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A Case for Smack Talk

Triathlon needs a few more rivalries and a little more good-natured build-up.

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My favorite part of last year’s Collins Cup was not seeing Taylor Knibb annihilate the competition on a road bike. It wasn’t Lionel Sanders’ thrilling comeback win after a mid-race bike crash. No, my favorite part of the Collins Cup was in the week leading up to the race, when world champ Jan Frodeno playfully threw a life raft into competitor Sam Long’s lane during a shakeout swim. It was hilarious, and I loved everything about it.

(Photo: The Collins Cup)

Smack talk is what makes the sports world go ‘round. If it wasn’t for Paula Newby-Fraser and Erin Baker’s vocal rivalry, we’d still think it was impossible for women to run the Ironman marathon without stopping. Chris “Macca” McCormack’s jawing spurred athletes like Craig “Crowie” Alexander to work harder to build a legacy that eclipsed Macca’s. Today, Sam Long and Lionel Sanders talk a big game and back it up with big performances. (They also hug it out at the finish line and make it a point to give each other kudos in post-race interviews. That’s what we do in triathlon.)

After my first-ever endurance race—a local 5K, which seemed big and scary at the time—I proudly texted my best friend, Carlos. He was an Ironman triathlete who had inspired me to take up running, and I knew he’d be proud of my accomplishment. A few seconds after firing off my finishing time in a text, my phone buzzed with a reply:

45 minutes? What did you do, skip?

If you’re new to the sport, like I was at the time, you might be gasping with offense at the callousness of the response. If you’ve been around for a while, like I am now, you’re probably doing a little snorty-laugh (you know the one). Busting chops is as much a part of triathlon as spandex onesies and squishy foods in foil packages. Spend enough time around triathletes, and you come to realize it’s a veritable love language. Carlos followed up his message with another one, letting me know we’d be meeting for coffee in the following days to discuss the next steps for my training—how to get faster, go farther, and eventually become an Ironman triathlete just like him. (Before that eventual Ironman race, he taped a note to my bike with his excellent, albeit blunt, advice for getting to the finish line: “Eat often. Pace yourself. And for f*ck’s sake, don’t be a dumbass.”)

In a sport where athletes often take themselves far too seriously, smack talk is the thing that reminds us all that at the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of people gallivanting in spandex. This sport of ours can be a worthwhile and life-changing pursuit, for sure, but it’s still just a sport. We’re not curing cancer or saving the planet from global warming; most of us are simply riding a bike for a piece of tin and a free banana at the finish line. We’re allowed to have some fun along the way.

Smack talk is also the thing that pushes us to do more and be better. That text message from Carlos was also his way of saying “I believe in you.” Age-group athletes everywhere know that dropping a sly smile and a well-timed “See if you can keep up with me today” on the group ride will (usually) motivate the recipient to work a little harder to see if they, in fact, can actually keep up.

When it comes to the pros, smack talk also makes the sport much more interesting. Yes, they’re all amazing athletes, but, as is often said, it’s hard to get excited about people exercising unless we’re a little bit invested in those people and in which of them is a better exerciser. When Holly Lawrence throws shade on Instagram (we see you, Holly), we make a mental note to tune into her next race, because the odds are pretty good that something worth watching is probably going to happen. And I’m 99% sure the “Norwegian Hype Train” online pseudo-feud happening right now is going to lead to some awe-inspiring performances at Ironman St. George. (I also really, really want a t-shirt that says “Norwegian Hype Train.”)

Of course, there are a few ground rules we should all agree to follow. Cruelty isn’t cool, nor are personal attacks. We shouldn’t “punch down,” as they say in comedy, and a joke should be designed to laugh with, not at a person (there’s a big difference, and it took me most of my 20s and a number of cringe-worthy gaffes to truly understand that). Frodeno throwing a life raft at a friend and fellow pro (who often pokes fun at his own swimming) is funny; doing the same to a beginner triathlete who clearly feels self-conscious about learning to swim, not so much.

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that there’s a lot less smack talk among the women’s pro field. That’s not because they’re not as funny as the men. In real life, they’re brutally funny. But we could probably do without some of the unspoken rules in our society that say female athletes can’t (or shouldn’t) dish it out, too.

I’m not saying we should be mean—there’s certainly enough of that in the world these days. But we don’t have to be so serious, either. Smack talk is good for the sport, and I, for one, want to see more of it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see some Norwegians about a t-shirt.

‘A Case For’ is our new column making a case for something in triathlon. Want to make your own case? Email letters@triathlete.com.