Maine-born Sarah Piampiano has had unshakeable determination since age two. Raised with two older brothers, how could she resist being tougher than most girls? Some would surely say that Piampiano is truly one daring young lady, laying down the law, making the first move on open opportunities, and setting up bets that are life changing. After a wager made that she would stop smoking cigarettes if she showed up to a race that she knew nothing about, Piampiano changed the course of her life when she showed up to her first Triathlon, won the race and the bet against her long time friend Todd. She won more than a bet that day; she won a second wind in life. Lioness, please meet August’s “Dream Catcher In Heels,” feature for the Stiletto Statement,” Sarah Piampiano, a woman who redesigned her own destiny by believing in her own potential and abilities.
Aliyah Cherrisse (A.C.) — Sarah, explain to our readers in a little more detail about who Sarah Piampiano truly is, as those closest to her would know her.
Sarah Piampiano (S.P.) — Ha! Way to start out the questioning! I would say I am stubborn, focused, unwilling to fail, driven. I’m also fun – I love spontaneity. I like to do things off the beaten path – to create my own destiny and world. I like to laugh. I am genuine. I’m emotional. I’m loyal. I’m a Leo. I give my heart and soul to everything I do – whether it is my job, relationships, friendships, and family. I’m daring, fearless.
A.C. — Seeing as though you’re such a strong willed and strong-minded woman, like myself, what was it like for you in those schoolyards?
S.P. — Another good question! [Laugh] My memories of the schoolyard were of me always wanting to play with the boys. The boys were the ones usually playing soccer, or doing something competitive, and that is how I like to roll – it is when I am in my element. And I liked trying to be the girl who was better than all the boys! I had my girlfriends too, but I think I had a disproportionate amount of guy friends. I didn’t like to pay with dolls growing up – I liked to play with swords, and have races, and compete.
A.C. — You learned what it was to be challenged early growing up with two older brothers. Tell us, how did the relationship with your two brothers mold you into the woman you are today?
S.P. — Oh man [sighs], my brothers have had such an incredibly and profound influence and impact on my life. They are a BIG reason I am the way I am today. My brothers were tough on me. They didn’t let me off the hook because I was [significantly] younger, smaller, or female. Their view was: If you want to hang with us, you need to be able to do everything we do as well as, if not better. The only thing I wanted to do growing up was to hang out with my brothers. I looked up to them and wanted to emulate them. So for me – showing weakness wasn’t an option. If I wanted to play with them, I had to toughen up, and step up to the plate. I’d put my head down and I would do whatever I needed to be at their level. I feel like in life, I’ve carried that with me. I learned through that experience that ANYTHING is possible. I learned that mental and physical toughness goes a long way. And I learned that giving up is never an option – the feeling of failure is so harsh, and the feeling of success is so sweet.
A.C. — Now I read that at age 3 you decided to ride a two-wheeler, which of course was too big for you, and that ER visit left you with a broken wrist. So I must know, out of all of your ER visits, which one do you think, was your worst experience?
S.P. — There were PLENTY of trips to the ER! Oh man oh man! I think between me and my brothers, our parents had some hefty hospital bills! I think perhaps the worst experience I had was when I was attacked by a rabid groundhog, yes, a rabid-freaking-groundhog! I had to get all of these terrible shots with very long needles all over my body, including in my shin, where is where the wound was. THAT was a pretty terrible experience because I am scared sh*tless of needles!
A.C. — You had dreams early of the Olympics at just age 8 after becoming very intrigued with cross-country and track. Seeing as though you ventured into the corporate world post-graduation, how did you refocus yourself onto your next goal in life since the Junior Olympics did not happen the way you dreamt it?
S.P. — As a kid, my parents fully embraced my dreams and did everything possible to help me achieve my athletic goals. When I was running competitively and was nationally ranked, they hired a private running coach and a nutritionist for me to work with outside of the school programs. When I decided to focus my energies instead on ski racing, they supported me in going to a private ski academy, which focuses on placing kids on their national and Olympic teams. But, my parents also placed a very high value on education, and our agreement was that if my athletic dreams did not seem to be panning out by the time I graduated high school, I would shift my energy to academics. I believe I could have been a great runner, but I became too serious too fast at too early of an age and burned out by the time I was a sophomore. It took me a long time (really until well after college) before I was able to go out and enjoy running again. And with skiing, while I was good enough to compete at a very high level, I was never going to make the U.S. Ski Team. As much as I loved skiing – it was the one sport for me where I didn’t have the ability to achieve what I set out to do. So – I suppose progressing away from sport at that time, for me, was fairly natural. There wasn’t an obvious road at that point in my life that would have lead me in the direction of becoming a professional athlete.
In college I was so engaged by the things I was studying – economics and biology. It was actually easy for me to start looking forward and past my sporting dreams and start creating new career goals for myself.
A.C. — From cross-country to corporate: What brought on your move into finance and working for such major companies Thomas Weisel Partners, Morgan Stanley in San Francisco, then eventually going over to HSBC Securities in New York City?
S.P. — [Laugh] That is a funny story! I actually thought I wanted to become a doctor – an orthopedic surgeon to be exact (If I wasn’t going to be an athlete, at least I could operate on them) – but then two things happened – first, I discovered my fear of needles and a terrible, terrible terrible fear of blood (neither good things when wanting to become a doctor), and then I took organic chemistry. And right then and there, with the single class, I decided I did not want to become a doctor. [I have] no idea really what changed my mind for me, but something about that class did! Simultaneously I had to take some economics courses for my concentration (environmental science) and absolutely loved the classes. The material and what I was learning was so relevant to how our economy operates and I loved learning something in class and then turning around and being able to apply it the next day as I read the business section of the paper. I was fascinated and intrigued and began thinking about wanting to work in finance. After my junior year of college I decided I also wanted to major in economics, so I took a ton of summer courses and my senior year was jam packed with classes trying to fit the requirements of my major in, but I did it!
Once I made the decision to work in finance, it was just all about networking and trying to get a job. I graduated from college in 2002 when the markets were pretty bad, so finding a job was not easy – particularly given I was hell-bent on being in San Francisco. I ended up graduating without an offer, I moved to San Francisco, and started pounding the pavement. My view was that if I could get in the door someplace, I would work my butt off and opportunities would present themselves. And that is just what happened. I got a job as the administrative assistant to the head of HR at Thomas Weisel Partners, and within three months I was an analyst on the Capital Markets Desk on the trading floor. My career just took off from there.
A.C. — When you decided that you were going to challenge your friend Todd at his Triathlon race, whom were you really challenging: Todd or yourself? Elaborate on that life changing bet you made back in 2009!
S.P. — Honestly – I think I was challenging Todd, sort of – not really. I guess when I look back on it I had been trying for a while to find something in my life to motivate me to be more active and lead a healthier lifestyle. And honestly, getting up and going to the gym every day just doesn’t do it for me. And I was so out of shape, that the pain of running 20 minutes was mind blowing and also sort of un-inspiring. But a competition with a friend got me heated and excited and I had a goal to work towards.
I’ve always thrived on having challenging goals and then working hard to attain those. I can’t say I worked “hard” in that first triathlon as I barely trained for it at all (did not train at ALL for it!), but without that bet, I would have never gotten out there and had that experience and been as inspired as I was. It ended up being what I needed to re-energize me and motivate me to make changes.
A.C. — You endured true “Dream Chaser’s Sacrifice!” You left your job, gave up your place, and dove in head first to reach your full potential at this dream that you truly had no idea how things would all play out. One could even say that, you my dear, took a leap of true faith! What was that like? How did you feel? Did you have the support you felt you needed?
S.P. — It was scary – really scary. My whole life changed almost overnight. And admittedly, while I had the support of so many, most people were wary as to whether this was something I could succeed at. My parents supported me, but they also couldn’t understand why I would leave and stable and well-paying job for a lifestyle of uncertainty. And their feelings were justified. My decision was nuts! But it also motivated me to prove them wrong; to show them that I could be equally, if not more successful, in this job as I could be in finance.
There was a lot riding on the line for me and I while I knew I could always fall back into the finance world, I didn’t want to whimper home with my tail between my legs. So rather than focusing on the “what if’s”, I only focused on what I needed to do to get myself to where I needed to be.
But I also refused to admit, even to myself, that failure was a possibility. It was kind of like when I was younger and my brothers challenged me to the impossible. And I believed it was possible so I made it happen. That is what happened. The risk of failure for me here was high, but in my mind I never allowed myself to consider that option. I like to call it a calculated leap of faith.
A.C. — Your goal in life, one could say is, to go to a whole new level! So with that, what level can we expect to see Sarah PIANO on next? [Laughs] I love your nicknames! [Laughs]
S.P. — I have plenty of them! Not to digress, but it is rare that anyone actually called me “Sarah”, and when they do, I almost don’t know if they are talking to me! Almost everyone calls me by a nickname or some form of my last name!
As for the next level – I have a number of things I want to achieve in the next few years. Athletically, my goal is to win the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. That is what I train towards every day. And I believe I can and will do that. Professionally, my goal is to elevate my brand outside of the sport of triathlon. To make a name for myself and then use that to grow awareness for the sport of triathlon, and to help motivate and inspire people to make changes in their lives to create more balance and happiness. The wonderful thing about triathlon is that people can relate to it. You may see a pro basketball player, but not that many people are actually out there playing in basketball leagues. But more and more people are challenging themselves in triathlon and using triathlon as a vehicle to change their lives in really positive ways. With that, I’m also working on a new website called TheHabitProject.net, which is going to be geared towards leveraging my story (of a unhealthy, two-pack-a-day smoking Wall Street banker turned pro triathlete) to help inspire and motivate others to begin asking the questions of “What makes me happy”; “What am I missing in my life?” “What changes could I make to treat myself or my body better?” “What inspires me?” If I can be part of a movement like that, it would be a very rewarding thing and inspiring in and of itself.
A.C. — When did you realize that you had become what that 8 year old wanted to be which was a, “Dream Catcher In Heels,” or should I say running sneaks? [Laughs]
S.P. — The day I walked out the door of my office in New York City, took a deep breath, and realized that I was taking a leap of faith, going off the beaten path, and not settling in life. I was living life. That was when I realized it.