, once in it stay focused so that we can execute that plan to the best of our ability that day.

I will be talking more than once about mental skill and ability down the line in this series. In the meantime, let’s hail Jimmie Johnson, six-time Nascar Sprint Cup Champion, and athlete.


This series of thoughts and recommendations for beginner and recreational triathletes and duathletes by Dr. Steve Jonas is drawn in part from his book, 101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes (Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), text used with permission. The book can be purchased here and is available at and

Steve’s most recent multisport book is Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®: Getting Started and Staying with It (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press/FalconGuides, 2012), available at and

His original book, Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®, 2nd Ed. (New York: WW Norton, 2006) also can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.