Leading with Purpose

How Grinnell provided Maddy Pesch ’16 with the relevant skills to be a professional athlete.

June 19, 2019

When Maddy Pesch ’16 stepped out of the Russell K. Osgood Pool for the final time, the 16-time medalist and swim team captain had earned seven Midwest Conference titles, several school and conference relay records, the 2016 Honor G Scholastic Award, and a nomination for NCAA Woman of the Year. She was already an all-American triathlete.

Even with all that, she didn’t envision a career in professional sports.

Now in her second full season competing on the professional triathlon circuit, Pesch is making her mark in the half-ironman Challenge Family series. A fourth-place finish at Cancun, Mexico, in the spring of 2019 qualified her for the Challenge Championship Race in Šamorin, Slovakia, in June. 

Can-do Mindset

Coming off her Challenge Cancun performance, Pesch says her liberal arts experience provided the transferable skills necessary to navigate the complexities of becoming a professional athlete.

“It certainly made me open to the possibility of taking on a professional triathlon career, once I qualified for my professional license,” says Pesch, a multiyear academic all-conference swimmer who majored in chemistry and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies.

“Being an athlete in a small sport like triathlon, there are opportunities to make money and to make a life out of it,” Pesch says, “but you have to put those pieces together yourself. You really are your own personal business. I have to figure out my brand and what I want to represent with sponsors and social media, as well as the logistics of traveling and coaching.

“Grinnell gave me a can-do mindset and the communications, planning, and time management skills to make all the pieces fall into place,” Pesch says.

Balanced Identity

swimmer wearing Honor G swim cap

Division III athletics at Grinnell encourages development of well-rounded individuals, and “they never emphasized that sports had to be the only part of your identity — that it was athletics or academics — but rather that athletics supported everything else in your life,” Pesch says.

“Now that I’m a professional athlete, I still have the mentality that allows me to achieve that balance,” Pesch says. “I’m able to coach, do service work, and think not just in terms of what I’m doing in the moment with my athletic career but what role it has in my whole life.”

Creating Accessibility

Pesch says she particularly wants to help create more opportunities in sports for people who are underrepresented due to race, gender, or nationality. “Triathlon in particular doesn’t have a very diverse history. and it can be a very expensive sport; so it’s a goal of mine to help recruit more groups and do what I can to make it more accessible financially,” she says.

It’s a goal inspired by Grinnell’s strong influence on community and social consciousness and the many opportunities available for students to grow as leaders. For Pesch, those included leadership roles with a women’s leadership series for athletes, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and Queer Athletes and Allies.

“Having that community and leadership experience allows me to always think of myself as a leader now in my career and in my interactions with other people,” Pesch says.

Follow Pesch’s season and career on Facebook (“maddy pesch triathlete”) and on Instagram (@peschmaddytri).

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