Local Athletes Travel the World to Compete
For these area athletes, the sweat and dedication achingly poured into their athletic pursuits has allowed them to travel the world and experience new cultures, cuisines, and environments. Challenges arise, and it’s not always easy, but they all agree – the adventure is worth it.
By Lucy Morris
Brad Cobb | Cycling
For Brad Cobb, a single bike ride more than 15 years ago was all it took to get him hooked on the sport. “I had torn up my knee skiing. I couldn’t run, so I went for a bike ride with a friend and really enjoyed it,” he says. “… and I realized I wasn’t horrible at it.”
He started with road biking, and as his skills developed, he made the trek to France for his first race. “I went with a bunch of buddies and did L’Etape du Tour de France, a 150-mile race that traces a stage of the Tour de France before the pros compete.” The race, known for its ‘mythical’ mountain climbs, was a bold move for a first race.
Not one to back down from a challenge, Cobb began exploring mountain biking not long after at a friend’s recommendation. His first mountain bike race was the Cohutta 100, a demanding 100-mile endurance race. “So my first two races were probably not the smartest endeavors,” Cobb laughs, “but I ended up doing okay and enjoying them.”
As the years have progressed, so have Cobb’s finishes. While he admits you enjoy it more if you do well, his favorite part about cycling is the friends he’s made and the places he’s seen. “Racing has taken me all over the world,” he explains. “I’ve done stage races in Chile, South Africa, and Costa Rica. I’ve ridden all over France, Italy, and Switzerland. It’s such a cool way to see a country – the roads are a whole lot less traveled.”
Of course, competing all over the world involves foreign terrain athletes aren’t used to. “La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica has a whole jungle section – you have to push and even carry your bike at times.” Unsurprisingly, unique courses like that can be hard to train for.
Beyond training difficulties, traveling to other countries to compete can present challenges. “The food is always different from what I’m used to here,” Cobb explains. “At La Ruta, the aid stations will have boiled potatoes. You have to adjust your eating to make sure you’re getting the calories you need to compete your best.”
With the friends he’s made and the miles he’s traveled, Cobb has no desire to slow down. “Next on my international radar is Swiss Epic in Switzerland and Pioneer in New Zealand.”
John Wiygul | Triathlon
“People always say, ‘You must like to suffer,’” John Wiygul laughs of his penchant for endurance sports.
At 16, Wiygul completed his first 50K trail race. “I saw the flyer for it at Rock/Creek and knew it was my calling,” he says. Once his high school found out, he was, as he puts it, “automatically inducted onto the cross-country team.”
As his predilection for running continued, he also developed a passion for other endurance sports like climbing and mountain biking, eventually paving the way for his turn as an Ironman. “I was racing in all different categories, and I figured if I could swim, I could compete in a race that combined specialties,” he explains.
An impressive contender, he has since competed in eight Ironman world championship events (not to mention the countless qualifiers that led up to them). Along the way, he’s visited countries like Australia, Austria, and France.
For Wiygul, a self-proclaimed “hill-lover,” training is the easy part. “You definitely want to train for the specific conditions you’ll face,” he says. “The harder you train, the easier – and therefore more fun – the race is.” The challenges of competing in another country are everything but the race. “If you think traveling with a golf bag is hard, try traveling with a bike,” he laughs. “That’s fun.” Language barriers can also present challenges. “Google Translate is your friend.”
But for Wiygul, it’s all worth it. “Exercise the world!” he recommends. “It’s worth the new experiences. In Australia, for instance, you’re biking on the other side of the road, so you’re thinking, ‘Am in the right lane?’ Turns are weird too. You get out of your comfort zone for sure.”
Traveling and competing in other countries starts to become a lifestyle too. “Ironman does such a good job with their races, you end up hanging out with people you met at different races, and you’re always meeting new people. The environment is very positive. It’s more than just going to a new race. It’s checking out the area and experiencing it through an active lifestyle.”
A glutton for punishment it seems, Wiygul is planning to hit the off-road triathlon circuit XTERRA, which includes swimming, mountain biking, and trail running, in 2020. “It’s just applying a similar skillset to a different discipline,” he smiles.
Bennett Smith | Whitewater Kayaking
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Bennett Smith found himself traveling through Chattanooga to the Ocoee River most weekends as a high schooler. It’s where he learned to kayak. “My best friend from middle school went to a camp in North Carolina and told me he’d done the most fun thing in his life,” he says. “That was kayaking, and I thought, shoot, I gotta try it!”
And try it he did, learning the ways of the waves from teacher Jeremy Adkins. Recognizing his potential, Adkins recommended Smith try his hand at some competitions. “I started with small ones up on Nantahala in North Carolina and a couple in Alabama,” Smith explains. “I ended up doing really well, so I tried out for the world championships in 2013 and made it onto Team U.S.A. That’s when I started my professional career.”
As a professional, Smith competes around the world in freestyle kayaking. He explains, “That means you’re throwing your boat, doing flips and tricks on the rapids.” From his first trip with Team U.S.A. to his most recent competition in Spain, he’s learned the ins and outs of traveling the world to compete.
“With my first experience traveling to Argentina, we wanted to get there early to practice on the rocks and rapids we’d be competing on, since they can be different from where we practice here. We got there a week early, thinking it would give us plenty of time. To our surprise, there were 100 people waiting in line to practice by the time we showed up,” he laughs. On the next trip, they went five weeks early, and the competition spot was still being constructed.
“If you get there about two weeks early, it’s perfect,” he says. “That gives you time to get used to the culture, the specific rapids, and the rocks, which will help with the competition.”
Smith admits the kayaking is the easy part. “That’s what you’ve prepared for, trained for,” he explains. “It’s the other stuff you’re not ready for – the language barrier, renting a car, even just the way the grocery stores work. This past trip, we tried to buy a bunch of fruit and didn’t know we had to weigh it first. Until you get over there and figure out how the country works, it’s hard to prepare, but that’s part of the fun. It’s a constant adventure.”
The 2021 World Championships are planned for the United Kingdom, and Smith hopes to again represent his country. “The biggest part of the adventure is getting to travel, experience other cultures, and have stories to tell.”
Lisa Rands | Climbing
Growing up, Lisa Rands never thought climbing would become her career. “I got into climbing in high school, but it was just a hobby,” she explains. “So, I went to college, got a degree in geology, and moved to Colorado for a job.” But for this California native, Colorado wasn’t the answer. “I realized I wasn’t a snow person,” she laughs. “I was spending a lot of time indoors, training on a friend’s climbing wall in the garage.”
Fortunately, all the practice paid off, and Rands entered a national bouldering competition that year. She took home first place. Later that summer, she was invited to a competition in Hood River, Oregon – she won again – and she and her husband, Wills, decided it was time to move out of Colorado. “We put all of our stuff into storage in California and went to Europe for the summer to climb.”
Once back in California, her climbing career took off, and she started attracting sponsors. “With the sponsors, I had more financial support for climbing, so I was able to spend a lot of time traveling and climbing around the world,” she says. “I was really focused on achieving my climbing goals.” And achieve she did. In 2002, she dominated the competition in Lecco, Italy, to become the first American to ever win a bouldering world cup.
Today, Rands lives in Chattanooga with her husband, but over the years, she has climbed her way across five continents – not Australia and not Antarctica (she’s not a snow person, after all) – and she’s had to learn how to train for different types of native rock. “In some places, the rock is definitely sharper and more aggressive, while in others, you’re working with a smoother sandstone,” she explains. “It all comes down to being careful about your skin and tailoring your training around the specific event.”
For Rands, the traveling was all worth it, though there were challenges that stuck out. “For bouldering, we use foam crash pads. They’re really light, but they’re considered ‘oversized’ when it comes to luggage. The airlines wouldn’t usually recognize them as sports equipment, so every time you were going somewhere, it really depended on who was at the airline counter,” she laughs. “That being said, I got to go to Santiago, Chile, and Seoul, South Korea, which I never would’ve traveled to if there hadn’t been competitions, and I spent three summers going to the Rocklands in South Africa. I have great memories from those trips.”
Colton & Bryson Popp | Canoeing
Brothers Colton and Bryson Popp have been paddling for as long as they can remember. “We were just kind of blessed to be born into it,” says Colton. “Our dad has been racing canoes since the early 70s, so he had us on the river when we were in diapers.”
Time on the water turned competitive when the boys, who are six years apart in age, started racing together as a pair. “Racing as a team had its ups and downs in the beginning,” laughs Bryson, “but I think us being siblings actually worked out for the better. He’s just enough older than me that I always saw him as the older brother who knew what he was doing.”
In 2010, the duo competed in the ICF Wildwater Senior World Championships in Sort, Spain, after qualifying in the U.S. Team Trials earlier that year. “It was our first trip out of the country, and it was an experience,” Colton laughs. “We rented a van so we could fit our entire family of six, and we had our boats on these makeshift racks. Just getting out of the parking lot was hard enough, and then there were a bunch of eight-lane roundabouts. We were that family that went around multiple times trying to figure out how to get out of it.”
Though they didn’t finish as high as they would’ve liked, it was an eye-opening experience. “Our first Worlds was not pretty racing-wise, but it taught us how to persevere,” Bryson says.
Two years later, the brothers qualified again for the world championships, this time traveling to France to compete. “The best part about traveling is seeing new places and experiencing the moment,” says Colton. “You can leave your everyday worries at home.” More competitive this trip, they finished just shy of the top 10.
While Colton was away at dental school, Bryson, who was still young enough to qualify for the U.S. junior team, took his talents to Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and Canada. “I experienced all of these trips at such different ages that I got a new perspective with each,” Bryson says.
Today, Colton and Bryson are racing together again and will be competing in the Wildwater World Championships in April. “This is the first time they’ve been in the U.S. in over 30 years, and it’s on the Nantahala, which we consider our home river,” says Colton. “We’re ready to take advantage of this rare opportunity.” CS