Ahmed Zaher Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

Ahmed Zaher started competing in triathlons 12 years ago. At the time, he was a mechanical engineer, and he owned a gas station with a Mercedes repair shop. He became so successful at triathlons, eventually competing in eight Ironman World Championships, that he became a triathlon coach. Now Zaher, who is from Egypt, is certified by USA Triathlon and USA Cycling to train athletes at any level. About 10 years ago, he started Play Tri, a coaching business that offers triathlon training. This month, Play Tri will move into its first triathlon-training center in Hillside Village Shopping Center, at Mockingbird and Hillside.

What is your background as an athlete?
I’ve been a triathlete for 12 years, and I’ve been swimming since I was 2. I was on the Egyptian National Team as a swimmer and then the modern pentathlon team. Then I became an engineer for 15 years or so, and I lost focus on athletics. But I’ve always coached for fun, part-time. I’ve been coaching since I was 16, but I’ve always done it for fun.

Who are your clients now?
We don’t really have famous clients, just age groupers. “Age groupers” are just people like you and me who want to do triathlons. We believe in health and fitness, and we use triathlons as a way to get people healthy. It’s an amateur program to get people to challenge themselves. Along the way, we’ve had people qualify for world competition, but our goal is really to stay healthy. continued on page 14

Why did you want to start a triathlon training business?
When I first got into the sport, I came from a competitive, Olympic-centered style of training. And when I got into the sport, I tried to find a place that could provide the same service and knowledge I had gotten before, but on my scale. I have a job and kids. I have a different life than just being a professional athlete, and I couldn’t find any place that could do that for me. Either it was too hardcore, or the service wasn’t good. When I decided to start Play Tri, I had a vision of creating a program where it would be as good as what an Olympic center does for triathletes, but it’s for me and you and that guy sitting over there or whoever.

So Play Tri is not just for hardcore athletes?
Not at all. We let the athlete choose the level they want. Some people say, “I just want to lose weight and run a 5k”. Or other people want to challenge [themselves] and do an Ironman. Or they could qualify for a world championship. If you’ve never worked out in your life, there’s going to be a place for you. If you’re an Olympian, there’s going to be a place for you.

You’ve been doing this for 10 years, and this is just the first time you’ve had a physical location?
Yes. Instead of working from home, we’re centralizing and adding just a little bit more to it with the center. We’ll have a retail area that will carry stuff that nobody else in the Metroplex carries. We’re not trying to compete; we’re trying to complete the market. We’ll carry products that have to do with performance that are not carried in any other bike shop or running shop. We’re only the fifth or sixth performance center like this in the whole nation, so we’re attracting a lot of attention, and hopefully that will be good for the whole Metroplex.

Play Tri puts on races and training camps, along with coaching. What else do you offer?
Last year, we started a corporate program where we’re trying to help companies get their employees healthy so their health insurance costs will go down. I started that because a client came to me and said, “Two of my guys are very big, they’re very unhealthy, and they’re making my insurance costs go up. Can you help me?” So we got them to lose weight, and it decreased their health care costs by 50 percent.

Mockingbird Swim is also there in Hillside Village. Is that where you will do the swim training?
No. We will have our own pool, which will be more like a treadmill pool. It’s called an Endless Pool. But we send our son to Mockingbird Swim. I’m working on a deal with them where kids could be dropped off at the pool, and parents could come to the center. Then people won’t have an excuse not to work out.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to attempt a triathlon for the first time?
I would tell them to buy a used road bike, in the range of $400-$800. That way, you don’t spend a lot of money. Road bikes are more comfortable than tri bikes in the beginning. And then I would take it to a reputable bike shop and get a bike fit. That’s more important than the bike itself for preventing injuries. Then I would recommend going to a running store like Run On or Luke’s Locker. A lot of injuries that we find are because people don’t have the right shoes. And then invest a little bit of money in a session with a coach to get the basics of the swim, bike and run technique.

Is it true that most triathletes come from a swimming background?
Most professional triathletes start from a swimming or running background. But amateurs typically come from two sources: Either they have a running background and they’ve had an injury and they’re trying to cross train, or they’re people who want to lose weight. There are a lot of professional coaches who are recommending triathletes to pro and college athletes in the offseason because it’s a good way to maintain fitness.

I asked because the swimming part seems a little intimidating.
We have gotten so many clients that didn’t know how to swim at all. They couldn’t swim 10-15 yards. And one of them just finished his first Ironman last month. He finished 2.4 miles swimming. Another, I was able to get him in three weeks to do a half Ironman. We get a lot of people who come to us for the swimming, and then they find that we have a lot of other services that are good.

More information is available at playtri.com.

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