Declare your independence: 6 athletes talk freedom
In celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence, we talked to six athletes and explorers—each known for such self-reliant acts as running for days through Death Valley and cycling around the world—about a moment when they felt particularly free.
For some, it’s a sport, like surfing or scuba diving, that connects them to an inner strength. For others, choosing to break away from the route their family, friends, and society expected of them, marked a personal turning point. We hope their stories inspire you to get out there and pursue your own happiness.
Jamie Bianchini: I went from bankrupt to tandem troubadour
“The most liberating moment of my life was when I committed to live my passion at any cost,” says Jamie Bianchini, author of the recently published memoir “A Bicycle Built for Two Billion: One Man’s Adventure Around the World in Search of Love, Compassion and Connection.” That commitment ended up taking Bianchini through 81 countries—by bike.
In 2002, he and his friend Garryck Hampton started a project called Peace Pedalers. With Black Sheep Bikes, they designed a convertible tandem-single mountain bike, called a “tangle.” When using the tangles as tandems, Bianchini and Hampton would ride in the front of each of their bikes, and pick up “guest riders” who rode on the back seats. Bianchini went on to travel the world on his tangle for eight years. (Hampton joined him for the first year until a crash in Malaysia forced him to leave the trip early.)
Crazy? Perhaps, but Bianchini had just hit rock-bottom in his life. After going bankrupt “trying super hard to make money and prove myself to my peers and family,” Bianchini says, “I realized I was striving to succeed at something that was not truly me.”
That realization was a major turning point. “From that moment on, I was free to create a life that I truly wanted,” one that today still keeps him journeying “around the world, living my dream of cycling, travel, and human connection.”
Jonny Moseley: I want to quit traveling the world and go to school
Olympic skier and ZOZI Guru Jonny Moseley’s moment of independence looks a little different from many people’s.
“After I won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1998, I had this great set of new opportunities coming my way,” he says. “It was a weird confluence for me. I was at the height of my career, but at the same time I felt like I wanted to quit.”
The feeling kept niggling at him, but he buried it. He did all the post-Olympic activities, finished off his World Cup season with a win, and then … quit at the age of 22. “Most people would quit school and go travel the world,” he says. “I wanted to do the opposite.”
He enrolled at UCLA, wanting “to go to school, surf, and party.” Of course, he adds, laughing, “after a few months, I basically was like, what the hell am I doing? I’m right in the middle of my career. For a few months there though, I was a full rebel, grabbing whatever it was I was chasing after.”
Tao Berman: No, I really don’t want to be a brain surgeon
ZOZI Guru Tao Berman is known for kayaking extreme vertical drops, including a 98-foot waterfall. So it’s probably no surprise that he’s felt pretty independent his whole life, but one moment in particular stands out for him.
“When I got out of high school, I went to Mexico and Central America and kayaked for about six months. When I got back, I realized I needed to make money. I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and at the time, that was kayaking.”
Back in the '90s, many people hadn’t even heard of kayaking—let alone someone trying to make a career out of it. His family was lukewarm toward the idea. His grandparents, one who taught at a college and one who was a renowned brain surgeon, were very much pushing for a traditional approach to earning an income and concerned about his financial future.
And his parents? “My parents were quite terrified that I was going to die, and for good cause. I was good at what I did, but there was no margin for error. So my parents were not enthusiastic from the possibility-of-me-dying perspective.”
In the end, even though no one in his family was cheering him on, Berman took the leap. “I chose to pursue what I felt was going to make me happy. With some luck and some good judgment, I was able to do that.”
Alex Rennert: Just let me float below the surface
Alex Rennert, a member of the USA Shooting’s national team says one of his all-time favorite ways to connect with a sense of independence is to scuba dive (preferably off the coast of Florida with his dad).
“There's no better feeling of freedom to me than floating weightless in trillions of gallons of water surrounded by marine life and exploring all that this earth has to offer,” says Rennert.
It’s a surreal feeling, he explains, to sit on the sandy bottom after a 60-foot dive and stare up toward the surface, “almost as if you're looking into another world.”
“It’s at that point where I experience an overwhelming feeling of privilege to live in a country where an activity such as scuba diving can be such the norm."
Dean Karnazes: Look for me in the ocean
Dean Karnazes pauses on a run to look out over the ocean fog.
When thinking about his independent streak, ultramarathon runner and ZOZI Guru Dean Karnazes, says, “It pretty much started at age 6, when I began running home from kindergarten.” He has pumped that same energy into his adult life, pushing himself to unbelievable limits: running 350 continuous miles; crossing Death Valley in 120 degree temps and the South Pole in negative 40 degrees. He’s completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, and his upcoming to-do list includes completing a marathon in every country in one year.
But when it comes down to it, Karnazes says he feels most independent these days when he’s surfing.
“There’s something special about riding a wave, about engaging with this natural phenomena in an intimate sort of way. You feel the energy, you feel your board being uplifted, you feel this swell of energy. And you feel really connected, kind of centered and grounded, to the sea.”
Yes, he’s also connected to the earth when he runs, but, as someone who grew up and continues to live in California, “I’m very much what they call a waterman, someone who loves the ocean.”
Chris Lieto: I don’t care what you say
Friends said he was crazy and stupid. Family said he was crazy and should get a normal job.
And, for sure, says Ironman champion and ZOZI Guru Chris Lieto, “setting a goal for myself to be one of the best athletes in the world before I even got on a bike was a very lofty goal. A lot of people didn’t believe that I could do it.”
But that didn’t matter because Lieto believed in himself. “I wanted to fight against the gravitational pull to sit in a cubicle and work a normal job,” he says. “I wanted to be adventurous in what I did in my life.”
Lieto took this moment of independence and couched it in the practical. He took a job as a mortgage broker, which gave him enough flexibility to train. He didn’t quit until he was earning enough income through sponsors and prize money. And even when he became a full-time triathlete, he launched a supplement company that still runs today.
He says the “normal job” stuff helped him with life balance. “I was 100 percent into my athletic career, but at the same time, it didn’t all hinge on triathlons. I always tried to have quality time with my family.”