It doesn’t take long for most strangers to realize that I’m not a typical professional triathlete. Most professional triathletes are groomed for this lifestyle from a young age well into college. So what about the kid who spent his more formative years behind a drum set? What are the chances that he’d become a professional athlete?
I often get asked how someone could just fall into the triathlete lifestyle. How could I spend years traveling and playing music, and then wake up one morning and completely change my life? Most people see musicians and athletes as polar opposites, but any path to success has similarities. With any major occupational change, the lifestyle is going to be different, but I paved my way in each the exact same way and the outcome has been very similar. There isn’t some secret to being successful. I learned that at a very young age, and it’s opened many doors.
By summer of 2004, our teenage hobby had already started to gain some serious traction. The music scene in Cleveland, Ohio knew us as a young and aggressive punk rock quartet. Everyone involved with local music had heard of us because of our live performances. On any given Saturday night in Cleveland, we’d have a couple hundred anxious fans strung along S. Taylor Rd, outside of the infamous Rhythm Room, waiting to get inside. The vibe in that run-down punk rock club was absolutely electric. As the club’s lights would fade out, the crowd would slowly start pushing toward the tiny stage. Penetrating the darkness, a small flame would jump from my lighter to the tops of my cymbals. The guitar’s feedback would resonate as both of my cymbals were engulfed in fire. On our first note, the cymbals vibration would blast the small flame into a fire ball that could singe off eyebrows while shooting towards the club’s ceiling. The crowd, completely disregarding the fact that an untrained teenager just got away with setting his drums on fire, would smash farther onto the stage, sometimes taking it over completely. The walls of that tattered club pulsed along with the beat as the crowd screamed along to every single word.
Many musicians would do anything to get signed to a major record label and travel the country performing in a different city every night. We never really thought much of it. Putting out our first record and then touring was part of our natural progression as musicians. Some would say that we got lucky, but luck had nothing to do with it. People may have similar opinions about my progression in the sport of triathlon. The misconception is that I was born with this athletic ability. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just like I once couldn’t keep the most basic rhythm on a drum set, I once couldn’t swim across a 25 yard pool or run a mile down the road. There are very few people who have ever really seen my progression as either a musician or an athlete. Outsiders only see the performance or the outcome, they rarely see the progression. When the band started back in 2002, we were far from tolerable. However, being inexperienced or unskilled never deterred us. We lived and breathed music in those early years. It was our identity. It was all we talked about and all we did. It completely consumed us. We started to become better musicians because we all contained the same desire for success.
When I finally left the band in 2008, I was completely open for something else to consume me. I had just spent the last 6 years performing. I had grown accustom to the spotlight and joining the workforce didn’t seem appealing. I had already started messing around with triathlons, and I knew that if I wanted it badly enough, I could make a career out of racing triathlons. Becoming a faster triathlete was exactly the same as becoming a good drummer. I needed to live and breathe triathlon. I needed to go “all in” once again. With patience, hard work, consistency and time, I knew I could be as good as anyone in the world.
Shortly after I ended my career as a drummer, I found myself on the open road heading west. I had read in a triathlon magazine that some of the best triathletes in the world trained in Tucson, Arizona. Without hesitation, I sold most of my belongings and headed out to this triathlon mecca. Living in Tucson was a total immersion in endurance sports. I immediately sought out the best athletes and hung around them until I was invited to their workouts. They were all on a completely different athletic level, but now I knew what it was going to take to be the best. Years passed and I slowly started to progress, but I wasn’t naïve; I knew that this progression was going to take more than a few years. The band’s success hadn’t come overnight and neither would any athletic success. Once again, I knew that there was a long road ahead of me.
Most people wouldn’t consider playing music to have any relation to racing as a professional triathlete. On the other hand, I have been able to see so many similarities. My life has always revolved around the preparation. But that preparation would have meant nothing without the performance. I get the same nervous feelings during race week that I did in the days leading up to a big gig. Racing, like playing a gig, is a chance to show everyone what I am capable of. It’s how I will leave my legacy. No one talks about the band that they heard playing in a garage and no one cares about the person that sprinted past them on the running trails. The performance is the only time that it counts. I’ve always known that, and it’s driven me onto the stage or to the starting line hundreds of times. Years of playing music has shaped the way I function. It developed my work ethic and showed me how to succeed. It taught me that any achievement is created from within. Playing, even briefly, in a successful band, laid the groundwork for my career as a professional triathlete. For me, it was even more effective than any athletic path I could have followed at that age. It taught me how to follow a dream, and it made me exactly who I am today.
AJ Baucco is an established long course professional triathlete from Cleveland, Ohio. He founded AJ Baucco Coaching LLC, which currently coaches nearly 50 age group triathletes from all over the country. He also runs an age group triathlon team called the “Baucco Squad”. In 2014, AJ Baucco was crowned the first ever Kona Beer Mile Champion. He has since been given legendary status on the Big Island.