PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward spent 14 years in the NFL, catching 1,000 passes and earning a reputation as one of the most physical wide receivers in NFL history.
And none of it prepared him for what the former Pittsburgh Steelers standout and “Dancing With the Stars” champion calls the most difficult challenge of his life: the Ironman Triathlon.
“I didn’t know what I was signing up for,” Ward says with a laugh.
And if he had known, there’s no telling he would have gone through with it. Yet on Saturday, less than a year after agreeing to tackle one of the most physically demanding competitions on the planet, Ward will line up with thousands of other athletes trying to navigate a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and full 26.2-mile marathon at the Ironman World Championships.
Not bad for a guy who says he couldn’t run more than a mile before he began training. And swimming? Forget about it. Sure he lives in Georgia, but swimming in the Pacific Ocean is a little different than hanging out at the pool.
The 37-year-old Ward took on the Ironman as part of a promotional campaign for the health benefits of chocolate milk. There is no greater meaning, he insists, though if people want to glean one from it, he’s fine with that too.
“Maybe you can look at it like somebody has taken themselves in a whole new direction,” Ward said.
One that, for once, Ward knows he will not master. His only goal is to beat the van that picks up the stragglers, a marked departure from the competitiveness that was a vital part of his career.
“In football, you’re always trying to get points, you’re always looking at the scoreboard,” Ward said. “There’s none of that in the Ironman.”
Working out at least three hours a day, six days a week has allowed Ward to get into what he calls “the best shape of my life.” He’s slimmed down to 193 pounds and can hop out of bed and run for an hour like it’s no big deal. The demands this weekend will be considerably more taxing, but he’s prepared.
Just don’t think he’s considering an NFL comeback. There’s no time and really, there’s no interest.
“I don’t want any part of the football world,” Ward said.