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Thu 18th Jul 2019
Interview: Simon Lessing
Posted by: Annie Emmerson
Posted on: Wednesday 22nd October 2008

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Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I think many sports these days tend to lack the exciting sporting personalities of old. In cycling, it may have been the late Marco Pantini or the great Miguel Indurain that had you avidly tuning into the major stage races to follow their progress in the 90s. In running there was the great battle between Coe and Ovett, that had you sitting on the edge of your seat, especially during the infamous 1980 Moscow Games. In triathlon, there was Lessing v Smith, a great duel that lasted several years during the early and mid 90s. What was different about those times is probably worth a lengthy debate, but one of the major factors, as I see it, is that there was a great will to succeed; not driven by large sponsorship packages or lottery funding, but a simple and pure desire to win!

For all athletes there comes a time when they must hang up their racing kit, but even so it's always sad when a great legend in any sport decides to retire. For many it was inevitable that Simon Lessing, one of our sport's great heroes, announced his recent retirement from triathlon but it does leave you wondering; who will replace the five-times World Champion?

Lessing's retirement comes at a time when his desires to pursue other challenges are greater than his desire to win triathlons - something he's done for nearly 25 years. He also no longer wants to fight the injuries that have plagued him for the last couple of years, and knows it's time to give his mind and body a long-awaited break from the 30-hour-a-week training schedule it's used to.

I caught up with a relaxed Simon Lessing at his home in Boulder, which he shares with his wife and two daughters. We talked about the early years of the sport, all those World Championship victories - and the 'nearly one' when he was beaten in the dying stages of the race by a certain Dimitry Gaag from Kazakhstan. And, amongst many other things, we also talked about Simon's disappointment with the way the World Class Performance program was run in his era and discussed whether the system has improved since Simon left for America five years ago.

Over the next three days we will be bringing you Simon's retirement interview in a three-part series, starting with the first one today.

AE After over 20 years in the sport and so many great moments, you've finally retired, was it a tough decision?

SL No, not so tough, I feel as if I've been dragging my feet for a while and for a couple of years I've been saying this is my last year and gone on and raced another one. This year, for example, I was only intending to race a couple of races, and that was my full intention, but I ended up racing way more than that. I did four or five half Ironman races, not too well, but I did them anyway. For me, the signs have been there for a while, especially from the physical aspect where I've been dealing with one issue after another, which definitely hasn't helped my motivation.

AE By the physical aspect, I'm guessing you're talking about your injuries?

SL Yes, exactly! I was a guy who essentially never had to deal with injuries. For a lot of athletes that are plagued by injuries it just becomes part of their career, or part of their sporting life, but I was very fortunate for about twenty years and I really never had to deal with any major injury set-backs, so suddenly it was quite a lot to deal with when I'd escaped them for so long. The injuries I've been suffering with for the last couple of years eventually meant I wasn't able to find any consistency in my training, I would just be getting back into training after one injury and then something else would come along. So I guess the bottom line is; because of the lack of consistency in my training, my level of performance was deteriorating and I just wasn't satisfied with having to continuously battle with one thing after another.

AE So would you say that your injury problems were the main reason you retired?

SL The injuries weren't a major factor, but it was a contributing factor. The bottom line is your whole frame of mind changes when your dealing with those sorts of problems/ailments. The other side of it, is that I'm just tired, my bodies tired, I'm physically tired and I'm mentally tired. I guess I've been doing the same thing for nearly twenty-three years and it's the same repetitive type of training, which is what one has to do to perform well, it's just become a little over bearing. When I added everything together I just decided it was time to move on, I had to take that step, make a stand and bite that bullet, and say enough is enough.

AE It's obviously tough for any athlete in any sport to make that decision to retire, especially when it's something that you love doing and is, to a large degree, your life. Do you think some athletes drag out their careers just a little bit too long?

SL A lot of pros end up in this unique lifestyle, which is something they get very used to. It's easy for an athlete to just put the blinkers on and say I'm just going to do another year and hopefully it will get better, when really they should have the balls to face up to reality and say right, it's time to move on! It's not easy, I know, but it has to be done. My way of doing it has been by using this season to make that transition, to start trying other things and to start working on new projects that I'm going to be actively involved in in the future. So I haven't just stopped and twiddled my thumbs without knowing what I was going to do. I've been thinking about it for a while and I've set the chain in motion.

AE What are the new projects that you're going to be involved in?

SL I'll be working on my online coaching project, which will tie-in with the work I've been doing with CEO Challenges. I was actually in Hawaii supporting some of the guys. There was a whole array of CEOs competing, the first guy was around eleven hours and the last guy was the last finisher, in sixteen hours and fifty-nine minutes. I was out on the course being a spectator for the first time, and I tell you it was harder than doing the race itself.

AE Did you find that actually watching people compete in such a tough competition was an emotional experience - especially having been there yourself, and understanding what they're going through?

SL For everyone taking part in Hawaii a whole lot of effort and energy is required, it's not like any race that you can just enter and do it, you have to go through this whole qualifying procedure, which takes a lot of dedication, financial commitment and personal commitment. In Hawaii everyone has a story to tell, and their reasons for being there are unique. I can guarantee you that you can ask every single person there, fundamentally why are they doing it and they'll all give you a different reason. It is a very emotional experience for a lot of people, of course to a certain extent with the CEO Challenge even more so, because the CEO Challenge has given a lot of these guys the chance to race in Hawaii when ordinarily they wouldn't have the chance. For sure it was tiring, but it was certainly a new and enjoyable experience for me to be out on the course and watch the race as a spectator.

AE Was there any point when you wished it was you out there racing?

SL There were plenty of times when I thought I would have liked to be out there racing, but then you look at half the field that are struggling with nutritional problems on mile ten of the run, and the reality sinks in that I'm actually quite happy watching from the sidelines. I can safely say that I certainly have no regrets, at this stage, about retiring.

AE Talking about Hawaii, what did you think of Chrissie Wellington's performance?

SL She certainly showed that she's an unbelievable talent and with or without the puncture it wouldn't have made any difference, that's how good she is, heads above the rest. She showed a really steady and amazing performance, even with the setbacks that she had.

AE We've been surprised - especially as it was a second gold medal at the Ironman World Championships, that she hasn't had more coverage in the UK, is that something you can relate to in your career?

SL Yes, I was surprised too, and it amazed me having gone through all the newspapers, and the BBC's website, that there was so little about her amazing victory. I think it's disappointing that she really doesn't get the support she deserves at home. It's really quite sad to see that someone like her has to rely on making a career outside of the UK for her to get what she needs to survive financially, I think it mirrors back to my own career and quite a few other British triathletes and I still don't think the sport of triathlon is recognised like it is in other parts of the world. Maybe it's a cultural problem, or an educational problem - the notion of doing a very outdoor activity in the climate that the UK offers, which is not ideal for training for triathlon. Nevertheless, in saying that, it certainly is growing massively around the world. Triathlon is becoming the 'in sport', in other words the sport that most people want to try. It's no longer trying to do a marathon, it's trying to do a triathlon.

I think it is a difficult sport to try and do. It's a sport which fundamentally requires a ton of time because it's three very different sports. That said, hopefully as the sport progresses triathlon in the UK will get more attention, and it should do when you consider the size of the London Triathlon and the success of it. I think we've got to change from being this isolated sport into a mass participation sport, it's certainly what we're seeing here in North America, hopefully it will follow the same trend in the UK.

AE On the subject of athlete sponsorship and funding, etc; in the 90s when yourself and Spencer Smith were racing, and very much dominating the World Championships (between them they won the World Championships in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998 and in 1999 Simon finished second behind Dimitry Gaag who has recently been banned from the sport for the use of the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin) you received very little financial sport, other than from your own personal sponsors, and for a large part of your careers pretty much supported yourselves, didn't you?

SL Yes, totally! I think up until 2000, all of us that were racing elite were supporting ourselves, and the fact was that if you wanted to go to the World Championships that was fine, but you had to pretty much fund yourself to get there. That was essentially how it worked, so I certainly feel that all of us that were on the national team at that stage, were, to a large degree, totally self-sufficient and that's the way it was! Triathlon didn't have the funding that it has come to have now and to a certain degree that gave us the freedom to do what we wanted.

AE Was that the way you preferred it?

SL It was no secret that I had issues with Graeme Maw - the Performance Director at the time - and the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP). There was also this misconception that everyone was making tons of money from Lottery funding, but the reality was that because it was means tested, someone like myself ultimately didn't make a lot of money from it, if at all! I essentially got zero funding at the end because it was either play Graeme Maw's game and stick to his program, or you were on your own. Because of my history in the sport - I'd always been very self-reliant and been my own boss - I fundamentally didn't agree with some of the things that were going on. I made a decision to primarily look after myself so I could go the races I wanted to race and have the freedom to be in charge of my career, which I had been up until that point. When I did get involved, around the time of the Sydney Olympics, I did receive some support for training equipment that I was using at the time, but that was about it.

AE Did your move from Bath to Boulder in the US have anything to do with the politics of the sport?

SL The main reason for my move out here was ultimately to re-establish my career over here, and have the freedom to race the races I wanted to race and, quite honestly, to get the support that I wasn't going to get in the UK. When I say support, I don't only mean the WCPP, but also sponsorship. I spent my whole career racing for Great Britain and never once had a British sponsor, that's telling for a lot of athletes in the Great Britain and for the commitment and the perspective people have of triathlon in the UK. It's unfortunate but I've always been reliant on sponsors outside of the UK to get by.

AE Taking a look at the results and how things are run now and comparing them to when you were racing on the British team, do you think the athletes have been helped by the WCPP or hindered, and is there a part of you that feels that perhaps many athletes in the UK have been wrapped in cotton wool to a certain degree?

SL My early experiences of the WCPP was that it was a bit like the blind leading the blind. Unfortunately I don't think UK Sport had a real understanding of what makes a good triathlete, they relied on the WCPP to do that and with PowerPoint presentations you can convince anybody of anything, if it's done well. The reality of it was, that Graeme Maw was trying to push the program in a direction that really wasn't suitable for triathlon and for the athletes at that time.

AE But do you think things have changed since then?

SL A lot of money has now been invested into the development of the sport in the UK, but you have to ask; have the likes of Al Brownlee or Olly Freeman, for example, benefited from it, or would these athletes have gone into the sport anyway? My gut feeling is that they would have and it's not thanks to a developmental programme that they were introduced to the sport in the first place. It's hard to decide if a really successful identification program has been developed in terms of being able to go out and identify key athletes that have talent in the sport of triathlon, and I'm not so sure if it has.

AE Having been quite removed from the WCPP for some time though, is it possible that things have changed for the better?

SL I admit that I have been totally divorced from the programme over the last five years or so, and so now I have little idea as to how it's run. I think the programme has certainly helped a couple of athletes, but the problem in the past was the one-size-fits all theory; it was the same protocol and the same agenda for everyone, and that doesn't work in our sport where you've got 18-year-olds performing really well right up to 35-year-olds performing really well. There is a very different array of athletes, at different stages in their lifes, with different levels of experience and that all needs to be be taking into account. Has it changed? Like I said, I can't comment on what's happening now, I can only comment on my involvement form 1999 to 2002, which is when I was part of the program.

You can read part two of this interview HERE.
You can read part three of this interview HERE.

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