Categorized | Featured, Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Catching up with Chrissie

Chrissie Wellington returns next month to Kona too compete for her Ironman crown. (Photo courtesy Ironman)Chrissie Wellington returns next month to Kona to compete for her third Ironman crown. (Photo courtesy Ironman)

 

(Kevin Mackinnon interviews the two-time defending Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington)

She’s bright, she’s approachable, she’s fast. The world needs to take cover once she’s done with triathlon – you can be sure that she’s going to do much more than be just the world’s best Ironman athlete.

When Chrissie Wellington came out of nowhere two years ago to stun the world as she won her first Ironman World Championship, those of us in the sport began to realize that we were witnessing history in the making. Wellington has never lost an Ironman and it doesn’t look like she’s going to any time soon. 

There’s a lot more to her than simply being a great triathlete, though – something I tried to bring out in a recent “interview” – I e-mailed the questions, Wellington answered in her typical straightforward, funny and entertaining way while on the plane heading to yet another win at the Timberman Ironman 70.3.

KM: Brett Sutton, along with one of your former teammates, both told me you’re not in this to just win triathlons – that you have much more of a “mission.” I’m guessing things like GOTRIbal is part of that,  but what is it that you’d like to achieve within triathlon?

CW: Not long after I started as a professional in February 2007, I remember saying to Brett ‘I feel so selfish. All I do is swim, bike and run – and this is all for me. I am not helping to make the world a better place’. And he replied ‘Chrissie, just you wait, before too long you will be able to effect change in a way you never thought possible’. Brett is so perceptive and wise, and of course two years on – yes, I have the platform that I have always dreamed of to achieve my mission, and bring about positive change. That’s partially why winning is so important to me.

Of course I am a fierce competitor, and I love to work hard, smash myself and fight for every victory – but through every victory I have more of an opportunity. To speak about things I am passionate about, to inspire and encourage others, to lead by example, be a role model for change, to raise the bar, to raise awareness about important issues, including GOTRIbal (www.gotribalnow.com) and also setting up my own NGO in the UK in the future. And that’s something I never want to take for granted, and which drives me each and every day.

Within triathlon – swim, bike, and run alone – I want to be the best that I can be, to work as hard as I can, lay everything on the line and push myself to reach my full potential. I don’t have goals in terms of the number of races I want to win, or times I want to do, I simply want to do my best, and strive to be as strong as I can physically and mentally. And through this, yes I want to achieve so much more, in and out of sport.

What is it about the Blazeman (foundation or Jon Blais) that seems to have struck a chord with you? Why are you supporting that cause?

I met Mary Ann and Bob at Kona in 2007. It was through speaking to them, and other athletes, that I learned about Jon’s inspirational story. I was struck by Jon’s determination, strength, drive and passion despite suffering from the disease which was his life sentence. He was selfless to a fault. Driven by a desire to raise awareness, help others and leave a legacy, so that others may live. I decided there and then that I would roll across the line after every race I did, regardless of whether I won or not – as a symbol of my support for everything Jon was, and for the ALS Blazeman Foundation that was established in his memory.

Mary Ann and Bob gave myself, and a number of other athletes (Matty, Dede and Leanda to name a few) the huge honour of being ambassadors for the foundation, and raising awareness in any way we can about the disease, but also about Jon’s story – and making people realise that anything is possible even in the face of huge adversity.

You got into the sport, and competition at the highest levels, relatively late compared to other people. In just a couple of years you have, in some ways, revolutionized the sport. Do you think that maturity has helped you do what you’ve done? 

I don’t know if I have revolutionised the sport, but hopefully I have helped (with others) to raise the bar that little bit higher! In terms of my life, I have had so many varied, interesting, exciting and challenging experiences that have shaped me into the athlete and person I am today. I took a number of different paths, and have learnt so much from all of them.

Triathlon is the newest adventure, and a journey that I am relishing every minute of, but it isn’t the end goal by any means. The world will keep turning long after I have hung up my lycra, I just hope that through my achievements and presence in this sport I can make a small difference, and leave a legacy that I – and others – can be proud of.

I’ve always said you learn more about yourself during an Ironman than you do in so much of life. You probably did your first Ironman in a different light to the rest of us – you’d already seen quite a bit of the world and life by the time you got to Korea. What  have you learned about yourself during your various Ironman races? Do you like what you’ve learned?

Training and racing is a continuous learning process, with huge highs and deep lows – much like life itself! I have learnt so much about myself over the past two and a half years – to calm down, to rest my mind, to think more logically, to act more deliberately (this is a particular struggle, as evidenced by the fact that I recently walked into a cement bench, and have spent the last three weeks hobbling around!), to be patient, to believe in myself … and much more besides.

But yes, triathlon has taught me so much, both from looking deep into myself and reflecting on my personality, and my strengths and weaknesses – and also from watching people around me. You realise the body’s amazing capacity to endure pain, that the mind and body are so much stronger than we may give them credit for, to be calm in the face of adversity, to cope with defeat.

In terms of ‘do I like what I have learned?’ I think back to what Paula Newby Fraser once said – ‘Be kind to yourself.’ So, yes, although I am my own harshest critic, I am trying to do just that – to like what I am learning, and be kind to myself at all times!

It’s been a whirlwind of a triathlon career for you over the past  three years. It probably seems quite glamorous to the rest of the  world, but I’m guessing there are a few challenges in your life. Can you outline some of those? What’s been the hardest part of becoming the world’s top Ironman athlete?

Chaffing, huge calves and bad tan lines! Pro triathlon – it’s rock and roll. Glitz, glamour, five star lifestyles, and a small dog in a Prada bag! Brad Pitt is always coming over for dinner. Angie gets jealous, but what can I do – it’s A-list celebrity status all the way!

Seriously, being away from family and friends is hard, as is the mono-dimensional nature of the lifestyle. I do miss the spontaneity of being able to go to the theatre, to music festivals, to travel, to have long weekends in far flung places. But, hey, these are negatives, and they are far outweighed by the HUGE positives! Like being able to eat my body weight in oatmeal each and every day!

You’ve never lost an Ironman. How much pressure is there on you to keep that streak going? How do you deal with the pressure leading into any race and, especially, Kona?

To know that I am the best in the world has brought me so much joy and heaps of fantastic opportunities – but yes, it has also resulted in more commitments and pressures – not to mention expectations, both those I put on myself and those that others have for me. The Hawaii crown is only as heavy as you let it be though. I think that the best way to deal with the pressure is to see everything as a positive. I have won Hawaii twice, which is more than I ever could have dreamed of.

In Kona, yes it is the big stage. But I try and keep everything in perspective, and remember how approached the race two years ago, as a naive rookie who didn’t know anything. That naivety was a blessing, and I always reflect on that and make sure that I don’t get caught up in the hype that surrounds the race.

I am confident and feel strong. I trust in my mind and in my body, and in the preparation I have done. I know the course, I know what it takes to win – and most importantly I KNOW how it feels to win, and I crave that feeling each and every day!

I will have my family and friends there to support me, and most importantly I love being there on the Big Island. It’s hot, humid, tough and it HURTS!

I have the target on my back, and instead of letting it crush me I thrive on it, and will enjoy every moment of defending the crown!

OK, let’s get this one out of the way: Can you update us on why you decided to stop working with Simon Lessing?

Kevin, you know me. I don’t do things without careful thought and consideration. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision and it all boils down to the fact that I wanted to take total control of my own programme. My own destiny if you like. That’s not to say I won’t get another coach, but for now I am more than happy, and quite excited, and liberated to be doing my own thing, with the input of a few people that I trust. That’s the long and the short of it!

I met your parents last year in Kona. I didn’t ask them if they’re  clamoring to have grandchildren any time soon … Are they? Do you see  yourself having a family someday?

You will have the chance to ask them this year! I think ‘pigs might fly’ would probably feature in their answer! I recently killed Sybille and Basil – my mint and (surprise, surprise) basil plants. So I don’t think I have the qualifications needed to be a good mother!

And with this whole triathlon malarkey dominating my life, I think my parents have realised that small baby Wellingtons won’t be popping out just yet (and my brother Matty, and his girlfriend, Kelly, have just bought two kittens, so that’s about as close as they will get to the pitter patter of tiny feet!)

Last year when you were sitting on the side of the road with that flat, you said you were quite calm. It’s one thing to say you’re staying calm and in control, very much another to put that in practice in that sort of situation. How did you manage that? Or were you maybe a bit more nervous than you seemed? Do you practice visualization so you’re somewhat mentally prepared for that kind of thing?

Of course I was nervous, but yes – I did stay calm. I think I took a lot of confidence from the fact that I had flatted twice in other races, and still came back to win. It taught me a valuable lesson – in that it definitely isn’t over because of a flat piece of rubber….(especially if Bek Keat is on the course, although I doubt she would be as willing to help me out this year!)

Mental preparation is one of the main keys to success. All the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training. The part that people don’t put in their log books. The part that all the monitors, gizmos and gadgets in the world can’t help you out with.

I try and visualise the race beforehand, and plan for all eventualities so I can pre-empt how I will react if I lose my goggles, drop a water bottle, if I am suffering physically, or yes – if I have a flat tire! Its easy to say, and very hard to do. But I try to stay in the moment, keep calm, try to relax and remember hard or difficult times in training, racing and life in general when I have pushed through and come out on top.

I also have a bank of positives memories and experiences that remind me I can achieve anything I want to and I draw on the support of the crowds, and most importantly smile lots!

What would it mean for you to win Kona again? On a related note, how important are records for you – both the world best time last July and the course record in Kona?

It would mean that I am the best in the world for one more year! And that is a huge honor, achievement and a tremendous opportunity and privilege.

I always race with three goals. To cross the line first, to enjoy it and to try and win in the fastest time possible. If that means I break a course or world record then that’s the icing on the very tasty cake, but the victory is always first and foremost in my mind. There are too many variables affecting times, year on year and race on race. It makes comparisons really difficult.

Plus, I am a total numerical retard …as many of my training partners know, I can’t even do 300m in the pool without losing count!

As far as records go, of course, I am so happy and proud to have my name etched in the triathlon history books. By breaking records I hope to show that women are a force to be reckoned with, that we can get faster and stronger, and raise the bar for future athletes to aspire to. But to know deep inside that I have given it everything is the most important thing.

Luckily for me in Roth I was able to enjoy the victory, thank the spectators and break the record too!

Finally, how hard is it to go as fast as you have? I’m guessing  the training you’ve done over the past three or four years has been pretty tough – can you give me an idea of just how hard you’ve worked to achieve what you have?

Hard – training myself physically and mentally. No harder than others though. It’s not a case of hours or kilometers logged. It’s more than that. I have been fortunate to have had the right environment and support around me to enable me to bring out the best in me, and enable me to reach my potential. But the exciting this for me is, I don’t think I have reached it yet!

Quickfire with Chrissie:

What book am I reading? ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families,’ by Philip Gourevitch. It’s a disturbing account of the Rwandan genocide.

Favourite movie: Crash, or a Hindi movie called Black

Favourite piece of clothing: my TYR race tankinis from Kona. Closely followed by a pair of pants that say ‘Go Girl’ on the bottom. (I have another pair that say ‘I have been good this year,’ which were given to me by Hillary Biscay, and which I get out on very special occasions!)

Famous person I would like to meet: Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and the late Jane Tomlinson.

Country I would most like to visit: I would love to go back to many countries that I have already been too. New Zealand, Indonesia and Nepal are among my favourites. As for places I haven’t been … top of the long list are Iran, Borneo, West Papua, Costa Rica, Alaska and Jordan.

Interesting scars: I was drunk and on a London bus. I had my hand on the door, when it closed (as doors tend to do), a few too many glasses of vino had caused a delayed reaction. I didn’t pull my hand away in time. It got crushed. I saw blood and now have a scar to remind me of that entertaining night! I also had a tongue accident when I was about six years old. I was on a climbing frame, and was talking (as usual), and sliced my tongue half way through on a piece of rust. Luckily it has healed – although maybe my parents wished it hadn’t, as they may have preferred a mute daughter to the chatterbox that they ended up with!

Favourite music: Too many to mention! (it’s true that women can never be trusted to make up their minds!). The long list includes…….The Killers, Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo, Kings of Leon, U2, Ash, Feeder, Bush. I love the song ‘Under the Moon’ by Jim Major, and of course ‘We Are The Champions’ by Queen, which always gets me pumped up before a race! Of course a great party is not the same without 80s cheese (especially Chesney Hawkes, A-ha, Tiffany, Like a Virgin era Madonna and a bit of Wham thrown in).

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