Olympic triathlete Greg Billington's unlikely qualifier story
At just 9 years old, Gregory Billington knew that his dream was to compete in the Olympics. After he started doing triathlons, he knew he had found his sport.
Flash forward to today, and Billington just competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio representing the United States of America -- one of the highest honors an athlete can achieve, but it was not an easy road to get to. Billington hit a few roadblocks while trying to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in a surreal story.
Check out our full interview with Billington below to read more about his unique qualifying experience, and how he first became involved with triathlons.
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How did you first discover your passion for competing in triathlons?
I think I first did my first triathlon when I was ten. I was kind of into swimming, but it wasn't that real of an event. It was my parents' anniversary and they wanted to do something interesting. They offered to let me tag along to a triathlon. I rode on the back of a tandem with my dad while he did the cycling. It was a fun first experience. This was back over in England, my dad taught on a military base over there.
When you first started getting into the sport, was the Olympics always on your mind?
The Olympics has been on my mind since I started as a swimmer when I was 9. I won 50 meter county championships in the butterfly stroke, and from there it was a straight path to the Olympics. It's been a much longer road to get here, but ever since I started swimming I wanted to go to the Olympics.
In regards to your 2012 trial into the Olympics. You were really close to qualifying. What was your mind frame going into that? How did that differ from the 2016 qualification?
2012 was a lot different. In 2016, I thought there was a good chance I'd make it in. But in 2011, I had just graduated from Wake Forest University, and had been recently hit by a car. It wasn't that bad, but I had broken both my arms, and I was in casts the year before. The year before that, I had finished 4th at the World Championships, so I thought there was a possibility of not getting into the Olympics.
Coming into the next year I didn't have enough points to get into the Olympics trails race. I was just racing around the world. Then, right at the last minute I realized I didn't have the ranking I needed -- you have to be ranked in the top 65 or 70 in the world to get into the Olympic trials race -- I realized that I was ranked like 80th.
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So, I flew down to do a race down in Brazil, the Continental Cup. All of the sudden, I was coming out around a corner in a big pack of cyclists, and the chain on my bike broke, so I was done. I was pushing my bike back, knowing I wasn't going to get into that race, and I saw another kid biking by me really slow -- he looked like he was going to drop out. The bike pack was gone at this point, it was like 3 minutes up the road. So, I chased after this other triathlete who was soft pedaling, and I was like 'Stop, I need your bicycle, Connor!' He got off his bike, and gave it to me. Of course, my shoes didn't work with his bike, so we had to trade. And then I time trialed my bike for the second half of the 40K bike course, and at the end probably spent a minute of the bike back that it dropped me.
I managed to finish the race in 3rd place overall, and that gave me just enough points so that I was literally the last guy to roll onto the Olympic trial start list in 2012. Coming into the race, I knew I had put in a really good training block and I had a solid chance of making it to the team, and I came really close. It was obviously disappointing, but obviously encouraging. Because it was my first big competition on the elite level, and I did well. So, I knew that if I put in a bit more work and more time, I had a good shot going into the games in 2016.
Also, you broke your femur leading up to the 2016 Olympics. What was that recovery process like?
That one was really tough. It was 2014, and that was kind of the Olympic qualification process that already started internationally. People had already started accruing points. Right before the first race in 2014, I ended up with a stress fracture in my femur. It meant I had to take a really long break running, and not racing at all in 2014, which was scary. Especially, 2/3rds of the way through the rehab process is when it really hits you that you're training really hard, and doing whatever you can to get back to the period of fitness that you had before you broke yourself, and you realize that even getting back to that point is not going got be enough to get to where you need to be to qualify for the games. It's scary knowing that you need to go through all of that, and then it'll still be even harder once you get back to being healthy. It's tough trying to stay motivated through all of that. Coming into 2015, to even get into the Olympic trial races I had to do well, and then every race in early 2015, and then on top of that be one of the best Americans at those key qualifying events.
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