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The Unstoppable Paralympian on Overcoming Adversity

Vasa Exclusive Interview: The Unstoppable Paralympian – Part 2

Vasa had the privilege of interviewing Elite Paratriathlete and Sports Psychologist Chris Hammer, Ph.D. He recently became the first challenged athlete in history to earn his USA Triathlon elite license, allowing him to compete in professional fields against the elite able-bodied competition.  Chris is preparing for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. (Athlete Bio: Chris Hammer — Team USA). In this 2-part interview, Chris answers questions about the effects of psychology on athletic performance and how developing mental toughness has played a vital role in where he is today as a triathlete.  In Part 2 of our 2-part interview, Chris answers questions about the effects of psychology on athletic performance and how overcoming adversity has played a vital role in where he is today as a triathlete.

Mental Toughness Helps Athletes Overcome Adversity
The Unstoppable Paralympian on Mental Toughness and Overcoming Adversity

Vasa: Specifically, when athletes experience anxiety, panic, and hyperventilation at the start of or during the triathlon swim, what are some tips and tricks in overcoming adversity? 


CH: I had this exact experience during my very first open-water ocean swim. It was a training swim in San Diego, and seals were swimming all around (which made me think there were sharks as well). I had what I can only describe as a panic attack. My mind flooded with negative thoughts/emotions.  I convinced myself that this first ocean swim would be my last, and I would quit the sport of triathlon. What felt like an eternity was probably only 15 seconds in reality. I got over it by focusing on my breath and engaging in some quick mindfulness meditation on the spot. By regaining control of my breath again, I regained control of my thoughts and emotions. I find the ability to focus on my breath by using mindfulness is a skill that is beneficial in many walks of life.

Competitors at the start of a triathlon
Mass swim starts are common in triathlon races

Vasa: During the two years of training before Tokyo, describe an adverse situation that required you to push yourself to an extreme? How did you overcome this adversity?


CH: Two things immediately come to my mind. First, as I get older (currently 36 years old), my minor aches and pains begin to stick around longer than they once did (and sometimes they become full-blown injuries). Staying healthy has required that I take rest and recovery much more seriously than I once did, and I find I must walk a fine line in training to maintain that health. I must remind myself that sometimes it takes more courage to take a day off than to push through. The second, and more severe challenge I faced, was the closure of pools due to the COVID pandemic. I was living in rural West Virginia and didn’t have access to any swimming pools for the vast majority of the year. Fortunately, I had purchased a Vasa SwimErg not long before the pandemic, and that equipment was a life-saver regarding my swimming and sanity! Talk about overcoming adversity! 


Vasa: Describe your “go-to” specific workouts that you do outside the water that directly translates to stronger and better swimming. 


CH: Whenever I cannot swim, my “go-to” workout is to hop on the Vasa SwimErg. I often simulate workouts in the pool, but sometimes we mess around with stroke rate. However, even when I can get to a pool, I supplement on the SwimErg. It is a powerful tool to increase fitness and work on stroke mechanics.

paralympic triathlete overcoming adversity with Vasa
Chris swim training at home on the Vasa SwimErg

Vasa: You missed making the podium at the Tokyo Paralympic games, only seconds behind the bronze medal finisher. How did you cope with that result?


CH: Honestly, it was a very tough result to endure. I finished in 4th place at consecutive Paralympic Games (2016, 2021) and could see the podium just seconds up the road at each. However, rather than wallowing in self-pity, I used it as motivation. I wasn’t going to let one race define my triathlon career, so I needed to find more races to compete in! I decided to take a big step out of my comfort zone by racing the Augusta Ironman 70.3 a month later. Even though I train for triathlon sprints (Paralympic distance is a sprint), I entered the 70.3 with high goals. I finished in a time of 4:01:44, was the second overall age group athlete, and beat half of the professional men. I then went on to win the Paratriathlon World Championship in Abu Dhabi a month later. Even though I didn’t finish on the podium in Tokyo, I didn’t allow that race to make or break my season. If I had succumbed to that self-pity, there is no way I would have had two of the best races of my life just months after Tokyo.


Vasa: If you could go back, what would you tell your younger self? 


CH: I would tell myself to learn how to swim the right way! I started the sport of triathlon when I was 26 years old, and that was when I started to learn how to swim. I am now 36 years old and still spend so much time learning how to swim.


Vasa: Do you have any mentors in the triathlon community? What would be the two most valuable lessons learned from them?


CH: The triathlon community is filled with many incredible, thoughtful, and kind people. Coaches past and present have all played a vital role in where I am today as a triathlete. The most valuable lessons I have learned would be (1) the importance of being consistent and (2) the importance of being consistent! That’s right…I can’t stress it enough. If you want to progress in this sport, the best way to do so is by being consistent over time!

Consistent swim training at home with Vasa
Swim training with Vasa is time-efficient. Get consistent, high-quality workouts at home.

Vasa: What are you focusing on right now? What is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal?


CH: My family and I recently made a huge sacrifice. We moved across the country to Arizona, where I am now working part-time at Arizona State University and am training with USA Triathlon’s Project Podium (an Olympic development squad). I have done a few Ironman 70.3 races in the pro field and would like to do several more. However, the #1 goal is the Paris Paralympic Games in 2024, and the dream is to improve upon my past two 4th place finishes.


Did You Miss Part 1 Of This Exclusive Interview with Chris Hammer? Read It Here: How Mental Toughness Helps Athletes Overcome Adversity


Want to learn how to overcome fear of open water swimming to realize your full potential when it counts? Download our free Ebook, Four Keys to Fearless Open Water Swimming for swimming secrets from 7 of the world’s top athletes and coaches.


Chris Hammer Vasa TrainerFollow Chris Hammer on social media:

Instagram @chrishammer8

Twitter @Chris00Hammer