Meet a Brazilian triathlete who dreams big and always finds a way to thrive
Triathlete Thiago Vinhal has an inspiring story. Though he didn’t grow up biking, he always loved sports as a kid. Now that he can claim to be one of the world’s best triathlete’s (he was top 15 at Kona in 2017), he’s passionate about paving the way for others to dream big, too.
Q: What drew you to sports in general?
Thiago: I was a very energetic child. I was crazy inside our house. When I was three years old, parents decided to register me in a swim class. I remember my first class so well. Kicking so much, the look of the water, floating. It made me feel so, so good. I was spending my energy and I loved the feeling of jumping in the water. Then I started to get better. I kept swimming and I loved being around everyone and connecting with my friends. I am so passionate about how sport can change someone’s life. For me, it opened doors for everything.
Q: Cycling is the final tri sport that you picked up. Why did you decided to cycle?
Thiago: When I was 17 years old, that was the year. I was working as a model. I was swimming and running at the time–not for top performance but just because I liked to do the sports. The boss from the model agency said: you need to have a six-pack. Indoor biking was my tool for getting a six-pack. I needed to do more aerobic exercise. I started biking and swimming more and after three months, I realized that I was basically training for a triathlon. I thought, let me check this out, I think there is a sport that mixes these three.
Q: What was your first bike like?
Thiago: My first bike cost $35 or $40. I was counting coins to buy the bike. It was a very simple bike, a ten-speed, that was very old. I fell in love with that bike, it was white and aluminum. The wheels were a little high profile. I remember my first ride. I didn’t have cycling shoes, and the pedals were flat with a cage. I rode the bike in a street by my home and a lot of these guys commuting to construction work with normal clothes and wearing backpacks were passing me. I thought: oh my gosh, I’m so bad. I started going on group rides and then the triathlon guys said: you cannot use this bike. They lent me a better bike and helped me find cycling shoes, shorts, and a helmet.
I am glad that triathlon finishes with the run because I loved running and I was already good at it. That gave me hope since I obviously needed to improve at cycling. I just kept training and had the idea that when I put my feet on the floor I will catch them. Other people had so much experience on the bike. I needed to be patient. Every single ride I got better. It was just a matter of patience.
Every one of us has a very beautiful story. You need to learn how to tell it for people in a soft, motivational way, as a positive story. Then they start to dream with you.
Q: How did you go from a $40 bike to an Ironman contender?
Thiago: I started training with a coach and he told me: you have the potential to go to Kona, to be top 15 in world. I didn’t have a top bike at the time. So I went to the bank, borrowed money in 2016 and I went to talk with the guys at the Trek store. I bought the bike and this was a really strong moment of change for me. After that I was like, this is it, now I go hard. Then I made the jump to the next level. Before that I was training, training, training, but if you don’t have the best equipment it is a problem.
Q: What was your breakthrough moment in racing?
Thiago: If your dream is to go to Kona, you need to be a contender, not just dreaming. You need to make the best decisions during the race. Not just follow the training and nutrition, recovery, and sleeping plan. With my coach, I worked through how to make decisions. I pushed more and put more focus on biking and I got fifth place at Ironman Brazil, my best time at that point. I went to Kona 2017 and 2018. In 2017 with my Trek Speed Concept, I got 13th place. At that race I was the fastest Brazilian and the first Black pro to race Kona.
Q: What entrepreneurial skills have you found important as a triathlete?
Thiago: I need to be a very good communicator and explain what an Ironman is quickly to people who don’t already know but would be inspired by the idea. I need to be good on social media, and tell my story in a compelling way and quickly. I knew I would need to build my own way. My native language is Portuguese and I had to learn to speak English and Spanish. I had to learn a little bit about the triathlon market and also to be an interesting dinner guest. Every one of us has a very beautiful story. You need to learn how to tell it for people in a soft, motivational way, as a positive story. Then they start to dream with you.
Q: How are you helping other young Brazilians of color connect with tri as a sport?
Thiago: Colors in Kona. It is a program for young Black kids in Brazilian favelas. If the kids do swim training, run training, and get good grades in school, I pay for food for their family. It is a food pack with staples for the whole family to eat. I want them to look at my history, look at Kona, look at what they can do. Even if they aren’t doing well now. We are losing so, so many to the drug cartels. Triathlon can be one more thing that they dream about doing instead. I just want them to have a dream, to dream something and not feel limited. Every person who buys a “Colors in Kona” hat supports the program. For each cap, I can give food for an entire family. I was able to support 70 families for last three years. When they look at me, they can see themselves. Imagine if I take my Swedish triathlete friend as their role model, blond, blue eyes, he looks like a prince to them. They think “I can never be like this.” So, I need to use myself as their role model. If I had a Black guy I could’ve looked up to in triathlon like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, I could’ve used that as motivation.