Why is Mark Allen ‘The Grip’? The story of his tough road to the top

Triathlon legend Mark Allen is known by many as the sport’s GOAT, but he also carries another moniker – ‘The Grip’. In his latest ‘Mondays With Mark Allen feature, the six-time Kona king tells us the story behind the name, and what it means to him.

I want to share with you a conversation I had with a guy that I’ve coached now for many years, Justin Burrows. He was asking me the other day how I got the name ‘The Grip’ – a nickname that a lot of people called me when I was racing, and some of my closer friends still call me now.

Justin was asking me how I got that name, and he was also asking me why did it have such meaning. Did it mean that I had this mental grip on racing and that top-end performance? Or did it have meaning to me because I could go into a race, crush it out and know that I had a grip on all my other competitors. Here’s what I told him.

Why is Mark Allen ‘The Grip’?

I got the name in the early 80s – a couple of years into my career – when I’d made a big leap and a bunch of gains in my cycling.

I’d done a lot of group rides in San Diego, and you know how those group rides are. Everybody starts out together and chatting and joking, and finally somebody gets serious. Well this one year I was the guy who got serious, early in the ride, because I was ready to go.

I would have five minutes of hearing this non-stop garbage being thrown around in the peloton, and it’s like ‘Ok, I’m done’. I would get down in the drops, and people would say ‘he’s got the grip, hold on!’. And so somehow that stuck and I was called ‘The Grip’.

So why did that nickname have meaning for me? And did I like it? Actually I do like it, probably for different reasons than people would think.

Those who still call me ‘The Grip’, they call me that because they know that the journey that I took to get to the top of the sport, and to have the career that I did, and to carry on life afterwards, was not always easy.

I had six years in Kona where things did not go as I hoped, I had six years there where I had to pick up the pieces. Six years where I had to regroup, try go go back, do something different so that I could come back and have the race that I had envisioned.

One year, in 1987, I ended up in the hospital after the event with internal bleeding. It was a pretty bad situation. ‘The Grip’ was the part of me that eventually was able to say ‘okay that race was not my best performance, let me see if I can figure out how to do it’.

It just represents that part of me that has always tried to learn something from the tough situations in life, to pick up the pieces and to use that knowledge to go forward and realise those dreams and ambitions for myself. And it wasn’t easy.

‘The Grip’ goes way back

I think that it actually really started way back when I was a kid. I had this game that I played, it was a board with these knobs on both sides and it had a steel ball that you had to move through a maze that had little holes that the ball could fall into.

You had to work around the holes and find the right way to go through this maze and you’d turn these knobs so the board would tilt and the ball would move.

In the beginning, when I first got it, of course the ball goes down in the first two or three holes that it comes across. I had to figure that out.

And then I would go a little bit further and I would spend hours and hours doing this, just getting a little bit better – ‘The Grip’ in the making. Trying to get it all the way through the maze until it got to that last place at the end on the other side.

And then once I got that, I wanted to figure out how to do it consistently. To get it there more than one time in every 10 or 20 tries. That’s kind of how ‘The Grip’ became part of me I guess. If it falls in the hole it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just what happened, and let me go back to the very beginning and try again and again and again until finally I get it.

When somebody calls me ‘The Grip’, and they know who I am, it brings back this whole flood of memories of not just the great performances, the great moments in my life where something was achieved that I had been working for, but the whole journey that took me there. The times I could easily have given up, where that part of me that isn’t ‘The Grip’ could have said: ‘Let somebody else do this, it’s too hard, too painful, too boring, too monotonous’.

Quiet your mind, be quiet. Is this still part of your dream? Yes. Then pick up the pieces.

What’s the solution? I don’t know today but I’ll try to find it, and tomorrow I’ll try to find it. Until I do become that person who can win a race, who can do something in sport that as a child I probably never could have imagined.

So anyway that’s the story of ‘The Grip’, it has a lot of meaning to me and hopefully you’ve had those moments and you can relate to that. Moments where you were ready to give up, things that were challenging on a journey that you were on, but you picked up the pieces.

You relaunched, you re-engaged, you gave it your effort and energy again and again and again until you realised that dream. Until you became a different person, a better person, a stronger person because of that effort that you put in to become your best self.

Make this week a great one.

Mark Allen
Written by
Mark Allen
Mark Allen has to be in any conversation about the greatest triathlete of all time. A six-time IRONMAN World Champion, he won every other title that mattered in the sport and dominated like few others
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