Kyle Smith: Q&A with Ironman’s latest star triathlete

Lancashire-born Kiwi Kyle Smith is one of the most exciting talents in long-course triathlon, leading the 2021 Ironman World Championship until 5km on the run. It also doesn't hurt that he train with one Jan Frodeno out in Girona. Let’s meet Ironman’s one to watch for 2022…

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The sight of Kyle Smith leading the 2021 Ironman World Championship, second-youngest in the field, grinning a blood-stained grin against the red rock backdrop with rivals straining to stay on terms, is one that will endure from May’s showpiece showdown in Utah.

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But it wasn’t just in St George. Anyone in Lanzarote for the 70.3 in March will have witnessed the same. Seeing Smith hammering away at the front on the bike and hanging tough on the run is something we’re getting used to. As for the blood, we’ll come to that later.

Still just 24, Smith only stepped into the non-drafting world in 2019, but made his mark by winning his first five middle-distance races.

Last summer he was a wildcard pick for Team Internationals in the inaugural Collins Cup, and from there has settled in Girona and become Jan Frodeno’s training partner, lining up a critical role in the German’s assault on a fourth – and perhaps final – Kona title in October.

Whether it’s biking with one tri-bar or running marathons with one sock, it’s been quite the trip for the boy from Blackburn who was brought up riding horses and motorbikes…

Who is Kyle Smith?

  • Age: 24
  • Born: Blackburn
  • Nationality: New Zealand 
  • Height: 183cm
  • PTO ranking: 25

220: Kyle, having finished fifth in the Challenge Championship, a fortnight after 11th place on Ironman worlds debut, you’re back in the UK briefly. Why is that?

Kyle Smith: A few errands. To buy a car, watch my cousin in a boxing match, meet with sponsors, and sell my old TT bike – there’s a better market here than in Spain.  It’s nice to come back, see family, and fill up the soul bucket while I recover from racing.

220: Having grown up in Blackburn with two older brothers, what are your early sporting memories?

KS: Because I left aged 12, everything about the UK is nostalgic. They were my formative years and fun times. I still remember every turn of the 2km run I’d do every day after school. We had a super sporty childhood. Come rain, hail, shine, we were always outside playing football, riding bikes, building jumps.

We grew up in a working-class environment in a terraced house. Mum grew up on a working farm and dad tinkered with motorbikes all the time. My brother Aaron would ride motocross. It was like a Lewis Hamilton story. Aaron didn’t have expensive tuned-up race machines, but relied on his talent, and became national champion.

Ryan hated motorbikes and got into horse-riding, and I think I was only conceived because my parents really wanted a daughter. I grew up doing a bit of everything, and before we left for New Zealand managed top five in the British national champs for modern pentathlon.

Luckily we moved to Taupo, a triathlon town. I could swim, run and ride pretty well, so tried a first duathlon at a local club and ended up beating all the adults.

Kyle Smith asks for the numbers of laps to go on the bike track during the men’s U23 race at the 2019 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland (Credit: Jörg Schüler/Getty Images)

220: Why didn’t your short-course career work out quite how you wanted it to?

KS: I showed potential. I won aquathlon junior worlds in 2014 a year after finishing just behind Gustav Iden in the 16-19 age-group world champs in London when I was only just old enough to enter.

To make it in ITU, I came to Europe and was sleeping on people’s floors, scrimping and saving to make it to races. I finished seventh in a World Cup, but felt I was always pushing against the grain.

In 2019, I finished 11th in the U23 worlds in Lausanne, but was dropped from the Tri NZ squad. It was tough, although with hindsight I can accept that I just needed to be a better athlete.

I still have aspirations to make Paris [2024 Olympics] and at the end of this year and next year I’ll have another crack at ITU. I want to qualify off my own back.

220: So you changed tack and tried your hand at going longer?

KS: I stumbled into long-distance tri by accident. I only entered Ironman 70.3 Taupo [2019] because it was my hometown race.  I’d returned from Europe and mum was working at a heritage estate house that needed someone to mow the lawns.

I jokingly said if I win on the weekend I’m not coming in on Monday. I won, but with Ironman not paying for 90 days, I had to go back anyway! I was also barman on Saturday night at functions. It was a cool job. After all, my mum was my boss.

220: After five straight middle-distance wins you travelled to Europe and gained wildcard selection for the Collins Cup in Slovakia [2021] – which turned into an eventful match-up.

KS: The picture of me riding with the one tri-bar is on the wall in Samorin – immortalised. The crash early on the bike snapped the aerobar clean off, but the bigger issue was being stuck in a 58-11 gear grinding 40rpm on an angle that put my back out.

Given it was a unique race and a privilege to be there I wasn’t going to do it an injustice, so ploughed on and ended up in a sprint finish with Collin [Chartier]. I want my mantra to be ‘Never Give Up’.

 

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A post shared by Kyle Smith (@kylesmithnzl)

220: Since settling in Girona, you’ve started training with Jan Frodeno. How’s that going?

KS: After the Collins Cup, I had a haematoma the size of a tennis ball on my hip and at Barcelona airport ready to fly to the 70.3 worlds, I decided for the first time in my life I wouldn’t push through.

I travelled to Girona and found accommodation next to Jan’s café. We’ve got a similar sense of humour and became friends.

I wasn’t super fit so would rock up to training and hang on for dear life. We’d yarn the days away, and after the season, we sat down for coffee and agreed to get on a training plan for St. George. That was until Jan’s Achilles flared up.

220: What have you learnt from training with the three-time Ironman world champion?

KS: That I’m young, dumb and champ at the bit too much. Jan gives me advice from mistakes he made at my age: have a recovery day when you need one, and learn to go easy because it’s easier than to go really hard.

220: How did it feel to be leading the Ironman World Championship on debut until 5km into the marathon?

KS: It was a massive honour. I was pushing harder than I wanted to, but not everybody gets to lead the world champs.

To be first off the bike and lead out of transition on the first few kilometres of the run – even with one sock – it was goosebumpy. It’s a feeling I want again, but for another 35km on the marathon.

220: How did you end up running with just one sock?

KS: The changing tent was so dark with a black floor, and my socks were black too. I pulled my bag off the rack, and think a sock fell out. I was either going to be in T2 for half-an-hour looking or run out with one sock and figure it out later.

I always try and win the tough bastard award at a race, and one guy had some duct tape at an aid station. I just wrapped it in that. It was horrible, but better than the blisters.

That got me through the rest of the race, but my foot was destroyed.

220: You also seem to have the odd habit of finishing races with blood around your mouth. Why is that?

KS: I think I’ve finally figured it out. I used to bite my lip when riding – my concentration face – but busted through one time so stopped.

I now rub my tongue raw on the back of my teeth instead, and get this beautiful blood moustache. It’s definitely not the best look.

 

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A post shared by Kyle Smith (@kylesmithnzl)

220: Your 11th place finish did secure you a rolldown spot for Kona. How important was that for you?

KS: A massive silver lining – I didn’t want to do another Ironman to get to Kona. I blew up on the run with 10km to go and ended up dropping from sixth to 11th.

Prizemoney for the top 15 was in the back of my mind because being a neo pro, every dollar I earn is valuable.

So, on a day when I wasn’t feeling great I still salvaged some prizemoney, a Kona spot and was first off the bike.

220: Is Kona the main focus for the rest of the year?

KS: I think middle distance might be more in my wheelhouse, but if I can figure Kona out too it’ll be amazing. But I’m also there to be a lieutenant for Jan.

When I got into the sport, Jan was the Olympic champ and my poster boy. I admire him even more now. I’ll do whatever I can to keep pulling that front group along, and riding away from the Norwegians!

220: So, do you think a 40-year-old Frodeno can still win in Hawaii?

KS: I wouldn’t put my race on the line if I didn’t wholeheartedly think so. He looks after himself so well, he’s the Cristiano Ronaldo of triathlon. I hope he’ll round it off with one more win and a mic drop at the end.

220: What improvements would you like to see in the sport?

KS: There’s still a lot of work to be done at federation level. We’d have a better sport if people could be supported through the tough 18-22-year age bracket, when they come out of juniors and try to make money in a sport where it’s brutal to make money.

220: Finally, what do you love most about triathlon?

KS: The freedom and variety. With three sports to train for I’m never bored. Our professionals can also hold our own in a cycle race, we’ve triathletes who were former Olympic swimmers and national champions at running. We’re becoming super athletes.

I also love that we are the fruits of our own labour, and control our own destiny. You can create your own career, whether that’s as a brand through social media or just an athlete on race day, there are so many opportunities.

Kyle Smith career highlights

Kyle registered wins in his first five middle-distance races:

  • December 2019: Ironman 70.3 Taupo
  • January 2020: Port of Tauranga Half
  • December 2020: Rotorua Suffer
  • January 2021: Port of Tauranga Half
  • February 2021: Challenge Wanaka

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Top image: Korupt Vision