German professional triathletes and brothers Andreas and Michael Raelert push each other to heights that neither could reach alone.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
When I was a freshman and my elder brother, Josh, was a senior on our high school track team, I nearly beat him in a mile race.
“I’ll never forget the look in your eyes,” he told me afterward. “Sheer terror.” I thought he would never forgive me for challenging him as I had.
Happily, I was wrong about that. When he was younger and less mature, Josh might have held a grudge for a while. But nearing his 18th birthday, he was proud of my gift for running and accepted that it was only a matter of time before I passed him by.
Competing in the same sport as a sibling of the same gender can be both challenging and especially rewarding. Whether it is more challenging than rewarding or vice versa depends on the particulars of the relationship, according to John Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla. “There can be a history of favoritism by the parents and a history of anger toward one another, or it can be extremely supportive and positive,” he says.
German brothers Michael and Andreas Raelert have been able to compete against each other as triathletes at the very highest level of the sport since 1993. “Our parents always told us it doesn’t matter who wins or who’s better,” Michael says. “Brotherhood is more important. I would be happy for Andreas if he did really well in a race, even if we raced against each other and he beat me. And if I have a great race he is happy for me.”
Underscoring this point is the fact that Michael Raelert spoke these words from a hotel room in the Canary Islands that he shared with Andreas during a recent training camp. The two have been each other’s shadows for more than 15 years.
“It started when we were young kids,” says Andreas, 33, who is four years older than Michael. “I started with wrestling and swimming. At the same age, he also started swimming. We went to the same school and lived pretty much the whole time together. In ’93, when our parents moved from our hometown of Rostock to Hamburg, I was the only one who didn’t move. I was there by myself for two or three years. Then Michi [pronounced ‘Mikey’] moved back and we moved into a single apartment and since then we have done pretty much everything together.”
John Murray believes that such a bond gives elite athlete siblings some unique advantages. “They get more opportunities to train and practice,” he says. “They get the knowledge and perspective of the other person. They get emotional support. They can create a kind of us-against-them mentality. Training can be enhanced.”
Andreas points to another benefit, subtler but perhaps more powerful. He explains that each brother believes he can duplicate whatever the other does, so both of them build confidence from training and racing together, no matter who is stronger on a given day. “If I am better in a training session,” says Andreas, “it makes me feel good, but it makes Michi feel good also because he feels that if I can do it, he can do it as well.”
The Raelerts’ 2009 season is a testament to the performance benefits of their relationship. After years of largely ignoring his older brother’s guidance, usually to the detriment of his performance, Michael agreed to allow Andreas to formally coach him in preparation for the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, held in November in Clearwater, Fla. Along the way, Michael strayed from specific training for his goal race to support Andreas in his training for the Hawaii Ironman World Championship in October. Thanks in part to that support, Andreas finished third in Kona. A month later, thanks in part to Andreas’ coaching, Michael claimed his first world title in Clearwater.
Until that moment, Michael was always “the other Raelert.” The lengthy first phase of their careers was focused on World Cup racing, where Andreas consistently outperformed his younger sibling. Andreas made the German Olympic team in 2000 and 2004, finishing 12th in Sydney and sixth in Athens. Michael never qualified for the Olympics. His problem was not that he was less talented than Andreas. Rather, Michael explains, “I was kind of unorganized and didn’t have a lot of structure in my plan.”
It was not only a more organized training plan that Michael got from Andreas when he finally gave in and entrusted his career to him. He also gained confidence. “He always believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Michael says. “I need good results to be comfortable. But he always believed in my natural talents and saw that I could one day be one of the greatest.”
Andreas, too, has had far more success in long-course racing than he ever had on the World Cup circuit. His breakthrough came in 2008, when he won Ironman 70.3 Monaco and Ironman Arizona and took the silver medal in Clearwater. The sudden rise of the Raelert brothers has set them up to face a new experience in their sporting fraternity: racing head-to-head as high-profile contenders in a major championship. Two events—Clearwater and Kona—stand far above all others in rank of importance on the long-distance triathlon race calendar. Andreas skipped Clearwater last year, while Michael chose to defer his Kona debut. But a sort of showdown between the two at one of these races is inevitable.
Murray notes that American tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams have tended to play poorly when facing each other in tournament matches, and especially in Grand Slam finals. “In a situation like that you are more aware of who that person is, and that can lower performance,” he observes. Could the same thing happen to the Raelerts when they duel for a world championship?
The Raelerts are not exactly worried about it. Far from ignoring the elephant in the room, Andreas and Michael have chosen to deal with it head-on by actively hyping their coming showdown. The brothers have talked of having Michael focus on dominating 70.3 racing for another year or two while Andreas does the same at the Ironman distance, thereby building excitement for a head-to-head matchup in Kona in 2011 or 2012.
Although perhaps counterintuitive, it seems a rather healthy way to handle the situation. And those who know the brothers best, including New Zealand pro Kris Gemmel, have no doubt that each will benefit from the other’s presence in the Hawaii Ironman. Kemmel was on the course in Kona last year, when Andreas placed third behind Craig “Crowie” Alexander and Chris Lieto. With just a few miles remaining in the marathon, Lieto held the lead, but cramps had reduced his pace to a painful shuffle and a hard-charging Alexander caught him on the Queen Kaahumanu Highwayat Mile 21. But just then, Lieto’s brother Matt passed in the opposite direction.
“They stopped and chatted, and from one moment to the next Chris was a new man,” Gemmel says. “He went from struggling to running stride for stride with Crowie for a mile or two. The effect of this was not lost on me—how a bond that strong can be the difference between pass and fail in one’s eyes. If this was the result of some kind words from one sibling to another, imagine what that could do when Andreas and Michi are hitting it up along the Queen K together. I think we will see the marathon taken to a new level.”
Asked what their ideal scenario in Kona would be—one winning and the other finishing a close second?—the brothers become evasive. Andreas stresses that merely being together in the Hawaii Ironman would fulfill a vision that he and Michael have shared for more than 15 years. “To start in Kona together one day is one of our dreams,” he says. “To have a perfect day is another question. It doesn’t matter if you win or if you get some other result. At the end of the day, if you know you did everything you could, you have to be satisfied. You have to accept that some people are better than you.”
Or maybe just one person—your brother.
Andreas and Michael Raelert are not the only siblings who have risen to the top of the sport of triathlon. Here are some other noteworthy family pairs.
Tim and Tony DeBoom
Tim and Tony DeBoom are the most accomplished American male siblings in triathlon history. Younger brother Tim was the faster of the two. With his victories in the 2001 and 2002 Hawaii Ironman World Championships, he overshadowed his big brother, but Tony was no slouch. He won St. Anthony’s Triathlon, finished second at Ironman Florida and was also the runner-up at Ironman California behind Tim in 2001.
The DeBoom brothers grew up as swimmers in Iowa City, Iowa. After graduating from high school, Tony joined the Army. Tim got started in triathlons first; Tony followed his brother into the sport after he left the service. Eventually they both moved to Boulder and turned pro, training together throughout their careers.
In an interview for Inside Out Sports, Tony said, “Tim and I push each other and try to one-up each other, but we are each other’s biggest fans.” Tony has retired from racing and moved on to sports management and coaching. Tim is still competing.
Eneko and Hector Llanos
Basque brothers Hector and Eneko Llanos have had successful careers in both ITU and Ironman racing. Older brother Hector achieved a career high-water mark with a third-place finish in the 2000 Cancun ITU World Cup.
Eneko represented Spain in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Triathlon, finishing 23rd, and again in the 2004 Athens Olympic Triathlon, finishing 20th. He also won the 2003 ITU Long-Distance Triathlon World Championship and has collected three XTERRA World Championship titles (2003, 2004, and 2009). In addition, he has recorded three top-10 finishes at the Hawaii Ironman World Championship, including a runner-up performance in 2008.
Patricia and Sylviane Puntous
The Raelert brothers have a long way to go before they surpass the Puntous twins as the most successful siblings in Ironman racing. The effervescent redheaded pair came roaring out of Quebec in the early 1980s to dominate Kona. Sylviane won the Hawaii Ironman in 1983 and 1984, with Patricia crossing the line minutes behind her as the runner-up both times.
It was Patricia who broke the tape ahead of second-place Sylviane in 1986, only to be disqualified for drafting on the bike. But the race officials were confused by the sisters’ indistinguishableness—camera footage later confirmed that it was Sylviane who had drafted.
Sylviane came back in ’87 to finish second to Erin Baker and was the bridesmaid again behind Paula Newby-Fraser in 1989. Burned out by years of heavy training, the twins retired from competition in 1992 but later made an age-group comeback, and they still race together in running events today.
Laurel and Rebbecah Wassner
Laurel and Rebeccah Wassner are unique in more than one way. They are the only twins currently competing as professional triathletes. They are the only professional triathletes who live in New York City. And Laurel is the only American professional triathlete who is a cancer survivor. She won a long battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma that began when she was 23.
The Wassner sisters grew up in Maryland as swimmers and runners. After college, Rebeccah focused on running for several years, but eventually burned out and shifted over to triathlon, turning pro in 2004, at age 29. Despite—or perhaps because of—her late start, she continues to improve, winning 12 races in 2009. Laurel followed her sister into the pro ranks in 2008, after beating her cancer. As Rebeccah had been before her, Laurel was named USAT’s Rookie of the Year.