The full version of the conversation we feature every month in our back page column.
For the pros, triathlon is taxing; travel, airfares, hotel food, homestays and brand building are part and parcel. We captured Ironman champ Luke McKenzie and wife, fellow pro and athlete manager Amanda Balding on a 24-hour layover after Ironman Cozumel, to hear how they manage.
Amanda Balding: when we got into the United States last night with your passport and without a visa, and I can’t remember how many times we do this and you say “you’ve got it!â€
Luke McKenzie: Usually I’m the one who’s organizing and you’re the one losing your marbles. So yeah, I had my one and only slip-up!â€
AB: One and only?!?! (laughs) I would like to point out Exhibit B: where is your wallet right now?
LM: OK, true—I’ve let my form slip over the last few weeks. (laughs) Luckily we’ve got each other. We travel quite well. Having to deal with carrying bikes and bags around the world, airline check-in schmooze, and I guess that’s your forte, getting us around the world effortlessly.
AB: I must give credit where credit is due, and you’ve stepped it up there. “whaddya mean the bike fee is $120 dollars? Whaddya mean we can’t get around it?â€ But last night’s divide and conquer diversion tactics regarding your visa was absolutely outstanding, and some of our best work. Coming into America, sans visa!
LM: What, are you trying to get me in trouble?!?
AB: It’s funny; we used to race together, then we raced separately, but we always travel together.
LM: Having you on the sidelines, it’s very helpful. I appreciate having that support on the course, but really before and after.
AB: I think you’re self-sufficient at the race, but for me it’s getting you meals, getting you ready and relaxed…. the details. I’m the emotional director. And food. I’m director of emotions and food!
LM: And entertainment and fun. And the wine director—that’s a very important part.
AB: Our existence is ever shifting, but our balance, the way we go from intensity to right now, eating chocolate cake, is important. I think you’re like someone like Leanda, you’re good at ensuring you have that balance—having a life. I think for you, if you don’t have those things you can become unbearable and actually lose focus and become a massive crank.
LM: When we first met, I was quite focused, but you came into my life when I didn’t have much else going on outside of triathlon. As we traveled together, we could actually enjoy, together, the environments we were traveling to. To be able to race at Ironman Brazil and hang in Rio a few days after the race, or race in Japan and visit Tokyo to break it up. To have someone to travel the world with on this Ironman journey, I think it’s what makes it special.
AB: We’ve been together for seven years, and when we met you’d been doing triathlon for 10 years. You’d been traveling solo. I’m not a high-maintenance lunatic pro—mainly because I have no talent! (laughs). But I do have application to the professional side of things. What I lack in ability I make up for in helping you understand the responsibilities of professionalism, managing media, although you’d already been amazing at your own branding. But when we met, it was a combination of both ambitions. You taught me how to apply myself better athletically, but as my management business took off, I could apply more of that to you.
And with that, I’ve had to step back from my own racing. Because—shocking revelation—I’m never gonna be a world champion. But hopefully, you will.
But there will be an expiry on that, there will be a time when you won’t be doing triathlon. In the meantime, we want to be successful as a team within the sport. And to do that, I don’t think we can simultaneously have the same goals. In the last two years we’ve made that shift, and I think it’s worked really well. When we first met, the financial responsibility was all on you. As we’ve gotten older, it’s not because we needed the money, but I needed something to stimulate myself outside racing. Because I’m never gonna be the trophy wife!
LM: You’re far from that. What you provide for me but for the team we train in is she a positive attitude. I get to experience it all the time. She’s out there supporting the sport. You’ll give me splits, but you’re out there giving everyone splits. I think that’s a pretty honorable thing, a great character trait.
AB: I feel lucky to be in this position. And it’s fun on the athlete representation side as well. I have the gift of the gab and understand both what an athlete needs, and what a sponsor needs out of that athlete. It started with you and has expanded with my eight athletes, and I love that it’s something I’m passionate about.
I still want to race and be the best I can be, but I want to really focus on supporting you, and my other athletes. And that means my season revolves 100 percent around your needs, and their needs. Whatever I can fit in after that is a bonus.
But I love how you represent the racing. What I love about you is even if you have a shitty day on the course, you’re willing to talk. They’ll be like ‘hey, sorry about your race,â€ and you’re like “aw, don’t worry about me.. how was your race?’ It’s about the age groupers, and I see that. Keeping in contact with fans, and that’s authentic, and I love that. Yes, every race for the pros is about who can get across that finish line first. But the minute that stops, I can see for you it’s about the age groupers. And what’s nice is it’s not a responsibility for you. That’s something I’m extraordinarily proud of you for.
LM: Well, you brought that out in me. It’s something I’ve learned. No matter whether a race has panned out or not, it’s become about being a professional right to the end. I know we can do more within our sport, and I know the age groupers appreciate it.
AB: That’s important when looking at this as a long-term career. And for us, it is a career. It was easy to look around and look at a guy like Chris Lieto and say ‘he’s a role model in our sport; what is he doing that we need to do to be more professional?
And we’re applying those things as we learn. And we love it. We’re crazy and out there, have a good time, we drink some wine and have fun. But we push the professional boundaries—both of us—every day. It’s a complete package!
And it works so well with our sponsors. They’re as involved with you as they are with me. You’re out there, among the athletes, the fans, the media. I think they see that value of us as a team.
Beyond that, it’s just great to see other couples making it work. I look at Linsey and Chris Corbin, Meredith and Aaron Kessler, Bella and Stephen Bayliss, Belinda and Justin Granger. Belinda and Justin are a great example. She’s been racing 150 years, and Justin’s been racing as well, but he’s definitely the support for her. And without him, she’d be nowhere. What he’s given up for her, there’s so much admiration for that.