Swim, bike, run … and earn the highest award in Scouting.
All in a life’s work for Greg Billington, an Eagle Scout who will compete in Thursday’s Olympic triathlon.
Billington, 27, says you don’t have to be Superman (or, in his case, Aquaman) to succeed in school, sports and Scouts. All you need is dedication, passion and supportive adults.
Billington, who completed his first triathlon at age 10, is one of seven Eagle Scouts on Team USA.
He was born in the state of Washington but grew up in England where his father taught at RAF Mildenhall, a Royal Air Force station in Suffolk. Billington became an Eagle Scout in the BSA’s Transatlantic Council, which brings Scouting to American families serving or working in Europe.
Billington says he got tremendous support from his parents and older brother. His mom played chauffeur, bouncing Billington from school to track practice to swimming practice to Scout meetings.
“I wanted to do everything, and they were always there to help make that happen,” Billington told me by email last week. “They were probably relieved when I’d leave for camping trips so they could stop driving for a few hours.”
In addition to becoming an Eagle Scout, Billington was his school’s valedictorian. He won the Department of Defense Dependents Schools’ European Championships in cross-country races at the 1,500-meter and 3-kilometer distances. He was accepted to all of his dream schools, including Stanford University. And now he’s an Olympian.
“None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t enjoyed the process of reaching those goals and found purpose in their pursuit — and been lucky,” Billington says. “Not every moment is enjoyable, but if you know why you’re working, then you’ll be able to achieve what at first seems impossible.”
The Olympic triathlon itself seems impossible.
Billington will begin by swimming 1,500 meters in open water. That’s the equivalent of 30 lengths in an Olympic-size pool. Then he’ll hop onto a bike to ride 40 kilometers — or nearly 25 miles. Then it’s a dash on foot, with 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) separating him from the finish line.
Cheer him on beginning at 10 a.m. EDT on Thursday, Aug. 18. The triathlon will air on USA Network.
The ‘toughest part of Scouts’
Billington says his Order of the Arrow Ordeal weekend tested his mettle, but he took comfort in knowing his brother Brian was at the same camp earning Brotherhood.
“It made a big difference in my spirit to know he was there, even though he wasn’t allowed to do anything to help me,” Billington says.
Tougher still was Billington’s Eagle Scout service project.
Appropriately for a future world-class athlete, Billington built a fitness trail with exercise stations.
“This was definitely the toughest part of Scouts for me,” he says. “It required extensive planning, and a ton of people were involved. Delegating work was a huge challenge for me — but an extremely valuable part of my youth.”
Being a Boy Scout on a Royal Air Force base was a lot like being a Boy Scout back in the U.S. One difference, though, was turnover.
“Scouts would cycle through every two or so years as their parents were moved on various deployments,” Billington says. “The makeup of the whole patrol would change very quickly, but that was incredible because I encountered so many different Scouts and approaches to Scouting.”
Scouting ‘more valuable now than ever’
Billington volunteered as an assistant Scoutmaster while he was a student at Wake Forest University.
Lately, though, he’s had time for just one thing: training for the Olympics. He calls triathlon training a “one-dimensional affair.”
While his Scouting involvement is paused for now, Billington remains a big advocate for the program. (Which explains why he took time out to do this interview.)
“I think Scouting is more valuable now than ever,” he says. “It teaches you leadership, ethics, and how to work with peers in the pursuit of a common goal. These are fundamental skills for success, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if Scouts hadn’t taught me how to help and accept help from others.”
You’ll see ‘the best of me’
There are no half measures for Greg Billington. Everything he does gets 100 percent of his effort.
That’s how he got to Rio, and that’s how he’ll behave in Rio.
That attitude will make any result easier to swallow.
“When I arrive to the start line, I’ll know I’ve done the best I can to have a great performance and that, in itself, is a huge accomplishment,” he says. “What you see out there, first or last, win or lose, yells of joy or defeat, will be the best of me.”
In the days leading up to the race, Billington’s coach has prepared a “taper plan” where the racer’s volume of training decreases while the intensity increases.
The rest of the time, Billington says, he’ll relax down in a darkened, air-conditioned room reading the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest.
“The night before, I’ll have pizza, watch a classic like Rocky, and make sure my race bag is completely ready,” he says.
‘Nothing but a dream’
Billington has a message for young triathletes with Olympic dreams: “Almost every athlete out there started out with nothing but a dream and the determination to make it a reality.”
He admits he has experienced setbacks and even questioned whether this childhood ambition of making the Olympics was worth it. But he persisted.
“If you’re going to set high goals and accomplish them, it requires years of steady, consistent, patient effort,” he says. “The only way you’re going become the best version of yourself is by working with others, learning from them and being grateful for whatever support they’re generous enough to offer.