Originally published as a three-part set in October 2008, Tri247 staffer Annie Emmerson sat down with triathlon legend Simon Lessing for his retirement interview.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think many sports these days tend to lack the exciting sporting personalities of old. In cycling, it may have been the late Marco Pantini or the great Miguel Indurain that had you avidly tuning into the major stage races to follow their progress in the 90s. In running there was the great battle between Coe and Ovett, that had you sitting on the edge of your seat, especially during the infamous 1980 Moscow Games. In triathlon, there was Lessing v Smith, a great duel that lasted several years during the early and mid 90s. What was different about those times is probably worth a lengthy debate, but one of the major factors, as I see it, is that there was a great will to succeed; not driven by large sponsorship packages or lottery funding, but a simple and pure desire to win!
For all athletes there comes a time when they must hang up their racing kit, but even so it’s always sad when a great legend in any sport decides to retire. For many it was inevitable that Simon Lessing, one of our sport’s great heroes, announced his recent retirement from triathlon but it does leave you wondering; who will replace the five-times World Champion?
Lessing’s retirement comes at a time when his desires to pursue other challenges are greater than his desire to win triathlons – something he’s done for nearly 25 years. He also no longer wants to fight the injuries that have plagued him for the last couple of years, and knows it’s time to give his mind and body a long-awaited break from the 30-hour-a-week training schedule it’s used to.
I caught up with a relaxed Simon Lessing at his home in Boulder, which he shares with his wife and two daughters. We talked about the early years of the sport, all those World Championship victories – and the ‘nearly one’ when he was beaten in the dying stages of the race by a certain Dimitry Gaag from Kazakhstan. And, among many other things, we also talked about Simon’s disappointment with the way the World Class Performance program was run in his era and discussed whether the system has improved since Simon left for America five years ago.
AE After over 20 years in the sport and so many great moments, you’ve finally retired, was it a tough decision?
SL No, not so tough, I feel as if I’ve been dragging my feet for a while and for a couple of years I’ve been saying this is my last year and gone on and raced another one. This year, for example, I was only intending to race a couple of races, and that was my full intention, but I ended up racing way more than that. I did four or five half Ironman races, not too well, but I did them anyway. For me, the signs have been there for a while, especially from the physical aspect where I’ve been dealing with one issue after another, which definitely hasn’t helped my motivation.
AE By the physical aspect, I’m guessing you’re talking about your injuries?
SL Yes, exactly! I was a guy who essentially never had to deal with injuries. For a lot of athletes that are plagued by injuries it just becomes part of their career, or part of their sporting life, but I was very fortunate for about twenty years and I really never had to deal with any major injury set-backs, so suddenly it was quite a lot to deal with when I’d escaped them for so long. The injuries I’ve been suffering with for the last couple of years eventually meant I wasn’t able to find any consistency in my training, I would just be getting back into training after one injury and then something else would come along. So I guess the bottom line is; because of the lack of consistency in my training, my level of performance was deteriorating and I just wasn’t satisfied with having to continuously battle with one thing after another.
AE So would you say that your injury problems were the main reason you retired?
SL The injuries weren’t a major factor, but it was a contributing factor. The bottom line is your whole frame of mind changes when your dealing with those sorts of problems/ailments. The other side of it, is that I’m just tired, my bodies tired, I’m physically tired and I’m mentally tired. I guess I’ve been doing the same thing for nearly twenty-three years and it’s the same repetitive type of training, which is what one has to do to perform well, it’s just become a little over bearing. When I added everything together I just decided it was time to move on, I had to take that step, make a stand and bite that bullet, and say enough is enough.
AE It’s obviously tough for any athlete in any sport to make that decision to retire, especially when it’s something that you love doing and is, to a large degree, your life. Do you think some athletes drag out their careers just a little bit too long?
SL A lot of pros end up in this unique lifestyle, which is something they get very used to. It’s easy for an athlete to just put the blinkers on and say I’m just going to do another year and hopefully it will get better, when really they should have the balls to face up to reality and say right, it’s time to move on! It’s not easy, I know, but it has to be done. My way of doing it has been by using this season to make that transition, to start trying other things and to start working on new projects that I’m going to be actively involved in in the future. So I haven’t just stopped and twiddled my thumbs without knowing what I was going to do. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’ve set the chain in motion.
AE What are the new projects that you’re going to be involved in?
SL I’ll be working on my online coaching project, which will tie-in with the work I’ve been doing with CEO Challenges. I was actually in Hawaii supporting some of the guys. There was a whole array of CEOs competing, the first guy was around eleven hours and the last guy was the last finisher, in sixteen hours and fifty-nine minutes. I was out on the course being a spectator for the first time, and I tell you it was harder than doing the race itself.
AE Did you find that actually watching people compete in such a tough competition was an emotional experience – especially having been there yourself, and understanding what they’re going through?
SL For everyone taking part in Hawaii a whole lot of effort and energy is required, it’s not like any race that you can just enter and do it, you have to go through this whole qualifying procedure, which takes a lot of dedication, financial commitment and personal commitment. In Hawaii everyone has a story to tell, and their reasons for being there are unique. I can guarantee you that you can ask every single person there, fundamentally why are they doing it and they’ll all give you a different reason. It is a very emotional experience for a lot of people, of course to a certain extent with the CEO Challenge even more so, because the CEO Challenge has given a lot of these guys the chance to race in Hawaii when ordinarily they wouldn’t have the chance. For sure it was tiring, but it was certainly a new and enjoyable experience for me to be out on the course and watch the race as a spectator.
AE Was there any point when you wished it was you out there racing?
SL There were plenty of times when I thought I would have liked to be out there racing, but then you look at half the field that are struggling with nutritional problems on mile ten of the run, and the reality sinks in that I’m actually quite happy watching from the sidelines. I can safely say that I certainly have no regrets, at this stage, about retiring.
AE Talking about Hawaii, what did you think of Chrissie Wellington’s performance?
SL She certainly showed that she’s an unbelievable talent and with or without the puncture it wouldn’t have made any difference, that’s how good she is, heads above the rest. She showed a really steady and amazing performance, even with the setbacks that she had.
AE We’ve been surprised – especially as it was a second gold medal at the Ironman World Championships, that she hasn’t had more coverage in the UK, is that something you can relate to in your career?
SL Yes, I was surprised too, and it amazed me having gone through all the newspapers, and the BBC’s website, that there was so little about her amazing victory. I think it’s disappointing that she really doesn’t get the support she deserves at home. It’s really quite sad to see that someone like her has to rely on making a career outside of the UK for her to get what she needs to survive financially, I think it mirrors back to my own career and quite a few other British triathletes and I still don’t think the sport of triathlon is recognised like it is in other parts of the world. Maybe it’s a cultural problem, or an educational problem – the notion of doing a very outdoor activity in the climate that the UK offers, which is not ideal for training for triathlon. Nevertheless, in saying that, it certainly is growing massively around the world. Triathlon is becoming the ‘in sport’, in other words the sport that most people want to try. It’s no longer trying to do a marathon, it’s trying to do a triathlon.
I think it is a difficult sport to try and do. It’s a sport which fundamentally requires a ton of time because it’s three very different sports. That said, hopefully as the sport progresses triathlon in the UK will get more attention, and it should do when you consider the size of the London Triathlon and the success of it. I think we’ve got to change from being this isolated sport into a mass participation sport, it’s certainly what we’re seeing here in North America, hopefully it will follow the same trend in the UK.
AE On the subject of athlete sponsorship and funding, etc; in the 90s when yourself and Spencer Smith were racing, and very much dominating the World Championships (between them they won the World Championships in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998 and in 1999 Simon finished second behind Dimitry Gaag who has recently been banned from the sport for the use of the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin) you received very little financial sport, other than from your own personal sponsors, and for a large part of your careers pretty much supported yourselves, didn’t you?
SL Yes, totally! I think up until 2000, all of us that were racing elite were supporting ourselves, and the fact was that if you wanted to go to the World Championships that was fine, but you had to pretty much fund yourself to get there. That was essentially how it worked, so I certainly feel that all of us that were on the national team at that stage, were, to a large degree, totally self-sufficient and that’s the way it was! Triathlon didn’t have the funding that it has come to have now and to a certain degree that gave us the freedom to do what we wanted.
AE Was that the way you preferred it?
SL It was no secret that I had issues with Graeme Maw – the Performance Director at the time – and the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP). There was also this misconception that everyone was making tons of money from Lottery funding, but the reality was that because it was means tested, someone like myself ultimately didn’t make a lot of money from it, if at all! I essentially got zero funding at the end because it was either play Graeme Maw’s game and stick to his program, or you were on your own. Because of my history in the sport – I’d always been very self-reliant and been my own boss – I fundamentally didn’t agree with some of the things that were going on. I made a decision to primarily look after myself so I could go the races I wanted to race and have the freedom to be in charge of my career, which I had been up until that point. When I did get involved, around the time of the Sydney Olympics, I did receive some support for training equipment that I was using at the time, but that was about it.
AE Did your move from Bath to Boulder in the US have anything to do with the politics of the sport?
SL The main reason for my move out here was ultimately to re-establish my career over here, and have the freedom to race the races I wanted to race and, quite honestly, to get the support that I wasn’t going to get in the UK. When I say support, I don’t only mean the WCPP, but also sponsorship. I spent my whole career racing for Great Britain and never once had a British sponsor, that’s telling for a lot of athletes in the Great Britain and for the commitment and the perspective people have of triathlon in the UK. It’s unfortunate but I’ve always been reliant on sponsors outside of the UK to get by.
AE Taking a look at the results and how things are run now and comparing them to when you were racing on the British team, do you think the athletes have been helped by the WCPP or hindered, and is there a part of you that feels that perhaps many athletes in the UK have been wrapped in cotton wool to a certain degree?
SL My early experiences of the WCPP was that it was a bit like the blind leading the blind. Unfortunately I don’t think UK Sport had a real understanding of what makes a good triathlete, they relied on the WCPP to do that and with PowerPoint presentations you can convince anybody of anything, if it’s done well. The reality of it was, that Graeme Maw was trying to push the program in a direction that really wasn’t suitable for triathlon and for the athletes at that time.
AE But do you think things have changed since then?
SL A lot of money has now been invested into the development of the sport in the UK, but you have to ask; have the likes of Al Brownlee or Olly Freeman, for example, benefited from it, or would these athletes have gone into the sport anyway? My gut feeling is that they would have and it’s not thanks to a developmental programme that they were introduced to the sport in the first place. It’s hard to decide if a really successful identification program has been developed in terms of being able to go out and identify key athletes that have talent in the sport of triathlon, and I’m not so sure if it has.
AE Having been quite removed from the WCPP for some time though, is it possible that things have changed for the better?
SL I admit that I have been totally divorced from the programme over the last five years or so, and so now I have little idea as to how it’s run. I think the programme has certainly helped a couple of athletes, but the problem in the past was the one-size-fits all theory; it was the same protocol and the same agenda for everyone, and that doesn’t work in our sport where you’ve got 18-year-olds performing really well right up to 35-year-olds performing really well. There is a very different array of athletes, at different stages in their lifes, with different levels of experience and that all needs to be be taking into account. Has it changed? Like I said, I can’t comment on what’s happening now, I can only comment on my involvement form 1999 to 2002, which is when I was part of the program.
In Part Two Annie Emmerson asks Simon about the introduction of drafting to triathlon, his experiences with the Olympics, his transition to long distance racing and whether young athletes these days have it too easy.
AE It was only in 1995 that the ITU had its first draft legal World Cup. How much do you think World Cup racing has changed since then, and what was the reason you decided to leave short distance racing for long distance, especially when you had been so successful at it?
SL There were many reasons that I chose to move up to long distance racing, but significantly the realisation that the best athlete is not necessarily going to win the race hit me in 2000, and when I say the best athlete, I mean the best multi-sport athlete. I grew up in a sport where the athlete who could put together the combination of best swimmer, best cyclist and best runner, would ultimately be the winner. If you got beat under those circumstances you could accept it. The goal in draft-legal races appears to be to hide as best you can during the bike.
AE Do you think that’s what happened in the Olympics this year.
SL Well yes, because you didn’t see the majority of the medallists until somewhere midway during the run. That doesn’t represent what triathlon is all about to me. I think I speak for most of the guys that are now out there doing the non-draft legal races. They feel the same as I do, it doesn’t represent the sport of triathlon, and that’s really why I was drawn to non-draft legal races.
AE Having dominated short course racing for so long, and after perhaps a disappointing result in Sydney, were you not tempted to go for Athens which had a bike course that really showed the men from the boys?
SL It was something that I did seriously consider, and I did ponder whether I should try and make the team for the experience of going and actually enjoying the Olympics.
AE Was Sydney not such a great experience for you then?
SL On a personal level my experience in Sydney was ultimately pretty negative and I felt that I never really experienced the Games. We were the first sport and so I was almost first in and first out because I had other race commitments. I certainly thought there was an opportunity to go to Athens and race on a course that suited me, and actually experience the Games like most athletes do, but I knew to do that I would really have to commit to Graeme Maw’s agenda, and I didn’t think that was the best thing for me at the time. On top of that I had some sponsorship opportunities here and they were saying ‘look we want to sponsor you, but we don’t want to be involved with the ITU scene because we don’t feel there is any return for our investment’, so really it was a no brainer for me. I’ve always felt that sponsorship plays an important part of any athlete’s career as it gives the financial stability we need to be able achieve good results. I’d been doing draft-legal races for so many years and I wanted to set my objectives on something new and different, which was what I did in 2004.
AE As such a strong short course athlete surely you must have had regrets about not trying to go for an Olympic medal in Athens, especially when you saw Hamish Carter win; who had such a similar style of racing to yours?
SL It would have been nice from a personal level. I think that the UK has to understand though, that if you win one Olympic medal in the US it’s really not a big deal primarily because you have the likes of people like Phelps who are superstars. Not only Phelps, but certain track and field athletes too; other swimmers, gymnasts, etc, are winning three, four medals. So from the sponsorship perspective and for me as a foreigner living in the US, winning a medal at Athens wouldn’t have had any marketing value, even if I had gone to Athens and won.
AE But what about in the UK, surely it would have had some marketing value there?
SL Because of my background I don’t think so. Throughout my career I always felt that Spencer (Smith) had a ton of respect and support and I feel I was always regarded as a bit of an outsider because of my background. Having grown up in South Africa I always found myself highlighting to people the fact that I’d always only raced for Great Britain, I’ve never actually represented another country in my entire career, so it’s not as if I did a switch from racing for one country and then changed over to the UK because it benefited me to do so. Of course it did benefit me, but that was because of the political situation in South Africa and the sporting sanctions. In 1988 it would certainly not have been possible to race internationally, so from that regard, yes I did benefit from it, but to a large extent I was very much self-funded, I wasn’t relying on the BTA to fund me to get me to certain races. I found myself having to convince them that I wasn’t this evil racist coming in and that I was a good guy who had a certain amount of talent and wanted to race for Great Britain.
AE As an ex-athlete myself, I don’t think it the case that the athletes didn’t respect you, I think they all had a huge amount of respect for you and probably a little bit of envy because of your natural talent.
SL That’s nice, but I just feel there was always this underlying issue that they thought my background was a little hazy, that I spoke strangely to them, I guess that was kind of highlighted when you put Spencer next to me with his cockney accent, it was ‘who’s the real Brit here’ kind of thing. I do think though, that on the whole there was a little bit of a misunderstanding about who I was and what I represented.
AE From what you’ve said you must have been happy to see someone like Hamish win in Athens?
SL Yes, definitely, I was thrilled that Hamish won, he is what I would call ‘old school’, because I think he did represent the sport for a lot of us, for people like Greg Welch, Brad Bevan, Spencer, etc, all of us old guys who’d been in the sport for so long. It was very neat to see a guy like Hamish still able to get out there and do the business.
AE You had some great races over the long distance and showed you had as much talent there as in short course racing. 1993 saw you go head-to-head with Mark Allen at the Nice long course triathlon, when you were only 22-years-old, and you won the ITU long course World Championships there just two years later. In 2004 you competed in your first full Ironman race and won in a time of 8:23:13, nearly 15 minutes faster than second place finisher Luke Bell. With all that in mind it’s probably a surprise to a lot of people that you didn’t go on to win a lot more Ironman races?
SL The Ironman game is something that needs to be learnt and it takes a ton of experience to be successful. Very occasionally you’ll get people like Craig Alexander and Chrissie Wellington coming along, but that’s quite rare, for others though it is a game of patience and getting to understand the needs of a very different style of racing. I think in hindsight if I had really want to excel in Ironman I really should have made the change after Sydney 2000. It was a choice I made and for me my focus was always around the Olympics in 2000 and short distance racing during the 90s, that was where the money was, it wasn’t in Ironman racing. It’s a learning process so turning to the longer distance racing quite late in my career was tough, because I really was on a very limited time scale. Many athletes, like Normann Stadler, are in the sport for ten years or so before they have big wins and I had to do a crash course in two years.
AE You had already proved that the natural talent needed to win over the long distance was already there though, so what were the other aspects of Ironman racing you needed to sort out?
SL I had quite a few nutritional issues to work out and in hindsight I realise that my back issues were just starting in 2005. When you’re training for an Ironman, where so many hours in the saddle are required to race well, you really don’t want to be dealing with back problems.
AE So after such a great start to Ironman racing at Ironman Lake Placid you have no regrets that you didn’t start your Ironman training earlier?
SL No, I don’t regret that my focus was on short course racing until 2004, because that’s what made sense to me, the problem is that Ironman racing and drafting races are at opposite ends of the spectrum, you could say it’s an entirely different sport, the demands are just so different.
AE It now seems like that long course racing and short course racing are worlds apart, would you like to see them more connected again?
SL I do think the sport has become very fragmented! In the past most of the athletes raced over all the distances, short distance at Worlds, short distance race series like Chicago, St Anthony’s and you did Ironman and long distance Worlds, so there was a connection between the Mike Piggs, who very much excelled at short distance racing, and the Mark Allens who did really well in all distances, but especially Ironman racing, we had a physical connection on the race course as we were able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the individual, which certainly isn’t the case now. I’m sure someone like Tim Don has no idea what it takes to race an Ironman and I’m sure the likes of Norman Stadler right now has no idea what it takes to do a draft-legal ITU World Cup race. In a way it’s a little sad because I think we should all have a mutual respect for the different elements of our sport and the direction that the sport is taking. As a sport we have evolved and we are continuing to evolve.
AE Do you think other athletes, especially from your era, have the same opinion as you.
SL Yes, just the other day I was talking to Paula Newby-Fraser and she really believes that you have to focus on either short distance draft-legal, short distance non draft-legal, 70.3, or Ironman. She truly believes that we now really have to become specialists in one of the events, the only problem there is that we are under this one umbrella, and the different branches of that umbrella don’t necessarily understand what the others represent.
AE On the whole would you say you are happy with your triathlon career?
SL Well I certainly don’t look back at my career with regret. I grew up in South Africa and started triathlon at the age of 13 because I was a little fed up with swimming. I found what I was good at it, which I think is important for all of us to do. In my book it’s a bit of a sin if you don’t work that special talent you have and I do believe that we all have one thing that we’re good at. So having found my talent I took the ball and ran with it, but never in my life would I have thought that I would come to represent Great Britain. I never look back and think I wish I’d done this or that, I tend to be pretty confident with the choices I’ve made, and I am happy with what I’ve achieved in the sport.
AE And what about Hawaii, is that not a race you would have loved to win?
SL A lot of people ask me ask why I’m I retiring now and don’t I want to win Hawaii, but the bottom line for me is; it’s not the most important thing for me right now. One of my decisions to retire came from the fact that I was very much aware that there were certainly athletes out there that were prepared to kill themselves on the race course and I certainly wasn’t at that stage. I think if you do want to win an Ironman, or Hawaii, you have to have that underlying aggressiveness to put it on the line. For me, because of my overall achievements in triathlon I had always thought it would just be the icing on the cake, and I don’t think that’s the best way to approach one of, if not the, hardest races in the triathlon world.
AE Looking at all sports, particularly in the UK, do you think the athletes have got it too easy now and is it true when you started out in your triathlon career you slept in your bike bag before races?
SL Yes I did sleep in my bike bag on many occasions. In answer to your first question, yes I think athletes have got it too easy. The notion of doing it on your own, as most of us did in the past, helps create a sense of self discovery, ie finding out who you are and what you really want and what you need to do to achieve your goals. Whether it’s sleeping in your bike bag or learning from mistakes we’ve all made along the path of self discovery, or stealing fruit from the orchard to try and survive, it all basically helps define and mould who you are as an athlete. Doing it the tough way ultimately helps the athlete come out with a clear understanding of who they are and I think this is the problem now.
AE So your opinion is that by over-supporting the athletes we are not helping them to progress in their careers?
SL To a degree yes, that’s very true. Today athletes are being given everything and are being told what to do, so they don’t really understand who they are or what they really want from themselves or their sport. I saw that right from the first time triathlon was accepted into the Olympics and the WCPP started. The younger athletes were given everything, there was almost this high expectation from them about what they wanted and deserved without having already achieved anything. Yes, there was potential for them to achieve something, but they hadn’t actually achieved it. I truly believe that most athletes that have succeeded in any sport have had to deal with some hard aspects or points in their career. My situation was that I had to race and do well, and survive, or else I would have failed and had to have chosen a different direction in my life. Failure was not an option for me and I did whatever I had to do to succeed and adapt to different situations, good or bad. To be successful, an athlete has to be able to make decisions for him or her self.
In Part Three Annie Emmerson re-visits the Lessing versus Smith rivalry from the 90s, the current state of the sport and whether or not he ever executed a perfect race.
AE Back in the 90s there was a fierce rivalry between you and Spencer Smith, do you have fond memories of the Lessing vs. Smith days?
SL Sure, it was kind of a unique situation, we were a similar age, we were both representing the same country and both wanted to be the best in the world. There was definitely a strong rivalry between us, but it was electric, you’d go to a race where we were both competing and there was this electricity, positive or negative it was certainly an electricity that got the best out of both of us. It pushed us both to race at our best! Back in those days though, you simply had to be on your game, there was a lot of pride at stake for all of us; Hamish, Brad, Greg, all those guys. We would all end up racing one another consistently year-in-year-out, we got to know one another well and there was a lot of respect between all of us.
AE Spencer lives in the States too, do you get to see much of him?
SL Yes I see him around quite a lot and up until last year saw him at the races. We now sit back and laugh together about the stuff that went on between us. I think we’ve both reached different phases in our lives and realise that a lot of the things that went on between us were a little bit ridiculous. Ultimately though, I know Spencer respects me and I certainly respect him and what he did, at his best he was an absolute animal!
AE There were a lot of big personalities in the sport when you and Spencer were racing over the short distance, do you think the same can be said today?
SL No, I don’t think so. From the outside I think it looks a little bit like this; you’ve got the ITU guys, who are predominately 25-ish and under, and then you’ve got the Ironman guys, who are all 25 and older. The 25 and under guys are just going out and having a good time, they’re going through that sort of self-discovery mode, where as the older guys in the sport have kids and wives etc, they are in a different phase of their life so it’s sort of opposite ends of the spectrum so to speak. I think maybe it’s easier to have big personalities in Ironman racing because primarily it’s a tough race and those big names in the sport are more easily defined by the races they do. The ITU style is a little bit wishy-washy and the problem is that nobody is dominating. Back in the 90s you knew that if certain guys were in a race, be it Mike Pigg, Brad Bevan, Spencer, myself or whoever, that it would be one of those top guys that was going to win the race. You would expect those guys to be dominating the top places, which they inevitably did.
AE Do you think that drafting has a lot to do with the fact we are not seeing bigger personalities standing out in short course racing these days?
SL Yes definitely, the problem with draft-legal races is that there’s no consistency, so essentially there’s little opportunity to create any real stars in the sport. As I said it’s a bit wishy-washy, one week one guy wins and the next week he’s finishing 30th, so it’s just this sort of haze of athletes and it’s hard to define a real star in the sport.
AE Were you surprised Jan Frodeno won gold in Beijing?
SL Yes I was, I’d never really heard of the guy and he certainly didn’t stand out to me as one of the favourites. The thing is, because of the lack of consistency no one’s really dominating, and because of this lack of domination you aren’t really discovering new personalities in short distance racing . In Ironman I know quite a lot of the guys do have big followings, Faris Al-Sultan, Normann Stadler and Craig Alexander for example have big fan clubs.
AE What do you think of the new ITU World Championship six-race format.
SL It certainly sounds good because it will draw the top athletes consistently together to race one another, and at the moment that’s not what happens. In the past the guy who won the World Cup series wasn’t necessarily the guy who was the most dominant athlete over all the races, but the guy who went through some arbitrary country and raced in all parts of the world the most times did. That to me can’t be a true reflection of who the best athlete is. With the new World Championship six-race-format the best overall athlete will have a better chance of winning, and that can only be good for the sport.
AE We recently heard in the news that Dmitriy Gaag tested positive for the performance enhancing drug EPO (erythropoietin), how did you feel about that news, especially considering he out sprinted you at the World Championships in Montreal (1999) when it looked like you had the race totally sewn-up. Did you feel that maybe you’d been robbed of your sixth World Championship title?
SL I think a lot of the athletes were suspicious at the time and I’ve certainly always had my suspicions. When I did read about it, I thought ‘well that’s not a surprise’ but what happened, happened, and there’s not a lot you can do about changing the past. Certainly it would have been nice to win that race, in fact until about 200m to go I thought I had won the race, but then Dmitriy came screaming by. I had strategically planned that race and everything had gone according to plan, until he put a dampener on things. I find it slightly ironic that at the time, Mark Sisson, the guy who was head of the ITU anti-doping board, turned to my wife Lisa at the end of the race and said ‘I think Simon needs to work on his sprints’, in hindsight I had the last laugh. The way I see it, is that if Dmitriy was caught doing drugs now, he’s probably been doing them for some time. People were certainly suspicious at that time, and whether it was true at that time or not, the doubt will always be there.
AE Do you think there is a bigger drugs problem in our sport than we realise?
SL Well there’s certainly not enough testing, I can tell you that right now. For sure there are athletes out there, that for whatever reason feel the need to cheat. There are athletes that don’t even regard it as cheating, they just regard it as preparing ‘properly’ for a race. It is, without a doubt, an issue that needs to be dealt with better, but it’s a monetary problem; who’s going to fund it, who’s going to pay for it, it’s expensive to do and we are still a small sport.
AE So you do think that drug taking in our sport is a problem?
SL Yes I certainly do, athletes are being caught so there is a drug problem, but not to the extent of other sports. There are plenty of decent people in our sport with good morals, but for every five decent athletes you have one that doesn’t have morals and will try and get the upper hand by cheating. Lets just hope that the powers-that-be will keep improving the anti-drugs programs and working towards a drug free sport.
AE Who was your toughest competitor throughout your career?
SL There isn’t one guy that stands out in particular, although all the guys I’ve mentioned were very tough and talented. Racing in the early days was so competitive, you had to be on your game all the time. I’m not saying that the guys these days don’t have to be on their game, of course they do to do well, but for us, I think we had a much clearer idea of who we were racing; we knew how Wes Hobson would race Jimmy Riccitello, Hamish Carter, we knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Mike Pigg, Spencer, Mark Allen, you go through the list, Greg Welch, Brad Bevan all those athletes, if you weren’t ready to race and you had a bit of an average day you knew you would get beaten by them, there was a lot of mutual respect.
AE Putting the competition aside did you form friendships with these guys?
SL Yes we did, we definitely established friendships with one another. Sure we raced against one another, and killed one another on the race course, and sometimes there would be an issue or two between two athletes, but it would normally be resolved and we’d generally end up going out partying and hanging out together, I don’t think that’s so much the case nowadays. I have really fond memories of all of those guys, including the British guys; Robin Brew, Richard Hobson and Glenn Cook.
AE Is there anyone today in short course racing that for you really stands out from the rest, someone that you can say, I really respect that guy and how he races?
SL It’s hard to choose one athlete, as I don’t really see one guy in short distance racing that is really dominating. If you ask me for example who I wanted to win in Athens, who did I feel deserved to win, I would have to say Gomez, because he is the one guy who has been consistent. It’s hard for me to respect someone like Frodeno who hadn’t even won a World Cup race before he won the Olympics. It’s easier for me to choose a long course athlete as they stand out so much more, for example, I have huge respect for Craig Alexander, I know the guy is a feisty determined character who has set himself long term goals, which is hard in Ironman as so many things can go wrong. It’s easier to identify an athlete like Craig because he has been consistent year-in-year-out, he’s good at all three disciplines and has raced well over all distances, short to 70.3 and now the Ironman. I know I’m not directly involved with short course racing any longer, but I’m looking at it from the outside, and in ITU racing it seems that the athletes’ results go up and down like a yo-yo.
AE So there’s no one that stands out for you in short course racing?
SL I know it may seem harsh, but I find it tough to have a fully fledged respect for any of the ITU World Cup athletes at the moment, but maybe that’s just because of changing times in the sport. All of the athletes in my era had to adapt to, what was at that time, very much an evolving sport. What’s happened now, is that we’ve evolved into a sport which has stagnated in terms of the format and what the sport has to offer. You have to understand that I was doing well in a time that the sport was seriously evolving, sponsors were prepared to take risks, race directors were prepared to take risks. We were trying very many different types of racing, from indoor velodrome-style racing, the ITPT series, that the Bray brothers put on, to the St George’s super-sprint series Down Under. To a certain extent it was experimental at that stage, but it was really fun to be part of and right now I don’t see any kind of that stuff happening in triathlon. It was a spectacle, it was a show and it helped introduce people to a sport that they knew nothing about.
AE Do you think that to a certain degree the ITU has shot itself in the foot by trying to take too much control of the sport?
SL Well that’s easy to answer, yes. You just have to look at what the majority of the triathlon population are doing and they are not backing and supporting ITU races, they’re doing all the other races that are available to them.
AE But the athletes who want to go to the Olympics are very much tied to the World Cup series, aren’t they?
SL Yes that’s true, but what the ITU need to do is to decide just who they are. Are they the governing body of the sport or the race series organisers – who are they? I think we had a good chance after the Sydney Olympics, it was a fantastic boost for the sport. From my understanding we had more spectators watching the triathlon than in any other sport, there was just this incredibly good vibe and atmosphere. The ITU should have had a marketing strategy and plan in place for after the Olympics, they’re not marketing experts, they needed to work with a good marketing team to really figure out a way of how to move forward after such a massively positive experience. But they didn’t do that, they kind of kept this little game to themselves, which wasn’t a good plan.
AE Do you think the loss of the ITU’s main sponsor, BG, and the subsequent replacement with its new sponsor, Lagardère Sports, is a positive move for the ITU?
SL Who knows, but once again we’ve just seen another major shake up in the ITU. I don’t think it’s a good sign that they’ve had so many major sponsorship shake-ups in the last few years, obviously the sponsors aren’t staying long term as they don’t think they’re getting their money’s worth. The ITU is the governing body of our sport, they’re not race directors or promoters, they don’t have that experience. After Sydney they needed to work with a proper professional company to elevate the sport to another level, which I don’t think they did, nor is it the case right now. The ITU still needs to find its role in the sport, they need to find ways to work with WTC (World Triathlon Corporation), they need to find ways to improve the sport for everyone’s benefit; not just the professionals not just the guys that are going to the Olympics, but everyone who’s participating in the sport.
AE Which race would you look back on in your career and say, I really nailed that one, I got as close to a perfect race and performance as possible?
SL I was never totally happy with any of my races and I was always the first to criticise my performance, be it one of my World Championships that I won, or the French Iron Tour or the London Triathlon or whatever, I was never patting myself on the back saying great job, great race. I always managed to find something to criticise, whether it was something in my preparation, my race strategy, whatever. I certainly never felt that I walked away from a race and thought that was a perfect race. Because triathlon is three very different sports you very seldom, if ever, have a race where everything goes according to plan.
AE But surely you can look back on a race like the World Championships in Lausanne 1998 – which from a spectators point of view looked like you executed the perfect race – and say that was just about perfect?
SL Well, you see, there’s a good example, I had a very mediocre swim, felt absolutely terrible on the bike – in fact I thought I was going to get dropped going up the hill – I did then go on to have a fantastic run, but I can’t say that was a fantastic race even though I won. I would look at it and say I felt terrible on the bike so what do I need to do to address that? I guess that was one of the things that kept me going, I was always in search of that perfect race and that really helped keep me motivated. If someone asked me, what achievement am I most proud of, I would have to say, I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been very consistent since 1988 right up until 2006. I’m also proud of the fact that I’ve been able to race and do well over all distances and race formats, that for me is what I’m most proud of, not just one individual performance but the underlying consistency of my results throughout my career.