Going the distance: Leanda Cave
From our 2011 vaults, Jim Gourley meets Leanda Cave and finds a wandering star who’s performed at the top of all forms of tri
Issue ID: January 268
On a relaxed Wednesday afternoon, Leanda Cave finds time to chat while out running some errands. It’s nearly impossible to catch her at a time when she can sit long enough for an interview.
The previous Friday she went for a training ride. Saturday found her competing in the 2011 ITU Long Course World Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada. On Sunday she made several post-race appearances and then drove to Los Angeles for meetings. Tuesday, though quite exhausted from the maelstrom of events, she drove back to her current residence in Arizona. The itinerary serves as a fitting analogy of her life – she’s always in motion, always heading toward the next contest.
The woman herself turns that analogy into a parable. One might say that her accent betrays her Australian origins, but that’s only her voice. To truly understand Cave, you have to hear her speak from the heart. It’s not that difficult, you just have to listen. Then you realise that the accent merely disguises her true, decidedly British, character.
She’s friendly, polite, measured in speech and polite in temperament. It’s a genuine exterior, but no more so than the steely resolve and dogged competitiveness girding it from deep within. She cannot be happier that Rachel Joyce and Chrissie Wellington both hoisted the Union Jack to the top of the podium for the UK this year. Yet it doesn’t diminish her desire to be the one to do it next year.
“I’m extremely happy for Rachel and actually very satisfied with my result at the Worlds,” says Cave of her second-place finish, just three minutes off of Joyce. “I came in a bit fatigued from another race, and she was quite a bit fresher, having not raced since Kona, so all in all it was a good day for me.”
Her finish in Las Vegas is another jewel in what many athletes would call a year to be treasured. The last time she faced off against Joyce she was three minutes to the good, which was good enough in fact to take third in the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
However, it wasn’t Joyce that was on her mind that day. Rather, it was that other British woman whose name can’t be ignored when asking an elite athlete like Cave about her future prospects. Almost as if she knows she’s going to be asked, she brings up Chrissie Wellington of her own accord. And while ‘the inevitable question’ looms over some athletes and causes them to shift uncomfortably, Cave answers with admirable confidence: “She can be beaten. I can do it.”
It’s quite plain to Cave – Wellington has set the bar for greatness. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to raise it. And the only way to do that is to chase her. Again, she’s unequivocal when questioned. “Absolutely, there are women who dodge Chrissie. I’ve been to races where there were women on the start list who didn’t even show up once they realised that she would be there. Some of them think there’s no point and they give up, but that’s the wrong way of looking at it.
“The whole point is to race her. You’re never going to learn how to beat her if you don’t get out there and challenge her. There’s no other way about it. If you want to be the best then you’ve got to beat her. I plan to race her until I do beat her, and I believe that’s a great compliment and sign of respect for a great athlete such as her.
“[In Kona in 2010] when they suddenly announced she wasn’t going to race, there was this reaction among the women like ‘oh wow, there’s really a chance we can win now,’ and I think that was wrong. Just because Chrissie shows up at a race doesn’t mean you can’t win. You have to believe you can win.”
When she talks about it, the intensity becomes a little less quiet. She’s a little less reserved. Only four days after a herculean effort at a world championship, the hint in her voice is slight yet perceptible – she’s ready to race again, right now. That’s that on being the greatest. By her own admission, it’s still some time in the future. But what about her accomplishments to date? When we spoke to her she was still seeking her first full Ironman victory – less than two weeks later she went on to win Arizona with a sub 9hr-clocking of 8:49:00. She’s in possession of so many podium placements in a phenomenal career across multiple distances, so how does ‘greatest’ fit against her current ‘greatness’?
“When I first started in this sport, I knew I wanted to do it for a very long time,” she says. “To stay in, you have to remain competitive. So it’s more about consistency than anything else. I think you measure yourself as an athlete in terms of ability and confidence. At every distance I’ve ever raced, I had the confidence that I would win at some point. I just had to work on my ability until I got there. This is a relatively new distance to me, still. I’m confident the win will come.”
In terms of ability, Cave takes a qualitative view of things. She compares herself in relation to her competition. Fellow Brit Julie Dibens is the standard-bearer on the bike, and quite often the swim as well. Still, Cave feels her performance in the second discipline keeps her well enough in the hunt to move up the ranks during the run, though not quite as far as she’d like. Wellington and Mirinda Carfrae were able to out-step her enough in Kona to hold her off. She intends to up the ante next year with more focus on the run during the off-season.
“The run is where Chrissie takes off. This year at Kona I was really excited because it felt like a great race. There was a lot of changing positions and everyone was making moves back and forth. I love that kind of race because you get a real sense of competition. But Chrissie was able to push through her injuries and ran well. I came up a little short this year, but I’ll keep coming back.”
As competitive as she is, it may surprise some to hear exactly how she examines her competitors and measures her progress. For Cave, it’s more philosophical than scientific.
“I haven’t had my VO2max tested since 2008,” she says. “I don’t ride with a power meter. I don’t look at start lists before a race. I’m not a big fan of science. We did a lot of testing with these sorts of things back when I was on the UK team for the Commonwealth Games, and what I decided was that the tests only tell you what your potential is. They can’t tell your ability to actually win races.
“Some people ride with a power meter and it tells them they should ride at 170 watts for so long and what have you, but it doesn’t tell them where they are in the race and how well they can do at the finish. I look at what the competition does and make my decisions based on them.”
This situation-based approach to a race is reminiscent of former Ironman World Champ Chris McCormack, and it runs deep in the Australian racing style. Did more than just the accent rub off on Cave during her formative years there? “Not really. I lived in Australia, but I was raised British. We moved around often within Australia, so I grew up on the beaches and did all of that, but when I’d come home each day it was to a British house. So I’ve always felt most connected with the UK.”
After competing well in the juniors in Australia, she moved to the UK at the age of 19 to train and race there. After spending some time between Britain and Australia, she achieved her breakout performance in 2001 by winning the European U23 Championship. A silver medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games signalled her arrival as a serious ITU contender, which she consummated the same year by winning the World Championships in Cancun.
Deciding to transition to long- distance racing in 2005, Cave moved to the United States to be closer to the races and coaches she’d need access to in order to be successful. A last-minute conflict of interest resulted in a scramble to find a new coach, however. As luck would have it, she found much more than that in Torsten Abel; not long after taking him on as a coach, she took him on as a husband.
Though she switched to the tutelage of two-time world ITU champion Siri Lindley nearly three years ago, Cave says that there were no professional issues causing personal stress in her life. “I switched because I wanted to be around more athletes I could train with and have that supportive environment. Training alone just doesn’t work as well for me, and I work really well with Siri and the other athletes who train with her.”
Cave says that the gifts bestowed upon her by the sport of triathlon have been unanticipated and that she never would have guessed her career would go this far. She studied fashion design and education at the University of Brisbane, the longest she stayed in any place in Australia. Otherwise, she’s never lived anywhere for longer than three years.
There’s no telling if the next three years will see her remaining in Tucson or picking up again. She loves the relaxing countryside of Germany, in an area called Wangen in particular, but more likely sees herself able to live somewhere in Italy. “But who knows?” she laughs. “I might be out on a boat in the Mediterranean next year.”
More realistically, she muses that, at this point in her life, it’s more the human environment than the geographic one that drives her wanderlust. “I like being around friends. I feel these days that I want to spend my time with the people who know me best.”
For someone who never stayed in one place for long, home is where the heart is. But for a woman raised according to a particular culture, one place on earth always holds a special place in her heart. “We’re visiting the UK at the end of the year. I can’t wait.”
It goes without saying that a race course is a good substitute for a home away from home, and the top of the podium is as familiar to her as Britain. For a woman who was raised a champion, there’s no doubt that she’ll be home again soon.
Height: 5ft 10in
Weight: 126 pounds
Kilometres swum per week: 25
Kilometres biked per week: 400
Kilometres run per week: 80