Adam Katz, a financial adviser at Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit, was unaware he had a personal connection to cancer when he signed up for a charity decathlon in April to determine Wall Street’s best athlete.
Two hours after having lunch with organizers of the Oct. 10 event, Katz received a call from his father with news that his mother, Roberta, had stage four lung cancer. She died in August, 3 1/2 months after the initial diagnosis.
“The fact that she’s not going to be there to see this, I probably still haven’t gotten my head around it,” Katz, 34, said in a telephone interview from his office at the World Financial Center in Manhattan. “But you can imagine my resolve to compete, do well and raise the maximum amount of money has only gotten stronger.”
This is the second year for The Decathlon, which pits traders, bankers and advisers in a competition designed to crown Wall Street’s top athlete and raise $1 million for Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong Foundation to fund cancer research.
The inaugural event, held last year, was won by Kyle Peterson, then a first-year associate at Sage View Capital LP. Peterson, 25, will face added competition when he seeks to defend his title. Organizers plan to have 150 entrants this year, up from 30 in 2009.
Raising Money, Awareness
“The cause kind of undermines any pressure,” Peterson, whose father Craig has late-stage prostate cancer, said in a telephone interview on his way to work in Greenwich, Connecticut. “I’m just excited to get out competing, raise money and raise awareness.”
The American Cancer Society projects that 569,490 people in the U.S. will die of cancer this year -- more than 1,500 every day. The National Institutes of Health estimated that the direct medical cost to fight the disease in 2010 is $102.8 billion.
The Decathlon, which is still accepting entries through its website, is only open to those working in the financial services industry. Some firms with entrants are Bank of America, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, Citigroup Inc., Barclays Plc and UBS AG.
While the 10-event competition features runs at three different distances, that’s where its similarity to the Olympic decathlon ends. Pull-ups, a football throw, an agility drill and bench press also are part of the one-day contest, which will be held at the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale, Long Island.
Donors can promise a fixed amount per repetition -- $10 per pull-up, for example -- and the decathlon also features performance-based pledging. The second option allows donors to “bet” on a competitor’s performance and harnesses Wall Street’s trading culture, said co-founder David Maloney, a former financial adviser at Morgan Stanley.
“There’s an undeniable enthusiasm within the financial services community for placing a value on an expected outcome,” said Maloney, 31, who organizes the competition with Marc Hodulich, his former track teammate at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.
“Being able to donate various amounts based upon how many pull-ups some guy does should make The Decathlon that much more exciting,” Maloney said. “A 50-yard football throw versus a 49-yard football throw could be a difference of $1,000 in donations.”
Katz said he’s had 76 people make pledges and is targeting a donation total of $18,000, a figure he chose in recognition of his Jewish background. According to Hebrew numerology, the number 18 symbolizes “chai,” the word for life, and monetary gifts in multiples of $18 are common in the faith.
Katz helps manage about $2 billion as a financial adviser within Merrill Lynch’s private banking and investment group, which serves individuals and foundations with a net worth of more than $10 million.
He’s also a former sprinter and long jumper at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, whose weight ballooned to 206 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame because of a sedentary lifestyle. Two years ago, Katz realized he had to make a change when he found himself out of breath trying to chase down his son, who at the time was about 3 years old.
After two months of running and exercise, he lost 40 pounds and 11 inches off his waist. He also got his taste for competition back and last year won a New York amateur championship in arm wrestling.
While Katz missed the 2009 debut of The Decathlon, he made sure he wouldn’t be left out this year by signing up six months in advance. During their lunch in May, Maloney -- whose mother is a breast cancer survivor -- asked Katz about his experiences with the disease.
“I said, ‘I don’t have the same connection you do, but I love the competitiveness of this event,’” Katz said. “Two hours later, I got the call from my dad.”
As his mom’s condition deteriorated, Katz learned from his father that his connections to cancer were deeper than he realized. His maternal grandfather died of stomach cancer in 1950 and his maternal grandmother succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1977.
“My dad’s big comment, which really drove home to me my passion for this event, is that he can’t believe in all these years very little progress has been made,” Katz said. “I think I naively felt that a lot has been done. This really sort of slapped me in the face and said a lot still needs to be done.”
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