THE LONG JOURNEY IS ONLY JUST BEGINNING
Courtney Atkinson has been Australia’s best performed male triathlete at the past two Olympic Games. Now he’s preparing to increase the distance dramatically in a bid to tackle the sport’s Everest – the Hawaii Ironman.
What are you training towards at the moment?
I’m out of the Olympic Games cycle so I’ve stepped completely away from the ITU style events. I’ve stepped down from the national program. Now that’s not to say that in two or three years time I won’t come back and put my hand up when the Olympics roll around again though. If I’m still fit and racing well enough and no one has stepped up to the plate I’d probably look at changing my mind. But at the moment I’m trying some longer course stuff.
Sounds like you’re setting yourself up for a crack at the Hawaii Ironman?
Yeah well Hawaii is the holy grail of long course triathlon. In my mind the Olympic Games is the pinnacle. The range of guys from different countries competing now is just unbelievable. Even from a decade ago it has jumped incredibly. It’s amazing and the quality is huge. Then you have the industry side of the sport which is the older style. The longer distances. The Hawaii race and all that which I suppose in a lot of ways is the basis of our sport. And Hawaii is the big one there.
How realistic is that Hawaii Ironman goal then? It’s a tough event.
Look I’m not naïve. I’m not going to step out now and say “yeah I’m going to go and win Hawaii this year.” I wouldn’t say anything ridiculous like that. But I’ll start off at half-distance and tinker around a little bit and just see if I’ve got the right body and level to be able to go over that type of distance and then take it from there. So this year is a bit of a ‘try everything’ type year. I won the off-road triathlon at Anglesea not long ago and I’ll probably go to the world championships for that in Maui at the end of the year. So from now on I’m back on on-road racing anywhere from four hours plus type distances.
How much time do you need to put into your body before you can feasibly transform from an ITU event triathlete into a Hawaii Ironman competitor?
That’s the hard question and I don’t know the answer to be honest. Some guys, like Bevan Docherty from New Zealand, an Olympic medallist, he stepped up and won Ironman New Zealand on his debut and broke the course record. I think the quality of athletes coming from the Olympic Games is perhaps a little better to what has crossed over in the past. So it’s a bit of an unknown. I know a couple of guys who have stepped up from the Olympics straight into Ironman. There’s a couple of Spanish guys who even skipped the Olympics and went on to win their first Ironman earlier this year. So that kind of shows me I’d be competitive. But there’s a number of elements that go into Hawaii. The heat. The hardness of it. It might take guys a little bit longer to prepare but that’s what I’m wanting to find out.
Hence the baby steps to begin?
Yeah at the half-distance I’m kind of throwing myself into the deep-end but not going too far out where you get walloped and can’t get back out. You’ve got to be able to get over that half-distance well I think before you can seriously even consider going competitively into the Ironman. Eight hours is a whole different beast!
Will you start that this year then?
I’ve got it pencilled in. But the world championship for the half-distance is in Las Vegas in September so that’s probably the main target. That and that off-road event in Maui. They’re probably my two focus events this year but like I said, it’s just playing with things a little and doing what I want to do. I followed the Olympic pathway for 10 years. You have to follow a certain pathway and do certain things and qualify and do everything that goes along with trying to be an Olympian. So it’s actually nice to go “you know what. I’m going to go and race off-road this weekend on my mountain bike and have some fun.” So I’m doing some things that I would love to do and haven’t had the chance to do for the past 10 years because the Olympic Games are such a big thing.
How do you make that step up? Just incrementally increase your distance until you feel physically and mentally ready?
Yeah it’s just tinkering. I think I’ll get a feel for it as I’m going along. I have done a half Ironman before and done quite well. So the changes in training to go from triathlon to half Ironman aren’t that astronomical. The unknown is going double that distance. I think the training is more about educating your body. Teaching it to use the right fuel. You’re going to try and race eight hours with a marathon at the end so you’ve got to get your body burning fat super effectively. Whereas at the Olympic Games racing we’re still quite explosive and burning through higher carbohydrate loads and using that as our fuel.
It sounds easy when you say it like that!
Yeah well you’ve nearly got to change your whole body composition to be more efficient at burning fat. You’re whole movement has to be more efficient. The pace is dramatically slower but you’ve got to do it for four times as long. But I think that will happen pretty quickly. I think I’ll get a fair idea of whether I’m capable or not.
Do you walk away from Olympic Games competition satisfied with your results then?
Yeah. I mean we all want to win medals and I’m no different. I went to Beijing as a favourite to win a medal and came away with 11th. I wasn’t disappointed with my race. I did the best I could and had a good race and was 11th on the day. But disappointed in the sense we went there with expectations to win or at least medal. Then looking at London, well my form over the year leading up to the Olympics was never going to make me a medal contender. So I went in sort of as a best-case scenario, anything’s a bonus type thing and let’s see what we can do.
I guess 11th at the Olympics isn’t a bad result then?
Well after what I went through to be selected, to have a good race and come away as the best placed of the Aussies was a good result. Over the last decade I’ve been the number one Australian Olympian in the sport. So I walked away thinking, well down in my country I’ve still got the goods. So the good thing for me, which I think is different for guys in the past is I’m walking away and trying something different while I’m at the top of our system. I’ve made the decision to walk away. I haven’t been forced away. So there’s no sour grapes. Everyone’s happy and I’m just trying something different. And if things don’t change too much I haven’t ruled out making a comeback to the Olympic arena in a few years time.
That said, for a strong triathlon nation, there’s been no medals from the men at an Olympic Games and I know the powers that be would like that to change. What’s gone wrong? I mean you were the best Aussie in London and finished 18th. You were our best in Beijing and finished 11th.
Yeah. We’re not producing winners are we. I think a few things have happened in triathlon since it became part of the Olympics in 2000. A lot of the countries hadn’t put a lot of emphasis on triathlon. Eastern block countries. The South Americans. Generally countries with good middle-distance to long-distance runners. They’ve now got focus programs on producing Olympic athletes for triathlon. So the standard of world competition has increased astronomically. It’s not just Great Britain and America and Australia and maybe a couple of Europeans any more. You got people from Russia. Pakistan. People from everywhere who are coming into the sport and they’re great athletes. And they’re being trained from a young age specifically to be triathletes. So that’s the biggest change on a broad scale.
So you’re saying the rest of the world has put more emphasis on triathlon than Australia has over the past decade?
Yeah exactly. So the guys who race the Olympic Games, that’s all you do. In the days of say Greg Welch, he’d race Hawaii then he’d be back in Australia in the summer to race on TV in the sprint series and race Olympic distance. And they could do that. But it’s so much more specialised now you don’t have those options. The guys who do long course do long course. And with the Olympic Games, well here in Australia, I think what happens is we’re getting a high attrition rate out of the Olympic stuff because it’s just so bloody hard. So to make a living out of it here in Australia I think it’s an easier pathway to go to the non-drafting and longer racing because the Olympic stuff is just so competitive. So all that coupled together means we’ve lost the ability to run a series here in Australia to showcase what our sport is.
It used to be huge wasn’t it?
Yeah for 10 years we were like the Ironman series on TV. Blokes were household names racing every weekend. So what’s happened with the Olympics is we need an off-season now. We race the northern hemisphere summer. So when summer’s on here, when we used to be able to provide an entertainment package for the public that got kids like myself involved, that’s no longer there. You know I used to watch Brad Bevan and wanted to emulate him. Well that’s no longer there so young kids, I don’t know what they aspire to in triathlon because they don’t see it except for every four years at the Olympic Games. So I think those three things all put together have caused the main breakdown in Australian performance at the Olympics.
How important is teamwork at the Olympics?
I still don’t think it’s a major factor, yet. I mean there was teamwork at the London Olympics but I don’t think it had any major impact on the race at all.
As an Australian trio, did you guys click?
Well, we went as three individuals because we all had different strengths. So we didn’t have a pure team person. Australia took the best three athletes we could and I think that’s the right thing to do. I know there’s a lot of talk about taking team guys but at this stage it’s still not influencing races enough. I think in the future that may start to change slightly but there’s too many other factors involved that would have to work out amazingly in your favour for a team member to actually help another out. And I think in the end the guys that took team people, they didn’t need the help of the team people anyway.
The argument is though is the Brownlee brothers worked together and both got medals. Perhaps we could have used a similar strategy?
No. We just didn’t have medal prospects. On form that’s the truth and no amount of teamwork was going to change that. And for that reason I think it was right to just take the three most deserving athletes to the Games and just let us race and try and do the best we could. Things happen sometimes and you never know. I think the difference with the Brownlee’s is they’re the guys who have been winning races on their own anyway. If you look at the Spanish and the British, they had two genuine medal opportunities anyway. So to take their third best athlete who may get say 10th adds no value to their medal tally. So their team strategy is more of a security blanket. There was a lot of misinformation about the value of the team strategy before the Olympics. We could have taken a team person for Australia but it’s an Olympic Games. So there’s that argument of, do you take someone who is deserving of a place on the team or do you take someone who is willing to work for others. It’s an interesting argument in triathlon at the moment. Working out whether it’s a team or individual sport.
Every time Australia picks an Olympic team there seems to be selection disputes with triathlon. Why is that?
Absolutely. And this is across all sports now. This is the first Olympic Games with social media. And I guess the old adage of, if enough people write misinformation then it becomes true. I think the fault we have had in our sport isn’t the selection policy being flawed. It’s the communication and the transparency of the selection process hasn’t been there. So because it’s never explained properly the amateur athletes or the general public that hold grudges end up making up their own truths about what things are. They make up their own assumptions and that just steamrolls and before you know it we have a media storm. Yes there’s been a few discretionary decisions made but like any selection process you can argue for both sides. And both sides can argue good points and bad. But in the end, unless you have a clear-cut selection policy, someone’s always going to be unhappy.
Getting back to the earlier point about the performance of the Australian men, on the other hand, our women have done so well. Is there anything to read into that?
In my opinion Australia has got some of the best women’s triathlon coaches in the world. And our women who have been successful have come from a certain mould and train in a certain way. And because that has been successful I think they’ve tried to mould the men’s program a lot around the women’s. But it’s too different. I think the training is different is too different for men and women in our sport. And that’s been proven time and time again. You know if you look at someone like Col Stewart. Going back a few years he had the best stable of male athletes in the country, but never had any successful women training under him. Because that was his training method. It obviously suited men very well. And vice versa. Nearly without exception you could argue that people who have had success with our women will try and train men and they’ve had no success. If you go back through our Olympians, all of our men have either all had individual coaches, trained on their own or been self-coached. But as a group they continue to put our younger men in with the coaches who had success with women because that’s where the success has been seen. That’s a personal view of why we’ve had less success with men. Our women train under a different mould. They are amazingly tough athletes.
There have been a lot of exhibition sports introduced into the Olympic program but triathlon has stayed and most believe it belongs. It’s been a huge success hasn’t it?
I think London showcased that. It’s been described as one of the blue-riband events now. Especially in London with some of the locations they could utilise. It encompasses three of the primary Olympic disciplines. Now there’s talk of introducing a team element to it so there would be another medal. Men and women’s mixed teams. It’s in the next Commonwealth Games. So there’s definitely major pluses. But London just showed how much it belongs. Look at the crowds that turned up. It’s one of the few free events and it’s a good spectacle. People can line the roads and watch it. I think it’s one of the Olympic program favourites now.
So much so you say the Olympic gold medal has become the pinnacle of the sport?
Absolutely. Some would debate that and say the Ironman is the true pinnacle of the sport. But I know for me as a sports kid growing up, regardless of what you’re playing, the Olympics is the pinnacle. It’s bred in everyone. Everyone wants to be an Olympian. Kids run around dreaming of it. Well I certainly did anyway. So now the fact that triathlon is in the Olymics and we have a medal to compete for and we’re part of that Olympic history, I think that’s the biggest thing in our sport.
Should a sport where a gold medal isn’t the pinnacle be in the Olympics? I’m going to highlight golf as my main example here.
I don’t really have a problem with that. I know from being an Olympian one of the big kicks that we all get is being around other athletes. We’re all at the top of our sports but then you have these super sports stars around. You know, the Messi’s. The Federer’s. They come in and they mix in the village. So when you mention golf, it’s got to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest sport in the world. So those athletes, when they come into the village are going to be respected. So to have them as part of that is going to add to what being an Olympian is. It’s the quality of athletes. And you do see that at the Games. It’s like when Kobe Bryant walks around. You might have the best of the best in their country or even the best of the best in the sport and they respect someone else in that room. The best golfer in the world or the best basketballer has that same level of sporting respect for the best long-jumper. I always say it’s like a secret club. You don’t necessarily even need to know someone but you’ve got that something special in common and you’re friends before you even meet. And that’s something special and unique to that level of sport.
Is triathlon a sport that is particularly vulnerable to the sinister side of sports science?
You’d be naïve to think any sport is immune. Triathlon has had its problems in that regard. But like all sports it’s an on-going battle and it’s unfortunate there’s always going to be someone out there trying to bend the rules. But as an Australian we’re taught and it’s drilled into us at a young age that firstly it’s wrong. Secondly there is that fear of getting caught. And three, we’re highly tested. So I think the nature of cheating in sport, as an Australian athlete, what’s wrong and what’s right is made very clear. And that may not be the case in other countries around the world.