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Melissa Hauschildt (formerly Rollison) came out of nowhere, it seemed, to storm through an undefeated 2011 season capped by her win at the 70.3 world championship. The Aussie set a course record wherever she raced, prompting the common question: Who’s the new girl? Senior tech editor Aaron Hersh set about answering that very question.
Melissa Hauschildt sits at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon press conference with her forearms tucked between her knees. Next to the Aussie are the athletes who have been competing at triathlon’s most prestigious championships for years—Julie Dibens, Leanda Cave, Caroline Steffen. Rollison looks diminutive, almost mousy, next to the strong-women of triathlon.
When the questions start to fire, the other pro women respond about one another. They know their longtime rivals’ capabilities and limitations, and what it takes to defeat each other. The only person they don’t know how to beat over 70.3 miles is Hauschildt. She is the wild card, and no one seems to know what to make of her. How can a person who started swimming and cycling a mere 18 months earlier be sharing the same stage, let alone dominating them at the half-iron distance?
The other women aren’t dismissive of Hauschildt, just perhaps a little skeptical. Hauschildt was an elite-level runner, but her face, lacking the wrinkles caused by so many hours of sun-scorched riding, reveals that she is new to triathlon. She trains like the rest of the women; Hauschildt just hasn’t been doing it for nearly as many years. In fact, her first triathlon was in 2010. Just 12 months later, she capped an undefeated season by winning the Ironman World Championship 70.3. Only Chrissie Wellington’s ascent from first-timer to world champ resembles Hauschildt’s. Unlike Wellington, however, Hauschildt didn’t stumble upon her uncanny endurance talent. She competed as a world-class distance runner for a decade, but a series of injuries kept her out of contention for the Australian team selected for the Sydney and Beijing Olympic Games.
“She could have been in the Olympics this year if she wanted to,” says Nic Bideau, the coach who guided Hauschildt through some of her most successful years as a runner, and some rough years as well. “It’s sad that someone of her ability and toughness isn’t competing in the Olympic Games.” Disappointment on the track, however, wasn’t the only thing that forced Hauschildt out of the sport she loved.
“Toward the end of running I had coaches [including Olympic gold medalist Said Aouita] who put me through hell,” says Hauschildt. “Just mentally, physically abused me. Trained me into the ground. Just told me I was shit and couldn’t run … and then would flip and say, ‘You’re the best in the world,’ so you stick around. It wasn’t fun, so I didn’t want to go back.”
She stopped running and started a massage business.
Despite her painful separation from running, the love of endurance sports didn’t leave Hauschildt. With a little encouraging from her former manager Phil Stoneman, himself a recreational Ironman triathlete and cyclist, she bought a bike in 2009 and started riding with the Wynnum Redlands Cycling Club, based in her hometown of Brisbane. Almost immediately she was keeping up with the fastest male racers. They wanted to know how she was so fit, but Hauschildt kept her athletic pedigree to herself. After witnessing her talent on their weekly Saturday group ride, Stoneman pressed Hauschildt to take up triathlon. She initially resisted—running and now cycling were not a problem, but she’d never swum regularly, much less competitively.
Yet quitting track and field without accomplishing her goals left Hauschildt with the feeling she had “unfinished business” as an athlete. So after enough pestering, she relented and started to swim in early 2010. She had the same problems as every novice adult swimmer: “11-year-old kids would slide past me,” she says. But Hauschildt’s aerobic engine and her determination are different than your everyday Masters participant. Bideau speaks from experience when he says, “She’s just so mentally tough. You can never count her out.”
Her swim improved rapidly. She raced her first triathlon in September 2010, a small Olympic-distance race in Kingscliff, New Zealand—and won. Then she entered the Gold Coast Half Ironman and won. That’s when Hauschildt knew she could make it as a pro triathlete. “I still don’t think I have talent,” she says, holding fast to the classic runner’s fantasy that success comes purely through dominating willpower. Winning the Gold Coast Half Ironman convinced Hauschildt that the same traits that brought her so close to the pinnacle of running also translate to success in triathlon.
Even those results didn’t foreshadow just how good Hauschildt really is. In her first trip to the States she won four 70.3s in three months, including the world championship, and set course records in every one of them. She summed up her first full season succinctly: “I won all my races then won world champs, so there wasn’t much more.” She was finally able to live as a professional athlete without worrying about money, “which is what she’s always wanted to do,” says Bideau.
Despite her lack of experience in the sport, she has made it this far without input from any triathlon pundits. She designs her own training plan with help from her husband, Jared, a runner who completed his first triathlon this July. In fact, neither has even seen a triathlon program. “[And we] don’t want any,” she says. Instead of building on the ideas of established coaches, Hauschildt’s training plan simply merges the foundation of her former running schedule with the training plan she used in her brief stint as a bike racer and the Masters workouts in Brisbane and Colorado, her base in America.
During her undefeated 2011 season, she lived and trained in Boulder, Colo., along with just about every other world-class long-course triathlete, and went on a few long rides with the other big-name pros—Craig Alexander, Julie Dibens, Mirinda Carfrae—but kept to herself for the most part. Many of the marquee athletes swim together in the 25-yard pool at the Flatirons Athletic Club, but Hauschildt instead chose Scott Carpenter Pool, a sparsely used 50m public facility, despite occasionally having to fight through the wash of a waterslide. “Can’t stand 25 [yard] pools,” she says. “I don’t know how to tumble turn—it frustrates me.” Hauschildt is still a newbie, after all.
She races according to a simple tactic: full gas from start to finish. This strategy works impeccably well for her at the 70.3 distance, and earned her fourth place at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon earlier this year, a result Hauschildt was happy with. A rolled ankle limited her run training leading to the event, so the fleet-footed runner knew that she wouldn’t be able to blast through the field off the bike. After losing time on the swim, she chased the faster swimmers for hours and eventually caught the leaders 75 miles into the 125-mile bike leg. The other four athletes rode with the smallest legal gaps between each other while sharing the pacing duties and benefiting from a slight draft. Hauschildt dangled far enough behind to miss any potential energy savings. When the attacks started to come in the lead group, she was unable to respond and came into T2 trailing the front pack. Her fourth-place finish was a valiant effort, but it proved that Hauschildt is beatable, at least over longer distances, and that she can still improve so much by learning more about the sport.
The fruits of Hauschildt’s 2011 breakout season give her security to train and race without worry, which ironically amplifies the biggest threat to her sophomore season and beyond: injuries. For Hauschildt’s career arc to mimic Wellington’s, she has to stay injury-free.
Her triathlon résumé is already filled with results most pros hope to attain after toiling away for a decade, but this is just the start for the quiet yet self-assured Aussie. The same hunger for success that enabled Hauschildt to excel on the track and in her nascent triathlon career increases the risk that injury will follow her into multisport, particularly without a coach to put her unbridled desire in check. “By nature she’s very aggressive,” says Bideau, and it is up to Hauschildt to harness that aggression without breaking down. Her plan in March was to recon the Ironman World Championship in October and retrace another of Wellington’s footsteps in 2013, but the allure of the Big Island nearly enticed her to start earlier. Despite nursing a stress fracture in her fibula, Hauschildt signed up for Ironman Cairns with the intention of walking the marathon. As the defending 70.3 world champion, she only needed to cross the finish line to punch her ticket to Hawaii. Concern for an old hamstring injury and blisters from her fibular support (“I can’t walk in an air cast for more than 10 minutes without getting blisters”) eventually won out, and Hauschildt decided to focus solely on races 70.3 and shorter in 2012.
Hauschildt has proven she possesses the physical capacity to beat the very best. Now she just has to stay healthy and keep the momentum while bridling the determination that nearly led her to start an Ironman with a stress fracture.
Just how fast a runner is she?
» 15:55 5K PR
» 5-time Australian 3,000m steeplechase champion
» World Cross Country team bronze medalist
» Commonwealth Games 3,000m steeplechase silver medalist
Reinventing the wheel
» Hauschildt blends the structure she used as a single-sport athlete, both cyclist and runner, and plugs swim sessions into that framework.
Her typical mid-season training week:
Monday: Swim and gym work
Tuesday: Easy swim, easy ride and hard run
Wednesday: Hard hill ride with a run off the bike, easy swim
Thursday: Hard swim and easy run
Friday: Hard ride with a hard run off the bike, easy swim
Saturday: Long ride with short brick run
Sunday: Recovery ride, long run
She adjusts that basic structure “by feel” to get the most out of her workouts. “At the start of the week I’m always changing something,” says Hauschildt. “If I’m too tired I won’t do [a certain workout] or if I’m feeling good I’ll add something; it changes a lot.” She doesn’t track total training hours, but swims 12 miles, rides 375 miles and runs 38 miles in a typical week.