Behind the Scenes
9 Apr, 2020
6 min read
As we count down to the start of SLTReloaded and the chance to relive the entire Super League journey from the very beginning, we asked one of its original architects, CEO Michael D’hulst, to talk us through how it came to be.
He shared some fascinating insights and never before told stories on how the world’s most exciting race Series came to life.
The idea for Super League first came from yourself and Chris McCormack. How did you two come to meet and start this project?
I see Super League growing out of my own story a little bit. I came from corporate, took a sabbatical to pick up what I was passionate about, which was triathlon, and qualify for the World Championships. I didn’t want to sit still and so started coordinating an event.The first long distance race I ever did was Challenge Wanaka and I was in touch with the people from Challenge and talked about establishing them in Asia as I was in Taiwan at the time and I got the licence for Challenge to organise races in Asia.The Chinese word for triathlon is Ironman and so that is a disadvantage for Challenge so I thought ‘let’s bring the biggest name in the sport over’, Chris McCormack, and he had just signed a brand ambassador contract with Challenge.He came to my event in Taiwan and we got chatting. Basically, Chris and I connected on how to build something in triathlon. Chris was at the end of his career and transferring from being an athlete and wanting to give back to the sport and I was keen to build a business in the sport I was passionate about.We had different opinions on how it should go than Challenge. I sold my licence and Chris ended being an ambassador and we started doing different things in triathlon.We continued to work together at Thanyapura where Chris was President and I did a one-year programme helping them restructure their sport programmes. With MG (Michael Gilliam) we established Bahrain Endurance and were always talking about the opportunities and what was missing in triathlon.
So at this point there is the idea to do something and then the third co-founder, Leonid Boguslavsky, comes into the picture. How did that come about?
Chris had a speaking engagement in Russia and happened to meet Leonid, who was very passionate about triathlon and had qualified for Kona and wanted to do something with his passion.We first had a couple of Skype calls with Leonid about the triathlon landscape as it is, we talked about Ironman and other events and then we spoke about creating a platform for professional athletes to shine and an opportunity to establish triathlon not only as a participation sport but also as a spectator sport.Leonid felt it was interesting and we set up meetings in London to talk it through. I had never met Leonid and had to organise a hotel room for Chris, Leonid and I and I didn’t know whether you get a successful businessman such as him a £1,000 a night suite or if I should book a £200 hotel room and then he thinks you’re disrespecting him!Thankfully, it went well. We spent two days talking and Leonid moved around other meetings as he was so engaged and we decided to do it and test the waters and see whether the athletes are interested.
So how did you then come up with the details of Super League Triathlon?
I was still living in Thailand and we were still doing brainstorming sessions in my house – do we call it Super League, do we call it Diamond League, do we use the word triathlon or swim-bike-run?There was a lot of conceptual thinking about what it was and thinking about it. All of it was written on blackboards hanging against the wall in my kitchen.A gentleman called Trent Taylor was quite involved too and it was very good times in sunny Thailand in shorts and flip flops drawing the colour scheme and such like on the blackboard.We saw an F1 car that was gold and black and liked it. In the end we opted for Super League Triathlon. We were concerned about SLT as initials for an obvious reason but in the end we went for it.
The test event in Hamilton Island followed remarkable quickly after this. What do you remember about it?
Everybody we talked to were old Challenge people because that was the network I had and some were based out of Australia which was how we got into Hamilton Island.As the first event we had a very very small team and there was very little accommodation there. Chris, Leonid and I shared a room but we also had MG sleeping on the ground and another guy called Derek sleeping on the ground. There were people sleeping everywhere because there was not enough accommodation to host everybody who was helping.It was basically a club of extended friends who jumped in to help and that was the atmosphere.The athletes too were very supportive because we were trying something very different.There are no cars on Hamilton Island but it is still a little bit of a distance and quite hilly so we were scooting around in these golf carts, dropping people off, picking things up. It was very hot. Very chaotic. But also a lot of fun.It was unique because it’s a private owned island so you don’t have to deal with police or anything else. The CEO was supportive so it was all good.It was very cool.
Does anything stand out from the build-up to that race?
Another guy that was involved was a guy from Iceland who wanted to do something new and he was managing an athlete called Sigurdur. He was white like a piece of paper.He wanted to participate because in winter there is no triathlon on Iceland.Basically they sent Sigurdur to race and in return they put the race on live TV in Iceland where he had a following.He came from -10c to Hamilton Island which was +40c. He was an ex-swimmer and on the long distance he was alright in Iceland but at short distance it was very different.Before the event we were all bunkered in Chris’s house in Sydney. Siggy flew in and Javier Gomez also and we are all staying with Chris.Siggy went on a training ride with Javier but after not very long – legend has it 10km – he was finished with heat stroke.The first race I seem to remember he came out of the swim, got a bit over excited and started hyperventilating and was done. He basically didn’t finish a race and never made it past the first lap of the bike.I don’t know how much Icelandic television got of him.But he was a good guy and Sigurdur’s coach was a man who lives in Jersey and he thought it was fantastic and it was from there that we got an event in Jersey.
So that was really the evolution of Super League as we know it today. Could you have imagined then it would grow like it has?
No, because it’s all been very organic and bootstrap.At some point we decided we couldn’t do it from a kitchen table in Thailand and we need to be more serious so we grew out of Singapore. The first year we had three people in an office.Every year it has grown bigger and bigger and faster than what we had expected and more successful than we had expected and long may that continue.
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