Leap Day Sports - The Triathlife of Jesse Thomas

Full Circle Career Moment – ROKA Performance Aviators & 1st Year Pro Scholarship Fund!

CRAZY ASS FANS! I’ve got some really exciting stuff to talk about. And like all things on this blog, it starts with a story.

As most of you know, in 2011, as a unknown first year pro, I shocked myself and the triathlon community by winning a high profile race, Wildflower. Even the finish line announcer had to ask me my name after I crossed the line. I had little to no sponsorship, so like most 1st year pros, I used what I had and/or could afford – a borrowed bike and helmet, a hand me down kit, and of course, drug store aviators. It was a “poor man’s pro wins the day” story that launched my career and the aviators eventually (and unintentionally) became my “signature.”

The original debut of the aviators.

The original debut of the aviators.

Later that year, I met Rob Canales and Kurt Spenser, former Stanford swimmers founding a company called ROKA. For some crazy reason, they wanted MY help in developing and launching a revolutionary wetsuit. While the wetsuit was the first product, like all head-in-the-clouds entrepreneurs, we talked about all kinds of crazy stuff, including, my dream product – “performance casual” sunglasses.

“Performance” Aviators? No, Seriously.

The basic idea was simple: take an iconic casual sunglass style (like an aviator or wayfarer), but design and create them with true high performance characteristics – lightweight, anti fog, non slip, extraordinary optics and fit. Make sunglasses that people would want to wear casually because they looked cool, but that they could also wear confidently during the most extreme exercise. It always bugged me how most performance sunglasses looked like they belonged on the head of a sci fi movie villain.

But like lots of ideas that entrepreneurs have, it got filed away to focus on the present. I was only a 2nd year pro, still in the process of making a name for myself in the sport, and ROKA was a startup with two employees, focused singularly on their wetsuit line.

Rob, Kurt and I in the early ROKA days.

Rob (white cap middle), Kurt (ROKA trucker) and I (massive fro) in the early ROKA days.

Over the next 3-4 years, I won more races, and became a true “professional,” – eventually trading in that borrowed bike for a top of the line Dimond Brilliant super bike, and the hand me down kit for a custom designed aerodynamic race suit by Descente. I was (am) lucky enough to be supported by some of the best brands in the world, who produce the highest quality products and services, including my own company, Picky Bars.

Waiting for the Right Time to Make the Idea a Reality

And as my career blossomed, I was offered numerous sunglasses sponsorships from companies both within and outside of the industry. While I was always flattered by the interest, most companies wanted me to wear their current casual aviator for racing, or just wear their performance glasses for racing and the aviator casually. Nothing ever felt unique or special or valuable enough to simply take a check and stamp my “trademark” on it – which to me, was the most personal part of my career. So even though I had the best products imaginable for everything else, I continued buying and wearing cheap (and as you’d expect, pretty crappy) aviators.

And then about a year ago Rob, Kurt, and I reengaged on the performance-casual sunglasses concept. ROKA had grown considerably and was expanding product lines. They had begun some preliminary idea generation. Seeing their growth as entrepreneurs, and knowing their propensity for top of the line, uncompromised design, I decided that there couldn’t be a better opportunity for me to take a legit shot at making the “performance casual” concept a reality.

An Unforgettable Debut at Ironman Lanzarote

Many designs and a year later, I received the first pair of the final design “Phantom – Performance Aviator,” no joke, literally as I was leaving my hotel room to check in my run bag at Ironman Lanzarote. I quickly unpacked them, took a look, loved what I saw, made sure they fit, and threw them straight in my bag. As we walked to check-in I said to my dad (who was my original inspiration to wear aviators), “Well, I hope those are awesome aviators because I’m running 26 miles in them tomorrow!”

So literally, the FIRST time I put on the Phantoms was in transition before the run at Ironman Lanzarote. And as most of you know, I went on to have the run and performance of my career.


ROKA’s cryptic Instagram post after Ironman Lanzarote!

Holy Crap These Aviators Are Awesome

Needless to say, the aviators PERFORMED incredibly, no slips, no fogging, no reflection, nothing, just lightweight perfect shade that kept my face and body relaxed and focused for 26 miles. I’ll never forget that moment. I won’t go into ALL the product details, because you can, and should see those for yourself on their website – but I will say these highlights.

  • Titanium frame that makes the entire assembly weigh just 20 grams! It’s hard to believe how light they are.
  • Patent pending “Gecko” nose and ear pads that provide 100% no slip even when you’re really sweaty and moving like crazy. Seriously, you can shake your head like a rockstar and they go nowhere. I’ve even jumped in the river in Bend with them on and they stayed put.
  • Ridiculous Carl Zeiss lenses that have the top of the line anti-fog, anti-scratch, anti-reflective tech. The optics are insanely clear and my lenses still have no marks after 5 months of heavy use.
  • Hand’s down, 100%, definitely without a doubt the nicest pair of sunglasses I have ever worn by a long shot, including the many very nice glasses I’ve been given by various manufacturers over the years.
Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 11.47.39 AM

The final product!

ROKA will also be launching two other performance casual styles with similar characteristics for those of you looking for something different than an aviator.

The full lineup of performance casual styles from ROKA. Kona & Vendee available soon.

The full lineup of performance casual styles from ROKA. Kona & Vendee available soon.

I am INCREDIBLY proud to launch this product line with my friends Rob and Kurt and the rest of their team. In many ways it’s the culmination of my career. Just like my win at Ironman Lanzarote, it’s the “no way that will ever happen” moment that somehow, with lots of hard work, support, and a little luck, actually happened.

Talk about things you never thought would happen - this ad ran last week in Times Square!

Talk about things you never thought would happen – this ad ran last week in Times Square!

Giving Back – $10k 1st Year Pro “Scholarship” Fund for 2017

And since this does feel like a “full circle” moment in my career, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the support I received when I started my career six years ago that eventually made all of this crazy stuff possible. Being a 1st year pro in this sport is hard, it’s incredibly expensive and a foggy, information deprived environment to navigate wisely without experience. The support and advice I received from family, friends, and people within the industry enabled me to make it that first year, and set me up for what eventually became a sustainable career of my own.

I feel very fortunate for the support I received while starting my career. My hope is to help give others a similar boost to their careers.

There is no way I could have achieved what I have in this sport without lots of support, particularly that first year or two. My hope is to pay some of that kindness back by giving others a similar boost to their careers.

So I feel it’s an appropriate time to announce that I (well, Lauren and I) will personally will be offering a “scholarship” fund of $10,000 to be divided among two to four 1st year pro triathletes in 2017. I will also provide sponsorship and professional development advice to those selected candidates. Many of my partners, including ROKA and Picky Bars of course, will provide product and/or financial support where appropriate and non-conflicting with any recipients current sponsors. My hope/goal with this program is to provide a small but beneficial program to help selected first year pros launch their careers. More details and an application will be announced/posted sometime in November after I’m done training for this big race I’ve got in Hawaii in October!

Hoping my scholarship fund will help lead others to moments like this.

I feel incredibly grateful and honored by the support I’ve received on the journey of this career. I honestly couldn’t have imagined it would ever lead to the opportunities I’ve had these last six years – including launching a freaking performance aviator and a scholarship fund! So I’m happy to “give back” and hopefully help create an opportunity for other athletes to enjoy their own journey the way I have mine.

Racing This Weekend – Santa Cruz 70.3

Finally, I wanted to let you all know I’ve been training my arse off for Kona and am going to do my 4 week out “rust buster” race at 70.3 Santa Cruz this weekend. I don’t have any expectation for the race other than to be really really tired from all the training. Sounds fun, right!? Actually, the training for Kona has been going well so even though I’ll be a bit wrecked, I’m excited to see what I’ve got, and mentally prep myself to for racing in October in Kona.

You can follow the race via @ironmanlive twitter, or Ironman Live website. Lauren will also be there tweeting either from her account or mine. If you’re down there for the race, stop by the Pro Panel at 11:30am on Saturday and say hi! As always, you can follow my facebook, instagram, and strava page for other updates!

That’s it folks, if you have any questions or comments, please let me know below! Thanks so much for all the support! Here’s a few more pics from the ROKA eyewear launch, including some of Lauren and Jude!

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 11.36.13 AM Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 11.37.07 AM Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 11.37.24 AM


7 comments to Full Circle Career Moment – ROKA Performance Aviators & 1st Year Pro Scholarship Fund!

  • Hey JT,

    Nice shades, and Roka Run gear too. I’ve been trying to get in touch with the Roka Digital marketing guys but have had little luck, including Ryan. Can you email me to chat?



  • Leslie

    I love this! What shines through is the enjoyment you get out of the sport and the enjoyment you get in sharing with others in the triathlon “family.” I have followed your triathlon career since it started around the same time as I discovered the sport (and fell in love with it). I remember you at Ironman Poconos 70.3 (my first half) on the run — saw your aviators from about a half mile away, Quassy half at a practice swim, and your Eagleman 81.3 when you took a selfie with my friend BEFORE the swim start. I even tried the robot voice during the bike at Ironman Mont Tremblant (it poured rain the entire 112 miles) to distract myself — it worked!

    PS — let your Roka friends know that the ladies running shorts are awesome. The material is the most comfortable I have ever worn.

  • Raced alongside you in Ironman Wales last year and this year in Lanzarote. Managed to catch you for a quick chat as you left the beach in Lanza for a practice swim one morning. You deserve all the success mate a true and humble GENTLEMAN who obviously hasn’t forgotten himself. Really love the Phantom shades and think I will treat myself as I take on Marathon des Sables next year.

    Good luck for Kona!! will be tracking you all day from sunny Wales

  • Brett

    Dude, that video is classic! So happy to follow your career path. And Tina and I are always greatful for everything you did to help us at MSA.

    I need a pair of those sunny’s!

  • Loren Polster

    Any way I could get a high res photo of one your model shots? Preferably the upper left, “early morning, deep thoughts” one. Just trying to get some large scale prints to decorate my apartment. Either way, this is the tightest. Congrats bud! Have fun this weekend! Try not slip on any banana slugs.

  • NathanC

    Great story! Where is the application for the scholarship you mentioned? I love both racing and school, but it is hard to balance the two!

  • Minji Kim

    i want to see more pictures of wearing black / mirror phantom sunglasses… curious how reflective the mirror sunglass looks like !

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