Vocalizing Your Goals: How Going ‘All In’ Led Joe Maloy to the Olympics

By Anthony Galloway, USA Triathlon Ambassador | Nov. 13, 2019, 11:34 a.m. (ET)

Maloy in rio

Triathlete Joe Maloy has been competing since he was seven years old, but though he made a prediction in his middle school yearbook that he would medal at the Olympics, he says no one would have bet on him to make it to the world’s most iconic athletic competition.

“I was never the top athlete,” Maloy said. “I was always pretty good, and the kid who kind of worked really hard, but I wasn't the guy winning everything.”

Maloy started out as a swimmer and later competed in cross country and tennis before racing his first triathlon. He was named one of the best high school athletes in South New Jersey. But that was after the Olympics and, Maloy says, a bit of revisionist history.

“I was on there as Number One and then there was debate like, ‘He wasn’t that good,’ and the people who were hating were right. I wasn't the best high school athlete ever. I was the best because of what I did after that.”

Maloy says he was able to reach his full potential, and affect the way people perceived his ambition, by focusing his attention and vocalizing his goal. In his mind, he knew he had reached a point in his athletic career where he had gone as far as he could – working a full-time job and taking Master’s classes at Boston College. As an English major, he understood the power of storytelling. In 2010, Maloy told his family and friends that he intended to go to the Olympics.

“I thought, ten years from now I'm going to look back at this moment and I'm going to be really bummed if I didn't at least give it a shot, but the sales guy in me thought, that's a hard story to tell,” he said. “So saying, ‘Hey, I'm quitting my job to go to the Olympics,’ at least gave my parents something to tell their friends.”

Publicly stating his goal not only worked as a deflector for Maloy, giving him space to train without continually being questioned about his dogged pursuit of success in triathlon, it also served as a declaration of his personal commitment. He was committed not only to the sport but to self-realization.

“Putting my goals out there, it was a way of both betting on myself and trusting in taking the leap that, you know, if I say what I'm trying to do, maybe the support will show up,” he said. “I think each one of us has moments where you kind of go all in and you have to take a bet on something. The nature of that is you stare at failure and you're like, ‘Yeah, I'm okay with that.

Maloy embarked on his Olympic journey less than two years before a qualifying race for the 2012 London games. His training schedule forced him to miss his brother’s law school graduation, friends’ weddings and Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. He came within striking distance of the Olympic qualifying race in the spring of 2012 but did not earn a spot to compete.

“In hindsight, I was the only person in the country who thought I would make that Olympic team,” he said. “But I think you have to be a little delusional if you want to achieve anything extraordinary.”

Coming up short led Maloy to reassess his training. After a critical race, his father asked him if his competition was that much better, or if he was doing something wrong.

“It was a really good question and I said, ‘I don't know if they're that much better than me, but I do feel like I'm doing something wrong.’”

Maloy knew if he wanted a chance to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, he needed to advance his training to the next level. He started working with a new swimming coach, Richard Shoulberg, who invited him to train with a group outside of Philadelphia. Shoulberg and the team reminded Maloy that, while the process was difficult, it could be fun and fulfilling. He set his sights on Rio.

“There was that declaration of ‘I want to go to the Olympics’ hanging over me. I had to choose, ‘Do you want it?’” he asked himself. “I was continuing to grow as an athlete. I was meeting a ton of great friends. I was traveling to all of these places that really excited me, living in different cultures. I was a kid from South Jersey and all of a sudden people were paying for me to live in Spain for the summer and travel through Europe and it was awesome. It was a no-brainer for me. I owed it to myself to see it out.”

Four years after Maloy’s 2012 dreams were cut short, he was finally headed to the starting line to attempt to qualify for the Olympics. On the morning of the qualification event, he found himself in a hotel room on the outskirts of Tokyo, in tears, recollecting everything he had experienced that brought him to that moment.

“I had lived most of my adult life, definitely the past eight years, thinking, ‘Oh, I want to go to the Olympics,’ and I knew at the time, based on how old I was and the way my body felt and what I knew it cost me, that I probably wouldn't have another one in me,” he said. “And I thought, by this afternoon I'm going to know. It's going to be over one way or another. I was scared of the finality of that.

Maloy channeled his emotions to benefit his race, and relied on his training to focus on each part of the competition as it came.

“With emotion in sport, it can use you or you can use it. There was definitely a lot of emotional energy around the event and that piece of realizing, success or failure, I’m out here being who I am,” he said. “That was the key to helping me use the emotions to reach my goal.”

As one might expect, Maloy has a vivid memory of the moment he knew he would clinch his spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. It came just seconds into the run.

“I probably took three steps and I knew I was going to the Olympics. I knew at that point it was up to me and there was nobody who was going to outrun me,” he said. “So I ran the first two laps and then the second two laps — it was a four-lap 10k run — and I allowed myself to enjoy it. It’s still the fastest 10k I’ve ever run.”

After the race, Maloy returned to training life in the United States. Though his regimen got even stricter, there were times he had to be reminded that he was just months away from competing on the world’s most significant athletic stage.

“We were doing a workout. It was just my coach and I on a grass field in Southern California and some guy was walking his dogs and he saw me killing myself running in circles. After one of the reps, he said, ‘Wow, you guys are training hard. What are you training for?’ and my coach was like, ‘the Olympics.’ And it was just this otherwise very normal moment that was special, and I think that's the way that it made sense to me.”

Twenty-three years after Maloy started swimming, and nearly two decades after his prescient yearbook intention, Maloy had achieved his goal of becoming an Olympic contender. On race day, he came in 23rd place and was the fastest American triathlete at the Games.

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“My whole Olympic journey was a journey through sport. All the achievements and accolades were just guideposts. What it was really about to me was self-realization,” he said. “I competed as an athlete my whole life and I was always obsessed with being a little bit better than I was the meet before or the year before and I love that process of trying to find where there is opportunity to improve.”

Maloy’s journey demonstrates how declaring a goal can motivate people to start heading in that direction, setting off a chain of events that ultimately defines the next steps toward achieving that goal. His experience offers lessons for athletes at all levels, no matter where they fall in the competitive spectrum.

“The nerves [I felt] on the starting line at the Olympics, they were no different than the nerves I felt before the South Jersey lifeguard championships. Lining up for the swim, I was terrified. The thrill of qualifying for the Olympic team? It’s not that different from leading your high school cross country team to a championship,” he said. “That’s one of the things I think is cool about triathlon. There’s so many different people competing and so many different ways to define a win.”

In his post-Olympics career, Maloy continues to embrace new racing challenges. He came in second at the 2019 Escape from Alcatraz, behind his former Olympic teammate Ben Kanute, and came in 10th at his first Ironman 70.3 race in Boulder, Colorado. Maloy says from 2011 to 2016, triathlon was his entire picture. “It needed to be that way for me to achieve what I did,” he said. Now, while triathlon continues to be an important piece of his puzzle, there’s much more to the picture.

“The English major in me loves this line from the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If.” It talks about treating failure and success as the same and it calls them imposters because, the truth is, success or failure is just our interpretation of an event,” he said. “There's a lot of different ways to say what a win is and, at the end of the day, it's really up to you and how you how you decide to look at it.”