After establishing a stellar long distance triathlon career – ITU Long Distance World Championship golds in 2010 and 2012, Ironman World Championship runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2012, a world best Ironman bike split of 4:35:29 while winning 2012 Ironman Melbourne in 8:34:51 – Caroline Steffen was looking for a new coach after the 2013 season.. After the turmoil when her long time super coach Brett Sutton resigned from Team TBB in November, the Swiss champion decided to go with a rookie coach – 4-time World Champion Chris McCormack.
While getting Steffen ready for the Abu Dhabi International, Steffen and McCormack answered some questions about this intriguing matchup via email for Slowtwitch.
CAROLINE STEFFEN ON MACCA
Slowtwitch: Caroline, congratulations on a daring choice of a potentially great coach.
Caroline Steffen: Thanks Tim, but why daring? I personally think it is a smart and strategic move and have been really impressed by the positive feedback I have received so far.
ST: First off, what do you think about your old coach Brett Sutton? What did he do for you as a triathlete? What level were you when you started with Sutton? And what did you become as an athlete?
Caroline: Brett is the most self-sacrificing, extraordinary and sincere coach I’ve ever had. Brett’s ambition and joy for the sport triathlon is inspiring and thrilling at the same time. I met Brett as an age group level athlete with a pro license in the pocket and a big dream in my mind. I had no money and no title at that time but I believed I could do great if he would give me a chance to prove myself. Brett and Team TBB gave me this chance because they believed in my talent which I will always be grateful for.
ST: Why did you click with the Doc and his personality?
Caroline: Because he is powerful, fascinating and a bit crazy sometimes. A look back shows, most of the coaches I had in my past demonstrate a kind of same dominant personalities in one way or another.
ST: How did you react to his challenges in training?
Caroline: One month in Brett’s program I won my first pro race at the 2010 Ironman 70.3 Geelong, so I reacted pretty well I guess. He doubled my weekly workouts and made me run up to 3 times a day. I lost some excess body weight and built my overall strength. The challenges were something I definitely reacted positively to at the time.
ST: How did he help you with strategy in the big races?
Caroline: We spoke through some possibilities how the race may unfold and how I should react to different challenges and/or opportunities during the race.
ST: How did he guide you when you were coping with injuries or illness at Kona?
Caroline: There was no support on that front unfortunately.
ST: You came close to the win at Kona twice. What do you – and Brett – think you could have done better on those days? If anything?
Caroline: Definitely to believe in myself more and not race scared but with confidence that I can get the job done when and where it counts like I have done around the world in my career so far.
ST: Do you think you had better days at Melbourne and Frankfurt and Roth than you did at Kona? If so, if not, why?
Caroline: No I don’t think I had better days in Melbourne, Frankfurt or Roth. I only handled certain race situations better than I did in Kona the years before. In Kona I put myself under too much pressure and lost some focus for the real deal - which is of course racing as usual.
ST: What did you think about Brett’s final days as Team TBB head coach? Did his ideas about changing the sport affect you in the Kona buildup?
Caroline: Brett did the best he could do to get me ready for Kona last year. I didn't know it was going to be the last time I would see him as my coach sadly. The split up wasn’t anticipated from my side and I followed his recommendations in all aspects leading into the race as I usually do.
ST: Did you want him to remain your coach? Did you ask him? And what did he say?
Caroline: Yes I did in the first instance but realized pretty quickly that Brett was on a new mission and it’s maybe time for me as well to move on and follow my own way. Whilst I had already made the decision and communicated it to the team that I would move away from the team environment sometime before Kona, I was hopeful of working with Brett from a coaching perspective but sometimes things happen for a reason. I hope he finds what he wants and achieves his dreams as I am sure he wishes for me.
ST: After taking some time off, what did you want from a new coach?
Caroline: It had to be a male and an Australian even better. I wanted someone who understood what I’ve done the last four years with Brett Sutton. Someone who knows Brett, how he trains people and how he works. I’ve never really had a coach who has been at a race so to have someone who also can support me in the big races such as Roth and Hawaii would be perfect. Someone who knows the race in Hawaii and knows how it feels to get second and be so close. Someone who can give me my confidence back and teach me some mental strength as well as continuing with my physical development.
ST: Did you want to stay closer to Australia to make your relationship with David Dellow easier?
Caroline: Of course that’s one very important reason as we are a couple. But also I want to stay closer to Australia because that’s where I am home. The training conditions here on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland are absolutely perfect all year long. I’m also a permanent resident of Australia now and allowed to stay as long as I want, so there is no more reason for me to live out of a suitcase for 6 months each year which gets very tiring not only physically but mentally.
ST: What led you to think about Chris McCormack? He is not an established coach. What led you to think he might be good?
Caroline: Precisely because he is not an established coach. Chris is an athlete like me, it feels like he understands my thoughts and certain moves I do just better than any other coach I had. He considers and coaches me from a different perspective. We communicate regularly and with ease, plus the items I highlighted on my “wants and needs” list were all ticked off when I considered Chris. The journey has been good so far and I am looking forward to what is ahead.
ST: What did you like about Macca as a person? As an athlete?
Caroline: Chris is straightforward, outspoken, easy to talk to and very passion about our sport. His knowledge is impressive and his enthusiasm is contagious. As an athlete, Chris has always been following his dream no matter what other people said, I like that a lot. He quit his job at a young age to do triathlon - like I did. He traveled to Europe with a dream but no money - like I did back in 2009 when I moved to Australia. Chris knows what he wants and is willing to work hard for it till he gets it. It’s a personality trait which makes him a winner.
ST: Did you ask him in person?
Caroline: No, I was too shy. Whilst I knew Chris and had spent time with him before whilst training I just wasn’t brave enough. At the same time, talking with my agent team at BPM Sport, they suggested to consider Chris so that was easy. I asked them to drop my name during a dinner they had the next week with Chris as they are old friends and could they suggest I’m looking for a new coach. From there things moved pretty quickly and all has worked out well.
ST: What do you think about his first suggestions as a coach? What might be different in his approach than you were doing with Brett?
Caroline: Chris's commitment to the new job as my coach and mentor is priceless. I’m more than grateful for this unique opportunity he has given me. Brett as my coach was the boss and he made all decisions concerning training racing travel etc. With Chris’s support now, I have more control over the planning and outcomes. As both Chris and my manager Evan tell me, I’m the CEO now, the one who makes the final decisions. We’re a team with the final decisions being with me and they are there to advise and support.
ST: You have always been someone who gave 100 percent plus racing. But how driven are you and motivated personally to finally win Kona?
Caroline: Winning Kona is all I can think about at the moment. Every single choice I make and move I do this year is about this race. Of course Challenge Roth is also very high on my priority and the ultimate goal is to win both of these races this year which I know is achievable. Of course winning races throughout the year such as Ironman Melbourne, Ironman 70.3 Philippines and others is important but ultimately my year and how I measure it will come down to Challenge Roth and Kona.
ST: Macca is a master at mind games. You seem to be the epitome of sportsmanship – so do you think you could learn some things about psyching out opponents from Macca?
Caroline: Ha ha. I’m sure I can learn a lot about "psyching out opponents” and still be remembered as being someone that is the "epitome sportsmanship.” Most of the mental work is about my own mental preparation and that total confidence in my abilities come race day.
ST: I read somewhere that you wanted your coach to be at your races. Macca is committed to Challenge races. But what is the prospect he will be there for you at Melbourne or Frankfurt and Kona?
Caroline: Whilst he has a commitment to Challenge he can and does go to other races. I am going to race Challenge Roth like I did last year and Chris will be there too. The same for Kona, he and my manager will be there for that personal support when it counts and I am looking forward to it.
ST: What did David think about your choice of a coach?
Caroline: After having a whining girlfriend at home for two months without any coach, David is more than happy I found a helpful hand and supporter. And as an Australian of course he is happy with my choice.
ST: What insight do you think Macca has about your capabilities and potential?
Caroline: I think he sees my potential and sees also the struggle I have with certain things. He has told me that is why he took on this job and it is exciting for us both at what we will try to achieve.
ST: Did you pay attention to the job that Craig Alexander did coaching Lisa Norden this past year?
Caroline: No I did not.
MACCA ON CAROLINE STEFFEN
ST: Congratulations on your new job coaching the fabulous Caroline Steffen!
Chris McCormack: Well thanks Tim. I am not sure if I need to be congratulated. Coaching athletes isn't something you win or anything like that. As I told Caroline, this is nothing about me and all about her. I am not a coach looking for accolades for myself. I was happy to be behind the scenes with the coaching of Caroline. Success is the athletes to chase and more than anything I intend to support that for her.
ST: How did you two get together on this? Who asked who – and why?
Chris: I trained last year with Caroline for quite some time in Thailand and we just spoke about things regarding her career and her issues in races and her life more than anything. She got in contact with me earlier this year and we were talking again and I said I would love to help her when she asked. I was clear on what I felt I could offer her and she is a very self-motivated person anyway. Having gone through the Australian systems in the 90's and understanding where she came from, I saw some of the problems she had on a physical and mental level and we discussed the pathways to working on them. It was really a simple discussion that lead to an agreement to work together as a team and grow together as a team.
ST: Have you already been thinking about coaching? If so, if not – why?
Chris: I have been working within my MaccaX community for over 18 months and we have a great foundation of people that we work with. I have usually been very vocal about my thoughts on some coaches and their desire to be in the spotlight. I was clear with Caroline when we chatted that this has nothing to do with me on the success side. A good coach is thinking of one thing and one thing only - the athlete’s success. I am not chasing other athletes nor do I want to be recognized as SUPER coach. It is not exactly the future career path I have set out for myself. This entire journey is about Caroline and her success. What I will say, is that what can never be taken away is an understanding of what it takes to be successful in this sport. I have a PhD in Triathlon and I feel I can understand a lot where the athlete is coming from. I have always been a very cerebral athlete and I think on a mentoring and coaching front this can be solid for some athletes. Success is about belief in yourself as an athlete. It is more than just the physicality of meeting structured training sets. That is the easy part.
ST: As a man who has had a great career self-coached, what do you bring to the table as a coach?
Chris: Understanding – as an athlete who was not self-coached but self-managed! That is the better way of looking at it. I was the CEO of my athletic career. I didn't just outsource my success to someone else. I searched for answers by bringing in the best and then worked with them to develop my own models and systems for training. I think when you look at my career, I had to reinvent myself 5 or 6 times as the sport changed in order to continue to win. I think more than anything that was my best asset. I was winning World titles in the 90's. [ITU Olympic distance Worlds in Perth] The sport changed a lot in that period. I won my last World title in 2012 [ITU Long Distance Worlds in Vitoria-Gasteiz]. That is a long time between drinks. I think this success was a direct correlation to being the CEO of my destiny. This is what I bring to the table for Caroline. I want her to understand why she is good, how she is improving and why she is doing things the way she is. When you start to build a real understanding of this on a personal level, you move from being an employee in your world of Triathlon to the CEO. This is important. Caroline will outgrow me as an athlete and I want her to. This is the thing. She should take everything she can from me and then as the sport grows she may utilize myself in different ways. I have never been self-coached. I have had the same people in my team for years, the team just got bigger and their roles changed as the sport changed and we needed more expertise than was needed at previously. This is where I see the coaches with the "me first" attitude fail their athletes.
ST: Obviously Brett Sutton has been a very able coach for Caroline. What do you bring that is the same? And what will be different about your coaching?
Chris: I bring an understanding of where she has come from and why she is the athlete she is. Brett has been a part of my triathlon career in differing capacities since I was at junior World Championships in 1992-93. He was our national coach. I know how Brett builds his athletes and he is in my opinion one of the best coaches this sport has ever seen. He has his limitations as does anyone, and I think it is not about what I do differently, it is what I bring as an addition to where Caroline has come from. You don't completely rebuild a racing car. You tweak it and make changes to it and then roll it out again to race. I am a much more cerebral and thinking athlete. I think physically I was a solid strong athlete but my strength was always my ability to plan, prepare and execute and then think on my feet. I hope to bring this sort of arsenal to Caroline’s already amazing physicality. I hope to help her see herself for how good she really is. That is the biggest thing. All top athletes are insecure in some way or another.
ST: She says she really wants a coach to come to the races with her. You are committed to the Challenge Series as a competitor, promoter and partner. What Challenge races would be good for her?
Chris: I am the ambassador of the Challenge series and part of this company’s DNA in the development of races around the World. I am currently in Brazil launching our new Challenge Brazil event. I am not tied to Challenge. We are about the sport. I think many of the Challenge races suit Caroline. We have been looking at her season and planning that out now.
I think she will make an assault on Roth again as this is a fast course, but we will pick races that give her preparation for Kona. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know what is going to happen in Kona. We know the players, we know the course, we know the conditions. The game is simple. Now we have to fine tune the machine to be ready for the race day in Kona. This comes into play when selecting your races and how you approach certain events.
ST: Will you find the time to come to Caroline’s key Ironman races – Melbourne and Kona?
Chris: I will be in Roth and Kona and on training camp with Caroline a few times this year. As I told her, she needs to be a diva. If she wants me around she asks. When she wants me to leave she says so. Success at this level is a selfish undertaking. I want her to be more selfish on this build.
ST: Caroline is immensely talented but has fallen a few ticks short of a Kona win. What do you think she needs to do to finally win that title?
Chris: She needs to see herself winning and really believe she can. I have been in her shoes so this is the important thing. Until you have fallen short so many times in Kona you never understand what it takes to look into the abyss the following year and ask the same question. It is all in her head. Physically in my opinion Caroline is the best triathlete over the long course in the World. I see that, many of her competitors see that, but she has to REALLY see that. That will come with more understanding of who she is athletically and how she will deal with things under pressure. We have 6 months to get this right in her head.
ST: By the way, what do you think is the difference between preparing a man and a woman for big Ironman races? Physically? Mentally?
Chris: It is not just the preparing of a man and a woman for the race. I think the big thing is knowing how they got to your doorstep and where they have come from. I have my opinions on coaching men over woman but we don't have enough pages here to answer this. The biggest difference I believe is that a woman can absorb a little more strength and foundation work as the muscular breakdown is not as intense and recovery can be faster. I could talk for hours on this. In Caroline's case, I think the big thing for her is understanding what her strengths are physically and how she needs to build and develop these properly for the race specifically. I don't think she has ever properly prepared on a race by race basis. They just continue to do the same thing and maybe throw some hot training in and it really has been that simple. Men who are looking at wining Kona cannot race as much. It is that simple! Women can do a lot more if need be. I also think women can come up to peak much quicker than men. Caroline is an animal when it comes to training. You can see she came straight out of the Brett school. It is amazing what she can do. Now you just have to refine some of the issues that come with large volume athletes from the BS school. The one thing you don't have to work on is work ethic. She is amazing.
ST: What did you learn about your years of frustration before winning Kona that you can use to help Caroline?
Chris: That you can be the best in the world but without this one win, nobody will look at anything you have done. I think what I took away most from Kona frustrations in my early years was that you have to not stop believing, even when everyone else will. I would win everything all year and fail in Kona and people would not recognize anything I did all year. I would get frustrated by that. You would start to believe that what you had done was not that good and you start to question yourself. This is the thing I said is the most important thing not to neglect.
Everyone loves a winner and every year the guy or girl who wins the race is "the greatest ever" blah blah blah. People have short memories. It is important as an athlete you don't buy into this fake world of hangers on. Because if you have not go the title most of the people you’re talking to are nice to you because they don't believe in you or don't want to know you because they don't believe in you. Sounds melodramatic, but you only want people around you that share your belief and vision. You need that sort of support on the days when your second guessing yourself.
ST: What do you think about the job Craig Alexander did coaching with Lisa Norden last year?
Chris: Not sure the relevance of this question? I never paid much attention to it really. Craig is an amazing athlete who in the later stages of his career worked out his systems and became an amazing athlete and continues to be. Knowing Craig, and where he came from, his story is one of perseverance and continual improvement. It took Craig more than a decade of racing on the professional career before he won a major title.
I think this sort of understanding and commitment is something that every athlete can take from. I trained with Lisa in the build up to the London Olympics for 7 weeks in Davos Switzerland, so I also understand where she came from and the coaching environment she had around her at that time. I think these guys would work well together? Not sure if they are still working well together. The big difficulty of this relationship though is the approaches are very different. The ITU coaching style of Darren Smith is much different to that of the Boulder Freedom of the Crowie crew. It is chalk and cheese really. I will say I cannot see why this partnership would not work.
It is all about communication and understanding. I have always looked at the athlete as a person and an athlete and where they have come from first. The physicality is the easy part. I always say that and in my eyes that is the truth. Where you came from is your character, and it is your character that wins races. Any coaching relationship that doesn't understand this from the onset (and I mean really understand this) is doomed.
ST: What will you be careful with Caroline to avoid injury – and be prepared to win Kona?
Chris: Communication. Simple!!!
ST: How much did you know about her before you took on this job?
Chris: I have known Caroline for 7 years and as she was quite surprised when we spoke that I knew all her races. Time, you more than anyone should know how much of a geek I am for this sport. I follow these races like they are my life. Caroline was shocked when I was talking to her about her split times and what she was doing at certain races. I told her straight up she should already have 1 maybe 2 Ironman World titles already. Her seasons were poorly planned and travel was hectic too close to races. I knew a fair bit about Caroline that’s for sure.
ST: So far, how is she to work with?
Chris: Too easy to be honest. She is a Swiss girl with an Aussie attitude. That is a really easy combination.
ST: Will you ever go on rides or runs with her in training?
Chris: If I can keep up. Yes I will for sure. I will be on any training camp she wants me to be on. It is her journey and she is her own CEO. She calls the shots. I am the COO of this organization. That’s how I view myself anyway.
ST: Where in Australia will she be training? And how often will you be there in person?
Chris: She is currently on the Sunshine coast, but her training blocks will be different during the year. We are heading over to Kona after Melbourne to get familiar and comfortable with the island again in a capacity outside of race week. She has never been to Hawaii outside of Kona race week. The place is much different and beautiful without the pressure and energy of Ironman week. I hate Kona Ironman week. Kona is at its best when everyone is gone. The place is special. She is going over to get familiar and learn to love Hawaii for everything that it is outside of that Queen K and that Alii Drive. We are then planning our training blocks around what is needed for her to be the best she can be in Kona.
ST: I think you might agree that she is a naturally sportsmanlike person. Will you be able to impart some of the superior head games you play on your rivals?
Chris: This question reads like I am un-sportsmanlike :) It amazes me all this bullshit that people try to display in this sport that they have no ego or this and that. Give me a break. Every single professional athlete I have ever met in this sport and any other is full of ego and sees themselves as the best. It is just that they have their press voices and public fake persona that most of you guys buy into and then the behind the scenes persona. I told Caroline if she doesn't see herself as the best in this sport, then it is pretty hard to be the best. It is not about mind games or anything like that. It is about believing in something before you see it. This is the biggest thing. Most of the press only believe things when they see it. This is the problem. As athletes it is the complete opposite. So athletes try and display this reverse persona to the press for fear of being judged. I never bought into this crap. With Caroline I am only concerned on how she "really" perceives herself. In my opinion she is built for Ironman racing; she is tough as nails and she is strong and powerful and more than capable of winning this race. It is not a popularity contest. It is Ironman. Whatever it takes for her to see herself for what she truly is, I will support. This is what my purpose and addition to her team tries to bring. I don’t want her to do what I did or anything. It is not about me!!! She needs to find her own way, but she needs to believe.
ST: What will you do to work on her confidence?
Chris: Show her the facts! I am a facts guy! I was like that when I raced and in everything I said. If people didn't want to see the facts then silly them. I will show Caroline the facts and let her decide for herself. The facts will give her all the confidence she needs.
ST: What are her greatest strengths?
Chris: Resilience and work ethic. She is a very strong woman which is perfect for handling a season and for Ironman racing. She is easy to work with, I like her no bullshit approach to training and not wanting to be prepped up all the time. Tell me how it is and that’s what makes us so good. I don't bullshit anyone! I will tell her if I think she is training shit and she expects that from me. This is a strength big time. No bullshit. Just get the job done. Physically she is incredible.
ST: What are her weaknesses that you will work on?
Chris: Bike efficiency, racing style and tactics, and run efficiency. Everything else she is a rock star at! She has all the tools already. She is just using the wrong ones at times to get the job done.
ST: Will you continue to call her Xena Warrior Princess? Or do you have another nickname ready?
Chris: That nickname is perfect. She is a bloody warrior. If you see how this girl trains and how she absorbs work it is impressive.
ST: Are you at all nervous that you will fail her?
Chris: Not at all. I will give her all she asks of me. That’s all I can give. I don't have any secrets that she hasn't already tried. I give her a different view on things and am only one piece in a growing team that she will build.