Extreme triathlete Chrissie Wellington may try something different fr the London 2012 Games

Chrissie Wellington

“Oooo, off to see your girlfriend!” cooed my wife when I told her I was going to interview Chrissie Wellington.

Wellington’s domination of Ironman – an extreme form of triathlon – from her first race 2½ years ago, alongside a natural bias towards endurance sport, means I’m a very big fan. I’d planned to use this piece to bang the drum for her achievements after winning the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, for the third straight year.

Quite rightly my support (or infatuation as my wife calls it) is not necessary: Wellington has already picked up an award during this long-lunching, back-slapping season and is on the short-list for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Understandably, it is hard for people to realise just how good she is. Not many people are Ironman experts, most appreciate that it is a very long way, even less know it consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and is finished off with a marathon, and it is almost too immense for people to comprehend.

It is regarded as the pinnacle of triathlon by competitors and sponsors, despite the much shorter Olympic distance being included in the last three Games. What amazes me about Wellington, 32, is not that she wins, but by how much.

Like Usain Bolt, Wellington has burst on to the scene and destroyed the opposition. Those within athletics said (perhaps with hindsight) that Bolt was coming but Wellington came from nowhere and wins by a relatively greater margin.

Bolt was 1.36 per cent faster than the silver medallist in the 100 metres at the World Championships in Berlin. Wellington was 3.74 per cent faster than the second-place finisher in Hawaii: she won by three times as much in 8hr 54min 02sec, compared to Mirinda Carfrae who finished in 9:13:59.

A Brown-Darling massaging of statistics to fit the argument is always possible, but to give some perspective, my winning percentages at the Sydney and Athens Olympics were 0.1 per cent and 0.02 per cent respectively.

Her rapid rise to the top of a brutally tough sport is simply remarkable. Ironman is considered a minority sport, but with multinational brands backing it, more than $100,000 in prize money and Wellington’s 11 personal sponsors prove the event is more than capable of fighting its own corner.

Like many non-stadium sports it is difficult and expensive to film, which lessens its broader appeal. But a lot can be learnt from the sexual equality within Ironman. The sport has developed as one entity, so women are not second-class citizens with their performances mocked (as has been too often the case with women’s football, rugby and cricket)

The women race the same distance, unlike tennis where grand slam tournaments are best of three rather than best of five; or cycling, in which the recent World Championship women’s road race was 77 miles as against 163 for men.

I expect some of the men in Ironman wished that was not the case as one of Wellington’s favourite pastimes is “chicking” the men. For the guys this is a regular occurrence. At Ironman Australia only two of the men beat her in the marathon and she was 10th overall.

Genetics are only part of what makes Wellington successful. She admits: “I always put a lot of pressure on myself in academia and now sport.”

It clearly works. She gained a first-class degree in geography at university and after two years of travelling, witnessing many of the problems in the developing world, she went back to university, gaining a distinction in an MA on development studies.

Following that she worked for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as part of the team that negotiated for the UK at the World Summit on Sustainable Development before taking a sabbatical to work for a Nepalese non-government organisation.

That side of her life ended early in 2007 when, after winning her age group at the amateur world triathlon championships, she decided to give the sport a go full-time.

After such a short space of time with sport as her top priority I’d expected the novelty and luxury of being a professional athlete who divides her time between the sun of Australia and Colorado to resonate from her. Instead she said, “There are so many other things I want to do in my life”, sounding like someone who had done nothing but eat, sleep and train for 15 years rather than two.

“I’ve got this mono-dimensional existence life devoted to make sure I give myself the best chance of winning so different to how I used to life my life before; a profession with a rich and varied social life.”

I can relate to what Wellington says. When I began training full-time I found it mind numbing and realised I needed to keep my brain active when my ‘To Do List’ had ‘shave’ and ‘post letter’ as the first two tasks.

Having had a career that she was passionate about before being a sportsperson, she is in the position of knowing what she wants to do after sport.

“I want to set up a foundation, piloted in the UK then move it overseas using sport to empower women and girls who have been the subject of domestic and sexual abuse,” Wellington said.

“More can be done by professional athletes to use the platform that they’ve got to affect change. My platform isn’t huge but I want to use it anyway I can.”

If she carries on winning world titles that platform will grow. Steve Redgrave dragged up the profile of rowing after five successive Olympics; Carl Fogarty did the same for superbikes with his four titles; and the track cyclists have been ramming continued success down our throats for a few years now.

Despite the obvious eagerness to get on with the next phase of her life, Wellington is not satisfied with what she has achieved in Ironman. “I want to leave when I’ve hit my full potential.” This must be worrying for her opponents as the nearest of them was 20 minutes behind at the World Championships.

Her approach to racing for nearly nine hours shows why she is successful: “I love racing that far, it goes incredibly quickly. Even if I’m struggling physically, mentally I have a huge amount of faith in my body to support me. It’s not that I don’t hurt I just don’t let that hurt bring me down mentally.”

I can understand where that faith comes from, despite being only 60kg and 5ft 7in her body looks tough and resilient rather than fragile.

In terms of a positive outlook she is a force of nature. That optimism combined with physical talent and self-motivation may lead her to try something different for the Olympics in 2012.

“I love a challenge and I never want to miss out on an opportunity to perform on the world sporting stage. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to explore any opportunity that came my way,” she said.

The Olympic triathlon does not suit her, the run is too short and her best discipline – the bike – allows drafting (slipstreaming) negating her talents and allowing others to benefit from them. Instead she is looking at the cycling time-trial.

Wellington was at pains to point out: “I’m under no illusions that it would be incredibly difficult to switch over and there are no cast-iron guarantees, but that was the case when I gave up my job to focus on triathlon.”

True, but there are enough indications to suggest it is worth testing the water. On the way to breaking the Ironman world record she averaged 24mph for 112 miles and still ran a marathon in less than three hours afterwards.

Whether she can increase her top speed on the bike to match that stamina is the crucial question. If she can then the platform she craves to be a positive change for good could well be a podium in London.

James Cracknell Full Telegraph Article Link