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Courtney Atkinson Going For Second Olympic Berth

Atkinson talks Olympics, the non-drafting circuit and Chris McCormack.

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Australian Courtney Atkinson was a consistent podium finisher on the World Triathlon Series in 2010 before taking most of 2011 off due to injury. Now he’s back and ready to race. Inside Triathlon editor-in-chief Courtney Baird caught up with Atkinson after he raced the Mooloolaba World Cup to see how his form is coming along.

Triathlete.com: Hey Courtney. Can you give us an idea of how the Mooloolaba World Cup went this weekend and where you think your fitness is right now?

Courtney Atkinson: The Mooloolaba World Cup went pretty much as my training indicated. I am swimming and riding quiet strong at the moment and my running is very tired. I knew this before starting the race, so I wasn’t expecting anything more than a hit-out. Mooloolaba is my home ITU World Cup that I get to drive a car to for the weekend. My sponsors and supporters are up there, and USM events always puts on a memorable event.

Triathlete.com: What are your goals for 2012, and how do the Olympics play into those goals?

CA: Obviously, the Olympics is the big goal, but for the moment I will have to just wait to see how this pans out. [Editor’s note: Triathlon Australia has selected Brad Kahlefeldt for the Olympic team, and Atkinson is on the short list of possible candidates for what is likely to be the remaining two spots.]

What I am very excited about is I am finally—after so many years doing this sport—going to come to the U.S. to base myself this year and race some of the non-drafting Olympic-distance races I have always wanted to do and maybe even step up in distance for a try. I have always believed 70.3 will suit my strengths more than the two-hour event, but we will just wait to see how the year pans out. It’s a very exciting 2012 ahead, either way.

Triathlete.com: How are you feeling about your chances for qualifying for London this year, as there are likely going to be two more spots for the Australian men?

CA: It’s all very interesting. In a weird way I hold the key, as I am the third position in Olympic Ranking points for Australia. If I were to drop ranking that would leave Australia with only two men’s spots like at the Beijing Games.

From a performance point of view I believe my World Championship series history holds me as a strong contender. I have had multiple podiums in World Championship Series races in the Australian selection period (some of those very close finishes against some of the best guys going around—Olympic champ Jan Frodeno and Alistair Brownlee). Only one other Australian male has podiumed at the WCS level. And further more I think Erin Densham showed best on the weekend in Mooloolaba that ITU triathlon performances are unpredictable, but if you have been there before and performed at the required level it is more likely you can repeat perform when compared to an athlete who has never been at the front of major races at the finish line. [Editor’s note: Densham was the women’s winner in Mooloolaba over the weekend—it marked a comeback after her heart surgery in 2009.]

Finally, I’ve heard talk of team tactics within the Australian men’s team. At worse case scenario, if I couldn’t be in running form to be a medal contender come July, I reckon my swim and bike combination would be highly sought after. I really don’t think Triathlon Australia would be interested in using team players anyhow, but if they did I can’t see there being much good in taking a team member into the race to work for the team on the bike unless they could assure they are right up front in the swim to be able to cover all options. I would suggest this would be the case with any country considering these tactics.

Triathlete.com: You had an off year last year—can you give us an idea of what happened and how you’re gearing up this year to bounce back from it? It also seemed like you spent a lot of time away from the ITU circuit last year. What were you doing? Were you back in Australia?

CA: My off-season this year has been a success. I am very happy with how my training progressed and believe my body, and more importantly my running, is back as good as ever.

I spent most of 2011 at home in Australia. Initially, I was injured early season just from pushing too hard in run training and then never really got on top of things by the time I left for Europe to start racing. It was a quick trip as I returned back to Australia after two races knowing I didn’t have the form to be competitive. This was when my curious mind took hold and I decided with my WCS season over I would stay at home and try a new approach in training under the guidance of Craig Walton. (Editor’s note: Walton is an Australian triathlete who competed in the Sydney Olympics and who coached Emma Snowsill to gold in Beijing.)

In the past Craig had successfully helped me out of some rough patches in my career, and I knew he had the experience and expertise having coached the Olympic gold medalist. Long story short, the intensity in training didn’t suit my body and I finished the year very tired but not for one moment regretting taking a risk to see if I could find improvement.

Triathlete.com: You’ve already been to the Olympics once—what did you learn from that experience that you think will help you this time around?

CA: I think if I have the opportunity to race in London I will appreciate the Olympics more this time. Beijing was so much about myself and performance that it’s easy to forget what you are part of. I loved my experience at Beijing, but I think I could have a more relaxed one in London, and I believe that would be a key to the best possible performance as well.

Triathlete.com: While Australia is one of the most dominant triathlon countries, you guys have never won a medal in the men’s Olympic triathlon. What do you think Australia’s chances are of winning a medal this time around? What needs to happen for this to occur?

CA: To put it simply, the Olympics men’s race has been unpredictable right from when Simon Whitfield won gold in Sydney and Simon Lessing didn’t place. This is no excuse, but it’s a beautiful sport to be part of, as if you are in the mix, fit and have good legs on the day you have a realistic chance in the race. As for Australia’s chances this time? Your guess is a good as mine. It appears there are some hot favorites for London that are going to take a lot to be beating, but the question I raise is hasn’t this been the case at each of the three Olympics so far, as well?

Triathlete.com: What’s your take on Chris McCormack attempting to qualify for the Olympics?

CA: I can understand Chris’ desire to become an Olympian, as in Australia it is the pinnacle of sport. I grew up racing Chris in Australia when I was a teenager. I was there as a 17-year-old junior when he won his ITU World Championship when I suppose he was 25 or so? It was he, among the other Aussie greats—Welchy [Greg Welch], Brad Beven, Miles Stewart, Craig Walton—who taught me my trade. These were the best memories for me in the sport and why I probably have lasted so long being successful in triathlon. One thing’s for sure, Chris coming back to ITU has been great to share with his triathlon followers what the Olympic side of the sport is all about. Now I am looking forward to coming to the USA finally to see what the non-Olympic side of our sport is all about.

Triathlete.com: A few people noticed that Chris failed to mention you in his Triathlete.com interview as someone who could potentially earn an Olympic spot for Australia. Is this something you noticed, or is it water off a duck’s back? What’s your take on this oversight?

CA: He is nearly 40, maybe he’s just getting forgetful—I hope you guys in America appreciate my sense of humor!