The last several weeks have been, to say the least, interesting times for TeamTBB. It’s the squad that launched the career of Chrissie Wellington, that saw names like Bella Comerford, Belinda Granger, Caroline Steffen, Tereza Macel, James Cuunama and Mary Beth Ellis make their mark with victories around the world. It has only been the recent departure of team coach Brett Sutton and the departure of several key names, to new opportunities—namely Steffen, Cuunama and Jodie Swallow—along with the dissolving of partnership with Cervelo bicycles, that made many question the plans for the team in 2014.
But as team principal Alex Bok says, the team goes forward into the new year, staying true to its original mission—and it wasn’t necessarily a mission to set the world alight with Ironman wins (though that was a nice benefit). LAVA spoke with Bok about what 2014 and beyond represents for TeamTBB.
LAVA: Cutting to the quick: amid a bit of upheaval, is TeamTBB going forward into 2014 and beyond?
Alex Bok: Last three weeks have been difficult. But to be clear, TeamTBB continues. I’m sticking to the same mission I always have: to improve lives around the world, through sport.
LAVA: On the team front, your protagonist, the man that brought together so many of the top athletes, has left, and certainly serves to be the most glaring departure.
Bok: We’ve lost Brett, and that’s painful. There’s a few important things about that, though. Looking through our list of results, that’s never been our only storyline. If it was, then not having Brett would cause drama. The team’s story has many facets. One is the vision for the team was—and is—to provide hope and opportunity through sport. It wasn’t to win Kona every year. With Brett, success came, but the social projects were always the critical element.
We also wanted the next generation of coaches to step up and show they can create champions. If I can win two or three Ironmans instead of six or seven next year, with the team we currently have in place, to us, it’s the same value.
LAVA: Hasn’t Sutton served as the epicenter of the coaching, and thusly, will getting victories next year, with a new talent pool, be a greater challenge than it’s ever been?
Bok: Yes, Brett’s been the leader—to a point. We always use as an example a young Reinaldo Colucci whom Brett built in 2007. In 2008 he was prepared to be in under the team structure. We certainly don’t take credit for making him the success he was and is; that’s all Brett. Now, Reinaldo has great sponsors back home, makes a quarter million dollars in Brazil and we can’t afford him. But that’s always been our goal: to find and build champions.
Now, we’ve continued that project, to find the next star that we know is living in the inner cities around the world, that can be world-class athletes. Recently, we’d had focus on our Alaska TeamTBB Philippnes team. We had one kid, Banjo Norte. He came from a 9×9 aluminum shed with eight family members. He came to the team a skinny kid, and had great coaches and great tutors in the pros to bring him along. In August this year, I had tears in my eyeson the finish of 70.3 Philippines when this 19-year-old won the elite national title, beating three or four national team athletes. At the race press conference. David Dellow, Pete Jacobs are all sitting there, and the media are talking with this boy. The pros were laughing saying “gee, we thought we were the important ones.”
These are the protoges. Guys like Bajno were training with David and Caroline (Steffen). But the reality is that Banjo trained under Brett for just two days. The guy he really trained under was one of the team coaches: Matt O’Halloran. Banjo lived with Matt, and Matt taught him how to eat, train, sleep and think. So we have been creating our new Reinaldo stories, under the TBB banner—under a coach other than Brett.
LAVA: Do you fear with Sutton’s departure, that TeamTBB is threatened by the same fate as TriDubai, Commerzbank or NYPPE.com?
Bok: I believe TeamTBB had a bigger vision through providing hope and opportunity through sport, instead of, just “aw, let’s get a bunch of good triathletes together and win races. “You set the right vision, you inspire within, you inspire interest. Tri Dubai had one big sponsor who threw in a million. Bur sometimes, strategy changes. They lose interest. Or someone says something bad and they get upset. Which is what happen with TriDubai. The oil sheik pulled, and boom—end of a team.
LAVA: How does the team look to move on? Recently, the team had regional, or rather National, members and sponsors.
Bok: Sponsors said they loved the country sponsor program we ran (Ellis as part of TeamTBB USA, Steffen with TeamTBB Asia, with Singha as a kit sponsor—ed), but they were confused by it. Why was Caroline sponsored with one team, while Mary Beth was with another team? They asked ‘why don’t you create one global pro team, with 10 to 14 pros growing through the ranks? Like a Tour de France team, but in triathlon?
I have listened to sponsors and have pro team. National “country coaches” are going to be a critical linking pin between global and national programs. We will have no more pro athletes in the country teams. There will be an elite development program. When we get applications, the country coach can have two to three elite athletes to coach. It’s like a soccer school; under these country coaches—which is a program we already have in place—are age group teams and online coach clients.
Within that, we will select social projects, which will different from nation to nation.
LAVA: It seems on its face to be a selection of regional teams. Where does the “team” aspect come in?
Bok: It’s where we share knowledge. It’s how we activate sponsorship. This year we had five country teams, each with four to five pros, and one or two elite dev athletes and agers. Brett coached all the pros, and his moving between Leysin and Cozumel made things tough. Some athletes never saw Brett all year.
I told the coaches that they will now get a great opportunity: to coach their selection of age groupers, but also one of our pros. I told Brett we will continue your legacy. We asked him ‘hey, with your blessing, can we continue to create an environmen to make them coaches of champions?” And he said absolutely.
With that, I am still creating open opportunity through sport. Not only through the athletes, but fostering the development of our next great coaches.
LAVA: There has been a not insignificant defection among those pros that have been the face of the team…
Bok: Yes, we lost Caroline Steffen, David Dellow, James Cuunama and Jodie Swallow. But I am stoked. Mary Beth and I talked a fair bit since Kona. It was scary for her—and I admire her—but she’s committed to the vision; she’s staying with the team. She wanted to change coach, and she wanted to live back in Boulder. So Siri (Lindley) will coach her. Mary Beth and I have a two-year deal in the team. She likes the vision and what it stands for. Plus, she’s an editor for the website. With her, I hope next year we can still have a couple of Ironman wins. With her, this team still has a Kona podium candidate.
LAVA: How grateful are you for that loyalty?
Bok: I’m totally grateful. In times like this, how easy is it for her to say it’s all too disturbing, but I’m truly appreciative. Not to commit to me, but to commit to the vision.
LAVA: So let’s have a breakdown of the team for 2014
Bok: For starters, I’ve secured enough backing to be able to look after the pros and keep the team going in a healthy manner. Next year, TeamTBB USA will consist of Mary Beth Ellis, with Scott DeFilippis and Carrie Lester. Mary Beth, we’ve talked about; we’re so glad to have her aboard.
Scott and Carrie are also key to the team vision. Scott manages much of the online coaching business. Carrie recent won Challenge Penticton. I had sponsors reaching out saying, these are two that perform well, but more than that, they understand what it is to create a return on investment for a sponsor.
And we have some guys we are considering for elite amateur status, guys like Air Force’s Brad Williams. Scott’s doing a great job coaching him, and Brad’s doing a great job; he did great in Kona, and has already qualified for Kona and 70.3 Worlds for next year. If he wants to be a pro—which is his aim— shouldn’t we be the team that provides that opportunity?
We’ll have three Germans to start with, because it’s a big market. We have Diana Riesler, who’s coached by Jo Spindler. Christian Nitschke and one more athlete.
We’ve also had a Dutch coach on board for the last year, looking after a new Dutch contingent, sisters Jasmijn and Karlijn van der Burg . There’s a new Dutch premier league, and we came in fourth this year, and these two girls played a big role. It’s something we think can grow. Jasmijn is a short-course racer, Karlijn is racing long-course.
We also have a Belgian team, consisting of new Ironman pro Stefanie Adam and Francois Humblet, a short-course racer. They will be coached by Loic Helin, a new coach on TeamTBB. He’s a former pro and prior to joining us he has consistently been delivering seven to eight age groupers to Kona each year. So we’re optimistic with our Belgian group.
We will also have a couple that has been with us for a long time in Hiroyuki and Maki Nishiuchi representing Japan.
Really, though it’s not about the pros. I look at it like this; Maybe Mary Beth can help us produce an Ironman win or two. Carrie might hit one. Diana may hit a podium. For me, that would be great.
LAVA: How will you work in these new coaches with athletes, pro or age grouper?
Bok: Each of them will have their own specialties; Scott DeFilippis is a great run coach, and one of our coaches in the Netherlands, Ferdinand Mulder, is a qualified medic and is good with managing injury prevention. And our Belgian coach Loic is very technical in training, highly educated. In Seattle with have an on-deck coach in Jill Fry who will replicate our camp experience in the U.S. And Lisbeth and Hiro, both as pros, have special experience to draw from. Each of these coaches will manage two to three elite athletes, and 15 to 20 online coached athletes.
LAVA: It seems that while Cervelo has departed from the team, most all others are staying the course.
Bok: We’ll be able to deliver a great return to them in our new platform, I think. We have the pros, but we’ve had to look at how we communicate. Coaching 100 plus athletes, our online apparel sales, will be a great vehicle to get their message out.
We’ll continue to work with our technical brands like ON Running, Cobb Cycling and Ignite Naturals. But it’s been exciting taking a company like Singha beer into the sport. I mean they’re an exclusive sponsor of Manchester United and are a key sponsor of RedBull Racing in Formula I. I brought the family owner and management to Kona to see the race, and they truly enjoyed themselves. This really is them putting their toe into a new sport.
Alaska Milk has also been an amazing supporter of our Philippines team program. We’re also in discussion with automotive, transportation and hospitals about partnerships, so we’re looking at a good year ahead with great support.
One of the greatest experiences was talking to John Cobb. While this was all happening, he came up to me and said “hey, don’t feel bad, I sponsor the team because of what the team represents, tell me how I can help, we’re here to support you.” I was blown away. And to me, that’s not a vote against Brett, but it rather it was a vote for the team and the vision we have. So now, after all that has happened, I feel good about our direction.
LAVA: With your Philippines team, has there been a presence to help those in the country in the wake of the recent typhoon?
Bok: Right now, Caroline Steffen has been sending signed race kits as part of an Alaska Milk auction that they are hosting, which will also have jerseys from Tour de France cyclists and other athletes. Caroline was always a great role model for that team, so we’re grateful to have her contribution.
And with each national team, we will identify individual ways to engage. In the U.S., we’re hoping to forge a relationship with a hospital, and with every dollar of sponsorship we’re promising a matching dollar of donations through the team. It gives the team purpose, it inspires. We’ll seek out similar projects within each of our country teams.
LAVA: With the contract with Cervelo dissolved, what will the team members be riding in 2014?
Bok: Currently, they’ll just ride what they ride now, whatever that is. We will have a global bike deal in place by January, and we’ll announce that then. At the moment, we have a three-year with Campagnolo for groupsets and wheels.
LAVA: This means your relationship with 3T and Rotor are done?
Bok: Yes. We were grateful for our partnership, but also in 2011, I know the athletes were all very happy with Campagnolo product when we were running it then, so we’ll be back with them completely.