You won’t find a more deserving winner than Parker Spencer.
The 33-year-old took home USA Triathlon’s Olympic Coach of the Year Award in 2022 — the youngest person to do so.
Spencer, an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist®, is the high performance development senior manager and Project Podium head coach for USA Triathlon, and it’s easy to see how he achieved early success — even in a setting as sterile as a Zoom interview, he comes off as immediately likeable and down to earth. There are certain intangibles that make a person stand out from their colleagues in any given field. In this case, it’s clear that Spencer was born to inspire athletes.
The young coach got his start in athletics the usual way, participating in a number of secondary school sports, including basketball and football, though he notes his performance was “mediocre at best.” However, when he got into running, he saw swift success. He eventually received an offer to run at Liberty University, a D1 program, where he fell in love with fitness. After taking on his first triathlon, and dipping his toe in the water with an exercise 101 elective class taught by professor and professional ultramarathon runner David Horton, Spencer was all in. He declared an exercise science major and was off to the races.
There was an added serendipity to this choice: Liberty University’s program incorporates ACSM credentialing into its requirements, and in order to graduate, students must pass ACSM’s exercise physiology exam. Having done so, the freshly graduated and newly minted ACSM cert pro got an early start on the coaching track, taking a job with Endorphin Fitness in Richmond, Virginia, as a personal trainer and triathlon coach. It was there that he met triathlon Olympian and coach Barb Lindquist, his first professional connection to Team USA. Lindquist recognized his talent and brought him on as an assistant coach for a few summer training camps.
But his alma mater beckoned him home—Liberty wanted to boost their club triathlon team. Spencer became the head coach of not only their club triathlon team but also the cycling and men’s swimming programs. Altogether, Spencer and his five assistant coaches were working with just shy of 100 athletes.
There’s an interesting advantage to coaching a club team: Clubs make good homes for professional athletes since it’s often very difficult to navigate the terrain of being both a paid competitor and meeting the requirements for NCAA participation. Thus, Spencer was working with high-level international athletes right out of the gate. Nine of them, to be exact. And coaching them took him around the world, an invaluable experience that paid off handsomely.
By 2018, Spencer was in talks with the Olympic federation to become the head coach of a new program, Project Podium, an initiative aimed at recruiting young male competitors right out of high school. Now in its fifth season, and with Spencer at its helm, Project Podium has strong athletes in its ranks and a number of potential contenders in the mix for the Paris Olympics in 2024 and beyond.
Spencer wears a lot of hats during his routinely seven-day weeks. He variously spends his time performing behind-the-scenes admin work that keeps his programs going, coaching workouts two to three times per day in person, and hopping on international flights at least once per month and often more. Then there’s the responsibility of making sure his athletes’ equipment arrives in time and in one piece. The high-end cycles’ frames are made from carbon fiber, which when even slightly damaged is often impossible to repair. Spencer brings along his own cycle for these trips in case one of his competitors needs to use it. For his Paralympic athletes, the situation can become even trickier since their equipment is so individualized, making a timely replacement or repair nigh on impossible in some cases. Crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s in terms of transportation timing and safety is of the utmost importance.
Besides making sure the equipment arrives undamaged and when it’s supposed to, Spencer has to make sure his athletes do too. There are always visas and plane tickets to attend to. On top of that, he has to foster a team culture and camaraderie. As head coach of Project Podium, he first meets many of his athletes when they are only 17 years old. In many ways, his job is not only to train competitors but to help boys become men, then help those men bond and band together.
But you have to do more than merely help young men mature, cultivate athletic excellence, build team culture and juggle logistical chainsaws to earn USA Triathlon’s Olympic Coach of the Year Award — you have to do all of that and then win. In 2022, that included USA Triathlon winning Male of the Year and Under 23 Male of the Year, as well as female Rookie of the Year. One of Spencer’s athletes won the Junior National Championships, and multiple qualified for the World Championships and the Under 23 World Championships.
But Spencer remains characteristically humble. In our call, he credits both his mentors and the team of professionals he works with on a day-to-day basis, saying, “While I was given this award, it’s really their award as much as mine.” He also made it clear that his wife plays an integral role in his success, supporting not only him but also his team — she has a doctorate in physical therapy and was a collegiate synchronized swimmer.
I asked Spencer if he had any advice for prospective and current ACSM certified professionals, and he shared some important insights. He noted that there are things he needed to learn for his certification that he uses in his job every day and that “everyone worldwide who does anything with fitness knows what ACSM is,” so getting an ACSM certification will certainly raise your profile. He adds, “If you’re thinking about doing it, absolutely do it. If you have anything to do with the health industry, there are things you’ll learn that will make you better at what you do.”
He also encourages those who have already gained their certifications to use the CEC process to fill gaps in their knowledge instead of just checking the box by taking the easiest available courses or opportunities.
What’s next for Spencer now that he’s won USA Triathlon’s Olympic Coach of the Year?
“I don’t know what 10 years look like from now, but I know what I have in front of me right now,” he says. “I want to continue to develop Project Podium into the most successful Olympic and Paralympic development program in the world.”