Love For Endurance: Bringing USA Team Handball To The Olympics With Barry Siff
Almost all athletes dream of competing at the Olympics. It is the event of a lifetime where all the years of hard work culminate for these athletes, representing not only their team but also their country. Barry Siff is passionate about making the USA Team Handball qualify for the Olympics since it last went to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Sharing his journey from then to now, he joins host, Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst to talk about how he went from the food industry to creating a whole endurance sports business, and then transitioning to become the CEO of the USA Team Handball. He shares the lessons he learned along the way while giving us a peek into the world of these athletes. How tough is it for them to keep that peak performance? What does it take to compete in the Olympics? Barry answers these questions and more, inspiring us with that athletic spirit to commit all out to our passions.
Listen to the podcast here:
Love For Endurance: Bringing USA Team Handball To The Olympics With Barry Siff
USA Team Handball
I've got a great guest that goes across many different lines and I love it, Barry Siff. Barry, it is great to have you on the program.
Thanks, Rob. It’s good to be here.
You have a vast history. I love going back in time and finding out how people got into what they're going into and looking back at your endurance life. You had your first marathon in 1981. What was that one?
It’s the Detroit Free Press International Marathon. It was an incredible race. We started in Windsor, Canada. We ran 5 miles over in Canada and went through a tunnel, and then entered the US and ran the rest of it in Detroit.
That spurred on your love of endurance. How did you jump into triathlons after that?
I was a tennis player before that, then I became a marathoner. I did a bunch of marathons between ‘81 and ‘86 like a lot. I ended up going to Omaha, Nebraska, the home of triathlon. You would not think that, but back in the ‘80s, there was an incredibly strong triathlon community. I jumped into that community and started swimming a little bit. I got so excited that in 1986, I went to Kona to watch two of my fellow triathletes compete and I got hooked. I was able to race there in '88. I stayed with endurance sports and I'm still doing it.
That's amazing. Throughout your career, over 60 marathons and 10 IRONMANs. Is that correct?
It's maybe 75 marathons and a lot of ultra-marathons. I've been 100 miles in Leadville. A lot of multiday expedition races and twelve Ironman’s, soon to be thirteen. Hopefully, we can get Arizona done.
What brings you back? What is it about that endurance sports that brings you there?
I was talking to someone about that because a good friend of mine in Boulder is getting into this ever sting deal that everybody's big into that. For us triathletes, the easy answer is we look for challenges, but we also look for accomplishments. That's two different things and a lot of us need that sense of getting things done, that sense of accomplishment, and that recognition. We've got big egos. We think we're super healthy, we look good, and we feel good. Everybody always says, “I can't believe how old you are. You look not your age.” That feeds our ego a little bit but we also like accomplishments so we put things out there to go after the tough. The tougher, the better.
One of the things that’s in the USAT where you said, "The next step, the next challenge.”
My next challenge was taken on this sport of handball. I was the president of USA Triathlon for 5, 6 years. I was very active at USA Triathlon, but I needed another challenge. I've got a lot of years left and a lot of enthusiasm to get things done professionally. There's this incredible sport that isn't played much here in the States. It's in the Olympics and we're going to be in the Olympics in LA in 2028 guaranteed slots. I thought it'd be pretty cool to try to build a sport here and learn a whole new community. It's been interesting.
That lends itself to what you've done throughout your life. You go from the food industry of being a senior VP to then creating this whole endurance sports business that you ran for a long time.
When my business career ended abruptly in January of 1998, I had an opportunity to reassess what I wanted to do in life. It resonates with a lot of people, literally, millions of people are going through in light of the COVID situation and reassessing, what can we do with our life? What are we going to do now that our jobs are lost? What are we going to do now that our business is out of business, our small little bookstore, our small little restaurant? I had that opportunity and after assessing it for three months, I set forth with getting into endurance sports both from a professional standpoint racing. I raced all over the world with expedition races, but also putting a small business together and putting on events. We started off by putting on 24-hour adventure races, and some camps that morphed into winter triathlons up in Colorado, which were cool. We did a 24-hour winter adventure racing. It was two days of 8, 12 hours each day up in a mountain. The Mountains of Colorado is minus 24 degrees at the start on Sunday morning. That's what we did and it morphed into 54, 30 sports, which was a hugely successful event business in Boulder, and then I got into governance world.
Going back into these endurance events that you've done like the expedition events. Those sound crazy. What is one of the crazier stories that you have from one of those expedition events?
I've got so many of them. Liz, my partner for every single race, and I toured the country every couple of summers for REI, which was one of our sponsors. We’re doing talks and showings back then slides and stories. The two stories that always come out were an early race that we did in Brazil. You navigated by map and compass. You were covering hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. It was multiday, 5 to 10 days on most of these races, day and night, no sleep. You only slept when you had to. We were with two other teams and we’re totally lost in the jungle. The other two teams didn't speak English and we traveled together trying to find our way out of this jungle. It was bizarre because once you lost, you have no GPS. You only have a map and a compass.
One of the females on the team caught a duck and she carried the duck with her for hours and maybe an entire day because if we ran out of food, she was going to eat that duck. You’re in those situations where you don't know if you're going to get out alive. We got out into some clearing. We had no idea where we were, but we were all going to drop out of the race. We found a pizza place and we went in the pizza place. One of the teams use the radio and said they're dropping out. We started walking along the road. Once we knew where we were, we’re no longer lost. The helicopter comes down because all this was on TV. We find out we're in 10th place. We're still in the race. All of a sudden, we're running to this other place and we're back in the race. That was wild.
The other one was in Tibet. We were mountain biking in the snow in the evening, and the next morning we were whitewater swimming in 90-degree weather. We had dropped thousands of feet on a mountain bike ride in the middle of the night. You go from snow to extreme heat. Those were amazing days. That's where Mark Burnett made his name for himself from the Apprentice and Survivor. He started with Eco-Challenge. We were there during his Eco-Challenge days, and then when he got successful with Survivor, he gave up on Eco-Challenge, which was unfortunate. It was a cool life.
Eco-Challenge always looked interesting to me. I have watched a few of the reruns of the Eco-Challenge and it's an amazing amalgamation of all these things that people can do to be able to find the finish.
The basic definition was any means of going forward without a motor. We were on horseback riding, inline skating, lots of kayaking, lots of whitewater rafting, lots of canoeing, and tons of mountain biking. One leg might be 75 miles of mountain biking. One track or what we call the trekker, a hike or a run could easily be 30, 40 miles and you're navigating the whole way. It was unique, dangerous and lots of things, lots of injuries, only one fatality. It was pretty cool.
You transitioned from that and you got into more of an administrative governing body. You were a volunteer president of USA Triathlon for a few years. What was it like to be at the top and seeing how triathlon changed and during that time and how you wanted to change it?
It still remains. I'm still on the board of directors as what's called the ex-officio because I'm the past president. It's been fascinating and it's such an honor and privilege to be in a position to have an impact, to have some say at the highest level in the sport that you absolutely love that you're passionate about. I've been able to do that both at the US level, the national level, and I'm also on the ITU, the international Federation executive board. I continue to have an impact on the sport worldwide and we're the ones that make the decisions on when and where races happen. Even during the COVID situation, when are we going to start awarding Olympic points again to the elite athletes and things like that.
It's the highest honor I could possibly have. I love giving back. That's what we're seeing a lot during this pandemic period where people are realizing how awesome it is to give back to people and to do things for others. I'm fortunately in a position to be able to do that both in triathlon and now I consider the same thing in handball. Even though it's a job as CEO, I consider it a privilege to be able to step in with my background, with my leadership skills and hopefully bring the sport. It has been relatively stable/stagnant for a lot of years and hopefully help it grow here in the States.
That's a perfect transition. You switched over to that handball. An interesting fact, I looked into the team handball a few years ago to go down to Alabama and try out. I never got down there.
It's too bad you didn’t. There was a full-fledged residency program there where a lot of people went. They lived there and they got degrees. We have a couple of athletes on our national team who got PhDs while playing handball down there. That center got closed years ago before I came on board. We don't have a central training spot, but the one thing we do have is the 2028 Olympics. We know we're going to field an Olympic women's team and an Olympic men's team. We're going to be having tryouts. We've got great players now, but we need to bring on new people who have great at what I call talent transfer skills.
In the sport of triathlon, we've got Gwen Jorgensen and Katie Ferriss who were amazing runners and swimmers and had never been on a bike in their life. We have turned them into world champions and Gwen, a gold medalist. We can do the same in the handball world in terms of taking these amazing athletes. I was on the phone with one who is at the Ohio State University. He's a student there. He just started playing handball and he's already on his way over to Europe soon for a contract. He's going to be playing handball professionally over there while we helped develop him into a Team USA player, 65230 and fast.
That’s a nice little combination there for a handball.
They’re incredibly athletic.
It's interesting when you look at the USA Handball. I went back in the archives to find out more. For people to understand the challenge that you did take on. You look at team handball for the USA. It's probably one of the weaker sports that we have for the Olympics program. We haven't qualified for an Olympics since 1988 in the Seoul Olympics. We had the automatic bid in ‘96 but you have an uphill battle. You have the passion to be able to make it happen.
I do have the passion. Our women qualified in ‘92 in the Olympics but it's been a while. We also haven't qualified for the World Championship. We have an uphill battle, but the reason has been the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has historically supported those sports that did have medal opportunities. It was chicken and the egg. Those sports where we didn't have medal opportunities, didn't get a lot of support. Years before I took this position, in 2016 when I was in Rio, I talked to the Olympic Committee and told them that, “At some point, I want to go into handball but we're going to need your support.” In April of 2019 when I did become CEO of USA Team Handball for the first time in a long time, we had strong support from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and strong support from the International Handball Federation. To be a worldwide sport, let's face it, you have to have the United States as a key player. The International is very interested in helping us in any way possible and they've been phenomenally supportive. I walked into a good situation. We laid the groundwork for that and we're making some good progress.
A lot of people are always interested in finding out more about Olympic athletes and what it takes. At the same time, I don't think they understand all the little things that these Olympic athletes have to do because a lot of them still have jobs. It's not like other countries where they're either paid to be on the Olympic team or they're part of a certain group. A lot of our Olympic athletes, I'm guessing it, especially the team handball, they have to have other jobs. How tough is it on these individuals to keep that peak performance?
That’s brutally tough. It's true even for the triathletes. It’s at the top level when you get to Gwen or Katie. They're doing it full-time but a lot of these top athletes do have to have part-time jobs, and the Olympians, it's incredible the lesser-known sports like bobsled, table tennis and badminton, which are all high-level Olympic sports. These people have to have part-time jobs because the national governing bodies, which are USA Handball, USA Cycling and USA Triathlon don't necessarily have the money to support these athletes and there is no government funding. In almost every other country, the Olympic programs are funded by the government. Here in the United States, our government doesn't do any funding of our Olympic programs. It's all private donations and also US Olympic and Paralympic Committee gets NBC money and IOC money, International Olympic Committee money. It's tough and they have to divvy it up in a lot of different ways.
It’s a challenge and it's tough to be an Olympic athlete. What's nice is some of these companies like Visa, Home Depot in the past, and others have provided opportunities for Olympians to get into training programs. One of our top Olympians, post- Olympics, post-Rio, Greg Billington. He raced in Rio for USA Triathlon, then went into a management training program at Visa. He's doing phenomenally well and it's wonderful when companies can partner like that. Maybe not necessarily give the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars of sponsorship, but at least give these people opportunities to get a little bit of income while they're training their butts off to be the best in the world.
They're representing the United States on a bigger scale. It's interesting to me that mindset when I was in the military, it's service before self. It almost seems like that same mindset for these Olympic athletes.
It's a dream and they're going to do everything possible within their power to do it. When we talk about money a little bit, Charlie White is our lead athlete on our USA Beach Handball Team. He was on this new show on Fox, that Ultimate Tag. It was a show on Fox which is a variation on pretty much American gladiators meets ninja warriors. There was a tag competition and Charlie won it, he got $10,000 for winning. $10,000 to these Olympic hopefuls and elite athletes is a ton of money. I hate to say that because when you look at business people and you look at successful executives and all this, $10,000 is like, “Let's go away for a weekend.” To our athletes, that's a ton of money. They're scraping to represent Team USA and that's the dream. It’s to have USA on the front of their jersey. I'm proud to be in a position to help people do that.
Barry, where could people go? I know there are a lot of people that are proud to be in the USA and want to support Team USA. Where can they go to donate to help these athletes?
You can go to TeamUSA.org but selfishly, I would promote USATeamHandball.org because our athletes have never had the support. When our athletes travel internationally, they put up GoFundMe pages. They have bike sales and carwash. They have to raise their own money to travel. That's what it's been like for the last two decades when they travel to a competition. Hopefully, we're going to travel to Mexico City to qualify for the World Championships. These athletes are going to have to pay most of their way. Any funding and any donations would be greatly appreciated. There’s a donate button on USATeamHandball.org but it's hard right now during the pandemic to ask for money beyond helping others who are in need of help during COVID. We've been reluctant. We haven't done any fundraising. We’ve been quiet on that front but I thank you for opening that door.
I've worked in the fire service for many years and it's coming together as a whole. You look at the Olympics being postponed and all these things that have come up and I love watching the Olympics. I've always wanted it to be on an Olympic team but being 6-foot and 215, I couldn't play basketball. I'm not fast as a swimmer.
There are some of these other sports. That's what the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee did in 2018 and 2019. They had “Who wants to be an Olympian” competition. You've got to have athleticism. You got to have strength, power, speed, commitment, and passion. Almost all of your top athletes have these common threads of grit, tenacity, and commitment. All out that when they wake up in the morning they're thinking about, “What am I going to do today to be better? What can I do today to be better?” It's great being around these people and even now listening and watching what they're doing to stay in shape, to be ready for when the doors open. For the ones who are looking toward the Olympics, unfortunately, we are not going to qualify for Tokyo in handball, but we will have triathletes. We have the strongest women's team in the world and our men are up and coming strong. We're excited and we’re keeping track of what they're doing to stay in shape and giving them everything and every possible opportunity to do what they can do to be the best they can be.
That's amazing and it takes the support and it takes a community to be able to get Olympic athletes to that start line, but also to get them on the podium. That’s a huge part of all these things.
You bet. It's great being around the young people who are committed, passionate, seeing it, and feeling it. It fuels my fire not only as a leader but also as an athlete. I still like getting out there and hopefully do another Ironman.
Barry, it has been a pleasure having you on. I've got to ask you those questions. I wouldn't have told you, but you already listened to it. You may have good answers here.
I want to thank you for your service in so many ways to our country and to the people in New York, etc. Thank you, Rob. You're a great person and have all the integrity and values that I try to instill in others and instill in myself. Thank you for all that you do.
I appreciate that, Barry. That means a lot coming from you and all the things that you've done. Here we go. What is one thing you haven't done but is outside of your comfort zone?
Badwater 135. I have not done it yet, but it's still on my radar.
That is an amazing race. I've looked at that one too but I might sweat too much.
I’m sitting here in Phoenix. I'm in a good area to train.
You put it out there to the world, now you're going to do it.
What is one of your favorite quotes and why?
“Pursue your passion and enjoy life.” I came up with that when I wrote my first book in 2001 or something. We wrote the first Adventure Racing Guide. We used to go do book tours and sign it. I didn't know what to sign other than “Pursue your passion and enjoy life.” That's what I was doing and I thought it was pretty good advice.
I love that advice. That should be in the back of the USA Team Handball shirts. I want the first one though. If you could pick to have coffee with three people that could be living or deceased at a coffee house or at a firehouse table, in other words, you can ask them anything, who would it be and why?
I did not hear this question. I wish I could get my wife over here because I said this the other day who I would speak with. Barack Obama would definitely be one. I'm struggling with the others. I don't know. I never believed in heroes. I never thought about that. I wish I had prepared or asked my wife what the others were, but honestly, I'm drawing a blank. I apologize.
That's okay. We could figure out who the godfather of handball is.
In the United States, it was Peter Buehning. I know that and I had the opportunity to meet with a lot of pretty influential people, whether it's Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC. My mind is always in sports. There are a lot of great people out there. Speaking of non-great people. I'm not a big fan of Lance but I watched the documentary while I was on my bike. I have several opportunities to spend time with him. It's interesting meeting different people with different values. You learn from them. You take the best of people and you try to incorporate it in your life. I'm not saying I'd like to have dinner with Lance though. I did have dinner with Lance before a fundraiser we did.
You said it perfectly that you have to take things from other people's lives that you can put into yours to make it better. Also, understand there are bad things that other people have that maybe you don't want to have.
He had done many great things. He inspired many people and that's what we've got to do. We've got to look how we can inspire and make people feel better. My management style is rather than trying to catch people making mistakes and trying to correct them, try to catch people doing things right, and make note of it. In every single run that I do most every day, I try to make someone or several people smile. Whether I tell them their dog is awesome or they're running well or good on you for being out there. Many people right now during this situation are new to athletics but I see them being out there. It's pretty exciting.
That is a unique thing. Endurance sports may come back stronger than they were before.
I do think so. The number of people we see every day, we live in an active area in Tempie, and we’re seeing people who clearly are out there for the first time. They are either walking or trying to jog or trying to run. They're trying to pedal their paddle boards or kayaks or getting on a mountain bike or a skateboard and doing it with families. I’m seeing a lot of kids out there with their parents getting out on their striders or their little bikes. We're going to come out of this with a lot more people being active and hopefully healthy.
This last part is the rapid round questions. I'm going to give you two things. You’ve got to tell me which one you'd pick. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
I'm vegan. I don't know. I can answer Taco Bell, but neither for sure. I don't frequent those.
Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Sleeping late or wake up early?
I'm up every day at 4:30 AM, every day I run.
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Fire or water?
Use a porta-potty or continue to run to the next physical bathroom?
Porta-potty, no problem.
Coke or Pepsi?
Neither, homemade kombucha.
Go bigger or go home?
Go big and go bigger.
Barry, it has been an honor to have you on. Thank you so much for joining us and for taking the reins of Team Handball. It's going to be a great thing for the US.
Thank you so much. Thanks again for all you’re doing. I appreciate being a guest on your show.
It’s been fantastic. Where again can people go to donate to USA Team Handball?
Everybody, go there because we need to have a sport like this. We have a lot of athletes in the United States and we can dominate. Thanks again, Barry. Thanks, everybody, for reading. We'll talk to you next time.