In Depth and Up Close with Four Time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington by Lee Zohlman
You first won Ironman Hawaii in 2007 and were thrusts into the worldwide sporting limelight. You are considered an icon in the sporting world. How does that word icon strike you?
It is incredibly humbling and surreal to be called an ‘idol’, and to be honest I am not sure I am worthy of such an accolade. I am only following on what Paula, Natasha, Michellie and others started through their achievements. I hope that I, and others, have continued to show that women are a force to be reckoned with in endurance sports. We are narrowing the gap between men and women, and showing that anything truly is possible.
I really do hope that my performances and the manner in which I win races inspires and encourages people to take up triathlon, to set higher goals for themselves and to reach for the stars.
Ultimately though, records are ephemeral. They will be broken by existing or up and coming athletes – that is the nature and beauty of sport – but I do hope that I will be remembered for my passion, my love for what I do, and for giving people the inspiration to succeed in triathlon and life. And of course, to do it with a smile!
UK Sport has a number of Women’s initiatives going on including making female role models more visible. Is this a route you might take in your retirement?
I don’t mind admitting, I don’t have a clear idea of what the future holds – a definite ‘goal’ or single thing to focus on. That was, in part, what was making me question the wisdom of retiring from ironman. I find it incredibly difficult and disconcerting to answer ‘I don’t know’ when faced with the inevitable question ‘If not ironman, what?’ That state of flux, that uncertainty, strikes fear into the heart of the uber controlling, regimen obsessed part of me. But I need to give myself the time to explore, to open doors, to hopefully have some other, unexpected doors open in front of me. I need to wander a little knowing that the ‘right’ path and the next goal will emerge through the mist.
In terms of my specific plans, first and foremost I want to enjoy some time at home, catching up with friends and family. I will spend Christmas with my wonderful family, and then Tom and I are heading to Borneo for a couple of weeks. In February I will be going to Guatemala to head-up a training day and do some public speaking engagements and a charity event, and from there, I’ll go to Costa Rica where I’ll be a guest coach (with Kathryn Bertine) on a bike tour. After that I am open to offers!
I would love to continue to work on women/sport related issues, including working with the media to really build on the positive momentum generated by the Olympics and Paralympics. I have already had some discussions with various organisations about this, and am part of an All Party Parliamentary Group on this issue in the UK parliament. I also have my own personal projects that I am in the process of developing, as well as taking to various organisations that are doing some great work on sport/development related activities – in terms of learning from them and perhaps even inputting to their work in some capacity. I will also continue the ambassadorial work for my sponsors, do some public speaking and be an active patron of my chosen charities, including the Blazeman Foundation for ALS, Jane’s Appeal, Girls Education Nepal and Gotribal. Retired from ironman, but certainly not retired with my non-lycra’d legs up!
Could you see yourself being a Professional athlete in any sports in the future?
Maybe mud wrestling! No seriously, I have no plans to pursue any other sport in a professional capacity but my life will always involve doing sport, so rest assured I will be on the start line of one endurance event or another, it just wont be to embark on 140.6 miles of swim, bike or run!
Now, an easy question. Where is your favorite place in the world to train all three sports? What place has it all?
No one place has it all, but Boulder, Colorado ticks most of the training boxes – at least when the sun is shining! I wouldn’t mind it being a bit closer to the ocean though! And Leysin, Switzerland was pretty darn good too!
You were quoted in a 2008 interview as saying the Professional Ironman athletes deserve to get paid ‘a full day’s pay for a full day’s work.’ The prize money in Ironman races hasn’t been brought up all that much in the last 10-15 years despite a huge increase in participation. What are your thoughts on that?
There is a limit to the number of races a long course athlete can do each year, and if they don’t have sponsors their opportunity to earn a living is limited by the still meager prize purses, especially for ‘development’ athletes.
Hy-vee, Challenge Roth and the Abu Dhabi Triathlon demonstrate just what a deep prize purse can do in terms of attracting a high class and sizeable pro field. I also welcome the steps that the WTC has taken to increase some of the prize purses, and create a tier system with opportunities for ‘development’ athletes to race, do well, and hence earn money, in events where the field may not be as strong.
But there is still considerable scope for improvement, with the need for prize purses to increase still further, and go deeper – across the board. It is ludicrous that the prize purse at Kona has not increased for about 10 years. Relative to inflation it has in fact declined. Big prize purses attract the media, further sponsors, and more athletes and hence can help promote the growth of the sport. But it is not just the high prize purse. Primes would provide additional sources of income, and could be sponsor-linked. Athlete’s should also be supported holistically, for example with travel/accommodation costs, in return for doing appearances and community related activities in/around the races.
Yes, more prize money can also have unwanted and unintended impacts – such as a possible rise in the use of PEDs – but this needs to be accompanied by strong, rigorous and consistent testing, and tough deterrents.
What’s been the best thing about retirement?
To have an open road on which to travel and explore, not knowing exactly where that will lead.
What’s been the worst thing about not racing anymore?
Not being able to eat quite as much as I did before!
I first met you not ten minutes after you won your first Ironman Hawaii in 2007 and we chatted for nearly half an hour. Of course your trademark smile never left your face. Do you remember the feeling you had when you won and can you put it into words?
I remember chatting to you too, even though the whole experience was a bit of a blur, not helped by champagne! You may have realised that while I was smiling I was in total shock, it was all very overwhelming and I didn’t really know what to feel, think or say. The win was so unexpected – to me at least – and I don’t think I fully appreciated the magnitude of the event or the significance of what I’d achieved. Surreal. So incredibly surreal. And it changed my life forever. Not just because I’d won the biggest race in our sporting calendar, but also because I realised I had the platform I’d always dreamed of ever since I was a little girl. But even now, I still have to pinch myself to believe that I am four-time World Ironman Champion. It feels incredibly strange – like I am talking about someone else – and I don’t know if the reality will ever truly sink in, even now I am retired. That sense of joy, elation, amazement and surprise never lessens, and I carry it will me every single day.