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Bevan Docherty was the only man to beat out Lance Armstrong at Sunday’s Ironman 70.3 Panama triathlon. This story on Docherty was originally published in the January/February, 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Not many people in the small beach town of Santa Cruz, Calif., know that a triathlete with two Olympic medals is training in their midst. But if you visit the University of California at Santa Cruz’s pool on any given day, you’ll probably catch a rail thin, sunburned guy swimming, often with straps tied around his ankles and generally in a lane by himself. If you try to join him, he’ll likely dip under the lane lines and head for clearer waters. He waits for the Masters workouts to end before he jumps into the pool—the whole Masters thing didn’t really work out for him when he moved to Santa Cruz in late 2009. After all, he goes to the aquatics facility to get his workouts in and not to socialize.
If you head to this triathlete’s house—perched on a cliff above the Pacific—you won’t find Olympic medals or any sort of triathlete memorabilia lying around. Instead, you’ll find a bassinet for his newborn girl, the pieces of an unfinished Monopoly game on the kitchen table, a desk surrounded by papers and files for his wife’s financial business, and a potty training kit on the downstairs toilet for his cat, Bella.
In fact, judging by the contents of the house, you’d never guess that the only man with back-to-back podium finishes in Olympic triathlons—Athens and Beijing—lives there. You’d never guess that a man who was part of an Olympic moment—one that catapulted him into the spotlight in his native New Zealand—calls that place home.
And that’s just the way Bevan Docherty, 33, likes it.
Docherty is running his third Olympic campaign out of Santa Cruz, and he’s got his sights on the only medal that can complete his collection: gold. “I’ve pretty much achieved all my career goals. I’ve ticked off everything except Olympic gold,” he said.
In the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, fellow Kiwi Hamish Carter and Docherty went one-two in a race that would become a national event. It just so happened that, due to the time difference between Greece and New Zealand, the race was televised on a cold night, when most Kiwis were inside. As Dave Beeche, chief executive of Triathlon New Zealand, remembers it, when it became apparent that two Kiwis were in a position to win medals, “Text messages started flying around the country.” And by the time Carter and Docherty were about to cross the finish line, a quarter of the population was watching. The next day, the New Zealand Herald called what had transpired “one of the greatest New Zealand days in Olympic history.”
Needless to say, although Docherty had already had something of a high profile with his status as the reigning world champion in 2004, the one-two finish in Athens elevated him to the kind of fame that included an invitation to star in a reality show, the occasional appearance in New Zealand celebrity tabloids, and the transformation of a Taupo, New Zealand, street into Docherty Drive. “From the moment it happened, our lives changed completely,” Docherty said, referring to himself and Carter.
But what is unique about Docherty, who has a reputation within the ITU circuit as an intense, outspoken and sometimes cocky veteran, is that he was able to back his silver up with a second podium spot in Beijing, where he won bronze by finishing ahead of a man who some called the Michael Jordan of triathlon: Spain’s Javier Gomez.
As the old saying goes, there’s nothing harder to do in sports than perform when you’re expected to. And Docherty has done that on the ultimate stage—the Olympics. Twice. Going into Athens as the reigning world champion meant he was picked by many to be a contender for gold. But he had one thing on his mind: to come away with a medal. In Beijing, he carried the burden of being a returning medalist as well as the expectations, warranted or not, that go along with it. He wanted gold but found that bronze was a satisfying consolation prize. “In 2008, the goal was gold. I was a little bit disappointed with not coming away with it. But to back up an Olympic medal—I was still pretty happy,” he said.
The year leading up to Beijing was hard for Docherty—it was difficult and stressful, because, at the Olympics, everything has to go right on a day that only comes around once every four years. Because, at the Olympics, you have to be healthy—no injuries or illnesses. And you can’t make any technical mistakes, because in draft-legal Olympic-distance racing, one minor error can cost you valuable seconds—seconds that can be the difference between first and 10th. At the Olympics, you have to be able to mentally cope with the fact that your entire life—all your toil, all your sweat, all your dreams, and a large portion of your ability to cash in on your chosen sport—has boiled down to one moment, one chance—and dozens of opportunities to screw it up. “The first Olympics was just excitement,” Docherty said. “But the second time was more of a relief. To get a medal was a sense of relief.”
Docherty’s proven ability to perform when it matters begs the question: How does he do it? Asked that question, he responds, “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
But in all seriousness, there are a number of reasons for Docherty’s ability to perform under pressure, and one of them is that he always looks at the positive side of a situation. “I think you can find positives in anything,” Docherty said. “And, you know, the positive about not having won gold is it’s certainly keeping me motivated and certainly driving me to 2012.”
Another reason for his success, and one that Docherty is quick to bring up, is his coach. “I think I have a good ability to peak for a specific race,” Docherty said. “It’s not just me—it’s me and my coach, and that’s something that we’ve understood and learned throughout the years.”
His coach, Mark Elliott, the high performance director for Cycling New Zealand, started to learn the ins and outs of triathlon in 1996, when he worked for Triathlon New Zealand as a physiotherapist. Traveling with the national athletes, he became the “eyes and ears for every other coach,” he said. When the other coaches weren’t around, he was the guy who was taking all of the times and information and feeding them back to each athlete’s coach. Besides being the physio, he was the de facto logistics guy, the manager and the athlete adviser. Very quickly, and perhaps most importantly, he learned “where athletes were going wrong,” he said.
Elliott looks at a taper in terms of an entire season, as opposed to the last few days before a race. “For most people, [tapering] is about what athletes do in the last week or 10 days. But it’s actually what you do in the 10 months beforehand,” Elliott said.
The training that Elliott maps out for Docherty includes anywhere from 30 to 35 hours per week of running, biking and swimming at the top end of a cycle. Docherty generally has one key run set and one long run, which is about two hours. He also does two key brick sessions: One is usually an easy 20 minutes of running off of a long bike, and the other is an intense session on the trainer followed by a 3K to 4K timed run. He swims six times a week, averaging about 5K per day. Of the six swims, two are likely to be key sessions, which are often lactate threshold workouts done on very little rest, with the main set being around 3,000 meters.
Elliott says that the focus with Docherty’s program is quality and not quantity, and Docherty prides himself on his high training intensity. Asked if Docherty trains harder than most, Elliott responds, “I can only comment on the other athletes I know, and yes, he does. I mean, most guys who’ve ever gone and spent time with him appreciate the intensity. It’s not a two-hour jog in the park—it’s a two-hour steady state, and for most athletes that’s full on.”
New Zealander and professional triathlete Graham O’Grady knows full well what it’s like to train with Docherty—he spent nine months in 2010 training in Santa Cruz while he lived with Docherty and his family. “I was looking forward to racing a few times, just because I knew the racing would be easier than the training,” he said. “And then when I’m racing, I just think, ‘I’m doing a long run with Bevan.’”
Recovery—and Docherty’s ability to stay injury free—also plays a part in his consistency and success on the ITU circuit. Elliott focuses on ensuring Docherty has “good phases of recovery,” he said. And he insists that Docherty ramps up his training load gradually. “You don’t go from 40K a week to 120K,” Elliott said. When Docherty takes time off after the season, he still runs every few days, just to stimulate his bones and muscles. This helps ensure that he’ll stay healthy in the third or fourth week back from his break, which is a period when athletes are particularly vulnerable to getting hurt, Elliott said. Docherty also does about 95 percent of his running off-road, something he believes helps him prevent tweaks, tears and fractures. And he takes one day every week completely off.
Docherty’s preparation is all well and good, but when it comes down to race day, an athlete has to know how to dig deep. Fortunately, this is something Docherty does well. He abides by something that he calls the “Docherty Family Motto,” which holds that the “pain of regret is far worse than the pain of pushing yourself.”
To get an idea of what Docherty means by his motto, Google “Bevan Docherty and Kris Gemmell.” You’ll likely come across a YouTube video titled “Bevan Docherty: Super-human Triathlon Sprint Finish.” The video begins near the end of the 2005 New Plymouth ITU Triathlon World Cup in New Zealand. Gemmell, who is one of Docherty’s best friends and a fellow Kiwi, is running next to Docherty and begins to sprint to the finish. Docherty falls out of the camera’s view, and it appears as if Gemmell has the race won. But he keeps looking behind him—over and over again. Then, suddenly, Docherty comes into view. And just as quickly as he appeared, he bolts past Gemmell as if Gemmell has slowed to a crawl. Docherty crosses the line first, arms raised. Gemmell crosses with his head bowed and collapses to the ground.
“When the pressure really comes on at 6K to 10K, he just puts himself in a hurt box, which is quite unique,” Elliott said. “More talented athletes can’t focus and hurt themselves as much as Bevan Docherty can.”
For all of Docherty’s success in triathlon, his introduction to the sport was anything but auspicious. During his first triathlon, when he was 13 years old, the records show that he was last out of the water, and his final result wasn’t much better. “Bevan was second to last [out of the water], and I think his father was last. But Ray pulled out or something,” Docherty’s mother, Irene, said. Undeterred, Docherty came back year after year, consistently improving, until he finally won the race five years after his first try.
When it was time to go to university, Docherty decided to accept an engineering scholarship to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He only lasted a year. “I was trying to do three things: I was trying to do university, triathlon and trying to have a social life. And there really wasn’t enough room for three of them. So one had to give, and I got rid of university.” He was simply following his heart, as well as the advice of some of the older athletes he trained with, who said if they could do it over, they’d have given a career in triathlon a chance.
So, in 1997, Docherty took a $2,000 student loan and headed off to Holland, which he made his first home base for the European triathlon circuits. His mother, who remembers the decision somewhat differently than Docherty, watched her baby boy fly off in a plane while she clung to the fence, crying inconsolably. She believed that New Zealand triathletes who were racing overseas, such as Mark O’Donnell and Craig Watson, had filled his “little head” with spellbinding tales that had lured him to Europe. “We knew Bevan was good in New Zealand as a junior, but whether he could make it overseas—there was no way we ever thought he would get this good. But that’s just us,” she said.
Docherty’s first few years in Europe were tough—he finished every season with a negative balance in his bank account. He got by on the housing and food provided by European triathlon clubs, by cherry-picking races where the competition was weak, by sometimes “salvaging” snacks out of the farm fields that he would ride through when training, and by doing manual labor and taking restaurant jobs during New Zealand’s summers. “Mentally, it was pretty tough. But it’s almost something that forms you as a person and an athlete and it probably makes you stronger,” Docherty said.
A weak swimmer, Docherty hunkered down to ensure that he would never again be at the back of the pack. “I really set my mind to it and worked really hard on my swimming, and I gradually got stronger,” he said. This is a path that he didn’t necessarily have to choose, as many poor swimmers forgo draft-legal racing, where it is imperative you get onto the bike with the front swim pack, and instead focus on 70.3 or Ironman distances, where swimming isn’t as important. But Docherty isn’t one for making excuses.
After years of struggle, Docherty had a breakthrough in 2000, winning the overall European Triathlon Union Cup. “I think I got 20,000 euros [about $27,000] or something like that for winning the European Cup, and for me, back then, that was just an amazing amount of money,” Docherty said. “It made it all worthwhile, and I thought, ‘Shit, I can have a future in this sport.’”
The year 2000 also sticks out in Irene Docherty’s head. In 2000, she went overseas to visit her son, and he barely lost out to Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Gaag in a race in Madeira, Portugal. Angry at a stupid mistake he had made in the race, Docherty told his mother that the world championships were set to take place there in four years. He was going to win it. “I remember him saying that,” his mother said. Four years later, he finished the race in Madeira in 1:41:04—one second ahead of silver medalist Ivan Rana of Spain.
Making up for a mistake years after it was made is something Docherty hopes to accomplish in London in 2012. Because for Docherty, 2010 was something of a hiccup in his pursuit of Olympic glory. He started out the year with a win at the first race of the ITU World Championship Series, in Sydney. But by the series’ race in Hamburg, Germany, three months later, he had burned himself out with heavy training and racing, and he posted a DNF there as well as in the series’ races in London and Kitzbühel, Austria. He later announced that he would forgo the World Championship Series Grand Final in Budapest, Hungary, in favor of rest.
Docherty’s travails in 2010 could be an indication of just how competitive the ITU circuit actually is. “As the level keeps going up, guys are taking more and more risks,” said Canada’s Simon Whitfield, triathlon’s first gold medalist, Beijing’s silver medalist, and one of Docherty’s best friends on the circuit. Training harder and harder, guys are getting injured and burned out. “We were three years out and pushing too hard. What will the Olympic year do to people?” Whitfield asked.
Since 2009, the men on the ITU circuit have been trying to close the gap set by Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee, who was the 2009 world champion, and Spain’s Gomez, who was the 2010 champion. The two men have essentially dominated the field since Beijing.
But, as Whitfield’s words suggest, the race to catch the two champions might have more to do with who can best walk the fine line between peak fitness and over-training than who is the most talented athlete.
Sitting at home in Santa Cruz a few weeks after announcing his abandonment of the 2010 world championship and nursing a cold, Docherty said he wasn’t too worried about recently crossing that line. “Although it does suck and I’m not getting younger, I still feel that I’ll come out stronger. This could very well set me up in two years’ time. That’s why I’m not suicidal. And I’ve got Cheryl. She’s very calming and talks a lot of sense.”
The woman that Docherty speaks of, Cheryl, is his wife. She also happens to be a beautiful and successful businesswoman from Michigan whom Docherty met in a Miami airport in 2002. Before 2009, they chased the summers together, spending half the year in New Zealand and half the year in Boulder, Colo. But the schedule got too hard on Cheryl’s business and on her now teenaged son, who was finding it more and more difficult to uproot his school and social life every six months. So the Docherty family decided to settle in Santa Cruz, which, being a city on the West Coast near an international airport, is only a flight away from New Zealand and Docherty’s sponsorship commitments.
Docherty and his wife married after the 2008 Olympics, and Docherty says one of the reasons why he knew she was the one was she made it through 2008 with him. “That’s why I married her—if she can go through an Olympic campaign with me, then we can go through life together,” he said. During Olympic campaigns and other stressful periods, such as before races, Docherty slips into something that he calls “Bevy World.” This world is “something that my wife doesn’t like because, you know, I’m very selfish, and she says I’m very short. I guess that’s my way of sort of coping with the pressure,” Docherty said.
If Docherty is in a world of his own before an important race, he’s in another world altogether when he’s at home with his family. Asked by an Inside Triathlon photographer for some spots around Santa Cruz that he likes to frequent, he says, “I don’t know, Safeway [a grocery store]? I seem to spend a lot of time there now.”
He does spend a lot of time there, actually, picking up food for dinner on most days, as he and his wife like to de-stress by cooking together. When he’s out at a local bakery for a snack and an espresso to help him make it through his training, you’ll probably catch him texting or phoning his wife, just to check if she wants anything. And when he’s home and talking to a guest, he’ll probably also be haphazardly playing fetch with his Pomeranian Sabrina, simply because that’s what keeps her happy.
Examples like these may be why conversations with people who know Docherty well will often lead to their emphasizing what a great guy he is. “Your first impression of Bevan is of a Kiwi warrior,” Whitfield said. “But when you spend a bit of time with him, you realize he’s a very down-to-earth guy—very focused and intense, but a very good guy.”
O’Grady, the triathlete who spent nine months training with Docherty in 2010, agrees. “Bevan’s such a nice guy that it made it really easy for me to work with him,” O’Grady said. “And his wife, as well—they’re very accommodating.”
Accommodating by day, and ready to tear the competition to pieces by race time. That’s why, come the summer of 2012, remember Bevan Docherty. It’s a safe bet to assume that he’ll be ready to roll.