The (Deeply Determined, Exceptionally Sensitive, Sometimes Insecure and Downright Huge) Heart of a Champion

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Photo: Matt Harbicht
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Photo: Matt Harbicht

The (Deeply Determined, Exceptionally Sensitive, Sometimes Insecure and Downright Huge) Heart of a Champion

This story was originally published in the September/October, 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine, before Wellington went on to win her fourth Ironman world title in stunning fashion. It was the first in-depth profile of Wellington—one where a writer uses long interviews with friends and family to paint a picture of who Wellington is outside of sport—ever published. She was featured on the cover with a crown as the Queen of Ironman.

PHOTOS: Chrissie Wellington’s Inside Triathlon Photo Shoot

We all know Chrissie Wellington as a three-time Ironman world champion, the iron-distance world record holder (8:18:13), the Ironman world record holder (8:33:56) and the course record holder in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (8:54:02). But few of us know who Wellington is as a person. Her fame has come so fast and furiously, getting to know the girl behind the glory has taken a backseat to acknowledging her many achievements. In fact, Wellington has never been the subject of an in-depth magazine profile.

Recently, Wellington, who is originally from Norfolk, England, granted me access to a number of her closest acquaintances, and I shared a marathon heart-to-heart session with the icon herself, helping me to uncover the off-course, off-camera Chrissie. And I can attest, while she’s as obsessively driven and outrageously successful in other aspects of her life as she is in triathlon, she’s also down-to-earth, at times uncertain and even insecure.

Walk into the home that Wellington rents with her boyfriend and fellow pro, Tom Lowe, on Boulder, Colo.’s north side and the first thing you’ll notice is the fireplace mantel. On it resides a collection of six greeting cards, inspirational missives given to Wellington by caring confidantes at various pivotal points in her life. One gives reassurance for her 2007 decision to quit a secure government job and make the precarious leap to professional sports. Another, a fierce “You showed them!” following Kona 2007, refers to the teammates who shunned Wellington when she first joined Brett Sutton’s TeamTBB training squad. Wellington carries the cards everywhere she travels.

Wellington’s friend and family relationships are utterly core to her being, and she expends massive amounts of time and energy nurturing her connections around the globe.

“As a result of living in so many cities in the U.K. and traveling to numerous countries, Chrissie has met countless people,” said her mother, Lin Wellington. “It never ceases to amaze us how she manages to keep in touch.”

The three-time world champion is far more concerned with the goings on in her friends’ lives than in spouting off about her own.

“When you see Chrissie—and sometimes it drives me slightly mad—she bombards you with questions about you,” said Naomi Flood, Wellington’s best mate from graduate school at the University of Manchester. “She’s not one of these people who wants to talk endlessly about herself.”

Matthew Wellington, Chrissie’s younger brother, agrees: “Pretentiousness and my sister are like chalk and cheese. It just doesn’t happen—ever.”

Georgina Cashmore, a former co-worker of Wellington’s and one of her dearest friends to this day, summed up her pal’s sincerity by saying, “Chrissie will always make space for you in her life. If she says she will be there, she will be there. If she can’t be there, she will tell you she can’t. She will protect me beyond all else. She rightly expects the same in return and knows that no matter what I will always love, support and ground her. It is a no-fuss friendship—we tell each other what we think even if it’s not what the other wants to hear. She farts—I tell her it stinks.”

I repeated Cashmore’s words to Wellington, and her eyes welled up (despite a burst of laughter).

“That’s touching to me more than anything,” she said, “because it means I’m doing something right. [It’s] sort of a vindication of who I am—that I’m valued as a friend, not just as a sporting icon.”

In a way, she hoards love and support; she holds it close, almost in fear it might slip away.

“Chrissie doesn’t do second in anything—not as a friend, a daughter, at work, in training or in competition,” Cashmore said. “She takes second place extremely personally and it rocks her to the core to feel that she has failed in any part of her life. Chrissie fears how her actions will be interpreted or how they will impact others, she fears not being able to be true to herself and true to others, but most of all she fears being away from those she loves.”

The love Wellington cherishes is a two-way street, however, even with those she hasn’t met.

“Letters and e-mails and messages—I save them all. I save every single message that I get to my website,” she said. “Because it’s important.”

She replies to fans personally as often as possible.

Wellington’s heart stretches even wider when it comes to the charitable causes she supports—groups such as the Blazeman Foundation for ALS, a nonprofit that seeks to find a cure for the fatal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord; the KIDS Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to childhood injury prevention and recovery; and GoTRIbal, which seeks to use endurance sports to empower women.

Wellington’s belief in charity is something she harbored as a young girl.

“In 1986 [at the age of 9] Chrissie was watching a program on TV that explained the plight of some people in Africa who needed urgent medical attention,” said Lin Wellington. “Without hesitation, Chrissie jumped up off her chair and announced that she was going to organize a ‘bring and buy sale’ in our village, to raise money for those afflicted. The result was that over 300 pounds was raised, which in those days was quite a lot of money.”

The following year, she wrote a variation of the theater production “Aladdin” and then persuaded her classmates to perform the piece before a packed schoolhouse, announcing to the audience that it was a benefit for victims of the famine in Ethiopia. She again raised a significant sum.

“My dream, even as a kid, was to make a difference in the world,” Wellington said. “I remember being so disturbed by the images of famine. I would just get incredibly saddened by inequality and suffering. I try to say this in interviews now and I think it kind of sounds trite, but I want my legacy to be more than any world record. Being a role model for kids, being quite vocal about development and advocating for charities—it’s not to be a goody two-shoes. It’s not to pull a media stunt. It’s because sport has power and as sports people we have a platform. That’s really my motivational force.”

Early on Matthew Wellington noticed his sister’s desire to make a mark on the world: “She could have been a physicist on the Hadron Collider if she wanted. She could have been a hedge fund manager making 4 million a year. But instead she worked for the government and for an NGO in Nepal.”

Indeed, Wellington’s original plan was to be a lawyer, but a two-year stint traveling abroad opened her eyes to a new world, one in which she felt compelled to champion the underprivileged. She received her master’s degree in development studies from Manchester, then landed a U.K. government job working for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that combined her academic aptitude with her natural public-speaking savvy. While at DEFRA, Wellington represented the U.K. at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, wrote and advised on ministerial speeches for British dignitaries including Prime Minister Tony Blair and DEFRA Secretary of State Margaret Beckett, and spearheaded negotiations for the U.K.’s environmental reconstruction policy in Iraq.

“What’s weird about my life now,” Wellington said, “is I had this whole life beforehand that nobody really knows about. I suppose everyone does—but it’s not like I was Macca [Chris McCormack], growing up dreaming of racing Ironman. I didn’t watch Ironman Hawaii on TV. I didn’t know it existed. I had never heard of it.”

Instead, her intensity and passion were channeled first into academics and then into her professional life. Eventually, this segued into athletics.

“I traveled through Africa, Asia and Australia. In Sydney, I started to feel pretty unhealthy from all the eating and drinking I had done. I remember not wanting to run because I’d go bright red, so I just started walking,” she reminisced. “Then I entered the City to Surf 14K race. I was very nervous; I’d done no training. In my diary I wrote, ‘This is going to be torture. I’m going to go bright red. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish.’ It was 14K. I did it in 1:19 [a little over 9-minute-per-mile pace] and I was exhilarated! So when I got back for grad school I ran and swam to become healthier. Being an obsessive-compulsive person, that grew quite quickly into exercising every day.”

Best mate Flood laughs when she remembers Wellington’s initial foray into running: “She just kept running. It was a bit like Forrest Gump. It wasn’t necessarily healthy. She didn’t have good trainers. Her feet were cut to bits. The blisters were phenomenal. It was really horrible at one point, but she wouldn’t stop running. It was kind of her way of focusing on something.”

Following her time at Manchester, Wellington lived and worked in London, where she ran the London Marathon as a fundraising event and dabbled in short-course triathlon.

Tammy Nelson, a friend with whom Wellington shared an internship selling charity Christmas cards, recalled, “She did the marathon in 2002. She did really well—she came in the top 100 women [83rd, in a time of 3:08:17, to be exact], which was pretty good considering she was just doing it for fun and for charity. It was at that point I realized she must actually be pretty good at sport.”

Disillusioned with high-level government bureaucracy and desiring more hands-on development experience, Wellington took a sabbatical to work in Nepal, where she helped to improve water and sanitation conditions. She also improved her own endurance.

“There’s a town called Pokhara, 200K from Kathmandu [Nepal]. We wanted to go there for New Year’s Eve, so we mountain biked,” she said. “It was me, the Nepali mountain bike champion and a few friends. We set off at 7 in the morning, going and going and going, on these shit roads, carrying our rucksacks. It’s friggin’ not flat. But I would not give in. In the end it was only me and the Nepali mountain bike champ—everyone else got on the bus. We arrived, had a shower and partied all night long. That was quite epic.”

Her brother believes that she found her way into professional triathlon simply because she loved running and riding her bike.

“I reckon some Ironman athletes train from when they’re 12, 13 years old. Christine [he eschews her well-known nickname] was mountain biking through the Himalayas only five or six years ago,” he said. “She didn’t even know she was training for Ironman. If there is ever a film written about Christine, it will be a hybrid of ‘Rocky’ and ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ ‘Rocky’ because from early on she did this without money, without sponsorship, without huge amounts of specific training. Rocky came from nothing and trained in the woods lifting logs, whilst Christine biked across Nepal. And the analogy to the Che Guevara character in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ is her freedom of spirit and her ambition to travel and see the world. And the two connected is brilliant.”

Eventually, the pull of competition proved irresistible, and after winning the overall title at the age-group world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2006, Wellington gave herself a one-year window to succeed as a professional athlete. That was all the time her savings would allow. She sought the guidance of tough-love triathlon coach Brett Sutton, who, through his controversial school-of-hard-knocks approach, helped channel and calm the rookie’s overwrought nature.

“Brett treated me like shit when I arrived. Like absolute shit,” stated Wellington. “He went to great lengths to make me angry. He didn’t pay any attention. He welcomed the fact that all the other girls hated me, because I was a threat. I’ve spoken to Brett since then. He knew I had something special, so the way he approaches that is to not make that person feel special. He put me in a house with five guys and told them to steal my food, throw things, be boorish, turn the music up—just to toughen me up and make me into a friggin’ warrior. But I guess it worked.”

Sutton recognized Wellington’s strengths and weaknesses from the get-go.

“He said to me, ‘Physically, you’ve got what it takes to be a professional. Mentally, I’m going to cut your head off. Unless you get a rein on your mind, you’ll never be a champion.’ And by that he meant my propensity to stress, worry, overthink things, analyze and not relax. I needed to learn how to switch off,” Wellington said.

Sutton is known for being blunt. Effusive praise is hardly his modus operandi, as evidenced by the delivery of three short words following Wellington’s first Kona victory: “Good job, kid.” But he would give his disciple a lasting token that she still counts among her most prized possessions: a now-tattered copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” containing this famous refrain:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

Wellington believes the verse is “about winning and losing, and seeing them both as things that will make you stronger,” she said. “Like when I raced Columbia [the 2009 Columbia Triathlon, where she finished sixth], everyone said, ‘Oh, you had a terrible race.’ But I saw it also as a triumph. I made big mistakes and learned from them. I don’t necessarily see triumph as being synonymous with disaster, but it can be. If you don’t build on success and use it properly and effectively, it can make for disaster. It can foster greed, selfishness and arrogance. Sometimes, for the most successful people, their success is also their downfall.”

While Wellington is obviously uncomfortable resting on the laurels of any triumph, her accomplishments are fueled by a deep-seated fear of victory’s ever-threatening partner, disaster, more so than any natural talent.

“The school results would come out and she’d get A’s in everything, whereas me and my brother would be lucky if we got one between us,” said Tim Williams, Wellington’s cousin and close mate. “I don’t think she was particularly more intelligent—she just learned how to study properly and applied herself, whereas the rest of us would piss about.”

Flood agrees: “Chrissie has loads of insecurities. I think that’s part of the reason why she’s so amazing at what she does. She channels her insecurities. That was definitely true academically. She was really frightened of not being at the top, so she just studied and studied and studied in order to maintain her position.”

Pal Nelson also feels that it’s Wellington’s fear of failure that ultimately empowers her achievements.

“She has exceptionally high standards of herself,” Nelson said. “Not of other people, but of herself. I think her athletic achievements are much more mind than physical strength. Her biggest competition is with herself. If she thought for one minute that she wasn’t doing her absolute best, then that’s what would disturb her much more than someone else beating her.”

Wellington’s failures have been few and far between, though always tough to swallow.

“At the age of 16, Chrissie and a friend took part in a pool lifeguard course. At the end of the course, they took the lifeguard test,” Lin Wellington recalled. “When I collected them from the pool, they both came out with faces like thunder and I knew straight away that they hadn’t passed. On inquiring how they got on, the reply was, ‘We failed.’ I inquired as to the reason and emphasized that they could take the test again, to which Chrissie replied, ‘It’s not the point. I’ve never yet failed anything.’”
While living in Nepal, Wellington befriended accomplished alpinist Billi Bierling, a kindred spirit with a love of all things endurance. The two women rounded up a group of friends for another epic mountain bike adventure, this time an 870-mile trek from Lhasa, Tibet, to Kathmandu.

“There was one day,” Bierling said, “poor Chrissie was so sick with giardia she could not cycle. I thought, ‘Oh my god, Chrissie must be very, very sick indeed,’ because normally she would still have been on her bike even if she was vomiting. But she couldn’t even hold on. She was devastated. She cried. I mean it was one day and maybe 30K, but she was absolutely devastated because it meant she wouldn’t complete the entire 1400K without getting into a vehicle.”

And then there was Kona 2010. If one were to believe the whisperings that overwhelmed the seawall on race morning, Wellington had either (A) cracked under the pressure of the competition, (B) torn her hamstring, (C) tweaked her back, (D) been pregnant, (E) suffered from PMS or (F) been afraid to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs—or any combination therein. In reality, she was simply physically ill. In fact, she was considerably ill, harboring a nasty mix of strep throat, bacterial pneumonia and West Nile virus. While Wellington had been in the spotlight long enough to know that with celebrity comes an unavoidable share of cruel speculation and innuendo, she still took the rumors quite personally.

“I was devastated not to be able to race and realize my potential. But I think quite quickly I was content with the decision I had made—there really wasn’t any other choice. But what was most difficult was how it was perceived by everybody else,” she admitted. “I’d been world champion for three years at that point. Did people really think that I’d have a nervous breakdown? Did anyone truly believe that I didn’t want to get drug-tested? That’s what hurt the most—the fact that even one person had that reaction. This is what I live my life doing. This is why I beast myself every single day—to be on that start line.”

In hindsight, Wellington recognizes the no-win futility of her options that day.

“It’s kind of funny actually,” Wellington said. “I didn’t start the race and I beat myself up. Cat [Catriona Morrison, a close friend of Wellington’s who also felt ill just before race day] started, pulled out for feeling like crap and she beat herself up. Dede [Griesbauer, another close friend] had a subpar race, finished and beat herself up for that. So all three of us opted for different routes yet we all berated ourselves for the decisions we made.”

A moment later she added, “I always wonder, in a race, if I’ve dug as deep as I need to go. When I’m out there I feel like I’m giving it everything, but then I cross the line and I’m not taken off on a stretcher. Part of me wants that. Part of me wants to be like Julie Moss, friggin’ crawling, totally spent. I mean I almost feel—isn’t it insulting to people to see me back at the finish line, laughing and bouncing around like I’ve just walked a 5K? But then the desire to be back at the finish line overrides that thought. But I do wonder, is there something I’m holding back in reserve?”

During her eternal quest for betterment, Wellington does hit some rather humorous stumbling blocks—and they’re not exactly what one might expect in contrast to her otherwise laser focus.

“Although she’s really intelligent, she has some very blonde moments,” confided cousin Tim Wellington. “Some of the simplest things stop her in her tracks. Directions, left and right—that sort of thing. Basic life skills. She’s quite messy. If she had jam on her toast the whole house would be covered in it.”

Younger brother Matthew Wellington will tell you that she can’t drive.

“She crashed my mum’s car more than she drove it,” he said.

But Wellington has no qualms about admitting her faults.

“Oh it’s so true!” said Wellington, laughing. “That’s why they call me Muppet. A muppet in the U.K. is a silly person. They say, ‘Oh, you’re such a muppet.’ I just trip up all the time, or bash my head or walk into a lamppost. I’m very clumsy. I drop food all over the place. I mix up numbers.”

Indeed, Wellington flip-flopped the numbers in her street address, sending me on a wild goose chase prior to our meeting. She also mistakenly told me she wears a size 9 shoe—I had offered to lend her a set of heels for this magazine’s photo shoot. In reality, she wears a size 10.

I planned to lend her the shoes because Wellington is not a woman who owns a pair of pumps. Quite likely, she thinks Manolo Blahnik is some sort of Eastern European dictator. She rarely invests in fashion.

“If you looked in Chrissie’s wardrobe, you’d still find clothes that she had when she was at Manchester,” said Flood. “She’s never been a shopper. That’s not her idea of a treat. It’s a struggle. I got married three years ago and she was very proud of herself because she managed to find a dress for 20 quid [pounds]. I was like, ‘Wow, well done. Thanks.’”

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Wellington said she feels “innately guilty” if she spends money on expensive dresses, adding that she’s always done her shopping at charity shops.

“We went past a shop on Pearl Street in Boulder one day and there was this stunning dress in the window,” Wellington said. “I said to [boyfriend] Tom, ‘Oh, that dress is gorgeous!’ So we went in and looked at the price tag and it was $200. $200!”
She practically ran out of the shop.

While Wellington may not be fashion-focused, like most women, she grapples with body image issues.

“I’ve never been particularly confident in my appearance,” said the woman whose chiseled physique graced ESPN Magazine’s 2010 “The Body” issue and whose glamour shots for this article elicited a resounding, jaw-to-the-floor “Wow!” from the Inside Triathlon staff.

She hardly lacked confidence when she met Lowe, though. The couple originally caught one another’s eye in 2009 at Club La Santa in Lanzarote, where both had traveled to train. A bit of Facebook banter followed after they returned to the U.K., and finally the two met face-to-face at a triathlon industry trade show.

“I kissed Tom. I made the first move!” said Wellington, giggling.

A week later, she was leaving for her first summer season training in Boulder and invited Lowe to her going-away party.

“I didn’t know anyone—I barely even knew Chrissie!” Lowe exclaimed. “There were 40 or 50 people at the bar. I turned up, said hello and then barely spoke to her for the next four hours.”

Wellington says her ideal guy is someone who can fend for himself at a party, and Lowe passed her test.

“It happened that the next day was Valentine’s Day, so we went out for a meal,” Wellington said. “And then the next day my parents were coming down to send me off. I said to Tom, ‘Feel free to say no, but I’m going out to dinner with my mum and dad and brother. Do you want to come?’ And he did. It was all rather condensed.”

The leap from “me” to “we” was not made lightly, however.

“I don’t think I ever felt something was missing, because my life was so full and rich,” Wellington said. “Also, I’m picky. I wasn’t looking for a one-night shag. I wasn’t looking for a casual relationship, and I just didn’t meet anyone that I wanted to be with. And that was fine with me because mediocrity is something I never aspire to in anything. Why settle for Mr. Mediocre if you don’t have to?”

But then along came Lowe, whose even-keeled calm is a perfect balance to Wellington’s inner whirling dervish.

“To cede control and learn to compromise was initially quite scary,” said Wellington. “But with Tom it just works. He makes me a better person. I’m calmer. I’m more considerate. I don’t get as stressed about little things like I used to.”

Something Sutton said a few years back also helped Wellington gain a better grasp on the concept of calm.

“It was just before I raced Alpe d’Huez in 2007. I’d gotten a new bike and I wanted to take the computer off my old one, so I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and started hacking at the zip ties. I just go at things like a bull in a china shop and don’t really think. I’m a very impatient person,” Wellington said.

The knife slipped, slicing the webbing between her thumb and forefinger, resulting in four stitches.

“Brett said, ‘You think these things happen to you by accident. They don’t. They happen because you don’t take control of yourself. You’re not deliberate in your actions.’ Since then, I’ve really tried. I’m not perfect, but I’m better,” Wellington said.
For the record, Wellington went on to win that race, despite the stitched hand, a crash over a road barrier and a punctured tire. The victory jump-started her belief that she might be OK at this long-distance thing.

Three months later, the novice was preparing to race the Ironman World Championship for the first time. But her introduction to triathlon’s holy grail was a far cry from a world-class athletic experience.

“I was sharing a little two-room condo [in Kona] with two other pros, 5 miles out of town up a 20 percent grade. I slept in a room with a Spanish guy I’d never met. I was going to Safeway, carrying my shopping in my rucksack, biking up this climb. It was really suboptimal preparation,” Wellington said, laughing. “My pedal broke two days before the race but I was tight as a duck’s ass with money, so I didn’t want to buy a new pair. I got someone to put it together with industrial glue. At the expo I bought my TYR tankini. It was $70! I borrowed my teammate Rebecca Preston’s shorts. Yeah, I really didn’t look the part. It was surreal. I didn’t know any better.”

Wellington surprised everyone watching the race with her win, though no one more than herself.

“Going in, I wanted top 10,” she confided. “But when I won, I felt that I didn’t deserve it. I thought, ‘What have I done?’ Like, how on earth? This has happened by mistake, the girls have had a bad day, I’m not that strong. Like someone would come along and say, ‘Actually, sorry. April Fools’!’ As I was approaching Ali’i Drive on the run I thought, ‘Why is everyone booing me?’ I heard the cheers, but I also heard booing. I seriously thought they didn’t want me to win.”

In fact, the sound Wellington heard was of conch shells being blown in celebration.

“It’s funny,” said Wellington, “I also remember thinking my hair looked awful. I’ve always hated having my hair pulled starkly back.”

Toward the end of our chat, after talking about her countless accomplishments and countable failures, I asked Wellington if she considers herself a confident person now.

“No, not supremely,” she said, her voice trailing off into the late evening hour. “No more and no less than anybody else. I guess I’m becoming more so. But confidence is acceptable to me, arrogance is not, and I think it can be a fine line. If I were ever to be called arrogant that would be deeply concerning to me. A feeling of superiority would be my own undoing. It would breed complacency. I’m continuously surprised by what I achieve. I think that in itself is indicative of the fact that I’m not overly confident. I’m fully aware—almost too aware—of my own weaknesses.

“I do think being with Tom has made me more confident and more comfortable,” she continued.  “And what I’ve achieved gives me confidence, but just because I’ve won Ironman races and got world records and stuff—I don’t know, it’s quite hard to articulate actually. I want to be happy with me as a person. Whether I do 8:18 or eventually break eight hours or go 10 hours in an Ironman, for that matter, that’s not going to make me any less or any more of a person. I need to be confident not based solely on what I achieve on the pitch, because it’s not going to change the soul of who I am.”

While “If” at times remains a question for Wellington—if she will attain her own personal best, in every direction her passions drive her—to those who know her well the only question is what comes next.

“I want to set Christine my own challenge,” Matthew Wellington declared. “I want her to become the chess champion of the world. And I reckon in six months she’ll do it.”

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