Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Macca proves them wrong – twice

(Kevin Mackinnon profiles last year’s Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack)

The seeds of Chris McCormack’s Ironman World Championship win last year actually came one year earlier, when the best he could do was finish fourth. McCormack considered 2009 Kona race to be the best he’d ever done in Hawaii.

During the marathon McCormack experienced a series of incredibly painful cramps that almost put him out of the race. The confidence he gained from dealing with that ordeal helped him prepare for the 2010 race.

“The satisfaction from the race came from overcoming that storm,” he told me in an interview at last year’s Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championship.

“From a personal level, if I’m honest with myself, my best ever performance in Kona was last year, my second ever was when I came second to Normann (2006), my third was the year I won (2007). I didn’t win last year, but I gave my best effort and was beaten by better guys,” he said.

McCormack won’t be back in Kona this year to defend his title. In a surprise announcement earlier this year he declared his intent to try and qualify for the 2012 Olympics. He’ll spend much of the next year trying to get enough qualifying points to make it to the start line in London.

McCormack has never been afraid to speak out. He’s all-too-aware that sometimes his statements have rubbed both fans and his competition the wrong way.

His brash predictions of wins in Kona haven’t always been well-received and his infamous comments during the press conference after Normann Stadler’s win in 2006 (“I’m the best Ironman athlete in the world”) certainly didn’t endear him to many.

“I think I’m going to be tagged and labeled as the guy who always spoke his mind,” he said. “I’m OK with that. I think my passion for the sport has sometimes been confused with cockiness because I don’t think that people have the same passion for it that I do. I think a lot of guys do it because they’re good athletes. They have passion because they’re successful. I have passion because it’s my sport. I love it, I live for it. I want to be remembered as a guy who always went for it all.”

McCormack’s win in Kona last year was ample proof that the Australian is never willing to settle for anything in a race. He seized the opportunity on the bike to break things open and, once he’d been caught by Andreas Raelert in the closing stages of the run, made a dramatic surge through the last aid station to take the title.

The win last year silenced many of McCormack’s critics, people who had declared the 37-year-old Australian would be a non-factor in Kona.

Those critics had been lining up ever since McCormack arrived at the Ironman World Championship in 2002, boldly declaring he would win the race. He would end up dropping out that year and it took him six tries before he finally achieved his goal.

Many thought that despite an impressive Ironman career that included five straight titles at Ironman Australia and various other titles, his 2007 world championship would be the only one he’d ever achieve.

“For me it’s an event that’s been very, very difficult,” he said last July. “I like the fact that I’ve had my failings there and come out the other side, and I like where I’m at now. I could walk away from the sport now and I could be content with what I learned about myself in Kona and where I stand in Kona. Of course, though, I want to win another Kona.”

That “take what comes” attitude might have helped him achieve his impressive result in Kona last year, but proving all the naysayers wrong no-doubt served as motivation, too.

Almost a decade ago, a sport scientist in Australia had told him he’d never be able to win in Kona because he sweated too much. The 2007 title proved that prediction wrong.

Next month, we’ll learn even more about how McCormack managed to achieve what so many didn’t think was possible. “I’m Here to Win: A World Champion’s Advice for Peak Performance” is due to be released in May, and includes lots of insights on how McCormack planned, and then put into effect, his winning tactics.

As interesting as the book is likely to be, last year’s Ironman World Championship came down to a gutsy performance by a man who was willing to take chances to win.

After forcing the issue on the bike, McCormack went to the front during the marathon. Then, when it looked like Andreas Raelert would catch him and contend for the title, McCormack found a way to get to the line first.

“I had 1:20 at 15 miles,” McCormack said after the race. “I focused on nutrition and knew that he would need to work hard to catch me. When he caught me with four miles to go, I was feeling very good. We shook hands – I said ‘no matter what happens, you’re a champion’ and we didn’t say another word to each other.”

“I was getting some stomach cramps at the end,” McCormack said of the intensity of the closing miles. “Your body starts rebelling. I was sticking my hand right up my rib cage.”

It was that move at the last aid station on the course that would prove pivotal.

“I couldn’t believe he went to the aid station,” McCormack said. “My attitude, at that point, is to close my eyes, grit my teeth and go for it.”

Which is exactly what he did. Now the two-time Ironman World Champion has set himself another goal, one that could prove even more difficult than taking two titles in Kona.

In the end, though, Chris McCormack has proven to himself and to Ironman fans around the world, that he has what it takes to win in Kona. Not once, but twice.

(Reach Kevin Mackinnon at kevin@ironman.com)

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