5 Steps to Confidence: From burn survivor to top 5% ranked Ironman Athlete

One of the greatest gifts you can give a child or anyone for that matter is confidence. It’s not easily bestowed. It is acquired through years of experience, both successes and failures. I’m a believer there is no better life teacher than losing. Trust me, I’ve done my share of losing and absolutely hate it. I’m a gracious loser but I will go to any length to insure I don’t experience those feelings of coming up short. But one thing I learned early is that I’ll never be competitive in anything if I don’t believe in myself first. Adhering to the 5 steps to confidence building below, I have realized accomplishments that include All American designation, top 5% Ironman All World Athlete ranking, 4x Team USA Athlete as well as competing in over 7 world triathlon championship events.

5 Steps to Confidence

  1. Be able to envision yourself winning. Dreaming is the process of training your mind how to allow your body to do what needs to be done. Your dreams should be about running the last 6 miles at negative splits or catching the winning touchdown pass.
  2. Focus on being the best you can be and don’t compare yourself to others. We all have different skill sets and those skill sets have different uses in different stages of our life. Make the most of what you’ve got.
  3. Take care of the basics that will help you take advantage of your life dream when it presents itself. UCLA coaching legend John Wooden in his unprecedented 10 NCAA championships began every practice by teaching his athletes how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.
  4. Celebrate the journey. So many get caught up in pursing their goals and they completely miss the enjoyment of pushing their mind and body to the limits. The aches, pains, discomfort and euphoria from achieving new personal bests are indescribable.
  5. Always be able to laugh at yourself. You are going to make mistakes and people are always watching. If you can laugh at yourself, others will think nothing of it. If you can’t, life will be pretty miserable.

Starting at ground zero

Believing in myself is not something that came easily. As a burn survivor (full story link) with scars over 65% of my body, I had believed what strangers kept telling me on a daily basis – that I was a handicapped kid who would never lead a normal life, much less return to being a competitive athlete. All I had to do was look in the mirror every morning to be reminded of this reality. The reality was further imprinted in my head when I tried to lift my right arm, which was physically melted to my side for 3 years, and realized I couldn’t throw a ball or even write with my right hand to do homework. The severe scar tissue on my neck prevented me from holding my head upright and made turning my head to the left a subject of my bedtime prayers. With this harsh reality, confidence was not the first emotion running through my head but I knew things had to change if I ever wanted to be happy.

Prior to getting burned at 8, I was a good athlete. A fast runner with good head/eye coordination and the right balance of aggression, I was always one of the first picked for playground activities. After the injury, I was the absolute last, basically the kid the coach always positions where they can have the least impact on the game. To this day, I remember the lineup process at recess where the 2 captains started calling off name after name in order of preference of who they wanted on their team. My selection was always an implied ‘I guess we have no other options, we’ll take Shay.’ Being the last pick, I always told myself ‘now is your chance to prove them wrong. Show them they made a mistake.’ But unfortunately, with my physical limitations and still inner belief that I wasn’t of equal skill, I lived up to their expectations – dropping the pass with no one even covering me or kicking the ball to the pitcher for an easy groundout. Confidence? What is that? Definitely not something a burn survivor who could barely dress himself possessed… at least for now.

Over the next 3 years I underwent over 10 additional surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy to allow me to almost regain full use of my right arm and neck. It was then, now a 5th grader, the power of CONFIDENCE began to grow in me. I was introduced to wrestling, a sport where I would be competing against fellow athletes of the same size and age – mano a mano, toughest man/boy wins. No timeouts to stop the clock and slow down your competitor’s momentum. No teammates to protect you when your competitor has you on your back. You’re on an island all alone and there’s only one way out – fight with everything you got!

I instantly fell in love with the sport. I had a platform to prove I was not handicapped, but to the contrary, I was a competitive athlete. I use the term ‘athlete’ loosely as I have never considered myself an athlete.

I am not a great athlete but I am one hell of a competitor.

As I began to rack up victory after victory, I realized I had what it took all along to be a competitive athlete, the will to overcome. Buried beneath all those layers of scars was a fire that had been stoked. All I had to do was believe in myself – and focus on doing the small things every day to enhance my abilities. I had a very successful wrestling career in high school but more importantly it gave me the confidence to attack any situation with ferocity and complete abandonment of the fear of failure.

I leveraged this new found CONFIDENCE into my career and Ironman triathlon competitions. In just 6 years, I earned a top 5% Ironman All World Athlete ranking and multiple All American designations. How did I do this? Was it superior genetics? Not at all. If you consider the fact I can’t sweat on 1/3 of my body, prone to severe dehydration, arthritis in both knees, plate and 7 screws in my left leg, missing 1” of cartilage in my right knee and 2 torn rotator cuffs, I am hardly the ideal prototype.

It was the belief that ‘I could’ and the drive to prove ‘I will.’

It all starts with believing with all your heart that you can and then doing the small things to prepare you for achieving your dreams.


Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.


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