Measured in major victories, Leanda Cave carved out a place in triathlon’s hall of fame. She won the 2002 ITU Olympic distance World Championship, the 2007 ITU long distance Worlds, and in 2012 a feat accomplished by only three triathletes in history - winning the Ironman 70.3 and Ironman World Championships double.
Measured in grit, resilience and indomitable will, Leanda scores high as well. She has overcome major injuries and soul-sucking disappointments while fashioning a series of remarkable comebacks.
Today, Leanda declared her retirement. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, his ambition was to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” and by this measure Leanda has succeeded. But, while bowing out of the competitive circus, she has set her sights on a future that will require new talents and new passions.
Slowtwitch: You just turned 40. Did that number have anything to do with your decision to retire?
Leanda Cave No. I have been contemplating life after triathlon for some time now, and my body showed me last year that it was not what it used to be.
ST: You had a decent 2017 season including a win at Costa Rica 70.3, 2nd at Cozumel 70.3, 4th at both Santa Cruz and Peru 70.3s and 5th at the ITU long distance World Championship. As a Welsh woman, thanks to your mum, did you heed Dylan Thomas’ words: “Do not go gentle into the night, rage rage at the dying of the light?”
Leanda: Ha! Dylan Thomas had a bit of an obsession with death. I do not equate retiring to death but bringing light to a new way of life. I was not overly proud of my 2017 season. I had some moments of happiness, but overall, there is not much joy unless I can dominate and be vying for a podium finish every race.
ST: What percentage of your identity do you ascribe to Great Britain, to your family’s sojourn in Australia, and to your Welsh heritage?
Leanda: I never really identified with the Australian culture. This was partly due to a very difficult youth where I never fit in amongst my peers. When I moved back to the UK, I felt much more comfortable and accepted. I also resonated with the culture much more because I grew up in a very British household. However, I am now a US citizen as I plan to settle down in this country.
ST: Growing up, you swam, ran cross country, and served as a surf lifeguard. Did you pursue any of those sports professionally?
Leanda: I tried every sport, but I had very little hand/eye coordination for anything other than endurance sports. In Australia, I dabbled in pro Surf Lifesaving, but my build and skill set did not allow me to adapt to this sport. I would have pursued swimming had I started younger as I was a natural swimmer. I also had a short stint as a professional cyclist, but the pay and opportunity for females then and now was pretty dismal.
ST: Word has it your sis talked you into triathlon?
Leanda: I’m not sure my sister talked me into it. She was competing in the sport before I gave it a go and I admired her for being able to go so far cycling and running. I thought I’d give it a shot, and to my sister’s dismay, I was pretty good and quickly became stronger than her. That she was not too impressed about!
ST: Quick rise to Under 23 European Champion in 2001. Who did you beat? Did that whet your hunger for triathlon?
Leanda: Gosh, that was a long time ago. I believe Nicola Spirig was racing with me and I am pretty sure I beat her. But the hunger was always there. I had such a strong desire to achieve great things.
ST: At age 24, you toed the line at Cancun for the ITU World Championship. You were coming off a 2nd at Commonwealth Games and the Tiszaujvaros World Cup. World top ranked Barb Lindquist was far ahead but suffered heat exhaustion and faded to second. What did you think when you passed her?
Leanda: I really don’t recall what I was thinking. I recently watched the footage and all I can remember is feeling the need to push and go faster when I passed Barb, as I thought she might come back after me.
ST: What did that victory mean?
Leanda: At the time, it was a relief. I’d put so much into doing well at this race and so many people doubted my ability, except my coach at the time, Chris Jones. He was as hard on me as I was on myself and we made a great team.
ST: In 2003 you had a slump. What happened?
Leanda: I call it the curse of winning. I experienced a similar fate after winning ITU long distance Worlds in 2007 and my Ironman 70.3 and Ironman Worlds double in 2012. In 2003 I suffered an injury in my back that caused severe hamstring pain. I could barely run. The pressure I felt to get back training and winning races and getting Olympic points prevented me from getting the medical support I needed.
ST: In 2004, you did not make the British Olympic team. What happened?
Leanda: I raced my arse off and travelled all over the world to get points for GB so we could have 3 women qualified to race at the Olympics. But I just couldn’t find my A game. I raced hard to the point of exhaustion. Other athletes who made the team that year barely raced to qualify. The criteria sucked. I have never felt so disappointed and angry.
ST: In 2006 you did well in some 70.3s, but took 13th at Commonwealth Games. How disappointing?
Leanda: That was a strange year. I was lost. My federation took me off funding and I ran out of money and had to move back home and work. I knew I couldn’t go back to ITU Olympic Distance racing as it is so hit or miss if you make the Olympics, and only if you do is there any hope to have a career and make money. So I used that year to see if could excel at long distance.
ST: In 2007 you won ITU LD Worlds, took 3rd at 70.3 Worlds, and took 8th in your Kona debut. Did that validate your turn to long distance?
Leanda: I liked long distance racing right off the bat. There was always the pressure for me in ITU racing to make the lead pack of the swim to have any chance of winning. It was a fight from the minute I dove into the water. Long distance was different. Being a strong swimmer/biker, I had a much bigger advantage as it was also non-drafting. I knew if I improved my run, I could dominate.
ST: In 2010, you had a 2nd at 70.3 Worlds, but a 10th at Kona. What was missing?
Leanda: In short course, I was used to just redlining and taking in some nutrition if I had a spare second. I fell short for a few years, but when I consulted a nutritionist things started to click.
ST: How did Siri Lindley help you?
Leanda: I started with her in 2010. She had some athletes who were successfully racing long distance and I knew that I needed to train with someone who could improve the back end of my race.
ST: Which of your 2011 races were most significant? 1st Wildflower long course, 2nd ITU long distance Worlds, 3rd Ironman World Championships, 1st Ironman Arizona?
Leanda: Ironman Arizona. I had a crappy start, cramping in the swim and had to stop not far before the exit. When I jumped on my bike, my front wheel was flat. I ran back to transition thinking there would be a bike mechanic who could help me. There was not! The mechanic was actually a quarter mile out on the bike course. So I ran with my bike to the mechanic and he changed the wheel. I thought it was going to be one of those days where everything goes wrong. But after a shaky start, I started to feel pretty good and decided to have a crack at going under 3 hours for the marathon. I went 2:58:51 – the only sub-3 hour marathon of my career. And I finished in 8:49:00.
ST: What was your strategy at Kona? Why did you have more in the tank at the end than Caroline Steffen?
Leanda: I wouldn’t say I had more in the tank. I think it’s a stronger position coming from behind and chasing and I really had no idea I would catch her. But when I saw how close she was coming out of the Energy Lab (still thinking Mirinda will catch me any minute), I found myself digging deeper than I had ever done before.
ST: What did that double mean to you? At the time only matched by Craig Alexander?
Leanda: Now Daniele Ryf has also achieved the double. I’m not sure what it means, other than knowing for one short time in my life, I was pretty freaking good! I can see that now I have retired, but when you are plugging along trying to replicate similar results and failing miserably, it often seemed unbelievable that I actually did that!
ST: You did some adventurous holiday travel in Peru and Abu Dhabi with your sister after the 2012 season. Refreshing?
Leanda: Just about time I did something for me! For almost 20 years, the most I have taken off training was 2 weeks per year. In that time, all I managed to do was sleep. I decided I have to start living and having fun. In some ways, being an athlete for so long has robbed me of my youth. It’s not a bad thing, but I had few opportunities to go off and do what I want. I travelled to many amazing places through racing, but rarely were there any chances to get out and explore. It was fly in. Race. Fly out.
ST: In 2013, you fought a series of illnesses and injuries and finally shut it down to rest. What did you do wrong?
Leanda: Everything! I’d pushed my body to the limit way too long and didn’t realize it after being on cloud 9 for so long. I didn’t rest. I didn’t recover. I just wanted to strike while the iron was hot and keep training and racing. I also had way too many sponsorship commitments that were poorly managed. My problem was saying no. Chrissie Wellington gave me one insight after I won Kona in 2012: I’m just a yes person and I was doing too much. I didn’t take the time to get diagnosed and kept pushing through excruciating pain. I found out about one month before Kona 2013 that I had a hamstring tear. But I was too invested in the race to pull the pin and had a cortisone injection to get me through. It was a horrible race, made worse by the fact that my family all came out to watch me and I failed.
ST: Considering the injuries you overcame, your 12th place finishes at 70.3 Worlds and Kona in 2013 were pretty heroic. What did you think?
Leanda: Thank you for being so kind, but this was not heroic. More stupid for being on the start line at both events knowing how badly I was injured.
ST: In 2015 what happened at Ironman Worlds?
Leanda: At Kona, I was the fittest I have ever been and crashed, resulting in a DNF. Everyone knew that Mirinda DNF’d due to a crash the week leading up to the race. But I crashed in the first 15 miles of the bike while in 2nd place with the cameras on me, but it seems no one knew! I have major scarring on my back from the gravel rash, and at the time, I had a bruise the size of a football on my abdomen where my TT bars went in.
ST: Most important in life, you found a partner in Diaa Nour. Why does it work?
Leanda: He found me! Diaa is great and has been an incredible support the past few years. It’s funny because when we first met, it was refreshing to meet someone who knew very little about triathlon and nothing about me. He made me laugh every day and enabled me to enjoy life around the sport. When we met he couldn’t even change a flat tire, so he wasn’t all that useful around races except helping with logistics and taking my mind off things. But my-oh-my how the tables have turned. Thanks to Ventum, not only does he know how to change a tire, but he can build a bike from scratch and knows more about triathlon than many. In a nutshell, he is the source of my eternal happiness!
ST: What are you most proud of? What was your biggest disappointment?
Leanda: With a long career comes many monumental ups and downs. The proudest moment is when I had my family watch me win silver at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. One thing that stands out was having my Mum tell me after the race: “I never thought you would be this good.” It gave me the confidence to believe that I can do great things, and it set the stage for my future as a professional triathlete. I’m just as proud of my 2012 win at the Ironman World Champs in Kona. I didn’t see it coming. But I never stopped believing I could do it. I just kept trying after many years of failing. It was the hardest win of my career and sometimes I still need to pinch myself!
Career disappointments? Gosh too many. Having an Olympic dream and watching it all fall apart. My injuries, particularly the torn hamstring I endured in 2013. Not being selected for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Losing friends of the sport to disease or accidents.
ST: What lies in your future?
Leanda: Life is too short, which is another reason I had to call it a day. Over the last three years I have been growing my coaching company which is now doing very well. I also started a women’s age group triathlon team with my manager/friend Lou Cantin called Team LC. This is to give back and help women become empowered through triathlon. I have a few design projects in the works. I am working with some of my sponsors (Ventum, KASK, KOO, Santini and Salming) to help design, create and test new and existing products. Finally, I want to put my fashion design background to use, and create some unique clothing in the sport marketplace.