Last month saw the tragic passing of a great athlete in Jackie G. In the many touching tributes that followed it was widely and accurately reported that she was a trailblazer for the sport and part of the golden generation of Australian triathlon.
For those reading who are new to our sport, between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s Australia dominated international triathlon (ITU) in a way that’s never been seen before, or are we ever likely to see again. It’s actually difficult to find a result from this period where Australia wasn’t only represented on the podium, but crowding it.
Off the top of my head here are some of Australia’s World Championship medallists during the 10-12 year reign:
Brad Bevan, Jackie Gallagher, Emma Carney, Miles Stewart, Chris McCormack, Joanne King, Michelle Jones, Greg Welch, Loretta Harrop, Peter Robertson, Craig Walton, Nicole Hackett, Emma Snowsill.
If I extended this list to ITU World Cup medallists it would just start to look silly. That’s if results like the below don’t make for comic (or tragic) reading already.
As someone whose athletes played a small part in the success during this time I’m often asked where have we gone wrong and how do we fix it?
This blog is not about attacking the current crop individual Australian triathletes. They’re all doing their best. But the fact is on Australia’s current strike rate it would take another 100 years to replicate the results we saw during our decade of dominance. You can’t fix a problem until you identify it.
So, what are the common explanations to explain Australia’s decline in international competition?
Australia was just lucky to be gifted with so many talented athletes at the same time.
Complete crap. Sure, many of the athletes from this time were gifted, but not more than today. In fact some were less gifted than one would imagine and willed themselves to greatness.
Australia isn’t going backwards but has suffered a relative decline because of the rise in quality from international competition.
Yes, there is a bit of truth here. Other countries have lifted their game and Australia hasn’t been able to go with them. But this doesn’t account for such a steep fall.
The truth is the decline of Australian triathlon is very easy to explain. We’ve completely dropped the ball in two key areas of athletic performance: coaching and competition.
When Australia dominated world triathlon it wasn’t because of any great individual coach or squad, but the result of many great coaches and squads. Back then there was a pragmatic approach to coaching where individual athletes were allowed to source their own coaches and compete as part of their own programs. Triathlon Australia would provide peripheral support and athletes performing well were encouraged to stay in their home coaching environments. Miles (Stewart), Brad (Bevan), Macca (Chris McCormack), Michelle (Jones) were all left to do their own training and did a bloody good job.
The current structure could have never produced a champion athlete like Brad Bevan, who trained at his parents cane farm in Miriwinni. This video is a great tribute to Brad and to fierce domestic tri racing in the 90s.
A centralised camp did exist, but it wasn’t compulsory and we only asked athletes struggling with form to attend. The program supported and brought different coaches into the central camps with their athletes. Not only did the athletes benefit, but it gave rookie coaches the opportunity to stand on deck and watch how the champions were training. At the evening meal one could see young coaches conversing with the more experienced coaches eager to learn and share thoughts. Thus Australia had a huge advantage in terms of coaching knowledge and diversification. There was no single coaching dogma that everyone had to follow.
Because there was very little funding for athletes to live on during those times racing was often the only form of finance available to support yourself. This meant a lot of racing. Local athletes had the benefit of a healthy inter-state calender of races in addition to a series of national level races. Competition was fierce as only the very, very best would able to make enough money to go overseas.
As part of this system we saw young athletes desperate for a bit of cash going up against hardened pros. The racing it produced was ferocious. I remember Greg Welch coming back from overseas to compete in an Aussie series race and say:
‘That was bloody harder than a World Cup! The depth of racers is unbelievable. Look up the road and there is a bloody 17 year-old giving it to you on the bike. Not one bit of respect for the older guys. It’s a wake up call to be racing back home.’
He was dead right, that’s how it was. No Juniors, no Under 23s, just if you’re good enough get in there and take as many big scalps as you can. Take them they did. Many an established overseas pro would cut short their Australian racing season after being dropped by a pimply kid racing for a pay check. Those looking for a summer vacation walked straight into the cauldron of the hottest racing anywhere in the world.
Sadly that is all gone now. With the onset of the Olympics and centralised federation funding we are now sending wet-nosed kids off on world holidays to race against other juniors. No hard work. No seasoning. No battle scars of racing in their blood, just ‘I got a high Vo2 score at the AIS and I’m potential’.
Young coaches aren’t encouraged to develop their talented athletes any more. Instead we pull athletes off them and give them to Triathlon Australia’s preferred coaches. Want to train at your own base with your own coach? No way. Train with these coaches at these camps at these dates and if you don’t we’ll pull your funding or compromise your ability to represent your country.
To add insult to injury we no longer employ coaches. We employ administrators who pass themselves off as coaches and recruit athletes on the basis of physiology and not results. We don’t make the hard calls for team selection, but soft ones which lead to everybody being happy with no results in the major races.
In fairness to Triathlon Australia, this disease is not unique to our sport. All Australian Olympic sports are suffering. At the London 2012 Olympics we saw the worst results since 1976. Whose fault was this? Not Australian coaches, who actually had a very successful Olympics – just for other countries. Australian coaches trained individuals from other countries to more than 14 Olympic Gold Medals.
Let’s be clear about the crisis facing Australian sport. Australia has failed to secure its last generation of coaches’ intellectual property. Why? Many point the finger at other countries ‘poaching’ Australian coaches with more money. While that may be the case for certain individuals it’s a complete red herring. The truth is the majority of old-school Australian coaches with real on deck coaching experience found themselves being forced out by a new breed of administrators parachuted in from sports completely unrelated to their own. The old coaches were seen as ‘uneducated’ and not qualified to handle the clerical duties associated with the new order.
As a result we’ve seen Australian coaches unloved and underpaid for their hard work in their own country being appreciated elsewhere. We now have coaches all across the world passing onto our competitors the inside secrets of real on deck coaching, which can’t be found in the very well constructed manuals that the new breed of young Aussie coaches read as the gospel according to the AIS.
The success Australia is accustomed to at the Olympics is gone and unless the culture changes soon I fear it will not come back. The coaches who cut their teeth on trial and error of fierce domestic and inter-state competition are now retiring in foreign lands, passing on their hands-on experience to the young, eager coaches in those countries. Just like Australia did 20 years ago.
So Australian Triathlon would be wise to change course now, and it is within its means to do so.
Australia has had the best ITU coaches in the world now for the past 6-7 years now – Darren Smith, Ben Bright, Craig Walton. These guys not only have the results, but the admin skills the federation so desire. Craig coached the Olympic Champion in 08. Ben is the current Head Coach of Great Britain (they’re doing pretty well). Darren has been high performance manager for a country and was Triathlon Australia sports scientist all those years ago. He was living in Canberra at the time of recruitment for Australian Triathlon and was not even interviewed. Why not? He didn’t apply.
So my advice for new administrators would be this: Don’t sit around waiting for success to come to you. Go out and get it. If I was in charge of TA and my brief was to make us the strongest triathlon nation again, first thing I would do is put up a tent in one of these guys front yards and say ‘I’m not leaving you bastard until you agree to take us back to the top.’ After one agreed, I’d go and do the same thing to the other two. That’s how you fix a broken system. You start by fixing the coaching. Great coaching will always be the cornerstone of peak performance, but until Australia get that you’ll continue watching as countries like England clean your clocks for you.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.