The champion within: Tj Fry and the art of making it look easy

He’s completed six Ironmans, competed professionally in triathlons, was a collegiate MVP at Clemson University in swimming, is a devoted husband and father, and more recently in the middle of this brutal recession, acquired — and then expanded — a string of retail shops devoted to swim sports.
Tj Fry clearly loves a challenge. Spend a few minutes with him, and you may just want to take on a few challenges of your own.
He notched his most recent Ironman – the venerable Kona Ironman competition in Hawaii – in early October of this year. As we sit and visit for a bit in the Starbucks in Market Street in The Woodlands (he has water – I do the loaded latte), I’m intrigued to find out what drives him.

Tj still going strong in the marathon stretch of the 2011 Kona Ironman

I’d especially like to know what drives a guy to repeatedly compete in the Ironman, the most grueling athletic endurance event on the planet, featuring extreme distances in each of three disciplines: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, topped off with a punishing full marathon, 26.2 miles. For a taste of his experience, see Tj’s blog here
It is an event whose ability to humble the strongest athletes was made famous in this Gatorade commercial, in which athlete Chris Legh has a nearly complete physical breakdown on the course. It’s painful to watch. Tj was bitten by the Ironman “bug” as a young boy. While it’s clear that he is in many ways a natural athlete, he points to his parents as playing a vital role in setting him on a path toward success.
A homegrown phenomenon, Tj was part of the first generation of kids who were born, grew up, and then graduated high school entirely in The Woodlands. It was a still young master-planned community when Tj’s parents – his dad Joe was a regional sales rep, mom Loretta a homemaker – moved to The Woodlands.
His foray into competitive sports, particularly his key sport, swimming, started with one of those classic parental decisions – Tj and his sister both were getting involved in sports, and the scheduling was getting difficult. The solution? Put them in the same activity.
“My sister was swimming, and scheduling the two of us was a little hard; they decided to put both of us kids in one sport to make shuttling us around easier,” Tj explained.
But it wasn’t just the scheduling that made a difference. His parents also laid down one very clear rule: you can choose your activity or sport – but you will pick something. Being a couch potato – or, these days, an Xbox junkie – was not an option.
“My parents were pretty clear; you can quit if you want; but you’ve got to pick something else to do. I wasn’t going to be sitting around on the couch watching TV,” he said.
“I think it was important they did that. The message was, ‘you’re not going to sit around on your ass and do nothing.’ ” As a result, he started swimming competitively at age 6, and by age 12 he had competed in his first triathlon.
It was that experience, he said, that helped form his desire to compete in the ultimate triathlon, the Kona Ironman.
“Honestly, the roots of it was doing a couple of kids races, and then I saw the Ironman on TV; and immediately my attention was drawn to that throughout high school and college;” he said.
“For whatever reason, I was drawn to things that looked difficult,” he said.
The Ironman is the very definition of difficult. It’s not just race day that is extreme – it’s the rigorous training schedule required to prepare oneself for the ultimate distances involved. Training weeks start at about eight hours of swimming, biking and running a week and stretch to as much as 16 hours per week as athletes seek to get in the distances that will prepare them for an Ironman.
“It can be all-consuming; if you’re not training, you’re always wanting to sleep and eat. It’s a real challenge,” he said. “There is a base level of fitness you have to have; you can’t even consider a triathlon until you get to that point.”
And it can be a challenge on families as well.  A few weeks out from Ironman an athlete is putting in 120-mile weekend bike rides and 22- to 26-mile long runs. It requires a different form of endurance from wife Amy and his two children, Megan, 4 and Andrew, 2.
His running he can do earlier in the morning. But for Saturday bike rides “I’m gone for six hours and don’t get back until after lunch, and by the time I get back I’m exhausted. The challenge is to stay engaged with my kids even after six hours of cycling,” Tj said.
But on top of being a competitive amateur athlete, and managing a busy household with his wife, Tj took on yet another endurance challenge of his own back in 2009, deciding to leave a safe, stable and successful career as an executive for commercial lending at Woodforest Bank and diving into owning and operating his own business.
The economy was slowing at that point, and with commercial lending starting to slow as well, “I wasn’t as busy as I would have liked or expected to be,” he said. “Idleness is the devil’s playground, as they say.”
As he helped a friend review the numbers for a business deal, he saw the potential for his own business and discussed a possible career change with his wife. And instead of responding in fear, she saw the opportunity. “My wife told me, ‘don’t do it when you’re 60; now is the time to do it.’  So I decided to take a change and get into an industry that fostered the thing I loved to do.“
So he dove in to own and operate three Swim Shops of the Southwest stores,  and almost immediately encountered a challenge probably similar to a sudden weather change that sends temperatures soaring on that final stretches of the marathon in an Ironman. Although Texas at that point in 2009 seemed to be weathering the national economic woes, about a month after he acquired Swim Shops the Texas economy tanked.
“At that point (when he purchased) the whole world was shrinking except for Texas; then I bought the business, and the next month the floor dropped out of the economy;” he said.
“I was just staring at every single thing and trying to brace for impact.”
Two things helped; first, he worked to control expenses. Also, he was fortunate in that his business — a niche business that supplied clothing and equipment for school teams –was positioned to survive the recession better than some other retail outlets.
“I’ve noticed that one of the last sacrifices you make when things are tight is yanking your kid out of extracurricular activities,” Tj said. “That gave us a bit of a cushion.”
He’s made the changes to put the business on a solid enough financial foundation that he recently was able to expand to a fourth location in The Woodlands. And there may be more to come. “I’ve already got a couple of future locations picked out. It’s a tricky issue; you want to make sure everything’s firm and the cash flow is good. But I see us expanding the locations and what we offer.”
Meanwhile, he’s taking a bit of a break from Ironman competitions. And as a family, they’ve all learned to adjust to Tj’s continual push to excel. His wife recently completed her first marathon in Austin. And Tj’s determined to pass along the lessons he learned from his parents to his children. “Knowing how I grew up; I want to create that environment for them as well; I don’t want them to see dad on the back porch smoking a cigarette and complaining about his life,” he said.
They’re catching on already.“Sometimes my kids like to play what they call the ‘marathon’ game. They’ll run around in circles and say ‘we’re running the Ironman,” and their mom and I will clap for them.”

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