The recently announced departure of head coach Brett Sutton from team TBB was definitely news. Sutton was integral in the launch of Alex Bok’s original vision in 2006 and an enormous part of its success. I was one of the journalists sitting at the post-race press conference at the 2007 Ironman World Championships asking Chrissie Wellington exploratory questions to basically answer the question, Where the hell did you come from? We’d found out some interesting facts. She was English, well-educated, worked for the UN at one point or something like that, and had logged some mountain biking at high altitude in Nepal. We were as new to her as she was to us. For example, she had no idea who Michellie Jones was. So this is about all we had gathered, along with the fact she had debuted in Kona with a 9:08:45 win, an effort that included a sub 3-hour marathon.
The history of the Hawaii Ironman suggested that in order to do well at it you had to pay your dues with a few rite-of-passage crash-and-burns, apparently in order to earn some buried secret of what’s truly required in training to win the race and racing the race. Consider the bash-your-head-into-the-wall year-after-year apprenticeships that the likes of Mark Allen and Chris McCormack had to endure before breaking the tape on Ali’i Drive. It was as if some spunky Peace Corps volunteer had jumped into the race on a whim and accidentally won.
“Do you have a coach? Who’s your coach?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Brett Sutton.”
Ah. Things were starting to make some sense. She was coached by Brett Sutton, the controversial, outspoken coach who had produced scores of star triathletes. Wellington was part of a new triathlon team called teamTBB, Sutton was the coach, and in an Art of War brand of strategy, Sutton had accomplished two things with Wellington: Keeping Wellington hidden under the radar from unsuspecting competition and keeping her free and clear of any Hawaii Ironman mythology that might undermine her confidence. Hence, Wellington was unafraid to take the lead on the bike ride and ramble off with the race, and the pre-race favorites were happy to let some nutty rookie ride off to what they figured would be an epic bonk.
A few months later I would visit teamTBB during a training camp in Subic Bay, in the Philippines, and on the way I spent a day with the Dutch team owner, Alex Bok, who had recently fled the corporate banking world to chase an elaborate dream that combined a chain of high-end bike shops, a professional triathlon team and a digital hub that offered online coaching. Wellington’s starburst performance in Kona had put a spotlight on Bok and his new team and he was in overdrive trying to capitalize on the attention. The plan for teamTBB also called for global outreach, with a message of health, fitness and sport for all. In his Bike Boutique shop in Singapore, Bok took me through a Powerpoint presentation with all sorts of bullet points and flowcharts and timelines. I listened intently, draining a coffee to try and burn off the jet lag I was experiencing, all the while rather dubious about the launch of a pro triathlon team. Professional teams in a sport that is based on individual time trials is not a natural fit, due to the inevitable friction between sponsors who invest in the team and individual pros who might be courted by other sponsors. Wellington, for example, almost departed teamTBB in the immediate aftermath of her Kona victory
It had only been a couple of years since the flame-out of Tri Dubai, an assemblage of 10 triathlon superstars into one team, that was developed through an infusion of by no less than the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. It was odd: An international ensemble of some of the world’s best—including Peter Reid, Craig Alexander, Lisa Bentley and Simon Lessing—that really had no other team to compete against. It lasted two seasons.
So after seven years, Sutton is leaving teamTBB, after an incredible amount of success across the spectrum of triathlon racing. I spent a couple of days watching Sutton coach. He didn’t really want a journalist there—he told me point blank that he wasn’t a fan of introducing any new variable that might disrupt the focus of the athletes. Sutton was careful about who he let on the squad as well as who roomed with whom at training camp. Focus was one of the reasons they were in a remote location like Subic Bay. “I don’t want them mingling with triathletes outside of the team,” he told me. “They start hearing things that make them question what they’re doing in their training.” In Subic Bay, the athletes had heat, humidity, empty roads, a swimming pool and a track. They had isolation and a coach who monitored every swim stroke, every interval around the track, every bike ride.
Sutton has never been shy about expressing his criticism of how organizations like the ITU and WTC go about their business. It’s apparent that Sutton’s outspoken nature in this regard is at the heart of why he’s departing teamTBB.
Writing about his reasons for leaving for lavamagazine.com, Sutton stated, “I have made my intentions clear over these past few months that I strongly believe the sport requires a drastic change, but it seems that athletes and teamTBB staff don’t believe in my plan to actually implement this change.”
On his web site, trisutto.com, Sutton—in his characteristic copyediting-free writing style that has sort of an E.E. Cummings thing going on—announced his new plan of developing a new team. “I have about 40 people saying to me we will support this movement, thus we only need $4,960 to go to get a different type of team up and running, free of sponsor demands.”
In Alex Bok’s contribution to the lavamagazine.com piece, Bok politely brought the Sutton era of TeamTBB to an end, and suggested 2014 plans were coming soon.
“In about 2 weeks time teamTBB management will announce its 2014 strategy, 2014 pro athlete roster and coaching structure with Brett and Alex ensuring this team will continue its journey and deliver its vision for many more years to come,” Bok wrote.
Sutton, who was a boxer in his youth, has always been a polarizing character, attracting admirers and haters both. It will be fascinating to watch what he rolls out as well as to read his unleashed Twitter feed.
But another story here is teamTBB itself. When I think back on large-scale professional triathlon teams, in addition to Tri Dubai I think of Team J David and Team Foxcatcher, both teams ending with dark chapters. The owner of Team J David was convicted of defrauding investors of some $200 million in a Ponzi scheme. The owner of Team Foxcatcher was convicted of murder.
Seven years in and Team TBB is still going strong and is an amazing story in itself. Sutton deserves credit for adding to his string of triathlon champions. Bok deserves tremendous credit for holding a team together so long in a sport thick with willful personalities and a coach with even more will than them. What will be interesting to watch is how the team performs in the wake of Sutton’s departure, and what Sutton accomplishes now that he’s out on his own.
Editor’s update: The following video was posted on trisutto.com, and is Brett Sutton’s explanation for his decision to leave teamTBB.