How Nicole DeBoom Thrives As An Athlete Turned Entrepreneur With Ming Zhao

Connecting to other leaders. I believe that a strong network of other business leaders is critical. Many people are afraid to reach out and seek help or guidance from others, for fear of leaking trade secrets or because they think everyone else is competition. I believe the opposite. I think that if you have a […]

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Connecting to other leaders. I believe that a strong network of other business leaders is critical. Many people are afraid to reach out and seek help or guidance from others, for fear of leaking trade secrets or because they think everyone else is competition. I believe the opposite. I think that if you have a great business, there is a place for everyone to succeed.

Writing. When I hit a hurdle and I can’t see around it, I start writing. Sometimes this is first thing in the morning. Sometimes it’s randomly throughout the day. When my brain starts to spin and I lose my focus, writing helps make sense of the confusion and allows me to move on and free up valuable brain space.

As a part of our series about how successful “athlete turned entrepreneurs” thrive both professionally and personally, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nicole DeBoom. Nicole DeBoom is a former professional triathlete turned entrepreneur, podcast host, speaker and non-profit founder.Nicole’s triathlon career culminated in a win at the 2004 Ironman Wisconsin, wearing a prototype of the first-ever running skirt — a skirt that would launch a revolution in women’s fitness clothing just a few months later. Nicole founded Skirt Sports in September 2004 with the mission of helping women find inspiration, confidence and courage through the transformative power of running and fitness, and she’s been running the company ever since.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Nicole! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Igrew up in the Chicago suburbs in the 70s and 80s, running through the neighborhood with my sister, constantly moving and seeking adventures. I was introduced to every sport available as a kid. I was terrible at the sports that involved hand-eye coordination and balls, but I was a natural runner and swimmer. By the time I was 16, I had qualified for the Olympic Trials as a swimmer and was ranked #5 in the country in the 100m breaststroke. I was recruited to college and landed at Yale University because I knew the power of a world-class education would outlast any athletic career I may have. One year after graduating, I sat on an airplane next to the future chapter of my life, a young man named Tim DeBoom who would go on to win the Hawaii Ironman (twice). Under Tim’s tutelage, I became a professional triathlete — swimming, cycling and running around the world with him.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?

Two people stand out as influences. The first planted the seed. The second fanned the fire. In 1982, when I was ten, I watched a woman named Julie Moss crawl across the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman. It was brutal, painful and very difficult to watch. Most people would see someone in the throes of this sort of struggle and think “That looks horrible.” I watched her finish and said, “I am totally doing that race one day!” I knew that I wanted to experience the feeling of pushing myself to the utmost limits. After my collegiate swimming career ended and there was no clear athletic path to pursue, I decided to set my sights on the sport of triathlon. In 1995, I sat next to young triathlon prodigy, Tim DeBoom, on an airplane going to the ITU World Championships. I fell in love with Tim and married him a year later. I spent the next five years observing, learning, and sitting on Tim’s wheel as I gained the experience I needed to turn pro. In 1999, I went pro with this goal: Break even. I raced for six years and my biggest claim to fame is that I earned money in every race I did. I credit Tim with so much of my racing success as I had the honor of sharing a life and career with the best athlete in the world.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In my rookie season, I was invited to a race in Japan with this caveat: Win the race and earn $1000. If I didn’t win, I would earn nothing. The pressure was on, but the odds were in my favor. I was in awesome shape and just needed to have a steady race to beat all the local pros. I came out of the swim in 2nd place overall, only one pro man ahead of me. I started the 90-mile bike ride with a five-minute lead that only grew within the first few miles, so I was feeling very confident. Everything changed at mile 15 when I stood up to crank over a hill and I felt something slip behind me. It was my saddle! My bike seat had developed a crack that I didn’t notice, and it decided to break in half and fly off my bike at that moment!

I looked down and saw the two sharp spikes where the bike seat would normally be. I looked ahead at the 75 miles I still needed to cover. I thought about the $1000 that I could so desperately use! I looked around and realized that I would need to get back to the race venue anyway, in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I stopped, found my saddle in the ditch, smiled (it was funny after all) and did a quick inventory on anything I could possibly use to reattach the seat. I always took a spare tire in case of flats. In this case, it was a $100 tire that I had taped to my bike. TAPE! That’s it. I carefully unwrapped the tire and used the bits of tape to reattach the part of the saddle that was still intact. It covered half of the sharp spikes, but it was something.

In all that time, no women passed me. I was still in the lead! I got back on my bike and proceeded to ride the next 75 miles as pieces of my saddle fell off every so often. With ten miles to go, I had to ride standing up because my saddle was officially gone. I finished the bike and then ran strong for 15 miles to hang on for the win. I came home with $1000 (minus the $100 tire I abandoned) in my pocket and this lesson: There is always a way to the finish. You just may need to think outside the box to get there.

Did you ever get a serious sports injury? Do you feel comfortable sharing that story? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that incident?

I was never injured as a swimmer or triathlete. My body issues started after my professional racing career had ended. My injuries today are from overuse, constant impact activities and lack of proper care and recovery after I became an entrepreneur. The most serious of my injuries stems from spondylolisthesis, the slipping of one of my lumbar vertebrae forward that could either be genetic or the result of high impact extension activities that I’ve been doing my entire life. What this means for me is that I need to shift my mindset and open up to a new range of sports that will be exciting for me both physically and spiritually. I believe that having a flexible mindset is the key to happiness. No matter what, I will always find a way to move my body and make my health a priority.

As someone with a background in ‘wellness’ I’m interested in stories about interesting wellness experiences. Do you have a story about the weirdest or most humorous wellness experience, treatment, practice, or practitioner that you’ve ever partaken in? If you do, we’d love to hear it.

I have always been a huge advocate for alternative health practices. My network of caregivers includes acupuncture, massage, chiropractors, fascia workers, naturopaths and more. When I was on the road racing, I would often seek out body work so I could recover properly before my next event. I succinctly remember the most hilarious and bizarre massage experience I ever had. It was 2002 and I was staying in Santa Cruz between races. I called all the local massage therapists that were recommended but they weren’t available, so I got a reservation at a spa. I showed up at the facility and they said, “You can leave your clothes in the locker room. The massage table is out on the pool deck.” I took off my clothes, grabbed a towel and headed to the pool area. As I walked along, I realized that this wasn’t a spa, it was a nudist retreat! No one was wearing clothing or towels for that matter! I came to my table and there were three other totally naked people getting massages from semi-nude massage therapists lined up next to each other! I had a choice, leave or get naked and stay. I dropped the towel, hopped onto the table and embraced the moment in all its glory.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?

In December 2003, I was on a training run when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a storefront window. I was completely uninspired by what I saw, mainly by what I was wearing — men’s, poorly fitting, all-black, not-at-all-cute training gear. I thought, “Why do I have to compromise the feminine part of myself when I’m out there racing and training? Maybe I can create something that looks great AND performs well.” I ran home that day and scribbled notes about creating a line of women’s clothing that would revolutionize women’s fitness.

Nine months later, I started the marathon run of the 2004 Wisconsin Ironman Triathlon wearing my swimsuit and a little red skirt, created specifically for this race, to both cover my butt and provide a little extra inspiration. I passed the women in front of me and won my first and only Ironman — in the first ever running skirt! Three days later I incorporated Skirt Sports with a mission to help women find happiness in their bodies through the transformative power of fitness. I’ve spent the past 15 years building a brand, navigating hurdles and nurturing a community. I’ve encountered obstacles big and small, caused by me or out of my control, through the ever-changing world of women’s athletics and I continue to persevere, even when the future is impossible to predict.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?

We just launched a new business extension — Recommerce! There is a huge market of women who want to buy used clothing for many reasons, primarily price sensitivity. We created TheHustl — an online marketplace for women’s fitness clothing, currently owned by Skirt Sports, where women can shop previously loved products from a range of brands. If women participate in our entire process, they can send in their used athletic wear (from a list of accepted brands) that is still in great condition. They receive credits for each item that they can use at on new or used clothing. It’s a brilliant idea for a few reasons: it’s environmentally friendly, it provides women a less risky way to try new items and creates more accessibility to fitness which is our main objective as a brand.

Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about that?

The number one thing I learned as an athlete is that giving up is not an option. You work hard in your training to reach the goals you set earlier in the season. You won’t win every race, especially the ones in the middle of the season, but if you stay focused on what’s really important, you will perform to the best of your ability when it counts. I have been tested on all levels as an entrepreneur. I recently encountered a situation that made me question whether I should give up. I decided to keep going. If I one day retire from this race, I want it to be on my terms having accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish, not because I was forced out of the race or went off course accidentally. I have to constantly remind myself that there is a way around every hurdle. It may not be apparent at first, but it’s there, so keep pushing!

Most athletes have not been able to transfer their success from the sports arena to the business arena. But you have. Can you share with our readers three main strategies you have used to help you succeed?

  1. I take the “aid station approach” to business. Imagine you’re doing a marathon. If you are thinking about mile 26.2 at the starting line, you’ll never get to the finish. Instead you need to focus on the three miles ahead at any given time. When you reach an aid station, take a drink, grab some fuel, make sure you’re still on course and keep going.
  2. It’s important to know your competition but focus on your own performance. It’s easy to get distracted by what everyone else is doing. If you change your course to try to compete against another business, you will get off track. Focus is the toughest thing for entrepreneurs. We like shiny objects! But athletes build their careers on focus; that’s why I think athletes have an advantage in business. At the end of the day, you need to understand your competition but focus on your own race.
  3. When things don’t go as planned, reframe and keep moving. There’s nothing worse than stagnation as an athlete and in the business world. It’s bound to happen. You’re plugging along and suddenly you hit a plateau. Sometimes you need to change direction; sometimes you need to take a short rest and get inspired again. Reframing the situation can help immensely. When our biggest customer decided, without any notice, that they were going to bail on over $300k of inventory, we felt like we ran into a brick wall. After a few days of beating our heads against it, we stepped back and reframed our business model. When faced with the direst situations, we can rise above and actually become our most creative and productive — it’s necessary if we want to survive. New revenue streams, processes, and marketing ideas are often the result of tough times. The most important thing to do is — Just. Keep. Moving!

In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

Vitamin D time. Exercise is a nonnegotiable priority in my life, but not all exercise is created equal. I work hard to exercise outside in the sun as many days as possible. Hiking, mountain biking, stand up paddling, swimming, skiing, surfing, you name it.

Adventure. I need to live a life of adventure or I will stagnate, and stagnation is my greatest fear! I define adventure as something that allows me personal growth and incites a little thrill along the way. Trying new things is critical, especially as we get older. For me, adventure is currently focused on new ways that I can move my body. In 2017, I learned how to surf. In 2019, I did a 30k cross country ski race and learned to downhill ski. I’m working on my 2020 adventure plans now!

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

Connecting to other leaders. I believe that a strong network of other business leaders is critical. Many people are afraid to reach out and seek help or guidance from others, for fear of leaking trade secrets or because they think everyone else is competition. I believe the opposite. I think that if you have a great business, there is a place for everyone to succeed.

Writing. When I hit a hurdle and I can’t see around it, I start writing. Sometimes this is first thing in the morning. Sometimes it’s randomly throughout the day. When my brain starts to spin and I lose my focus, writing helps make sense of the confusion and allows me to move on and free up valuable brain space.

Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

Run This World with Nicole DeBoom Podcast.As a speaker, I’m often on the stage, delivering my message on how to live your most positive life. I realized at some point that I need inspiration too! I decided to start a podcast where I interview people who are making positive change in the world. Every single guest, every interview, has had a major impact on my mind and soul. I realized that after three years, I need these deep, gut-wrenching conversations to help discover new ways to walk this world.

Giving back through Running Start.In 2010, I started a non-profit organization that helps women change their lives through running. We take women with major life barriers and pair them up with women who have found strength, courage and confidence through running to act as their Motivators. Together they train for and complete a 5k, opening up a whole new world of coping skills and techniques along the way. I am the President of this organization and each season I am reminded of why I do what I do — to help women find a positive path forward.

You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving family member at home?

This is the biggest challenge I face as a business owner. I am consumed by my job and I’m often on the clock even when normal working hours are done. One day when my daughter was five or six, she said, “If I can’t watch the iPad, then you can’t look at your phone.” I realized that I was only “half there” much of the time that I was with her — and she’s right — it wasn’t fair! Being present as a wife and mom is not easy. It takes constant reminders, but I will say that it’s much easier when I physically distance myself from a device that allows me to be sucked back in on a moment’s notice. That’s my advice for anyone grappling with this issue: Leave your phone somewhere else and stop justifying why you should be available 24/7!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Smile. I recently bought a necklace that says one word — SMILE. Smiling has been proven to have a physical effect on your body. It releases endorphins that help us feel good and make us happy. And it requires no money and pretty much no effort. Just turn the corners of your lips up and you can change the energy of your day!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Listen to your gut. You know your body, mind and heart better than anyone else. If something feels wrong, it’s most likely wrong. If something feels right, move forward and stop second guessing yourself!

What are the best ways our readers can follow you on social media?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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