The Ironman

A tribute to Steve Adams, a man who followed his passion

Published in 2021 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine

Tragically, Steve Adams died on Nov. 1, 2020, struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Maria Bustamante, and sons Sam and Abe. We decided to run his story as planned, but as a tribute. In another tribute article, we reflect on his life and work.

A competitive streak is pretty much a prerequisite for any trial lawyer, but Steve Adams takes it beyond the courtroom. He not only qualified to compete in four Ironman Triathlon World Championships; in three of them he finished top among attorneys in the triathlon. 

There are many similarities, he maintains, between trying cases and training for a triathlon. “You use that drive, determination, endurance and discipline to create a game plan for success,” he says. “You can’t wing the Ironman. You’ll never make it. And to excel as a very good lawyer who strives to accomplish the client’s goal, you’ve got to be incredibly prepared.”

Adams began developing those skills in Quincy, Illinois, the rural hometown where he began competing on a community summer swim league at age 10. At 13, he started to train year-round. 

“I wasn’t so good at basketball or football, so I settled on swimming. When you do well at something, you want to keep doing it. So I just kept doing it.” 

He continued to swim competitively as an undergrad at both the University of Missouri and the University of Kentucky, and he worked out daily while attending the University of Northern Kentucky’s Chase College of Law. Some friends had started doing triathlons, but he was too busy studying, so he decided to test his endurance—and raise some money for charities—by swimming for 12 hours straight. He covered 27.3 miles. The following year, he did 26.1.

After landing his J.D., Adams followed the example of his father—a civil litigator—of gaining experience as a prosecutor before going into private practice.

Adams’ legal victories include persuading the Ohio Supreme Court to unanimously affirm defendants’ rights to challenge DUI breath-test machines and results; that 2014 decision clarified a previous ruling regarding challenges to the test’s overall validity that had been misinterpreted for decades. 

It was while he worked at the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office that the triathlon training began. “I was single, no kids, and I love working out,” recalls Adams. He started with shorter versions, then competed regionally to get into the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, which involve swimming 2.4 miles, pedaling 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. 

When he qualified, he says, “I remember that feeling more than crossing the Ironman finish line for the first time, because you worked so hard to accomplish the goal. “When you finally do it, it’s just, wow. It’s awesome.”

At his first championship, in 1996, Adams broke the 10-hour barrier, then qualified for three more Ironman events through 2002. He skipped 1998 to help manage  Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph T. Deters’ campaign for state treasurer, competing in Ironman again the next year. He moved from the county prosecutor’s office into the role of regional treasury representative for Deters, then into private practice, establishing a solo practice in 2000, and soon afterward, launching his “Not Guilty Adams” brand. Applying lessons from the triathlons, he wrote a book in 2017 titled Practice Law Like an Ironman—Unbeatable Checklists for any Lawyer Creating and Building a Solo or Small Practice.

Adams is also a savvy marketer, known for attention-grabbing, over-the-top videos on his website, YouTube and social media. He might appear as Cupid, Santa Claus or Uncle Sam, delivering lines like, “Say no-no to the po-po. Choose to refuse!” Translation: If an officer asks for a breath test, just say no. “I’m teaching the consumer, and consumers want to be entertained,” Adams says. “The videos take a lot of the stress away.”

Even though the “po-po” may not agree with the videos’ message, some appreciate the humor, according to Adams. “I’ve got a lot of cop friends,” he says. “They can’t wait for me to come out with my next one.” 

Although Adams had to have a hip replaced in 2012, he continued to swim and bike, though running became limited to the elliptical machine. “It makes me feel good physically, mentally and spiritually.”

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