By Christian Newbold
To me, the 2016 Rio Olympic Triathlon events held special interest. Several months before, I paid a visit to the training ground of America’s Gwen Jorgensen to visit the man in whose hands she placed her Olympic hopes. And I found out why. Jorgensen was among a select group who were firmly focussed on the Olympic Games – some had already made it, while others were at the do-or-die end of the Olympic selection period. In the end, an incredible 8 athletes from this group gained Olympic selection for their respective countries.
“This is Alaska.” I sunk my hand into the soft white fur of a beautiful 10-year-old husky. “She’s a rescue dog. We got her when she was two from a couple who split and couldn’t look after her – just after Hamburg worlds in 2007.” Like any dog, she was naturally reactive to her environment, barking at other dogs one moment, ready to receive affection from passers-by the next, but all the while brought swiftly into line by an owner who knows her better than she knows herself. A great dog made better!
I was on Australia’s east coast, though I wasn’t there to meet a dog. After flying to Sydney, I caught a train south to the smaller city of Wollongong, tracking the scent of Olympic gold.
From the moment I left Sydney Airport, the outer suburbs opened-up to the classic coastal surfy-culture towns synonymous with the Australian coastline. It certainly looked like a place I’d find world class and Olympic triathletes – wide-open blue sea to one side, and rolling hinterland hills that beckoned cyclists with cool zephyr whispers to come ride the winding, sun-soaked and tree-lined roads.
I passed through towns with names like Wolli Creek, Bulli, Woonona, Bellambi and Towradji, before reaching Wollongong, a larger version of the similar indigenously named towns I had just passed. ‘The Gong’ lies on a narrow coastal strip between the Illawarra Escarpment and the Pacific Ocean, 51 miles south of Sydney. Her population of over 200,000 makes her Australia’s tenth largest city.
By now it was 3pm, and I’d hit the beach. I’d arranged to meet Jamie Turner, a New Zealander who splits his time between Australia, New Zealand, and the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque Country of northern Spain, and happens to be one of the most influential go-to ITU, Olympic distance coaches in the world. His group who call themselves the ‘Wollongong Wizards’, was to be swimming an ocean set, and he’d invited me to join him beach-side. Perfect!
After some uncomfortable small-talk with two tattooed ‘surfers’ who circled and spoke in slurred sentences, asking me why lots of “blokes like you are down the beach today”, I spied a group of smooth-skinned, swim-suited athletes carrying wetsuits. I escaped the surfy sharks who smelled my growing fear, ran through the flowing beach-side showers, and mingled among the pod of triathlete dolphins.
Jamie Turner and Alaska sat a few feet away waiting for the Wizards to suit up. They include, among others, America’s 2014 and 2015 World Champion and 2012 and Rio qualified Olympian, Gwen Jorgensen, three-time Olympian-to-be, Barbara Rivaros from Chile, and the Rio-bound Australians Aaron Royle and Ryan Bailie.
I wasn’t totally sure of what to expect. Would it be a Brett Sutton type character? In a way, I hoped so. The infamous Australian coach was able to create 16 ITU World Championships and three Olympic medals from a mixed background of training race-horses, greyhounds and swimmers, all three of which to him represented physiologically adaptive animals.
With his apparent take-no-prisoners, do-as-I-say, eggs-against-the-wall approach, coupled with stories of killer sessions in exotic and isolated locations, he sent both excitement and fear into the world of triathlon. Athletes willingly surrendered control of their own training over to Sutton for the chance to be part of his triathlon super-species, ruled by his training methods and a hierarchical, pecking-order culture that allowed the most successful and experienced dominance, and the least, a carrot to covet.
Or perhaps it was a Col Stewart I was seeking. He extrapolated 1980’s speed-skating methodologies and track-cycling logic, and subjected his chargers to a work-load of sufferable specificity, seasoned with poetic inspiration. His approach produced multiple World Champions, including son (a former speed skater) Miles Stewart, six Olympians, three dual Olympians, and one triple Olympian.
It was too intriguing an opportunity to pass-up! Before me was a similar such despot of greatness, and I wanted to find out why some of the Worlds’ best had aligned their Olympic dreams with Jamie Turner.
Turner’s coaching journey began in New Zealand where playing different sports exposed him to quality coaches. “If you were somebody who was coached well, you took it upon yourself to pass that knowledge on,” he recounts. That knowledge seemed to stick. Upon returning to university in 1995 to study health and physical education, he worked in a bike shop, and it was there some junior triathletes asked him for some assistance with their cycling. Serendipitously, this led him to Rohan Taylor, a great coach back then, and now one of Australia’s foremost swim coaches who heads the coaching team at the powerful Nunawading Swim Club in Melbourne. Turner suggested he look after the dry-land component of Taylor’s triathletes in exchange for him observing and learning the art of swim coaching from Taylor.
He worked with and absorbed every bit of information he could from Rohan Taylor until 2000. During that time, he also started working and learning with 1980 and ‘84 Olympian and swimming coach, Ron McKeon at the Illawarra Academy as the swimming program manager.
Through overseeing the dry-land component with Rohan Tylor and managing the swimming program at the Illawarra Academy with Ron McKeon, Turner learned the triathlon craft. He immediately points-out that both Rohan and Ron are his original coaching mentors.
A couple of years later an opportunity to run the University of Wollongong swimming pool brought him to town. “In one day I got a job, found a place to live and a flat mate. It was like it was meant to be.”
Though he was coaching mainly adult programs and learn to swim, his move to The Gong put him in position for his next big break. Turner secured a job with Triathlon Australia to assist athletes in the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) program. “Then in 2005 I was really fortunate to be awarded the AIS coaching scholarship – the first for triathlon.” Ron McKeon was awarded the first ever AIS coaching Scholarship after returning from the 1984 Olympic Games, and following in his mentor’s footsteps some 20 years later is significant for Turner. It was another example of passing the coaching baton to the next generation.
It was a pivotal time. Prior to then, as he says, “I was working to coach, and then I was coaching to work.”
Turner has taken the expert knowledge and experience he absorbed from his mentors, and coupled it with a natural tendency toward holism. “At the end of the day … it’s the person who wins the race, and for the genre of athlete I choose to work with, there’s more to it than just the physical. Often for me that’s the smallest part.”
He teaches resilience as much as anything else, and in the cut-throat world of professional sport, resilience counts! He realises the qualities that make-up the whole person in their daily lives are the very same qualities that will accompany them onto the pontoon at the start of a WTS race. Imparting knowledge and developing new skills in non-triathlon areas are just as important, “… and vice versa.”
When Under-23 World Champion Wizard, Jacob Birtwhistle from Tasmania, Australia secured his title in 2015, it was thanks to a perfectly executed race plan. But race plans don’t always pan-out. After being dunked and swamped in the first 200m of the 2016 WTS Gold Coast swim, Jake found himself out the back. “But he didn’t shut-up shop and become a victim,” says Turner, “he kept on looking at the ways and means of forwarding himself towards the finish line.” As well as his best WTS race since Yokohama in 2015, it was the best performance to date that Turner had witnessed from Jake.
“Jake showed a lot of character … and I’m really proud of that. For these young guys, sometimes it takes a bit of learning to fight for tenth or to fight for eighth, or sixth, rather than a top-ten coming your way because the strategy’s come out.”
It’s where physical ability and personal fortitude slot together that Turner masterly crafts a seamless Mortise and Tenon joint with his athletes. “For me my business is not the business of triathlon, it’s the business of people. My role is to develop people who are better equipped to take-on and meet and exceed the demands of our sport.”
And this is what he has been doing ever since – developing these triathlete people to meet and exceed the demands of the sport, specifically the Olympic distance format – and it was a statement he would come back to time and again in the few days I spent shadowing Turner and the Wizards.
To me, the white husky held totemic symbology. Ariel Spilsbury’s Mayan Oracle tells us that white dogs represent “companions in fate.” The Wizards are exactly that! They all have a strong desire to be the best triathletes they can be, and Jamie Turner has the same strong desire to extract greatness from them.
At the beach, The Wizards organised themselves, received their instruction from Turner, and headed to the ocean. “Who are they?” asked my new surfy mates, perhaps realising I wasn’t who they thought I was, “and seriously, how can we join?” Their clueless inquiry highlighted the chasm between the elite nature of the Wizards and the rest of the world. But still, it was a good question.
Turner makes no apologies for his insistence on elitism. In the same way that Brett Sutton and Col Stewart, along with many of the world’s great coaches did, Jamie Turner has created an environment of performance. Every day the athletes are able to train in and around a group where the standard is elite. It’s not so much an expectation as simply a way of life, a way to meet and exceed those demands of the sport.
He pointed me to the justifying manifesto of Mark Twight, the enigmatic founder of Salt Lake City, UT hard-ass institution Gym Jones. It states, in part, “We exclude. It is not a question of elitism vs. egalitarianism because there can be no question … It’s not T-Ball.”
Elite performers are invited to join, “because they foster the environment we prefer. Talented athletes surround themselves with others of a similar or higher calibre – both mental and physical – and improve by doing so. The parallel motive has to do with choosing who we want to spend our limited time with: why would we open our arms to any and every one?”
The silver bullet sought by the local surfers wouldn’t be found here!
The Wizards comprise a long standing elite core. In the case of Aaron Royle and Ryan Bailie, success has represented a combined 16 years of development under Turner. But that’s not necessarily the rule. If you are of a similar or higher calibre, Turner is definitely open to what you have to offer.
“I call it ‘profit sharing’,” Explains Turner. Hungary’s Ákos Vanic has occasionally joined the Wizards during the northern hemisphere’s winter. “He gets towelled-up during training, but this guy is a racer!” Vanic’s ability to race all-out for a podium finish certainly makes an impression. “It’s good for the athletes not to get too comfortable with their own ranking system. Just because you beat someone in training doesn’t give you the right to beat them in a race.” Vanic’s type compels an osmotic dissemination of expertise; the Wizards profit, and Turner loves it!
Young Canadian, Tyler Mislawchuk from Winnipeg, Manitoba, is another athlete, another person, who teeters on the brink of Olympic selection. Having been unable to secure automatic selection his fate lies in the discretionary hands of Triathlon Canada.
Mislawchuk came to Turner in 2014. After moving out of Manitoba (where the less-than-ideal winter weather can drop into the -50’s) into the Patrick Kelly trained Hong Kong squad, Mislawchuk raced his first World Cup of the 2014 season in, of all places, New Zealand. He’d only recently moved from the junior distance to the full distance, 1.5/40/10 format of Olympic distance racing.
Was he prepared enough to meet and exceed the demands of the sport? As the gun went off, those that mattered assumed he was. After the swim he found himself badly positioned on the bike. “I was caught in a pile up, which ended with a broken jaw and a few missing teeth.” The X-ray clearly showed the snapped condyle of his mandible that required four screws to stabilize, and the broken teeth that gave him a bare-fist fighters grin, at least until they were fixed.
Turner already had his eye on the young Canuck. Perhaps he saw another rescue dog, another Alaska. He did see talent that, though green, had tremendous opportunity for development. But such talent alone rarely cuts it in the big-time. Mislawchuk spent four weeks on a liquid diet, a few more on a soft-foods-only regime, and was limited to training on a stationary bike and an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill until his jaw could again handle the impact forces of the outside world.
“A new place, a new coach, a new training squad … was exactly what I needed,” said Mislawchuk in an interview with Alexandre Saint-Jalm on Trimes, speaking of his move to Wollongong. “What this opportunity allowed was for me to fully commit; and eat/sleep/breathe the high performance lifestyle. It changed my perspective on the sport and really opened my eyes.”
Before anyone joins the group, they usually undertake what Turner terms the LSD experience. What sounds like a blooding or fraternity initiation hazing actually stands for ‘look, search, discover’. “It’s important for me to see if I can look at the athlete and communicate with them.” Turner is looking for the capacity to make change. Is there the potential for transfer of knowledge and to introduce new skills?
They don’t necessarily have to contribute. “We’re not a team, we’re a group of individuals, and I need to provide an environment for the individuals to flourish.” Turner needs to see if they are congruent with his core values. Do they show respect for others and do they show gratitude? Do they fit with the M.O?
Even Gwen Jorgensen, whose success and contribution are undeniable, required scrutiny. But not so much from Turner as from herself, and it was classic Jamie Turner to hand ownership of her decision over to her. Of course Turner would want to help an athlete of her caliber, but she had to want it more! Jorgensen had previously done some stints in Wollongong, but her decision to move on a more permanent basis came after her 2012 Olympic disappointment where a flat tire resulted in her finishing 38th.
“After London,” she said, “I had a complete look at my performance and knew I had to improve my weaknesses.” To reach the next level, she saw the opportunity for elite immersion in Wollongong as a great developmental platform. “Plus, Jamie is known for helping improve swim technique so that is why I joined him and am currently on this journey to Rio with Jamie.”
Turner has clearly seen the steady progression of growth and development from the double World Champion. We were talking just after Jorgensen had been bested by Great Britain’s Helen Jenkins at the same Gold Coast WTS that demonstrated Birtwhistle’s admirable qualities. But it was no biggie, possibly even beneficial – a bit like a GC contender removing pressure through surrendering the Maillot Jaune during the first week of Le Tour. Having just returned from a Rio-specific stint of training in New Plymouth, New Zealand, both Jorgensen and Turner were more focussed on the Olympic games. “My goal is to win in Rio, it has been since 2012, that was my goal before Gold Coast and that is still my goal now,” said Jorgensen on the eve of the next WTS race in Yokohama.
Turner’s current substantive as a contracted coach for Triathlon Australia means he not only has access the finest athletes, but a great team of professionals that make up the Triathlon Australia Integrated Services Team (IST). The team incudes nutritionists, sports psychologists, motor learning experts, physiotherapy, biomechanical analysts, and exercise physiologists – a plethora of providers who contribute to the athletes’ success. “I have to have great trust in the people who I let into the environment,” says Turner, and that doesn’t just mean funded professionals. The athletes pay for other trusted professionals, for example Olympic sprint coach, Paul Hallam, whose proof of expertise lies in his history both as a coach and as someone who has worked with Turner in the past. “I want their fingerprints to be upon the athletes’ success, but also I feel trusting that I can delegate performance out to these folks.”
A day later Turner was running around solving a problem with Canadian triathlete, Amelie Kretz’s Cannondale. A miss-matched bottom bracket conversion that caused the crank to fall off during a training ride was the result of athletes delegating performance out to a local bike shop in Canada. “They’ve installed the wrong part,” said Turner, “and here we are today – her bloody crank fell off her bike! That could have been an Olympic qualification event; that could have been her jamming 700 watts out of a U-turn in Chicago. How did that happen?” Turner seeks to eliminate unknown quantities. “And that’s why I want them (the service providers) to live and die by athlete performance.”
The training I witnessed didn’t exactly fit into the category of fearsome legend. There were no double-century rides, no marathon distance runs ending with Alpine ascents, and no group grudge matches to decide who were the alpha-athletes. Sure they use each other’s abilities to push a little further, but that’s part of the elite environment. And nothing is wasted.
At the University of Wollongong pool, the sun shone off both the ripples of tan muscle and the blue water. Turner was talking the talk with a second year exercise physiology student on his practical experience. While wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, a vexed expression adorned the student’s visage. “We don’t talk in energy systems …” explained Turner. Yep, forget the text books, buddy! Here on the absolute cutting edge, it’s a whole new language all together. At the pool we’re speaking not just swimming, but 2016 WTS Yokohama swimming.
‘Energy systems’ take a back seat to actual ‘perceived effort’ – perceived effort on a scale of zero to exactly-what-I-need-to-do-to-meet-and-exceed-the-demands-of-competition.
“I’m looking at what their habits are like in terms of their execution,” said turner. An element of technique was isolated, then isolated under duress, then executed as a whole body movement. “It all looks pretty good.”
It went further. “Aaron, for example, is quite efficient. He’s got a vocabulary to meet all of the demands.” Vocabulary? Yes. But not just words; these guys possess an available bank of coached savvy, learned expertise, and tacit noumena. They’re the ultimate students, possessing the innate triumvirate skills of ability, openness to learning, and the X-factor. And Turner is the ultimate teacher.
Later that day, we assembled at the Kerryn MacCann Athletics Centre, named after the 2002 and 2006 Australian Commonwealth Games Marathon gold medallist who tragically lost her life to breast cancer in 2008. The triathletes were running 12 quarters at 5k race-pace, with a 30-second recovery. “I gave them a second option as well,” Turner informed me, “but I knew they’d choose this one. That way they have ownership of the session.”
The goal? To meet and exceed the demands of competition, of course. “Watch this,” Jamie said while nudging me. He called to the recovering Mislawchuk, “Hey Missie, what’s the target?” With some confidence, Tyler gave him a numbers based answer. “1:08.” “No. Try again.” Ah, that ‘vocab’ again. The target is the process; the process is the goal. The times are the outcomes. Focus first on the process and the outcomes will happen. “Oh right … Straight posture, arms high.” “You got it!” He pulled the same trick on Canadian Sarah-Anne Brault with similar effect. “Focus. Stay in the moment, Sarah,” said Turner. Nothing is wasted.
Gwen Jorgensen, meanwhile, clinically ripped out sub-70-second reps, focussed and infallible. Behind her, Amelie Kretz worked off Jorgensen’s metronomic pace, all the while osmotically learning from the best in the world. Jake Birtwhistle was eating each 440-yard repetition under the minute, executing each stride with the technique that had him running 29:23 for 10k, and low-14’s for 5k on the track as a junior. The smart money says he could do better than that now, but straight 10k track races aren’t the focus any more. How fast can he go off the bike? We wouldn’t have to wait too long for confirmation.
“Shift and hold. Blue carpet, back end,” Shouted Turner. Like Pavlov’s dog, Mislawchuk straightened-up looking strong, shifted gear, and salivated at the prospect of running all-out across the blue carpet of the next WTS event in Yokohama.
So, what did I find on the south-east coast of the Australian continent? While it most certainly was a despot of elitism, I didn’t discover a Sutton, or a Stewart, or any other coach architype that I could definitively pin-point. There were, however, clues. “But, don’t forget,” said the great Australian running coach, Percy Cerutty, “my ideas are only what’s been written down in history by the great people of the world who’ve gone before.”
In spending time with Jamie Turner, I heard echoes of a Cerutty. Turner has by no means defined himself, nor does he want to. “Triathlon is too immature to be too definitive of who you are.”
“I don’t have a product that I see in myself as,” stated Turner. “Some coaches told me that I had to define myself, I had to market myself. I don’t want to be a product, I want to be malleable, I want to have the capacity to engage in a variety of MO’s to suit the needs of the individuals in the group.”
It hasn’t just been Ron McKeon and Rohan Taylor who have impressed Turner. As a Kiwi, he has tremendous respect for legends like rowing coach Dick Tonks, rugby union’s Sir Graeme Henry, and Kirsten Hellier, coach of the incredible New Zealand shot-putter, Valerie Adams. “And in 1992 as a young fella, I attended an Arthur Lydiard workshop,” he said giving the most quintessential offering of New Zealand’s input.
He has tapped into Australian national cycling coach and ex-World Champion track phenom, Rodney McGee, he’s spent a short but very impactful time with Michael Bohl, a coach who took nine swimmers to the 2012 London Games, and as part of the AIS coaches’ study tour during his scholarship, he went to Duke University and the San Antonio Spurs where, “it was fantastic to see the legacy of their core values, and how they have shaped their winning attitudes. People who had real sustained success, or were coaching pioneers really moulded me, and I’ve utilised these experiences to shape my values and attitude of how and why I coach.”
Cerutty went on to say, “All I’ve done is condense the wisdom of the world into an attitude for athletics … it’s a way of life.” Perhaps this is the essence of the coach Jamie Turner.
As the Olympic-hopeful Wizards lined the pontoon of WTS Yokohama a few weeks after I flew out of Sydney bound for home, Turner’s final words, “trust yourself in the back end,” echoed in their ears.
The women’s race went first, and the indefatigable American, Gwen Jorgensen simultaneously put herself back on top of the WTS podium and silenced any critics. Her back end 32:15 for the final 10k run was the fastest ever on the Yokohama course, and secured her fourth consecutive win at Japan’s WTS race.
Fifth home was the Wizard’s former under-23 female World Champion, Charlotte McShane. The already qualified Australia, Emma Moffatt may well have her as a teammate, while Amelie Kretz firmed-up her case to Triathlon Canada for selection in the Rio squad with a career best eighth, as did Sarah-Anne Brault with her 13th position.
29:45 was the run split that enabled Jake Birtwhistle to secure fourth. His rival for Rio, Ryan Fisher finished 13th. Both athletes were totally deserving of selection as the announcement was made on the morning of May 23. In the end, Fisher got the discretionary nod. Reluctant to make any predictions, Turner told me earlier that, “discretion is everything, anything, and nothing.” This also held true for Charlotte McShane as she too missed selection. Meanwhile, Tyler Mislawchuk fought back in the closing kilometres of the run to get himself in the top 10, and firmly in sight of the selectors.
Now, Turner and the Wizards are in their Basque Country base of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Incredibly, Jamie Turner’s brace of Olympians could total eight come the 2016 Rio Games, depending on the discretion of Triathlon Canada. As to medals, that’s another story. But you can be assured that any athlete who has trained with Turner and has called themselves a Wollongong Wizard will be ready to meet and exceed the demands of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games triathlon!