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Behind The Photo: Tim O’Donnell Takes Off

American triathlete Tim O'Donnell burst onto the long-course racing scene after a top-10 finish in Kona in 2012. We take a behind-the-scenes look at a unique photo that sums up his breakout year in 2013.

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Tim O’Donnell’s path to long-course success is unconventional by most standards. After graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 2003 with a degree in Naval Architecture, O’Donnell split his Naval service with sports, racing in the ITU series and racking up a series of to- ten finishes while being named to the U.S. national triathlon team. In 2009, O’Donnell had his first breakthrough when he won the ITU long distance triathlon world championships in Perth. The finish was a sign of things to come, and O’Donnell rededicated himself to long-course racing and in 2012 transitioned from the Navy to full-time triathlon training. The change paid off with an eighth-place finish at Ironman world championships in 2012, but the best was yet to come.

In 2013, O’Donnell finally took off. At Ironman Brazil, he won the race by almost 20 minutes, broke the course record, and walked away tying the fastest mark ever by an American at an Ironman. Later that year, O’Donnell would not only take top American honors in Kona with a fifth-place finish, but he would also marry his wife, Mirinda Carfrae—who would win her second Ironman world championship in that eventful year.

From there, O’Donnell would go on to race his way onto the podium at Kona in 2015 and also be named top non-drafting triathlete of the year by USA Triathlon, and begin an ascent to the upper echelon of American long-course royalty.

Needless to say, 2013 was a huge year for O’Donnell, and nothing exemplifies his rise in the sport from that moment more than this shot from veteran triathlon photographer Paul Philips.

The Moment

With a distinct mixture of creative location scouting, art, and photography black magic, Phillips captures O’Donnell on the deck of the decommissioned USS Midway in the San Diego harbor on April 1, 2013—as a seemingly prophetic moment before O’Donnell’s breakthrough year.

Photo: Paul Phillips

The Photographer

Paul Phillips is a veteran sports photographer who has been shooting professionally since 2002. He’s photographed two Olympics, over 200 Ironman events, and even the iconic Isle of Man motorcycle event—one of the few American photographers to do so. With such a rich background, Phillips still chose this image of Tim O’Donnell as one of his favorites from his career in tri.

Related: Take Better Action Photos With Paul Phillips

Phillips describes the unusual shoot in his own words:

“I knew Tim O’Donnell was an Annapolis grad and was a multiple winner of the Armed Forces Triathlon, it seemed logical ‘borrow’ an aircraft carrier, so I did. Today, the USS Midway is a museum in San Diego Harbor. I called and asked if I could do the shoot there. It was the Monday after Oceanside 70.3. The Museum director was kind enough to close to the public a bit early and make his staff available to move things around for us.

“I used a Canon 1Dx DSLR camera, which at the time was the state of the art, which I received shortly before shooting the 2012 London Olympics. This was purely a personal project to show a fun and different way to look at a few top triathletes. Similar for the Desert Transition and the drag strip shots. I had no specific client or assignment since I did not want any outside direction. My inspiration was just like most other shots: How can I show the viewer something they won’t be able to see watching an event? Sometimes, that is a low angle, sometimes a fisheye lens and here is was borrowing an aircraft carrier.

“The guy on the deck pointing is actually a steel statue and is called the ‘Shooter.’ He is the one that gives the pilots the signal to take off. If you have been to the Midway, you know that standing on the deck, you can see rows of high rise residential buildings along the coast. The beautiful, lightly clouded sky was photoshopped in – remember this is art, not news!”

Phillips shoots the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race back in 2017. Photo: David Traynor

The Athlete

O’Donnell would see his triathlon career take off in the years following that foreshadowing image with multiple top ten finishes at Kona, multiple 70.3 wins, and a sub 8-hour Ironman time at Ironman Brazil in 2015.

O’Donnell looks back at the photo and remembers that pivotal time:

“This picture takes me back to that time of life when everything was so exciting. I was just getting my feet underneath me with Ironman racing. I even get a kick out of seeing my old equipment.

“This shoot was a long time ago, eight years ago. I do remember it being a lot of fun. It’s always interesting carrying a bike through a ship and small little hatches and stuff like that. The one thing I remember most was the surface—riding on the surface of that carrier, on the flight deck. There’s a lot of tie-downs and a lot of other things that are on a flight deck that you don’t want to ride over. It was a little bit of ‘heads up,’ making sure I had a good line while I was riding.

“2013 obviously was a breakout year for me in Ironman. I won IM Brazil, set the course record, later in the year was fifth in Kona when Rinniy won her second title. We also got married that year. I definitely fond memories of that year.

Tim O'Donnell embraces his wife, Mirinda Carfrae, after her Ironman World Championship win in 2013. Photo: Nils Nilsen/Ironman

“I went into the United States Naval Academy in 1999 and graduated from Annapolis in 2003—majoring in naval architecture, service selected explosive ordinance disposal, special operations. I was stationed in San Diego at EOD Group 1, so doing the shoot in San Diego was a little bit like going to a big old home base.”