Continued from LAVA Magazine, February/March 2011: Issue 04, page 160 (subscribe now!)
For Issue 4, we got the two British powerhouses to sit down and discuss federations, the growth of triathlon, and whatever else came to mind. Here are a few extras from the conversation we published in the magazine.
Chrissie Wellington: I’d like to do a comparison between the number of the clubs in the UK and in other countries. I go home and I’m absolutely amazed by a, the number of clubs and b, the number of members. The club I started off with in Birmingham has hundreds of members of all ages—I don’t know whether other countries have that club structure that we have.
Leanda Cave: Australia has some country bumpkin clubs, with like 50 to 60 members participating and 200 members who are members for fun. It’s really small. Then you look at the LA Tri Club with numbers in the thousands.
Chrissie: So then why is the UK producing so many—proportionally to our size as a country—amazing athletes? To have five women in the top 10 at Clearwater is phenomenal.
Leanda: And then I go back to the year I won the worlds, we had three podium finishers. But yet in the Olympics we haven’t really done so well. I think [the Aussies and the Americans] really shine in the Olympics. I don’t know what we do wrong when it comes to the Olympics.
Chrissie: I don’t know if it’s a fault in the federation and the way they run things. I don’t know if there are differences between the federations in the latitude they give each of the different athletes to have their own coaches, training, etc. I guess Beijing was disappointing for us because we did have a real pool of incredible talent and it didn’t really …
Leanda: It didn’t get used, we only had two women go. I think coming out, like you say, with the Alistair and Jonathan [Brownlee]—those two boys, if they don’t nail it in one of the Olympics there’s something wrong.
Chrissie: Tim Don winning the world champs and then Alistair doing so well in the last couple of years has been amazing for short course. But the media coverage is still lacking in the U.K. Especially now with London coming up and triathlon being in the Olympics, short distance is all they focus on. The federation feeds into the media—much more so than it ever did. It was telling last year when Crowie won the Australian sports personality of the year, and in the equivalent in the U.K. I wouldn’t even make the short list.
Leanda: I was so disappointed with that.
Chrissie: I’m disappointed not because I want my name out there, but because, well, why have they profiled some guy who hasn’t really achieved anything? They’ve forgotten not only me, but other people that have won world championship crowns. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I do think it’s improving.
Leanda: With the BBC awards—the ones Chrissie’s talking about—I got invited to sit in the crowds. That was it! I was watching football players who don’t even play outside the U.K. or on their own. David Beckham and the like, they play football in Manchester, they’re not winning world championships! It was so disappointing. I think what you’ve achieved is great but I was sitting there almost in your shoes, unable to believe you hadn’t even made the short list.
Chrissie: Not only for me. The women’s cricket team won absolutely everything there was to win last year, globally, and the men’s team didn’t win anything. Yet, it was the men who received all the accolades. It’s the same for us, but it’s changing. I’m trying to do as much mainstream media as I can to try and get it from triathlon-specific media, which is still important, and onto the average Joe’s coffee table. I think the Olympics will help phenomenally, but it won’t help Ironman-distance racing necessarily because people will always associate triathlon with the Olympic distance. It’s great to have triathletes recognized by the establishment. It’s a step forward and shows that it is being taken more seriously, but I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done. It’s surprising that it doesn’t get that much media coverage even though we’re producing world titles.
Leanda: But it’s the same here. I don’t know about you but I didn’t see anything in USA Today about who won Kona.
Chrissie: That’s true.
Leanda: And that’s a world championship event on U.S. soil. And again in Clearwater. I didn’t see any major press at all. There was coverage in the major U.K. newspapers of your Ironman wins?
Chrissie: I did notice a difference between the first year and the third in terms of coverage in the Guardian, and the Independent, BBC. It definitely grew.
Leanda: There is one thing about racing and training in the US comparatively. You know when someone tells you that you can’t do something you want to do it so much more? I kind of had that in the U.K. People would say, “what’s triathlon,” or “how do you make money doing that?” Then you come over to the States and it’s like “Oh wow, you do triathlon, that’s so great!” Kids get that feedback right away and they’ve got it made. In the U.K. it’s like you have to fight all the time to prove people wrong. In Australia it’s the tall poppy syndrome, you’re on top and everyone wants to knock you down. In the U.K. they just don’t want to get you to the top and in the U.S., everyone thinks you’re at the top. When I first went to the U.K. and said I was going to win a world championship, everyone told me to shoot for the top 10 instead. That’s actually what the British Federation told me.
Chrissie: I bet that put fire in your belly.
Chrissie: I look at the age group championships, and there’s so many Brits doing well even at that level. They’re going to come up to be the future athletes.
Leanda: You’ve got a target on your back, my friend.
Chrissie: I know. I have to leave before they come and get me. But I think that has a lot to do with the clubs nurturing that talent. The more success we have within our generation the more success we’ll have in the future—as long as we don’t push people too hard too soon. That scares me. I have parents at talks that I give, asking me what they can do for their seven-year-old daughter, and I say keep it fun. I do worry that the earlier and earlier they get into it the earlier they’ll burn out. It’s a demanding sport, whatever distance you do, and I think it’s up to the parents to control that. But it’s an amazing sport, so the more kids that can get into it, the better.