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Will it be London or Kona for Chris McCormack in 2012? Inside Triathlon editor-in-chief Courtney Baird caught up with the two-time Ironman world champ to find out where he stands.
Triathlete.com: You’ve finished three ITU races so far this year already, including the Oceania Championships this past weekend. Could you give us an idea of how you think they went for you?
Chris McCormack: I think I have raced exceptionally well. My first sprint distance race in 12 years was in New Zealand, and I had a solid sixth. Then the following week I almost won the Australian Sprint title (a penalty cost me in the end) and then last week in Devonport, I showed I can race as a team player and sat back with the Kiwis to ensure an Australia win in Devonport. My kickoff has been really solid I think. You know I am back running fast, but I have left myself a tight schedule of eight months to pull this dream off. I am very close, I think. This draft legal racing is very different, so trying to follow results is not always the key. Australia went into Devonport with a team agenda and we played that. I was under strict instructions to ensure that we kept the fast runners from New Zealand in the second group. I was always going to be in this group but was not allowed to work. We ended up losing 3 minutes on the bike (this was a success because we kept Ryan Sissons from victory in Devonport), but it left me out of the picture. I cruised the run but had one of the fastest 5 runs of the day. It was a positive race for me, and I think more than anything it showed that, come Olympic time, if I am called upon I am happy to play a team tactic to ensure Australian success. I have said from the beginning that going to the Olympics is a massive ask and a huge undertaking. On this journey though, I have met many within the new wave of athletes and it has driven and given me great motivation. To be a part of an Australian Olympic team that is its most successful ever at an Olympics would be a dream. The Australians have the arsenal to pull something off. I have enjoyed every moment and would enjoy going all the way through to August as part of it. I have lots more improvement I can make between now and then. I think right now Brendan Sexton should be picked for our Team. Along with Brad [Kahlefeldt], we have the arsenal on foot to grab medals. The rest of us are very similar in our strengths (different in different areas). Australia’s selection policy is discretionary, so it is not a matter of picking the best of the rest. It may come down to just how we can be as teammates and what best gives us a chance for success in London. I have to say I have enjoyed everything, the process, the training and meeting all the guys. I am happy with how I have progressed and still think we have more to come. Loving it at the moment. It is tough racing!
Triathlete.com: What’s next for you on your racing calendar?
Macca: I have the Mooloolaba World Cup next weekend, then I am racing the Lavaman Triathlon (I do this to support Team in Training every year, as it is a wonderful event), before doing the Sydney round of the World Triathlon Series. I am hoping Australia can give us some indication as to Olympic selection by then, as for many athletes it will give us time to focus on our seasons. The worst thing they could possibly do is a late selection. It would be a huge mistake. San Diego [the World Triathlon Series] might be on the cards, but I would be hoping this would only be necessary to secure the three spots for the country. I have a double season plan for the year. One has the Olympics in it and the other is a non-Olympic year. Regardless, I think I will go to London and support the Aussies. I feel like I have come on this journey with many of them, so being there to support would be fun. As I said when I started this journey, if I am not selected, I will return to what I do best, Ironman racing! We have a lot of new challenges this year and sinking my teeth into some of them would be a very enjoyable end of year. So much to look at. It is really exciting times in the sport right now.
Triathlete.com: How has your training been coming along? Have you been able to avoid injury?
Macca: Training has been great. I’m still learning how to keep my form open as this has changed since my early days. I seem to be able to flatten myself a lot easier with too much intensity nowadays, and this was much different than years before. We are learning so much right now. It is time that has been the biggest issue for us. I do wish we gave ourselves a little more time, as I think we are really starting to understand my boundaries in this style of work and this gives us more consistency. I think I flattened myself last week with some solid work and picked up a bug. It is just trying to get your mix right and understanding what works for you and how you can nail that race day performance. I was exceptional as a younger athlete at doing this, but we had our systems down. We tried to work closely with these in the comeback, but the body responds very differently now to that workload, and I am coming at it from a different angle than what I was back then. When I nail my performances right in training I am right there—some of the track sessions I have done were as good as I was doing 15 years ago. Some of my bike sets are even better than I was doing 12 years ago. My swim is still coming along, but despite what people think it is not a major concern for me. I know if I am back in Aix-les-Bains, France [where the Australians host their national training camps in Europe], with the Australian guys I can get that right where it needs to be. Right now my focus is on the run and bike. I have avoided injury, am feeling strong, am lean and learning. This racing is so different to the Ironman stuff. The draft legal component changes things massively. You have to work out and think of your strengths in a very different way to what you would in a non-drafting style. Training is fun, enjoyable and getting better. I love it!
Triathlete.com: Right now Australia has three Olympic spots for its men’s team, but a lot can change by the World Triathlon Series race in Madrid, when the final spots will be decided. That being said, what do you think Australia’s chances are of sending 3 men to London?
Macca: I think we have a good shot at it. The issue we have right now is that we were hoping after Devonport to lock that third spot away with a win from anyone except Brendan Sexton. (If you understand this Olympic points thing you would understand what our objectives were this day and why it had to go a certain way versus the Kiwis.) So this did not happen, which has left us a little exposed now. I think we will get the three spots. It is just now we have to continue to race through until Madrid to secure it. This is not the best, that’s for sure, as we want to send a fresh team to London. In a perfect world we should select Brendan and Brad [Kahlefeldt] right now and then look at qualifying that third spot by racing the boys who are left. We were all under the assumption that the team would be picked after the Sydney round of the World Triathlon Series. This would enable to the team to focus on the job at hand and plan what we need to do as a team to secure those three spots, and also taking in mind that the key objective is success in London, not necessarily three spots. Australia is a tough country and we have some seriously hot young talent. In my opinion the future years for Australia will be solid. With some focus, some experience and some more strength our team going towards Rio [The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics] will be exceptional. Kids like Aaron Royle, Cameron Good, Brendan Sexton, Peter Kerr, Mitch Robins, Huggy [Jamie Huggett], etc. are big talents. We need to nurture them, race them and build their confidence. From what I have seen from these guys, they are truly capable athletes. The Australian season restricts them a little nowadays and if they lack anything it’s a little bit of racing smarts and experience. This will come, and we have lots to grow from. Right now we can use these guys to help on our points hunt to securing those three spots.
Triathlete.com: More importantly, what do you think your chances are of being on Australia’s Olympic team?
Macca: Look, this is entirely up to the selectors. I come with many strengths, but I also have my weaknesses. I think the greatest obstacle I have had to face in this journey is, firstly, trying to meet the eligibility for selection, then readapting as an athlete in a very short period of time. It has only been 8 months. I have come a long way and by August I think I could continue to make those adaptations. We know one thing: we have come a long way, and to be honest, we have been ok. This style of racing is so different—it is a matter of sticking to the program, keeping your head down and continuing to march on. You can be in exceptional form and finish 10th one week and win the next. It is the closeness of this style of racing that makes it so difficult. The drafting is a game changer. This being said, our Olympic selection is entirely discretionary and the selectors will pick a team that they think presents them with the best options for Olympic success. The discretionary selection can be tough, but it gives them options. A team approach may be something they are looking at, or ensuring that the race plays out a certain way to ensure our best chances at success. I think my chances are pretty good, and I started this journey with the same feeling. I have learned a lot along the way, and the Australian team and coaches have seen a lot both on the race course and off it, and I think that is a positive. You just never know. I say this seriously: I want the best team to go to these Games, because the fact that Australian men, in our dominance in this sport over the years, do not own a single Olympic medal, is a tragedy. To be a part of a team that rectifies this hiccup would be enjoyable. I have faith in our boys down here. I think (despite what the world may think) that we have a good shot at medals if we are prepared and race to our capabilities.
Triathlete.com: If you don’t qualify for the Olympics this year, what will your plans be to finish out the year?
Macca: I will go back to the long course races. I have missed this racing, that’s for sure. The WTC is changing so rapidly and we have so many options now in the world of long course racing. I will look at focusing on a campaign that may see me do a couple of Ironmans this season and a solid assault at a world championship. I would love to capitalize on this speed and add the bike miles back into the mix. I miss the long miles, training with the boys and being in the action with the guys I am used to racing. Ironman racing is my racing. It’s a thinker’s game, a strong man’s game and age is no barrier. With Lance [Armstrong] now in the mix, it makes for exciting planning and potential races. But expect to see me back on the USA racing circuit. I really miss it, I must admit. It has been hard to watch from the sidelines.
Triathlete.com: If you do qualify for the Olympics, what will that mean for you as an athlete?
Macca: I have been asked this question a lot. Will I feel any better or worse as an athlete, a person? I can honestly say it will not define me. I had really given up on this dream of being an Olympian in 2004, when I began my chase of Ironman glory. I feel in love with Ironman racing, and Ironman Hawaii became a puzzle of mine that really engulfed everything I did in my life. The choice had to be made back then whether I wanted Olympic success or Ironman success, and I made that decision. [Editor’s note: many people believe that if McCormack had gone after the Olympics in 2004, he likely would have been the gold medalist, as the Athens course was an extremely hilly strongman’s course.] Now it seems that this opportunity to go to an Olympics came up right at the later stages of my career, and I jumped at it. It is a solid opportunity, and I decided to take the chance and go for it. In my career I have always gone after the things I have wanted. People have told me I need to do this event or that event or winning this world title would mean that I could have five, six or seven world championships. But for me it was never about accumulating worthless titles in my head or banging my chest saying, “Look how good I am.” To me, I wanted to be inspired, I wanted to win, and I loved the entire process of preparation for events that this sport enabled me to feed. Things had to mean something to me. Every race I have ever won or done, I have done for a reason. Many of them grew out of my childhood fantasies of events I wanted to be successful in. I really achieved that in my sport, on a personal level, and draw a lot of energy and satisfaction out of the fact that I was always true to that in my own head. Things change over the years, but it is where you derive your own motivation and inspiration from that that ultimately pushes you in a direction. The Olympics and this entire journey, I do both for myself and my family. I want to show my girls and my family that the conventional road or the road that is expected of you is not the way you have to travel. It would have been easy for me to stay in Ironman and continue to win these events around the world. I was at the top of the game. World champion again! Why would you leave? But the Olympics was a huge challenge and something that means a lot to me. By chasing this dream I have shown my girls that it takes courage and commitment to try—and by not trying, you have actually failed. I think when I decided to go to the Olympics, I must have had about 15 percent of people think that it was possible. Now we sit at about 50 percent—if I make it you will see all the people come out and say, “Hey, we knew you could do it.” For me, it will be about looking at my kids and saying, “We did it. We were up against it, and we did it.” That’s what it will mean to me as an athlete and that’s what it will mean to me as a man and a father. Chase your dreams and don’t be defined by other people’s expectations. I want to lead by example in my household and be this type of role model to my kids and to others. I will be very proud of myself. I will wear the Australian green and gold with pride and enjoy sharing this very unique journey with people who care.
Triathlete.com: Now that you’ve spent more than a year on this Olympic campaign, can you give us your thoughts on what you’ve learned from it, and how you’ve grown from it as an athlete?
Macca: Look, these kids are exceptional athletes. It is funny crossing over between the two styles. You hear the Ironman guys saying that ITU is easy because it is just a draft legal, swim and run race. And I hear the ITU guys saying Ironman is easy because you just have to go at an easy pace for a long time. Funny thing is, none of them talk from any experience. This transition for me has given me the right to make an educated and informed call on this topic in real time. Both styles of athletes are off the charts exceptional and specialists in what they do. I can assure you, those ITU guys that think they are going to walk over to Ironman and dominate, the invitation is wide open. Please come!!!!! It will not be as easy as you think. Only three ITU converts have ever been able to do it. Even the greatest, Simon Lessing, failed miserably. It is a tough, tough game! And to those Ironman guys who think this ITU stuff is a walk in the park, you have no idea. These guys are absolutely off the charts impressive in the water, ride what they have to do to position themselves in the race, and are running sub 29:30 10K splits on courses with dead turns and accelerations and decelerations. It is incredible racing and mentally very tough. You’re in the race for so much longer because the drafting keeps you in the picture, then you watch your dreams evaporate because of 15 seconds. It’s cruel in a different way to Ironman, and it’s a much different intensity and style of racing than a decade ago. But to say one is harder than the other is like asking what is tougher, the mile or the marathon. They are specialist events done by specialist athletes. The hybrid triathletes of the late ’80s and early ’90s are gone. The sport has moved too far now and this is simply not possible.
For me as an athlete I think I have enjoyed most being around the youth. Ironman is a game for older guys and the migration of success in Ironman racing is by boys into their 30s and lately by athletes in their late 30s and early 40s. It is a game of guts and strength and suffering, and this actually increases as you age. The ITU is a young man’s sport. Speed, reaction time, remaining injury free. The older guys are in their mid to late 20s, but the majority of the field is early 20s and some in their teens. You can see the passion and the pure racing desire. You can see the dreams and the hopes and the insecurities. I remember that! I think I have enjoyed that the most. Getting to know many of these guys and appreciating the fact that despite being relatively unknown as triathletes to the sport, as athletes they are exceptional. I think every athlete to some degree has a desire to be respected by their peers, and you can see that amongst these kids. I would like to get more heavily involved in this side of the sport in a few years. Working with these athletes in their pursuit of sporting excellence is something I would enjoy and feel very passionate about. I have taken that role a lot over this past 12 months with athletes from multiple nations. It is something I like to do naturally. I have taken a lot from them and have enjoyed being a small part of it. I don’t think many of these guys will appreciate my return to this style of racing until they are 38. I remember when I was winning the ITU World Cup events in the 1990s and the Great Rob Barel returned to ITU to chase Olympic glory. I remember looking at him as an athlete at that moment in time and not understanding where he had come from, what he had achieved, what he was up against (the sport had just changed to draft legal racing and he was off the charts strong on the bike) or his strengths. He was one of the greatest athletes to do our sport, and I appreciated that, but I wasn’t racing Rob Barel at his peak or in his style of racing that saw him dominate events around Europe. I was racing Rob Barel who was on a mission to achieve a personal goal at the end of his career in a sport that was so different to what he grew up in and raced. I never thought about it like this and never appreciated it! The man was 42 years of age and went to the Sydney Olympics. I never appreciated this until now, as I have lived it. I have been 10 years out of ITU racing. It is a new game. My last event was the Commonwealth Games representing Australia in Manchester, England, in 2002. It’s just a different era, I am a different athlete and went down a different road. Returning is tough!
Triathlete.com: Finally, what are your thoughts on Challenge Cairns now being an Ironman event? What does that mean for you in terms of the possibilities for your 2012 season, given that you will validate your Kona spot by racing it?
Macca: Ironman Cairns is cool. I signed to race three years here and am looking forward to it. What it does do is validate my Kona spot for the year and give me options. I am happy about it. We have not looked past June right now, but to qualify for Kona so early gives me that option if I wish to take it. If Lance qualifies in France in July, this could get interesting and motivating. My season plan will be something I discuss with my team and my family. We do know one thing, when I return to Ironman, it will be where we left. We wouldn’t want it any other way!