Last month Australia’s Chris McCormack announced he was to turn his back on Ironman racing, not defend his Hawaii title and attempt to qualify for the London Olympics. At 37 years old, surely these are the actions of a madman. “Perhaps,” Macca told us here in Abu Dhabi, “but I’ll give it my best shot.”
As we discovered once McCormack had completed a turbo session in his hotel room, the Australian Federation’s struggle to fill the third slot and his desire to compete in his first Olympics combined for the biggest story of the year so far…
So it’s Abu Dhabi and then pure ITU racing?
Sadly not. As my change is so recent, I need to honour commitments already pencilled in. In fact the preparation for Sydney is horrific [opening ITU Dextro World Series race of the season on 10 April] – 200km isn’t ideal bike training for a 40km bike leg. In an ideal world I’d be back in Australia swimming my arse off.
And after 10 years of steady tempo running, I’ve lost my run speed. I don’t want to embarrass myself in Sydney, which I think I might do. But [the decision to qualify for London 2012] has given me another lease of life.
Whether I qualify for the team or not, I’m proud of myself for walking away [from Ironman] at the top of the game. It’s going to cost me a lot of money but to make the Aussie Olympic team would be pretty cool.
What were the chain of events that led to the career-changing decision?
I did an interview with an Australian tri website and gave the federation a bit of a slating. Well, they contacted me and said you’ve been smashing us for 10 years, why don’t we have a chat. We were then at peace.
Conversation moved onto Craig [Alexander] and I being two of the marquee athletes, and why the federation don’t use the doyens of the sport in athlete development – the Brad Bevens and Miles Stewarts [both dominant Aussie triathletes of the nineties] of this world – instead of having all of these administrators.
We then moved onto the Olympics and I suggested this was a case in point: how the hell do you make it into the Olympic team? And then they said that I could make it if I wanted. I asked for them to explain. Then I said I wouldn’t mind going. I think they thought I was talking rubbish but I wasn’t.
If you think of [my selection] as being a door open, it’s not – it’s half shut. But I can still walk through but it’s going to be hard work.
What’s the qualification process to make the Aussie team?
There are three tiers. A gold level where you finish top three in a World Champs race or top three in the series. Only Courtney [Atkinson] and Brad [Kahlefeldt] met that in 2010.
A silver level, which is three top 10s. A third athlete hasn’t achieved that.
And then you have a bronze level, which is three top 25s and no-one’s achieved that. Brad and Courtney are as good as picked but that third place is open.
It’ll be easier for, say, [Brendan] Sexton and [Dan] Wilson even though they didn’t have great seasons last year. If they begin the season strongly, they could put me out of the equation by July. But if that’s the case, I can fall back on some 70.3s.
However, if all three of us were to reach, say, level two, then it’d be up to the selectors on a discretionary basis. And I reckon I could bring a lot to the team.
Your bike strength and lack of Olympic-distance run training intimate you’ll be at the heart of team tactics on the bike. Is this the case?
No. I said [to the Australian Federation] that they should pick someone as a captain of the road for the team but they said they want three individual athletes for the Olympics. I don’t think it’s a good decision.
Being an observer for many years and seeing how someone like my good friend Simon Whitfield has prepared for the Olympics – he’s the most successful triathlete Olympian and the team has been built for him to challenge for victory [Colin Jenkins was effectively chosen as a domestique in Beijing where Whitfield added silver to his gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics] – it’s clear to me that you need someone to steer things on the bike.
If you look at the Kiwis, they’ve done the same for Bevan [Docherty] and he’s got two Olympic medals.
Look at Javier Gomez… In the build-up to Beijing he won everything [when Spain employed team tactics with Ivan Rana driving on the bike]. Come the Olympics, they [Spain] pick individuals and he comes forth.
If anything goes wrong for your marquee guys, you need someone there to help out. Let’s say Brad gets beaten up in the swim and falls off the pace. He’s our best runner. Why take him out of the game? You need someone who can bring him back to the group.
So ITU racing is about energy conservation more than anything else?
For many, yes it is. Simon [Whitfield] told me that you need to keep those spikes [referring to power] very even. The greater the variation, the more speed it takes off of your run. Not your threshold but the ability to kick at the end. Look at Jan Frodeno in Beijing. He outkicked Whitfield and if they can keep that constant wattage throughout the race, it gives more strength to the runner.
Getting your team into transition first gives you a shout of an Olympic medal, and that’s what ITU racing should be about.
It’s funny because before I’d gone down this path, Simon told me that the Australians are shooting themselves in the foot by not thinking this way. He says, “Haven’t you learnt? Are you stupid?”
I tried to make that clear [to the Federation] but it’s very difficult for a man in my position to just come in and say, “Come on guys, let’s do it like this.” They’d quite rightly just tell me to piss off.
When did you last race on the ITU circuit?
My last race was the Commonwealth Games back in 2002 [in Manchester where Macca finished fifth]. I was supposed to have raced the World Championships in Cancun later that year but I gave it a miss and had a stab at Hawaii instead. In a perfect world I thought I’d have a go at Kona [Chris DNFed] and then come back in time for the Athens Olympics. But it didn’t work out that way.
Has ITU racing changed since then?
Immeasurably. Those guys are a cut above where I ever was. It’s a testament to the sport that they’re a product of ITU racing. I know they get a lot of stick in the US but it’s not their fault that it’s drafting. Brownlee and Gomez are phenomenal; they’re both great athletes.
I was from a different era. We were non-drafting boys, though it [drafting] came in during my early twenties. I competed in the first drafting event in Tokyo in 1994, and we had to lose our long aerobars.
We were also a different shape. We were bigger guys. Now they’re much leaner. They’re classy athletes. They’ve made differences to transition and have really refined the game.
I know a lot of older athletes fight it but they shouldn’t – they should embrace these kids. We’re a part of the process. We were our era and they’re part of theirs.
So it’s Abu Dhabi this weekend and then…?
Well, it’s not an ideal short-course schedule. Because I’m contracted to the Challenge race in Cairns [5 June], I’m going to miss Kitzbuhel and Madrid. I really wanted to race Kitzbuhel [for its difficulty] but I hear Beijing is hard, too. I’m going to race some World Cups to try and build up my points for a better position on the pontoon. Being a zero-ranked athlete I’m last on the pontoon and not being one of the strongest swimmers, that’s not going to help my cause.
You’ve been a ‘free agent’ for so long, are you ready to fall back into racing for the federation?
Look, ITU racing is good for two people: young kids if you’re after sponsors and want to get a tracksuit and fit into a system it’s great. And for an old bloke who’s got a family and fit into a system where it’s all organised for you, it’s great.
I tell you what, I come back with no illusions whatsoever. It’s going to be hard. But those guys, hey, they should respect their elders [laughs]!
Keep reading www.220triathlon.com
for more on how Macca and his current batch of rivals get on at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Triathlon.
Photo courtesy of Romilly Lockyer (www.romilly.com)