Rivals and BFFs: The Unique Friendship of Sam Appleton and Tim Reed
As Appleton begins his U.S. race season at Oceanside this weekend, we take a closer look at the special partnership he has with his new coach, old friend, and longtime rival.
Sam Appleton remembers the first time he ever raced Tim Reed, some time around 2012. Appleton, then about 21, was just stepping into longer-distance racing after a lengthy stint on the draft-legal circuit. Reed, some five years older with a penchant for racing in colorful briefs, was well known—and well on his way to becoming one of the most successful triathletes at 70.3, going on to win the world championship in 2016.
“Appo,” as he’s affectionately known by friends and family, recalls being soundly beaten by Reed that morning, but leaving the race extra-motivated to match—maybe even surpass—the performances of his fellow Australian. In fact, it didn’t take long for Appleton, a strong cyclist, to reel in Reed on the bike portion in races soon after.
“I’d try to attack [on the bike] to get away from the main group since I wasn’t the fastest runner,” Reed said of his racing tactics. “And there was Sam, with this amazing engine, dragging that group right back to me. He was killing my races.”
Reed, who studied exercise science in college and had been coaching a few athletes on the side, also noticed that, despite Appleton’s aerobic prowess and strength, he wasn’t winning races. Intrigued, Reed reached out via social media with some advice on how he could improve. Appleton was eager to learn, and excited that one of his heroes in the sport was interested in him. A casual friendship blossomed, and then Reed asked Appleton, who had been somewhat aimlessly self-coaching with no real structure to his training, if he could write a program for him.
“I didn’t set out to coach Appo, and I wasn’t really looking to coach one of my competitors,” Reed recalled. “But I knew he had something special.”
The start of something special
And so began a beautiful relationship that has spanned a decade, with plenty of ebbing, flowing, and evolving along the way. Over the past 10 years, the coach-athlete dynamic has solidified a bond that’s both brotherly (Reed isn’t afraid to rib Appleton for once being “useless” about the minutiae of racing and gear) and rooted in deep mutual respect. They are, after all, two of the best middle-distance triathletes to come out of Australia, and there’s a shared awareness and appreciation of what it takes to ascend to that level.
But the Reed/Appo show has not taken a linear route from 2014 to now. From the start, the pair worked very well together, and Appleton credits Reed for dialing in his training and teaching him technical tricks (before working with Reed, Appleton wasn’t using a power meter or a heart-rate monitor). These changes, both sweeping and incremental, pushed Appleton to the forefront of the sport, and he won four out of the six 70.3 races he entered in 2015. But the interesting thing was this: They did many of the same races—and Appleton started to beat Reed in the process. It was a student-becomes-the-master moment that made Reed reevaluate his role as Appleton’s coach.
“There were a couple of races where I finished second or third and he’d win, and I’d realize how much money I’d lost. Like it was in the thousands. And he was paying me very little to coach him,” Reed said with a laugh. “Plus, I was so competitive back then, it was conflicting for me going into a race. So I decided I had to be a selfish pro.”
Time for change
It’s not like Reed left Appleton hanging. Instead, they both trained under Matt Dixon with Purple Patch Fitness, where they saw continued success. While Reed eventually amicably parted ways with Dixon to focus more on expanding his own coaching business, Appleton stayed on until the beginning of 2022. It was then when he felt a tug to go back to his old buddy. “As they say, ‘if you love something, let it free. If it comes back to you it was meant to be,’ or something like that,” Appleton posted on Instagram about returning to Reed.
So was it meant to be?
So far, so good, they say. Earlier this month, Appleton won Ironman Geelong 70.3, beating countrymen Steven McKenna and Josh Amberger. He’s set to race 70.3 Oceanside on Saturday, and he’s also planning to race an Ironman this year, eyeing a Kona berth.
The balance between being a coach and a good friend—and even competitors at times—can be tricky, but Reed and Appleton seem to handle it with aplomb. It certainly helps that Reed, at 36, is in the twilight of his career while Appleton, now 32, is still in his prime. A father of three young sons, Reed has chosen to scale back his training to just 12 hours a week so he can be more present for his family and dedicate the extra time to his coaching business, RPG Coaching. But don’t count him out just yet.
“I am shifting away from the intense rollercoaster of being reliant on racing for cash,” Reed recently posted on his Instagram account. “While still seeing if what remains of the angry gnome within can still hurt the younger generation of pros coming through.”
So with Reed competing here and there, will the two reignite their fierce rivalry on the race course? Maybe one day, they say. But for now, Reed will continue to tweak and elevate Appleton’s training, and anxiously watch races from the sidelines (or, given that Reed is based in Australia and Appleton lives in the U.S., it’ll be through a race tracker).
“Appo is going to be a great Ironman one day, I think it will be the distance (at which) he really shines,” Reed said. “It’s up to him if he wants to go that route, but he’s got all the tools. We just have to keep those tools nice and sharp. I am pretty excited about what he can do.”
And when their best triathlon days are behind them? Both Appleton and Reed know their friendship will persist, as it has over the past 10 years. Reed was a groomsman at Appleton’s 2019 wedding to his wife Sarah, and he looks forward to passing on some fatherly knowledge when Appo welcomes his first child in August, and watching him thrive as a dad–and beyond.
“We’ve had lots of disagreements over the years, as friends and through triathlon, but we’ve learned to discuss and negotiate, and stay close through it all,” Reed added. “We’re a team.”