Ben Collins is one of America’s premier ITU professionals and is among the top swimmers in all of triathlon. He will be racing on the Dextro Energy World Championship Series this year in the hope of securing an Olympic spot in London. Ben paused for a chat before he opens his season March 5th at the National Sprint Championships in Clermont
Slowtwitch: First off, I love your fashion sense on the course. Those pink glasses are like nothing I’ve seen before.
Ben: I love them, they stand out so I don’t look like everyone else. Really, I’m amazed we don’t see more of the pink Rudy Project glasses among men who choose to run around in tight spandex for a living.
ST: For those who don’t know, could you tell us a little about your athletic background?
Ben: I have swum from the day I was old enough for swim classes. I was not-quite seven when I joined the swim team. In high school I ran a season of track and cross-country, but liked swimming better (I won more often). I swam at Columbia University, and it was senior year there when my roommate introduced me to cycling. After I graduated I asked my parents to help me buy a bike, then I took a job in Hawaii where I joined the Volcano Triathlon Team.
ST: You’re renowned for your strength in the water, but truth be told, your biking abilities are nearly as strong as your swim. Where’d that come from?
Ben: I train hard. If you work hard on the bike it pays off much faster than in swimming or running.
ST: And with all that swimming & biking how were you able to develop a sub-33 10k?
Ben: For that I have to give credit to Victor Plata. He was my coach for two years and taught me how to put in the consistent volume that it takes to become a runner.
ST: I’m fascinated by the run versus swim background rift seen in American triathletes. What’s your take on that and who do you think has the easier time initially finding success in ITU racing?
Ben: Swimmers, for sure. If you can’t make the group out of the water you might as well be doing a non-drafting race.
ST: As a strong swimmer do you get disappointed when you hear it’s going to be a wetsuit swim?
Ben: No. I don’t really care. BlueSeventy’s suits don’t restrict my arms at all, so it doesn’t effect my form. A wetsuit helps me just as much as it helps anyone else. Last year at the San Francisco Pan-Am cup I broke away during a wetsuit swim and went on to win it. The wetsuit didn’t make a difference. In WCS and World Cups it keeps guys a bit closer together, but swimmers at those races are so strong that it takes a technical swim – like the tunnels in Hamburg or the snake-river in Monterrey – to break it up. With 65 guys on the start line, there’s so much water moving that a much weaker swimmer can still make the main pack – with or without a wetsuit.
ST: Have you planned your race schedule for 2011?
Ben: I have a rough idea. The goal is to be top 9 at London, which means running faster and having enough points to be on the start line. That said, I’ll probably do some of the new 5150 series so that I can carry my London fitness into Hy-Vee, and if I have time for it I think the Toyota Cup and Tri-Cal series have the best races in the US.
ST: Did you take away any lessons during your first year of competing against the world’s best?
Ben: Being able to kick a guy’s ass in a pool doesn’t mean shit on race day.
ST: What technology do you train and race with?
Ben: I use Garmin devices. The new Forerunner 410 records all the data I need. Plus, I like getting myself lost in the woods, and on more than one occasion the “return to start” feature has helped me find my way.
ST: The Madrid WCS featured a tough bike course with a huge hill you hit 8 times. You broke away with the likes of Brownlee, Gomez and Chrabot. Is that aggressiveness part of your game plan?
Ben: I have to consciously calm myself down during a race or I’d be trying to break away out of T1. In Madrid I was coming off an injury and had no business riding as hard as I did. All that camera time is fun, but I need to race a bit smarter. Overriding last year made my run look much worse than it really is.
ST: K-Swiss must be a fun company to be sponsored by. What’s the relationship there?
Ben: Chris Lieto introduced me to K-Swiss back at the end of 2007. I had just turned Pro, and they had just come out with their first running shoe. Much like those original shoes, I was a chubby, slow guy showing more potential than credibility. K-Swiss and I have both improved dramatically since then. K-Swiss is making the best running shoes in triathlon, and I’m knocking on the door to the US Olympic Team. The sponsorship itself is what has allowed me to focus on my Olympic dream without worrying so much about money. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without the help of K-Swiss, but if their shoes weren’t awesome I wouldn’t have been able to stay with them.
ST: So I know you’ve returned to college, what are you studying?
Ben: Ha! Yeah, about that… The short answer is that I’m getting an MBA from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The truth is I like learning, and having something in my life that isn’t triathlon. The MBA program is more applicable to my career than pottery, history, or “Multivariable Modeling and Control of Mechanical Systems” – though that last one sounds more interesting than Managerial Accounting to me. I’ve been enrolled in classes almost continually since I left Columbia, so it’s more of a progression of my education than a return. It’s just how I balance my life as a professional athlete.
ST: Continuing on in higher education seemingly has become a trend for triathletes lately.
Ben: Yeah, I guess an education is a good insurance policy for a high-risk career.
ST: With Clermont next month, and being that it is the first ever USAT sanctioned draft legal triathlon available to age groupers, let’s try to dispel some draft-legal rumors. When drafting on the bike, how easy or hard is it to just sit and draft on someone’s wheel?
Ben: It really varies by the race, but in general I think draft-legal bike segments are harder because of all the surges. The slower the pack is going; the more surges there are because people keep taking flyers off the front.
I highly recommend that all the triathletes out there go do some bike races. They’re fun, they make you a better cyclist, and after the race you can tell me if you feel more or less prepared to run a 10k than if you were setting your own pace.
ST: Second rumor, what would you say to the people who claim draft-legal is becoming a running race?
Ben: At the world championship level that’s true. There’s just not a big enough difference among the top 65 guys in the world to make a difference in the swim or bike. Harder courses – surf swims, hills, etc. – would help, as would smaller field sizes.
ST: What expectations do you have for yourself at Clermont?
Ben: No expectations. It will be an indicator of my early season fitness, so I’ll just race hard and try not to make any mistakes.
ST: Lastly, I know your goal is to represent America at the Olympics. Even though the Games are a year and a half away, things are really heating up already.
Ben: Well then it’s good my K-Swiss K’Ruuz are well ventilated to keep me cool.
You can track Ben on his blog at bencollins.org