Chris McCormack On Triathlon’s Missing Year, Olympic Delays, Kona And The Dilemma Over 2020 Races

Chris McCormack Super League Triathlon on Kona, Ironman, PTO, Daytona, Lucy Charles-Barclay, Vincent Luis, Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf

Column by 4x World Champion Chris McCormack

I was really looking forward to the Olympics in 2020. They come around every four years, it’s the pinnacle of sport, and something that has moved me personally my entire life. Anyone who loves humanity and sport is just addicted by those 16 days.

As triathletes we are infatuated with Ironman, but that world championship comes around every year. You have four of them in the same cycle that you have one Olympic champion. This alone is what makes it so valuable and exciting.

Athletes may get one opportunity in a career to not only deliver at an Olympics but potentially go to one. This comes with so much pressure and expectation and history. It is seriously cool.

I was very eager to see triathlon again at the Olympics, and in particular the mixed relay. It’s a new Olympic sport that shows the depth of a nation. The Australians, Americans and Brits are very strong but the French were the ones to beat. The Olympics would then lead into not only a Super League season but also the 70.3 worlds in New Zealand, where many of these ITU talents were expected to bring a challenge to the long-course guys.

With the Olympics having to be postponed and the new realities of COVID, we may well see an acceleration in the change of how triathlon events are held, whether or not the virus is suppressed.

There had been loose talk over trying to make the Paris Olympics more appealing from a triathlon point of view and going down the super sprint pro races that Super League have proven work so well, but that could be accelerated now and I hear we may even see the elite world championships in the ITU take that sort of format in 2021, which would be an interesting twist for the sport.

When I look back over 2020 so far, I think the issues we have faced have affected athletes differently. The unfortunate thing for Vincent Luis was he got the year right; he just didn’t anticipate the pandemic. Had the year gone the way it was supposed to, he could have been an Olympic champion or even a dual Olympic champion as he could have won the individual event and the relay.

Whether he can carry that momentum into 2021 we have to wait and see, because a lot happens in a year. You can just miss your peak, and/or younger athletes step up – the likes of Tyler Mislawchuk, Hayden Wilde and Vasco Vilaca. These are athletes you weren’t looking at because they were inexperienced and young and didn’t have that strength and conditioning but will be 18 months older and are suddenly big players. That’s the scary thing for any athlete.

Vasco Vilaca Super League Triathlon

This pandemic showed the holes in the delivery of triathlon events at a professional level. Fundamentally, the issue for triathlon as a professional sport is the fact that pro races are delivered merely as an extension of mass participation events, and our over-reliance on Ironman to deliver them. If the mass participation market is disrupted, then professionals don’t get to race. But look at sports like cycling, athletics, tennis, football, rugby, basketball: while the start of their respective seasons were delayed, ultimately they didn’t stop having competitions because they’re not dependent on mass participation.

Super League’s SLT Arena Games and the Professional Triathletes Organisation event in Daytona are pro-only racing, which is part of the reason they’re able to go ahead. I hear the PTO are working with Homeland Security to get exemptions for professional triathletes to travel to their event – because there are exemptions allowed.

SLT Arena Games Super League Triathlon Jessica Learmonth

Part of me is torn on what to do during this pandemic. Sure ‘the show must go on’ attitude for all sports is a driver to get back to playing, but at some level we have to consider the ramifications of decisions we make to try to return quickly to our normal.

As a lover of sport, I want it back and normal as quickly as possible, but recently having directly known people who have contracted the disease, fallen very ill and even had members of their family die of the disease, the reality of what we are facing as a world is in your face. It makes me ask myself: “Is it tasteless to have an event in a major hotbed for the disease?”

There’s a duty of care as an event organiser. There’s a lot of people that don’t want to travel, and there’s a lot of people that can’t travel. There are people that maybe live with elderly parents or vulnerable people who could be compromised if they were to do this event. Sure you’re going to be a COVID-safe event, but even on the day of the race there may be a few hundred people who die of COVID in the state.

It is certainly something I have wrestled with personally as to what my opinion is, but I do not begrudge anyone the freedom to choose their own path and make their own decisions. It is one of those situations that we as a global community are going through together and is bigger than sport.

You’re still seeing athletes line up and take their spots and their wildcards for the racing. After the cancellation of so many races, there might be a realisation that nothing is a guarantee and you should take your racing opportunities when you can.

That’s why I’m a bit torn about how this reveals the innate selfishness of professional athletes. It is that very character trait that makes them so successful and achieving what they do, but at times can come off as narcissistic or selfish especially when you contrast it with a global pandemic as a backdrop and the death of more than 1 million people because of it.

I understand that driver of behaviour. I was a professional athlete myself and I get it. I’m not negative on them at all, and I am not faced with making those decisions personally as an athlete. But personally I just wish the sport would have waited another year. What is the relevance of or the importance of or the need to get back to racing in December?

This pandemic is exploding globally and is moving to an even greater peak in infections in Europe and the USA. Why would we not wait out the winter and throw on a big race in June to witness?

Then again, we were anticipating by this time of year we would be talking about a potential vaccine and a reopening of the world in the beginning of the second quarter 2021. That’s looking less and less likely. 2020 didn’t go ahead, but there were less cases when they locked down the world at the start of the year than there are now. I don’t understand how people think without a vaccine 2021 events can go ahead as normal. So I guess that does make the Daytona race pretty exciting, because it may be the last race we’ll see for a while.

That is the thing with a pandemic, and I guess the reason we all have struggled with the uncertainty of things. As athletes, certainty and structure and consistency are the key ingredients of planning. The pandemic has removed all of those in one clean swipe.

I am looking forward to watching the racing again and all the athletes compete. It is such an incredible situation the world finds itself in, it is impossible to pass judgment or opinions on the reasons behind any decisions.

It is with this mindset, that I will eagerly sit back and watch the racing unfold, and by seeing the athletes I admire so much race in a sport I adore again, may be a reminder of what normality looks like, and where we all hope to return as soon as possible. For that few hours, it will be my escape to sit back and enjoy sport, and block out all the issues we have been dealing with for the past 12 months. Maybe it will be great to taste what normal feels like again in this sense.

What Might Have Been In Kona

By the time the first weekend of October rolled around this year, I had already come to terms with there being no Ironman race in Hawaii to watch. That’s because relatively early in the year, when the Olympics was postponed, the realisation that Kona was going to get cancelled was pretty obvious.

A full blown global pandemic that was wreaking havoc upon vulnerable individuals worldwide and was a once in a lifetime phenomenon made it pretty obvious the normality of life as we knew it was going to be heavily disrupted in 2020, and the world was facing a bigger challenge than Ironman Hawaii in 2020. Many people are worried about their health, the health of their loved ones and really trying to understand the enormity and the disruption of Covid-19 on the entire planet.

Viewing the entire situation as a triathlete in, for the sake of this article, very selfish eyes, I was bummed for the athletes and for the island. The cancelation of the 2020 event will be part of the history of this event, but you cannot neglect the fact that it comes with real life consequences for many.

From the professional point of view, I do feel it was a bigger loss for the athletes who are towards the end of their careers. They don’t have the luxury of losing many competitive years and athletic age at the end of your career seems to magnify compared to those years in your youth. It’s like getting injured; you lose a chance to race, and then you’re older the following year and you’re not the same athlete.

Ironman world champion Anne Haug at SLT Arena Games for Super League Triathlon

Athletes age in dog years in many cases which can be a positive or a negative depending on your year of birth in relation to the season. For younger athletes a year comes with additional strength, mental confidence and personal growth along with a natural evolution into refining your craft to be better than the year prior. They start to move closer to their athletic peak, and that sweet spot in your career where everything just fires, a true harmony of mental and physical strength and perfection of your craft.

Older athletes have moved through this period in their career and most of the time are trying to marginally adjust things to remain in this zone for as long as possible. Experience and confidence become bigger strengths than they ever have and athletic IQ allows many older athletes to continue to dominate and better mix those ingredients to deliver the knock out punch that wins races.

Unfortunately, as time progresses, those little physical advantages start to dwindle and no matter how much experience you have, you suddenly find yourself not able to deliver the same power behind those performances. Ultimately, father time takes from the pot of perfection and leaves athletes on the other side of the mountain and the dreaded descent towards professional retirement.

In 2020 I was really excited by the women’s racing and what this potentially could look like. The first breakdown in Kona in 2019 by the great Daniela Ryf almost showed a human side of her racing that allowed many of her competitors to begin to believe that vulnerability is something that Daniela does possess.

The snowball effect and the momentum of success when an athlete is so dominant for such a long period of time can be a difficult obstacle to face for a competitor as you have no focal point for weaknesses and you have been on the receiving end of those beatings race after race.

You start to believe the media and the hype around an athlete and find it mentally difficult to overcome that. Sure you “hope” you can win and focus on your race and your day, but hope is not a strategy and when you have never seen a competitor break, it makes it difficult to envisage.

This is not the case anymore. Daniela showed a side to her competitors they have never seen before. This does not mean she is any different of an athlete. All it does is break the illusion of invincibility for her competitors and this is a very powerful thing.

Lucy Charles-Barclay Super League Triathlon

Lucy Charles-Barclay has been a super impressive athlete for me. Her inexperience is mind boggling when you contrast it with her success. Sure, Lucy was a world class swimmer and amazing endurance athlete in her own right, but you are talking about an athlete who has only been riding a bike for 5 years and is new to running.

Year on year she has raced from the front, expressing her strengths, but with courage and conviction of a much more experienced athlete. She’s improved her marathon and 10K run times, her swim’s got better, and she’s another year stronger on the bike. People forget that it takes four or five years to build that bike efficiency and that true bike strength that gives you the power to deliver big marathons off big rides.

Race experience comes with the more racing you do, and with Lucy you have a woman who doesn’t even have that ITU racing experience to lean on. She is growing up on the Ironman racing circuit where you don’t race as much, so I am constantly impressed with her as an athlete and the way she attacks this style of racing. Ironman is tough. It requires a marriage of mental strength, an almost obsessively selfish focus on the preparation, and a belief that the outcome you are chasing (a victory) is something you are more than capable of doing.

From age grouper to second in Kona to winning two South African titles, she’s right there in everything she does and she’s learning with the sport. It just doesn’t happen like that.

Daniela Ryf came to Kona but she was an U23 world champion, dual Olympian, and had some serious background to her in the triathlon space. Lucy missed out on the Rio Olympics as a swimmer and turned to triathlon the following year. That’s only four years ago, and since then she has got three second places at Kona. I know people are aware of that, but you need to look at it in its true context. We are looking at an athlete who is moving up in distance. We are looking at a triathlon rookie who is learning her craft year on year and right now with the lack of experience in her racing legs, is three times the vice champion of the world. It is remarkable.

Lucy is still so inexperienced in that space and what she’s been able to deliver in such a short period of time is marvellous, it’s just been shielded because of the presence of Daniela Ryf who’s a monster in her own right. If you remove Daniela from the equation and look at the success of Lucy, she’s a freaking dynamo.

We have a very similar dynamic on the men’s side with Cameron Wurf, who is just an amazing athlete full stop. An Olympic rower, professional cyclist and now a front runner and dictator of terms in Kona, he is a breath of fresh air on the male side of racing.

The sheer dominance of Jan Frodeno at this race has been remarkable, and we were able to experience the two years of success of Patrick Lange, which was nice to witness.

The men’s racing doesn’t seem to excite me as much anymore. I see so much more competitive racing on the women’s side, but this may be a by-product of the simple fact that whilst many athletes on the men’s side are capable of winning this event, Jan has their measure mentally and for good reason.

He, like Daniela, has dominated them and has had such a rich history in the short course racing that his pedigree is unmistakable. He is flawless at everything he does, his preparation is spot on and his professionalism in preparation and focus is unwavering.

Alistair Brownlee is racing in the Super League Triathlon eSports Cycling Series on Zwift

It is the emergence of Alistair Brownlee that excites me the most in Ironman racing, because I do not believe the sport has ever seen an athlete with his physical capabilities. His racing IQ is flawless, his ability to win on the biggest stage is unmatched and he is the only athlete I feel truly believes he can beat Jan Frodeno.

He doesn’t have to talk himself into that belief, I think it is truly deeply exciting inside him, and he has done it for many years over the shorter distances. Their match racing scoreboard falls in favour of Alistair Brownlee. Now, as he moves up to this distance and his body adapts to the changing energy systems and the demands of the longer distances, his experience is rock-solid and his head space is where it needs to be to win.

I am disappointed not to see this progression in 2020 and the showdown between the two Olympic legends in what is potentially in the twilight of opportunities.

This is the excitement I miss on the men’s side. The male racing has become one of opportunity with Jan Frodeno in the race. What I mean by this is that the athletes build their races around his race, because he is flawless in his disciplines.

Jan dictates the pace and flow of the race and it takes courage to be a true disrupter to that mix, both mentally and physically. Athletes tend to race and only seize on opportunity if they present around Jan failing. Alistair is not that type of racer. He is a dictator of terms in the same way Jan is, and this is why it is exciting to see another athlete come in who can attack Kona like this and be a possible disrupter in every sense. I so hope we get to see this in 2021.

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