Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: This year’s youngest competitor already a champion

(Henry Budgett profiles young superstar Philip Graves)

It’s often been said that to win an Ironman race you need a certain maturity – obviously nobody ever told Phil Graves that.

It’s not that he’s in any way immature but, at just 20 years old, he became the youngest ever Ironman champion when he defeated Stephen Bayliss at Ironman UK back in August.

Even more impressive is the fact he is in his first season of long-distance racing and had already notched up a win at the UK 70.3 in June (again beating Bayliss).

Philip Graves wins Ironman UK and earns his first ticket to Kona. (Photo courtesy of Ironman)

Philip Graves wins Ironman UK and earns his first ticket to Kona. (Photo courtesy of Ironman)

Both of these races were won at his first attempts at the distance, a fact that has led to more than a little speculation about how he’ll perform here in Kona on Saturday.

Graves’ background is one of working his way up through the junior development system in the UK. He first started triathlon aged 13 and was swiftly identified as someone to watch when, at 16, he was undefeated for an entire season.

His move to junior racing was in the shadow of no less an athlete than Alistair Brownlee but, unlike the ITU Champion, Graves had already identified his goal – the long-distance circuit.

In a recent interview he said he feels, despite the arguments as to whether short or long is the more prestigious, he’s in no doubt that the longer distances are a better measure of athletic achievement.

With just one marathon (and just one Iroman, come to that) under his belt the questions about where (or even if…) he will finish on Saturday deserve some serious consideration. He can swim with the best, although pretty much all of those swims will have been in wetsuit-legal conditions rather than the balmy tropical waters here in Kona.

However it’s on the bike that his credentials are without question. During 2009 he has been the leading competitor in the Rudy Project series in the UK and in a single weekend raced and won a regional championship 10 mile in 20:02 and then placed third in the National 100, recording a 3:37:41.

With results like those it’s little surprise that he rode away from the likes of Bjorn Andersson at the 70.3 and then repeated the process at Ironman UK leaving Bayliss with a margin that couldn’t be bridged.

In a finish-line phone interview I did with him after his win at Bolton, Graves admitted he wasn’t entirely sure how he had managed to hold it together on the run. He said his legs were in pieces by 30k and as most of his long runs in training were off-road the pavement surface was much harder on the muscles than he was used to.

Add the heat here in Kona and it may well be blitzing the bike might not be the smartest move he could make.

Indeed, he’s also on record saying that he has no plans to do a ‘suicide ride’ – although he has been seen regularly pounding up the Queen K these past few days to the consternation of at least one GB pro who apparently suggested ‘someone needs to have a word with the lad…’

I asked him to give me a snapshot impression of his time here so far:

“Riding on the Queen K (Kaahumanu) is,” he said, “just like riding the time trial circuit back at home in the UK; up and down a dual carriageway with lots of cars and trucks! The only difference is the temperature is double what it is back home – but I am finding it OK.” And how does he feel about the rapidly approaching race? “I really am relishing the opportunity to get out there and see what all this Ironman Hawaii fuss is about! It all adds to the character of the event and makes it the iconic race that it is!”

Whatever the outcome Saturday there is one inescapable fact – Phil Graves is only 20 and yet clearly has the potential to deliver a record-breaking performance.

It’s highly unlikely that it will happen in 2009 but this is definitely one athlete that’s going to be worth keeping tabs on over the next few years.

Or, perhaps, for the next few months as he’s also headed for Clearwater for a shot at the 70.3 title.

One way or another, Graves’ name is destined to appear on many more winners lists over the coming years.

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