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Why can’t Americans win at Kona anymore? Two-time Ironman world champion Tim DeBoom, the most recent American winner, shares his thoughts about what it takes to win, and which Americans might have it.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
America is in a drought, and it is reaching biblical proportions. This may seem like an unnecessarily dramatic statement concerning a sporting event, but it’s true in its own context. The country that invented the Ironman, the United States, has become an afterthought on the results pages. It has been 10 years since America had a men’s champion in Kona and an eternal 17 on the women’s side. With such a rich history at the Ironman, it’s hard to imagine what happened. Why has the U.S. become a second-rate power on the lava fields, and what needs to change for us to become relevant again on the biggest stage in the sport of triathlon?
This is an opinion piece, and I am in a unique position to speak on this subject, as I ended the last five-year drought for the U.S. men, winning Ironman Hawaii in 2001 and again in 2002. My opinion alone, however, is not worthy of the final word on this topic. I sought the perspective from two of the greatest Ironman champions of all time, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, the two Americans who dominated the event from 1980 to 1995. They are both still involved in the sport and have unique outlooks on what they feel is hampering the U.S. in its quest for another champion.
While it may come down to the fact that today’s American athletes just don’t have the talent it takes to win, three other key factors that may also play a role in this drought are worth examining.
First, over the past 10 years, there have been changes in the endurance world that have affected the actual Ironman event, and the triathlon landscape in general. Second, athletes must make many decisions that can either help or hinder their success in Kona. Finally, there are “intangibles,” things out of an athlete’s control that most winners have. These things are not trained or learned, but they are incredibly important to their success.
Let’s start by examining the race itself. The Ironman World Championship is still on the Big Island of Hawaii. The distances are still 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running. It is still held in October in extremely hot and usually windy conditions. But this is where the consistencies end. Since its inception in 1978, the race has gone through massive changes. Ironman has become a global brand with an international race series, and the race in Kona is now a true world championship. Along with the growth of the Ironman brand has come an increase in international competition, specifically from countries that take endurance sports very seriously from a very young age.
The American men dominated the Ironman during the first 15 years, winning every year from 1978 till 1993. After Australian Greg Welch broke the American stranglehold in 1994, the U.S. men have only added three more victories (in 1995, 2001 and 2002). The American women saw some early success but were always overshadowed by the men’s dominance, and have not had a winner since Karen Smyers in 1995.
The winner of the past six men’s titles are all from Australia, a country that practically mandates that kids participate in triathlon. Not just an endurance sport like swimming or running, but triathlon. The U.S. has the Ironkids series and excellent national swimming and running programs, but they are an afterthought in a population focused on the “big three” ball sports.
This lack of development at an early age is something that Mark, Dave and I all agree is a huge hindrance to up-and-coming athletes with the potential to eventually win Kona. Our athletes often begin their triathlon careers in their 20s with a single-sport background (usually swimming or running), while athletes from Australia and Great Britain begin triathlon at age 13 or 14 and become complete “triple threat” athletes by the time they turn professional. Dave thinks this early development is a huge factor in building the resilience needed to excel at Ironman racing. It takes years of training to handle the workload needed to win in Hawaii. After my swimming career, I spent almost 10 years developing my run just to handle the workouts necessary to win. “It’s very hard to make up for those differences when you should already be on the world stage,” Mark says.
Our drought goes beyond Ironman too. There have been four Olympic triathlons and only one U.S. medal. Compare that to our dominance in other Olympic sports, and you will begin to see the potential advantage of starting our athletes at an earlier age.
Another big change is that the qualifying procedures for professionals have changed dramatically. The so-called “points system,” the Kona Pro Rankings, used to qualify athletes for Ironman’s championship races, is downright reckless and will definitely shorten the careers of some athletes. The amount of races athletes must do just to qualify for Kona almost ensures that they cannot be at their best on the Big Island. Those who raced well in Kona the previous year have a clear advantage because they don’t have to chase as many points in their buildup to October. With no American men in the top 10 in 2010 and 2011, and just a couple of U.S. women barely making the top 10, most of the top American contenders had to exhaust themselves just to toe the starting line these past two years. Multiple Americans once again finished in the top 10 in 2012, so at least a few of our athletes will be a little fresher next year.
Finally, I have to wonder if Ironman Hawaii has lost some of its significance among the professional ranks. When I started racing professionally in 1995, Kona was the only option for glory. Now that the Olympics include triathlon, an Olympic medal (or even just making the team) can be as illustrious as winning Hawaii for many young athletes.
Among age-group athletes, the Ironman is still the Holy Grail, but what is the real draw for a professional looking to make money in the sport? When one can win more money at an Olympic-distance race in Iowa than at the iconic Ironman World Championship, it’s no wonder we see some of our top talent stay in the short-course ranks. Sarah Haskins and Hunter Kemper are two American athletes who could definitely make a splash in Kona, but the incentive for them is just not there. Why dedicate a year to one race without dramatically more financial incentive when they can race shorter events nearly every weekend? Until the Ironman prize purse is significantly larger than any other race on the planet, we will continue to see many athletes pursue short-course careers.
The above factors are all out of our athletes’ control. There is not much the current U.S. athletes can do about the changes to the race, the prize purse, their athletic upbringing or the competition from other countries. They also cannot do much about the intangibles to be talked about later. However, there are some elements they can influence that could make a big difference in their ability to perform at a higher level. I’m not saying these changes will suddenly make our current pros into champions, but if there are things you can change that might make a difference, isn’t it worth the effort?
The biggest fault I see from our current crop of athletes is that they are stuck in their own little fishbowl here in America. None of our top athletes is racing the best athletes on their turf. If they asked me for advice, I’d recommend racing in Germany and Australia. All current and past champions were not afraid to take chances. I learned the most from my races overseas on the home turf of my biggest rivals, and that was how I gained the most confidence. Many of our top athletes have no idea how good they could really be. Mark put it well when he said, “Racing the best on their turf ups your game in an extremely competitive race situation out of the comfort zone of home.”
Another fault I see from most U.S. athletes is their choice in coaching. They put their careers and dreams in the hands of some coaches who do not have the experience in Ironman racing. Most coaches I know are textbook coaches. Ironman is not a textbook race. Crowie, Macca, Chrissie, Peter Reid, myself and probably several other champions I don’t know about all have one thing in common: We sought the advice of past champions or coaches with real-world experience on the Big Island. We were not afraid to ask for help from the people who had been there before. That was the best advice I ever received, and I took it to heart. It was invaluable to my success.
The last factor athletes can control is to start racing Kona earlier in their careers. I see many U.S. athletes waiting too long to throw their hats in the Ironman ring if that is their true goal. They build over many years from Olympic distance, to the half-iron distance and then finally to the full distance. Nothing beats experience in Kona; some of our top athletes have just started to race in Hawaii at the age of 32 or older. Since most endurance athletes start peaking just before 30 for men and a little later for women, this may be too late. There has been a rash of older champions lately, but historically, 30 years old is the sweet spot. Don’t think you’ll win it on your first attempt either. History shows that you probably need to pay your dues.
Now on to the “intangibles.” There is something about winning in Hawaii that cannot be easily articulated. Some of the greatest triathletes in the world have tried and failed in Kona—repeatedly. The “intangibles” are the factors completely out of the athletes’ control. The “luck of the draw, so to speak,” as Mark says.
Obviously, genetics play a big role in the ability to win an Ironman. Plain and simple, a huge engine is a requirement. You can tune an engine over years of work, but the big block has to be there from the beginning.
The three greatest female Ironman champions are perfect examples of being genetically predisposed for success in endurance sports. Paula Newby-Fraser, Natascha Badmann and Chrissie Wellington were essentially “off-the-couch” athletes. Going against the above notion that endurance training is vital from an early age, none of them had years of training under their belts when they embarked on their triathlon careers, yet all found success very rapidly.
To have made it to the professional level and placed in the top 10 in Hawaii, the current crop of U.S. athletes is obviously genetically gifted. What they do with this gift is what matters now.
I believe an athlete’s genetics is probably the second biggest factor to success in Hawaii. The most important ingredient is the mental edge that all great athletes possess. The drive. The heart. The anger. The hunger. The desire. The desperation. The ability to suffer. The absolute hatred of being second best. And the intense fear of failure. It’s what drives one athlete to go out and suffer in the cold rain and wind for five hours while another thinks a couple of hours on the indoor trainer will accomplish the same thing. Think of Peter Reid living in a shack in the mountains above Kona for three weeks of training with nothing but his thoughts. Think of Dave Scott on the desolate roads and winds outside Davis, Calif. Think of Chrissie Wellington battered, bruised, broken and still fighting to the point of collapse. These are the “intangibles” I am talking about.
Unfortunately, this is the factor I believe is missing in many of the Americans. There is a certain level of comfort that they seem accustomed to. Maybe they are happy with their current level of success, or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I do know that earning a living as a professional triathlete was secondary to my absolute need for victory in Kona. The need to win that race consumed me.
In 1999, even after winning my first Ironman race in New Zealand, I gave myself an ultimatum before the world championship. After toiling in the top 10 a couple of times, I knew it was time to either break through or find a new job. Being pack filler was not my goal. Third place gave me the confidence to continue. Several months after the race, an article very similar to this one was published. Ironically, just as in this feature, Dave Scott was asked about American chances in the coming years. I believe his quote was, “I just don’t think Tim is ready to win, yet.”
Of course, many will disagree with much I have to say here. It is only my opinion after all. However, I wonder if, like myself many years ago, an American triathlete will read this article and feel what I felt back then. Just maybe he or she will question things, or this article will light a spark and fuel one of those “intangibles” that is missing in his or her own quest for victory in the lava fields. In the end, you never know if you can win until you do.
Don’t Tread on Me
For all its faults, the current American system has produced a handful of athletes with the potential to podium or possibly win Ironman Hawaii. These are the select few who may be able to break through on the Big Island, and here’s what they need to do to make the leap.
Andy Potts (seventh place and first American in 2012)
The Goods: Andy Potts has one of the best pedigrees of anyone racing Ironman. He was an All-American swimmer at the University of Michigan. He placed fourth, in arguably the hardest event, the 400 meter I.M., at the 1996 U.S. Olympic swim trials. He was a 2004 Olympian in triathlon, an ITU World Cup winner, a 70.3 world champion, and has several top-10 finishes in Kona. The pieces seem to be in place.
I would never say that Andy will not win Kona. He was the top American in 2012 and is too good of an athlete to dismiss. At 36 years old, however, he needs to make some changes, and they need to come now if he ever wants to truly contend.
Next Level: Andy needs to get out of his basement, literally and figuratively. He does much of his training indoors, and he needs to battle the elements, build some strength mentally and physically, and put in some big days outside that will mimic the race. Then, he needs to go race another Ironman with real contenders on their turf outside of his comfort zone in the U.S.
He also needs to forget about swim primes and instead gear his race strategy around the race as a whole. He could cruise the swim with a 110 heart rate and still come out with the leaders, saving more energy to ride up front the whole way and then run even faster than his 2:53 marathon split from 2012. Patience wins in Kona.
Lastly, Andy needs to commit to Kona like he did this year, but follow through all the way to race day. I was disappointed to see him throw a “panic” 70.3 race into his schedule three weeks before Kona. Who knows if it hurt him, but I know that when my training was great, I needed three to four weeks to wind things down for the big day.
Mary Beth Ellis (fifth place and first American in 2012)
The Goods: Watching the bike, I thought Mary Beth Ellis was going to steal the victory in Kona last year. After she dismounted, I saw her first few steps and knew it would not be her day.
Mary Beth is a pitbull, a scrapper. Leanda Cave is a thoroughbred with short-course, 70.3 and now Ironman world titles. The American was in the hunt and just could not close the deal this time.
Did she push the bike too hard? Are the four women ahead of her just better, or did she leave a Kona victory at one of her other tough races or notoriously hard workouts throughout the year?
Mary Beth is under the guidance of coach Brett Sutton, and he is getting the absolute most out of her talent and potential. He has been very successful with female athletes, and Mary Beth can be counted among them since jumping to the Ironman distance, having earned blazing victories everywhere but in Kona.
Next Level: With Ironman Hawaii at the end of the season, she will need to save one of those big performances for October. This may not fit into Sutton’s plan, but, with both Mary Beth and teammate Caroline Steffen (the runner-up in Kona) coming up short, maybe he will think twice about how many tough events his female athletes can absorb in a year.
Mary Beth will also have to be careful of Sutton’s history of burning his athletes out. Most don’t last more than a couple of years, and Mary Beth is on that precipice. With Chrissie Wellington’s retirement, Mary Beth’s odds of winning just increased.
Tim O’Donnell (eighth place in 2012)
The Goods: Before Tim O’Donnell stepped up to the Ironman distance, I favored him as the next American with a chance of victory in Kona. He has the speed of a short-course athlete, some blazing times over the 70.3 distance, and an ITU Long Distance world title to his credit. Most importantly, he is a solid swimmer, cyclist and runner. No weaknesses.
His debut Ironman at Texas in 2011 (second-place finish in 8:11) went well and showed the potential I expected. Tim is 32 years old and in his prime to put everything into a shot at winning in Kona. And that is what it will take for Tim: 100 percent commitment to that race. Everything he does has to be geared toward winning in October.
Next Level: After a DNF in his first Kona, he rebounded in 2012 with a solid eighth place. I hope he is not too satisfied with that finish, however. Quite simply, Tim needs to get stronger. Kona is a race about strength. He needs longer, tougher workouts and then a longer taper before hitting that starting line. He needs to be strong enough on the bike to get off with the leaders and run faster than 2:50.
I live in Boulder, so I have a pulse on what athletes are doing here, including Tim. To step up, I think he needs to analyze everything around him: coach, sponsors, training partners and races. Does his coach have the experience and ability to get the job done? Does he have the best equipment? Are his training buddies helping or hurting him? What races can he do that will give him the experience needed in October? It’s time to commit.
Jordan Rapp (13th place in 2012)
The Goods: Jordan Rapp has an incredible story. A successful professional athlete gets hit by a car while training, almost dies and then comes back even better to the sport he loves. The question now is if he can turn this great story into a true fairy tale by winning the Ironman World Championship.
Jordan came to the pro ranks without the short-course speed or swimming background of many other top athletes. He honed his endurance chops in the world of rowing and built his ability to suffer there. He has several pre- and post-accident Ironman wins and an ITU Long Distance world title too.
Next Level: He has the engine, but his swim is holding him back. Maybe he had an off-day last October, but giving up nine minutes in Kona will never get the job done. He has to make some huge gains there, and it may not be possible for him to ever make that lead pack in the swim, which is almost a requirement these days.
Jordan is also a technology geek. He will use every bit of technology and information to gain any advantage he can. Nothing will slip through the cracks, and you can be sure that he knows exactly how many watts he can push for 112 miles and still run under 2:50. This is a huge advantage, but there will be a point during the day when he will have to decide to follow his watts or go with the race.
Besides his bad swim, he raced too many ultra-distance races this year. The key will be to race the big boys on their turf, get his points early, and then focus on Kona instead of the minor Ironman events throughout the year. He treated this year as a learning experience, but at 32, he needs to act now to move up to the podium.
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