“Whenever you hit the limit of what you thought you could achieve, you find yourself”. Growing up an immigrant Asian kid in a small town in California was no walk in the park, but a young and determined Bee-oh Kim came out the other side running.
After beating the odds by training hard in swimming, track & field, and cycling, this newly-retired pro endurance athlete has an Ironman under his belt and multiple triathlon medals to boot. Based in Seoul, Bee-oh was formerly the Senior Country Manager for interactive sports brand Zwift, specializing in Digital Home Fitness.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Korea, and I moved to Vacaville, California when I was 16 years old. Vacaville is a small, conservative, old-school American town and I struggled to fit in because of language. Everyone looked very different than I did. To keep myself busy, I was actively participating in all kinds of sports in school even though I was way smaller than the other students.
I realised through playing soccer that I had pretty good cardiovascular endurance because I didn’t get tired easily. I ended up getting cut from the soccer team, but I discovered cross country and track & field and fell in love. Initially I was a slow runner, struggling to keep up with the top runners, but I kept at it every day. My distance grew gradually over time and eventually I was up there with the best covering 8 to 10 kilometre runs. The coach noticed how I went from one of the slowest runners to a top competitor, and he offered to make me the co-captain to inspire others!
How did you work on improving your running speed?
I figured that I needed a plan to get better, so I approached the top two runners in the team and asked them to let me train with them. They were trepridacious but encouraging, and after putting in daily work and persisting, eventually I was good enough to compete with them. In one race, I won 3rd place with both of my new-found running friends coming in first and second.
The same applied to swimming as well; I was doing laps in my college pool one day and was approached by the swim coach; he asked if I would be interested in training for the college team, to which I immediately accepted. I performed moderately at first, but by training with the top two swimmers on the team, I fought like hell and eventually became a collegiate swimmer.
How did you get into cycling?
During my college (UC Santa Barbara) days, Lance Armstrong was dominating the cycling world, a huge inspiration to all budding athletes like myself. By this time I had a goal to become a triathlete, so I quit the individual sports teams and joined the college triathlon team. Yet again, I struggled to find my footing and develop the muscles necessary for competitive cycling, but again I approached the top two cyclists to help me up my game and before I knew it, I ranked 3rd place as an undergraduate in the West Coast Collegiate Triathlete Conference.
Why do you think those top performers agreed to help you?
They could see that I was passionate. I was always rearing to go, full of energy, being almost a cheerleader to the team and spurring them on to train with me. I am still great friends with all those top athletes that gave me their time and trained with me.
What is the source of your self-motivation?
I think the drive that I had was born out of a dark period when I first moved to the USA. Being different from everyone around you can take its toll, and it drove me to my lowest point which then enabled me to come back stronger. Something snapped in my mind, and I realised I could either give up or fight like hell. I chose the latter. I decided to concentrate on improving myself, even if it meant working twice or three times as hard as everyone else.
How did you balance your career with being a triathlete?
It was always about keeping the passion alive. Because I started ranking in US collegiate competitions, a Korean national triathlon coach caught wind of my achievements and got in touch, suggesting I join the Seoul Elite Triathlon team. After ruminating over it, within two weeks I had left my job in LA, sold my assets and packed for Korea, returning after 11 years. That’s also when I volunteered to join the military for 2 years which was a great experience.
After the military I joined Harley-Davidson, and then Trek Bikes marketing team while taking part in local races to keep up my training. I made connections with other triathletes and eventually became the Korean Champion at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 in Gurye, Korea.
How did you prepare for the Ironman race?
The idea is to make your body very efficient at one pace. You have to monitor your power and heart rate, and maintain that energy so that you can balance between the three different kinds of sports for speed and endurance. There are many variables that could go wrong on the day itself, so the best you can do is over-prepare.
I trained with my coach remotely, as he was with Foritus Coaching in LA. I would send him my collected training data and he would monitor and set new weekly goals based on the stats. The training was very specific to my performance patterns so I mostly trained alone.
Is it more difficult to maintain a strong mindset during training or during a race?
Training is more mentally challenging because you have to keep grinding over a longer period. If you are not motivated by something higher than the physical training involved, you’ll probably quit easily. Meditation made a huge difference as well - while in the military, I met a Buddhist monk who taught me how let go of the rage and anger I didn’t realise I was holding on to, and as a result my focus improved tremendously.
The best advice I could give on motivation is this: having a dream and clear vision is key to keep you coming back for more, even when your body feels like giving up. For eg. saying “I want to lose weight” is not a good enough motivation to keep you coming back every day. A real goal has a dream attached to it, so that you know why you want to lose weight. For me the goal was always to become a pro athlete, so I did whatever it took to achieve that dream - good days and bad days didn’t matter anymore.
Final question, could you recommend some books that changed you for the better?
Yes of course. I loved Great Gatsby growing up, and I really enjoy reading anything by Tony Robbins. Some other books are Grit by Angela Duckworth, Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Once A Runner by John L. Parker Jr.