Robert Owens, an honored Air Force veteran, was named the "most interesting triathlete in the world.” It's because his unique approach to competing in triathlons is unconventional. But, Robert doesn’t see himself as a Triathlete. Instead, he sees himself as a guy who one day a year likes to test himself to see if he is still in good enough shape to complete an Ironman, despite being older than most competitors. With his extensive list of accomplishments, as well as his undeniable drive, here's his interview with ATAQ Fuel for Veteran's Day.
Q. What motivated you to join the military
A. I joined the military because I was going nowhere in my life.
I’d gone to college twice, and nothing excited me to study. I partied too much and was bored. At that time, I was a Beach Lifeguard for the City of San Clemente, California. There were Air Force Reserve Pararescueman who were also Lifeguards.
They were different from all the other guys I knew. They were disciplined and focused. I admired them and their mental and physical toughness. They encouraged me to try out to be one of them. I took the challenge.
Q.Tell me a little about your time in boot camp.
A. Boot camp was called “Indoc” for Indoctrination Training. It was really tough.
Fortunately, I had asked the Pararescue guys to train me to get me ready. After the first week of shock, I thrived. I went in pretty prepared. I had been prepared by the “PJ” guys for the psychological beat down that would come. The Instructor’s goals were to crush our “Why” and get us to quit. It was a mental game. I knew the game. The mental challenge was extended as training was to be 8 weeks long. However, the Air Force didn’t know what to do with our Class at that time. It was near the end of the Vietnam War.
So in the 7th week, we were told the training would go on indefinitely until the Air Force knew what to do with us. Instructors told us it was going to be good for us. We were going to be “the fittest class ever to go through Indoc. We would break Indoc records. “ It ended up going on for 13 weeks. Some guys quit when news came of the training going on indefinitely. We started with 150 guys 13 weeks earlier and graduated 7 of our guys and 9 others who were added from other previous classes who had healed from their injuries.
Q. Where did you serve the majority of the time in service?
A. We were prepared for Vietnam. However, the war ended. I chose to go to Alaska and do arctic and ocean rescue work.
Our area of responsibility was from the North Pole to Washington State. From western Canada to Hawaii. We did a lot of rescues and put a lot of people in body bags. We saved a lot of people as well.
Q. What rank are you most proud to have earned, and why?
A. I was only in about 4 years and left as an E-3. Wasn’t proud of rank. Very few promotions after the war. Was so happy about the rescue work we did there and all that I learned.
Q.Tell me about some of the special people you met.
A. I am most proud of the guys I was around and worked with. The Vietnam Vets and the non-Vietnam guys. Some real heroes. Didn’t meet a lot of civilians except during rescues.
Q. What was the best and worst 'military' food you were served, and why?
A. We had a great “chow” in our chow hall. When it is -20 to -50 outside, they feed you good.
Q.Tell me a funny story you experienced that could only happen in the military.
A. Funny story: Delivered my first baby in the back of a helicopter in the winter at 24 years old. Blood everywhere. Lady couldn’t speak English. Prolapsed cord around the baby's neck. Pilots laughed at my “rookieness”. They loved watching me clean up their bloody helicopter.
Q.How does your military experience affect your life today?
A. It has affected everything about my life. I grew up. I matured. I learned to take responsibility. I became a leader where I had been a follower before the military. I went back to college and had a purpose. I graduated. And... I delivered all 5 of my kids.
Q.Tell me about your 600-mile hiking challenge (wow!)
A. I was asked to be a support to a guy and his daughter who were going to hike the 800 mile “Arizona Trail”. It goes from Utah across Arizona to the Mexican border. I was the only “extreme athlete” they knew.
I started the hike with them but it became clear to me that they really didn’t need me. They were competent to handle it. I felt it should be a father-daughter experience and I was in the way. So I told them my thoughts and they agreed. I pulled off the trail and they are now doing very well. They’ve handled 300 miles so far. I will go back to the trail in a few days and check on them and see them also at the finish.
Q. Can you give us a few reasons why you think Triathlete Magazine called you the “most interesting triathlete in the world?”
A. Probably because most 12-time Ironman finishers didn't start out their early life being adopted and in corrective shoes/boots. I couldn't run much in elementary school.
Being a part of the early years of Ironman (Year 3 in 1980, the last year it was in Honolulu, there were 100 of us) when it was "a dare event."
Being a Pararescueman and smuggling literature into the former Soviet Union ( 1978-1981 ) during the Cold War and smuggling Helsinki Peace Accord violation political documents out.
Doing the 2003 World Championships in Kona.
Having taught Leadership Development as a Business Consultant in 30 countries over 30 years specializing in Developing Nations.
Being declared "The Fittest and Mentally Toughest 66-Year-Old in the World" by Spartan Games founder Joe DeSena was nice. It isn't true, but it has been fun to be in the conversation.
Having the heart attack after finishing the 777 and then getting Covid 19 has been another adventure.
"My goal is to be the longest active Ironman in the world."
— Robert Owens