Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward took his share of hits during his 14 years in the NFL. But nothing he learned on the gridiron could prepare him for the rough and tumble world of triathlons.
"I got a little freaked in my first race on the swim leg," said the 37-year-old four-time Pro Bowl player. "I was getting bumped and grabbed, and didn't know if it was a fish or a shark. Everything I learned from my swim coach went out the window once I hit open water."
But Ward, who has two Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP trophy, isn't afraid to step out of his comfort zone. Two years ago, the Atlanta-area resident performed in front of millions on ABC's Dancing with the Stars.
So he is not going to let a little thing like St. Anthony Triathlon's 1.5-kilometer swim, albeit in the fickle waters of Tampa Bay, rattle him.
"This is totally different than anything I have ever done before," said Ward, who hopes to complete his first Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run) in St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg a week from today. "I've been training, but in the back of my mind, I'm still thinking about that swim."
Ward, an all-around athlete who also played running back and quarterback at Georgia before joining the Steelers, agreed to take on triathlons after participating in an advertising campaign for "Got Chocolate Milk?"
"Triathlon is all about the total body," he said. "I never realized how important proper nutrition was until I started training every day: running, swimming and biking. It was just so hard to keep my body fueled."
Ward started with a sprint triathlon in March in San Diego. He swam 500 meters, biked 20K and finished with a 5K run.
"I'm a guy that never ran more than a mile in his life," he said. "In football we do a lot of sprints but nothing like those long, slow endurance runs you need for triathlon."
The swim, bike and run legs in St. Anthony's are roughly twice as long as the ones in his San Diego race.
"And after I finish this race, I am going to start training for a Half Ironman (1.9K swim, 90K bike, 21K run) in June," he said. "And after that I will start getting ready for the Ironman in Hawaii in October."
Wait a minute. Go from zero to Ironman (3.8K, 180K, 42.2K, or in miles 2.4, 112, 26.2) in less than a year? That sounds crazy. But Ward intends to try.
At 6 feet and 205 pounds, the football great is a little on the heavy side for a top-tier triathlete.
"I think I can do it," he said. "Like I said, when I started out, I had never really run any kind of distance. Now I am up to 8 or 9 miles."
Ward is being coached by legendary competitor and eight-time Ironman world champion Paula Newby-Fraser. Several of Ward's training sessions can be viewed online in a documentary series, Become One, at gotchocolatemilk.com.
"One of the biggest challenges for me was learning how to refuel my body," he said. "I go on these long bike rides, and at first I'd be out there and just run out of gas."
St. Anthony's, with a combined distance of roughly 32 miles, is a far cry from the 140 he will have to swim, bike and run in Hawaii.
"I feel like I am the strongest on the bike," he said. "I feel real comfortable out there. There's no pounding, so I don't think I'll have a problem, whatever the distance."
As for the run portion, Ward said: "I am happy with my progress. I think that I will just keep increasing my mileage as long as my knees and ankles hold out."
But swimming, that's another story. "I have a masters coach and have been spending a lot of time in the pool," he said. "But it was a big adjustment moving to open water. I knew nothing about spotting (staying on course), wasn't comfortable in my goggles, so the whole thing was a little intimidating."
Ward's goal is not to win, just finish.
"I feel honored to be able to be part of this and learn something new," he said. "It really has been a life-changing experience. Even after the races are over, I think I am going to stay with it. I think this is something that I can do for the rest of my life."