Former National Champion Bruce Gennari on his health scare, family, and longevity in the sport

Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,
I want to introduce you to some awesome Moms and Dads as I write these letters to you. I’m doing my best to balance being a husband to your mom, a good dad to you kids, and an athlete, but there are some amazing people in the world who are doing these things too. I think it’s important for you to meet them.
Every area of the country has their local stud triathlete; That guy or girl who shows up just about every weekend there’s a race and walks away with the overall win without breaking a sweat. Since the mid-90’s that guy in the Southeast has been former University of Alabama swim star, and  Nashvillian, Bruce Gennari.
But Bruce is more than just the local top dog. My first year of racing in 2001 Bruce won the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship (held in Idaho that year). I remember how cool we all thought that was here in Middle Tennessee. I think we all felt a little better that he was kicking everyone’s butt…not just ours here locally. “Our guy” was the national champion. He went on to finish 5th in the world at the World Championships in Edmonton that same year.
A few years later I was privaleged to race at the ITU Age Group World Championship in Honolulu. Bruce’s wave started behind mine, so it wasn’t long before I saw Bruce, clear as day through the crystal clear water, come flying past everyone. Bruce has long been a dominent force in races like the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon, Mtn. Lakes Triathlon, the DeSoto Triple-T, and has won the Music City Triathlon more times than any other athlete. He’s raced at the 70.3 World Championships and in Kona on multiple occasions.
Bruce races for the Timex Multisport team now and he’s still getting it done on race day.
I had a chance recently to talk with Bruce over lunch. The former age-group national champion is as nice and genuine a person as he is a great athlete. He’s a family man. And he’s a testiment to how hard work will keep you competitive in the sport for a long time. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Bruce Gennari.
Chad: You and I talked recently and you told me how important having a strong spouse is for a triathlete. Tell us about your wife; how long have you been married?
Bruce: My wife’s name is Tammy Gennari and she’s the rock in our family.  I’ve been married for 18 years and have two wonderful sons.  Ian is 11 and Noah is 8.  They are both athletic like their old man.  Tammy is also into working out albeit it’s not as involved as triathlon.  Tammy likes spinning, yoga and doing P90X and Insanity.  Tammy did dabble in multisport back in the day and does own a bike.  Without a doubt Tammy is one of the hardest working person’s I know. She works for the State of Tennessee in their Tenncare program and they are lucky to have her.  Tammy is originally from Cleveland, OH and graduated from Ohio University.  I met Tammy back in the early 90’s while working for a company called Consultec, Inc.  She and I were married on June 25, 1994.
Chad: How does she make you successful as an athlete and how does that transfer into making you successful as a man in general?
Bruce: Tammy makes me successful as an athlete because she understands my passion for the sport.  She know’s how much I like racing and being competitive.  Knowing this she allows me to train and sacrifices a lot of the stuff that she’d like to do in the process.  Tammy is also the voice of reason when it comes to keeping me on an “even keel” when it comes to racing and how I perform.  If I’ve had a bad race she puts things into perspective.  She makes me better as a person just by her actions.  She’s a very giving and hard working person that leads by example.
Chad: The time commitment it takes to excel in triathlon is often a source of stress for a lot of couples. How do you two deal with the time commitment and discipline it requires to compete at the elite level?
Bruce: This is a tough question to answer.  No matter how hard you try to avoid it there’s a sense of guilt when you go out for long training days.  The guilt comes from knowing that your wife is sacrificing her time for you.  I don’t think that ever really goes away.  I attempt to validate (in my mind) the time I take to train by doing the things that are necessary to give me the opportunity to train.  The best way I can explain is by comparing the time it takes to train with a checking account.  In order to withdraw money from the account you have to put money in the account.  I put “time” money in the account when it comes to my family and then take time out when I need to train.  Now, I’m not going to lie, I take more time out than I put in.  My “time” account balance is perpetually negative.  This is where having a supportive wife comes into play.
Chad: You mentioned your two sons earlier. Tell us about your kids.
Bruce: Ian was born on March 30, 2001.  He’s 11 years old and just started the 6th grade.  Noah was born on January 15, 2004 and is 8 and just started the 3rd grade.  Both are into “ball” sports at this point in time.  They are both accomplished baseball players.  They also like basketball and football.  Ian is a huge Alabama football fan.  Noah, I think it a fan as well, just not as big as Ian.  Ian is also an accomplished saxophone player and plays first chair for Oliver Middle School.
Chad: How do you keep time with your family, especially your boys, as your top priority amid all of the training and working a full time job?
Bruce: Keeping time with the family is very hard when you take into consideration a full time job and training.  The good thing about my job is I have the ability to work from home.  I’m tied to my desk from 7:00 in the morning to about 5:00 in the afternoon.  But, I am able to see the kids off from school each and every day and am there when they get back home.  I’m the one that gets them going on their homework and all the other school related stuff they are supposed to do.  Now, Tammy will tell you I’m a bit lax when it comes to the doing everything but at least I get them started.  During the boys baseball season I will get out in the yard and play catch or throw the football around.  It’s getting a bit harder to do these things as I’m not getting any younger!  Tammy and I from time-to-time will have “date night” when the local YMCA has parent’s night out.  Again, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a struggle to have meaningful time with the family while trying to train for triathlon.  It’s one of those things that I struggle with each and every time I go out to train.  But, I know that my family “gets” that I like training and competing in triathlon and they support my goals.
Chad: You had a major health scare a couple of years ago. Tell us about that.
Bruce: I actually had two pretty good scares over the past two years.  The first involved a bike crash that lead into bilateral pulmonary embolism where I was put into the hospital and then was on blood thinners for six months.  The second incident happened just last year where I went down on my bike going 34.1 mph.  The doctors will tell you that the first situation was far worse than the second but to me it didn’t feel that way.  The second hurt far worse than the first.
Chad: What did you take away from that experience?
Bruce: What I took away from the blood clot experience is you really, really, really need to listen to your body.  I totally ignored the pain that I was feeling while the blood clots moved up my body.  I just thought, and others that I talked about the situation with, thought that it was day-to-day aches and pains that we deal with because of our training.  I mean, who doesn’t have some nagging pain or ache every day from the training that we do.  I thought that’s what I was feeling.  Boy was I wrong.  On February 3, 2010 I woke up out of a dead sleep with a pain in my chest and thought “this is it”.  Thankfully it wasn’t and I can talk about the experience today.  My advice to everyone out there is there’s a difference between being hurt and being injured.  You really have to be able to tell the difference.  Listen, listen, listen to your body.
Chad: I’ve been watching you race personally for over a decade now. And you’re still kicking butt – most recently winning the Gulf Coast Triathlon overall (half iron distance). Now that you’re a “seasoned athlete” at age 46, how are you still getting it done on race day?
Bruce: I believe my ability to endure in the sport of triathlon has to do with all the swimming I did in my younger years.  I know what it takes to get the job done.  The old cliche of “the will to win is only half as important as the incentive to prepare” has always been motto of mine when it comes to sports.  You have to put in the time to be able to expect results.  Now, with that being said, I’ve also been very blessed (until this season) to stay injury free and healthy.
Chad: In your 30s you won everything. Was there a time when you considered “going pro”?
Bruce: Honestly I have never really considered going pro.  I think if I had gotten into the sport of triathlon straight out of college I might have considered it.  But, once I reached my 30’s I very much enjoyed racing as an amateur.  Plus, I don’t possess the running speed that is needed to really compete at that level.  In an Olympic Distance event you need to be able to run 31 – 32 minutes (and sometimes 30 minutes) to be competitive.  In an half ironman you need to possess 1:13 – 1:15 half marathon speed to be “in the money”.  I was never close to either of those times.  I pretty much came to the conclusion that I would make a much better top tier amateur than a bottom tier professional.  Now, at the age of 46, I can honestly say that I have never regretted my decision.
Chad: In 1997 you were first out of the water in Kona, even ahead of the pros, who you started 50 yards behind. How did that happen?
Bruce: I was in Kona for the first time in 1997.  I never really thought about leading the race out of the water.  I just wanted to put in a solid swim and finish the race standing up!  I started out on the left side of the course and when the race started I swam straight out.  I never really got involved with the “washing machine” that happens in the middle of the swim.  Once I saw that I had pulled ahead of most of the swimmers to my right I started to move over.  It just so happens that when I did I was able to start following some feet that belonged to the professionals who started in front of me.  I thought that there were probably more professional men in front of us and that I’d just hang with these guys until we got closer to the finish.  With about 400 meters to go, with the pier in sight, I  just went for it and ended up being the first one out of the water.  The funny thing is I didn’t know at the time that I was first out of the water.  I didn’t know until hours later, while rounding the “hot” corner” on Alii Drive that I was the first one out.

Bruce Gennari – 1st out of the water in Kona in 1997. Legend.

Chad: We’ve seen you at 70.3 Worlds a few times in the last few years. Is Kona still on your mind as well?
Bruce:Yes, once you’ve been to Kona and competed, I think it’s always on your mind.  Trust me when I say there’s nothing like Kona in October.  I actually attempted to qualify again this year at Buffalo Spring Lake Triathlon 70.3.  The day before the race I was doing my last “warm up” run which was to last about 15 minutes and ended up pulling/tweaking a muscle in my left calf.  I tried to run through the pain but it just wasn’t meant to be.  Maybe this was somebody telling me that He didn’t want me back in Kona doing an Ironman.  Will I try again?  If I had to answer the question right now I’d say no.  But, like it’s been said a million times before, never say never.
Chad: I know you have some race day mantras that you go over in your head. What are those and how do they keep you on track?
Bruce: I have three mantras that I have for race day.  For the swim it’s SAS which stands for Strong And Smooth.  For the bike it’s DTH which stands for Drop The Hammer and lastly, for the run, it’s GIO and that stands for Gut It Out.  I will tell you that after my blood clot incident I came up with a new one when I realized that my racing season was going to be altered because of my situation and that was CTA, which stands for Consider The Alternative.  I think you can figure out what the alternative was in that situation!
Chad: Something I didn’t know about you years ago, but have recently discovered is that you have a strong Faith. Explain how your Faith in God has guided your life and racing career.
Bruce: When I was growing up and living in Birmingham, AL my parents took me to a Episcopalian Church.  I was an alter boy who progressed from carrying the small candle all the way up to carrying the “big Cross” before church services began.  But, in all that time I don’t think I ever “got” it when it came to God/Jesus and the sacrifice that He made for us.  In all honestly I think I was going through the motions when it came to my faith.  In college I completely got away from going to Church.  It wasn’t until the last several years that I’ve finally rediscovered my faith. This is all thanks to my wife and her getting me to go to Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, TN.  Going to Church is a family affair and it’s become a staple in our family life.  Fellowship Bible Church, without a doubt, has some of the best and brightest teaching pastors in the area.  One in particular, Lloyd Shadrach, has very much brought the Bible and it’s teachings very much back to me and I am most appreciative for that.  Now, with that being said, there are times when Tammy has to poke me to keep me from nodding off but those instances are a few and far between.
Chad: What do you hope your kids take away from your career as a top level triathlete?
Bruce: I believe both Ian and Noah see their Dad working out and reaching for a goal.  They do the same thing.  Both Ian and Noah are very, very competitive.  Sometimes almost too competitive.  These past couple of years they have very much been in tune with my racing and how I finish.  One of the first questions from them is how did I place?  How do I feel?  I believe what they’ll take away from me being in triathlon is in order for you to achieve your goals you have to work for them.  You just can’t think they are going to happen but you must work for them.
Chad: Words of advice for other parents who are trying to balance work, marriage, kids, and triathlon? How can we succeed at the big stuff and still improve as athletes?
Bruce: My words of wisdom for other parents out there in regards to being a successful athlete is there is no magic bullet, meaning, there isn’t a simple recipe that makes this all work.  There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to families and how things are going to work.  You just have to do the best you can with what you have.  Sacrifices are going to be made by all involved.  Understanding is going to be needed.  Tolerance is essential. Give and take is going to be the name of the game.  I wish I could sit here and tell you my secret formula for being successful, I really do, but to be completely honest with you I haven’t quite figured it out.  Again, I will always point to my wife, Tammy, and say that she is the main reason why I am able to do the things I do.
Chad: When we had lunch the other day you pounded a couple of brisket tacos and some fries. I was happy to see that you eat like me. What’s your go-to prerace meal though? Night before and morning of?
Bruce: Eating has always been a “spur of the moment” thing for me.  I’m probably not the best person to hang around with when it comes to eating food.  I am on a “see food” diet.  I eat almost everything I see.  But, if you were going to nail me down to what I eat before a race, well, it depends.  If it’s a sprint race maybe something simple like a bowl of cereal, fruit or a Powerbar.  If I’m racing an Olympic Distance race or further maybe something a bit hardier like bagels and eggs.  It just depends on what I feel I can eat on race morning.  The night before a race it’s usually pasta or a nice piece of chicken or steak.  Got to get those carbs!
Chad: Favorite Movie?
Bruce: I watch a lot of movies so just breaking it down to one is difficult.  But, with that being said, if I were to pick just one it would be Warrior.
Chad: Favorite band/artist?
Bruce: I like a huge array of music.  Some of my favorites are Bare Naked Ladies, Coldplay, Five for Fighting, The Fray, Jack Johnson, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers and many, many others.  I am also into listening to Christian Rock, as you might imagine, and some of the bands that I like to listen to are Jeremy Camp, Mercy Me, Michael W. Smith, Third Day and Phillips, Craig and Dean.
Chad: Song that gets you fired up?
Bruce: Just give me some AC/DC!  Shoot to Thrill or Thunderstruck!

3 non-family people that you would like to hang out with for a day?

Bill Gates, Steve Carrell, Dave Scott


I hope you kids enjoyed reading about Bruce as much as I enjoyed talking with him. I’m fortunate to live near Bruce and hope to get on the road with him soon for some training.

I love you,

– Daddy