Originally published in February 2008, Tri247 staffer Annie Emmerson sat down with triathlon legend Spencer Smith to review his amazing career in the sport.
I remember my first triathlon World Championships (I think it was only my third ever standard distance race). It was 1993 in Manchester. Due to some rather over zealous training, mainly due to lack of experience, an injury meant I was forced to pull out on the run. This wasn’t such a huge disappointment though, because it meant I got the chance to watch history in the making. A very young lad, named Spencer Smith from Hounslow, was just about to turn his junior World Championship Gold Medal, won the year before, into a senior World Championship Gold medal. It’s been done since – by a certain Tim Don – but never by another male athlete in consecutive years.
Bill Black, Spencer’s coach at the time, tells a great story of how Bill, Spencer’s father, a larger-than-life character, drove like crazy around Manchester trying to follow his son, “I think he’s going to bloody well do it,” he shouted, as they careered up the wrong side of the dual carriageway trying to catch a glimpse of Spencer hammering down on the pedals. Bill Black says he remembers thinking, “Yeah he might do it, but we’re not going to be alive to see it”! The following year Spencer went onto retain his World Championship title in New Zealand. As well as his world titles, he won several other major medals in duathlon and triathlon, including two European Championship Gold medals. He later turned his hand to Ironman, where he proved he could also race over the long distance when he won both Ironman Brazil and Ironman Florida.
It seems like a while since we heard from one of Great Britain’s most legendary and colorful triathletes but, as I found out, Spencer’s been keeping himself very busy. It’s good to know that a guy who put triathlon on the map in this country, and who has suffered his fair share of bad luck, is enjoying racing again, albeit a bit more low key this days, and is busy planning his future beyond triathlon.
AE It’s great to catch up with you, we haven’t heard a great deal about you over the last couple of years, how’s life?
SS Life’s good! I’m living with Melissa (his wife) in Palm Harbour, Florida. We also have a place in Tucson, Arizona, so we split our time between the two places. It’s great for training and the weather is always warm.
AE How much training are you doing?
SS I’m training between 15 to 18 hours a week. I will pick it up as I get closer to the racing season, but these days I don’t need to do as much as I used to, there’s a lot of miles in my legs from many years of training.
AE There was some talk about you retiring, was there any truth behind the rumors
SS I did think about it, I had a lot of disappointment at Hawaii, but it’s what I do and I love training, but obviously you need a goal.
AE So what racing plans do you have?
SS I’m going to start with some local races here. They’re always good fun and it’s just great to get that buzz and motivation out of having a motor bike and camera following you, even if it is just a small local race. I’ll definitely do some 70.3 racing with a focus of going to the 70.3 World Championships later on in the year. I would also like to come over and do the UK 70.3 race, but I haven’t decided for definite yet.
AE We know you were focusing big time on Ironman and in particular Hawaii, have you no plans to race Ironman this year
SS To be honest I have found it tough for many reasons, one in particular is that you have to give away so much for just one race and then you get to the race and get a penalty, a puncture or you’re sick, and then six months of incredibly hard training goes out the window. Ironman consumes your entire life and you can become quite one dimensional. With 70.3 you can race more often and harder; with Ironman, realistically, you’re only looking at doing a couple each year.
AE You’d talked a lot about going under eight hours, is that still a dream?
SS It’s a tough one! I was very passionate and dedicated to Ironman but, for the moment, that passion has gone; I’ve sort of fallen out of love with it. Hawaii left a bit of a bad taste, I guess we change over the years and maybe things that seemed so important, no longer are. I did have quite a lot of bad luck in Hawaii, one year I got a puncture and then there was the unfortunate drafting incident, but I guess what it comes down to is that Ironman doesn’t intrigue me like it use to do and sometimes you have to listen to your heart. Ironman is a totally different mind set and right now I don’t want to go there, it doesn’t give me goose bumps anymore, maybe it will again one day. I know that I’m in the latter stage of my triathlon career and right now I just want to enjoy what I do!
AE As you said, this year you’ll be focusing on the 70.3 series and the 70.3 World Championships, do you think you could add another gold medal to the ones you already have?
SS Last year I was ready to hang up my trainers, and I’d lost a bit of confidence, but there are guys out there, Oscar Galindez for example, who are older than me and still doing really well. I believe that if I put my mind to it I’ll be in with a chance. I won’t go if I’m not competitive, so if I’m there, it’s because I believe I have a chance of winning.
AE Is anyone coaching you or are you coaching yourself?
SS I basically coach myself, but I do still have contact with Bill (Black), we don’t talk all the time, but I’ll call him, maybe every six weeks or so, and we’ll discuss what I’m doing. I’ve had other coaches since Bill coached me in the earlier years and they have all been good, but Bill really cares about me and that’s important, I think there will always be a special bond between us. I have a great deal of respect for him and what he helped me achieve in my career.
AE Tell us about your sponsors?
SS I’m lucky that I’ve still got some great sponsors. Planet X are one of my biggest and it’s great to work with them, Dave from Planet X has been instrumental in helping me develop my S2 clothing line, I couldn’t have done it without him. I’m also working with cadencecycle.com and Motortabs. I really enjoy the personal touch of working with smaller companies rather than big corperations.
AE We’ve heard a little bit about your new clothing line, how’s it all going?
SS It’s going really well. We’ve got a new range, called the Private Collection, this is low key and classy, but we also do general training stuff for team kit etc. Although we haven’t launched yet in the US, we are the clothing provider for St Antony’s triathlon, which takes place in April in Florida. I know that you can’t race for ever, so it’s important that I start building things for the future, for when I do retire. The clothing company is a great opportunity to start building something.
AE Last year you were doing some training camps, what’s happening this year?
SS I’ve just been to Chicago to do a weekend camp up there, it’s a real contrast to here as it’s a lot, lot colder. My plans are to run some more camps in the US, I don’t have anything finalised as yet for Europe, but I’m working on it.
AE As well as racing, your camps and your clothing company, you are also doing some coaching.
SS I enjoy coaching, it’s good to give something back to the sport and it’s great to see people improve, it’s very rewarding. I work with Fiona Ford and helped her qualify for Hawaii last year. It was great to see her get top ten overall in Ironman France when she qualified for Hawaii. I only train a handful of athletes as I think it’s important to train people how you’d like to be trained yourself, and that means giving time and commitment to each athlete.
AE Any predictions for this years Olympics in Beijing
SS I have a good feeling that it’s a going to be a good year for the Brits, they have such a strong team! If you asked me who’s going to win it, I’d say this year is Tim Don’s year, I think he could be in with a really good shout, I’ve just got this feeling!