Travels with Josh Amberger

Josh Amberger seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough this year with a win at Singapore 70.3, 2nd place finishes at Berlin and Klagenfurt 5150s and a shortened Muncie 70.3. He also led St. Anthony’s up to the 9km mark of the run before Filip Ospaly, Ben Collins and Tim O’Donnell sped by. At 23, the talented Aussie has combined a world class swim, a front pack bike and a decent but must-improve run to make a living while chasing the triathlon dream around the world. One day, he hopes, his income will surpass his frequent flier miles. But first he’d like to leave his mark at Hy-Vee and the 70.3 Worlds in Las Vegas.

Amberger was interviewed in Boulder, Colorado.

ST: Where in Australia were you born?

Josh: Brisbane. Which is Brisvegas to the lame & dated, or Brisneyland, Bristanbul, or Brislamabad to those sick of Brisvegas.

ST: With all those nicknames, you seem fond of the jewel of the Gold Coast. What is it like?

Josh: Big, busy but cultured & active. It has a very nice landscape and a perfect climate all year round. The cuisine & coffee is all time.

ST: Tell us about your family.

Josh: Elma is my gorgeous mum, Wayne is my sterling father, & Eloise is my beautiful sister. Mum and dad were born in New Zealand and my sister and I are first generation Aussies. While others of my extended family live in New Zealand and Holland, the core family all live in Brisbane.

ST: Any sports abilities of your parents and sibling?

Josh: My sister is a soon to be dual Olympian, competing in Beijing & London in synchronized swimming. Also, my dad ran a 2.27.22 marathon back in his day.

ST: You came to triathlon as a swimmer. When did you start?

Josh: I started taking my swimming seriously when I was around 7. I was a really competitive kid, that’s for sure.

ST: What were your best swim performances?

Josh: My best times were around 2:06 for the 200m free & 4:16 for the 400m free.

ST: Why did you stop?

Josh: I stopped swimming when I was 13. Within the space of two years, I went from winning national medals to not even making finals. Every kid was growing except for me, and lads would rock up with beards and brag that they’d only been swimming for a few months & then I would get smashed. Naturally, I didn’t take this very well and looked at triathlon as an option. My swimming coach supported me & in fact gave me a signed poster addressed to him from Dave Scott from the 1990 Lake Biwa Ironman in Japan. It’s still hanging up in my room.

ST: Can you recall your coaches?

Josh: Peter Diamond was my first proper swimming coach until I was 11. He was perfect for young kids -- never any pressure and created an environment we all loved. From 11 until I quit at 14, it was Todd Robinson & John Rodgers. Todd was a young assistant coach who was really cool & quite laid back. On the other hand, John Rodgers was the old hard ass, leather-skinned guy, but he was also a crack up. I began to understand the essence of sport in his squad & felt driven to succeed.

Brendan Terry was my first triathlon coach and we had a fantastic squad of elites & amateurs & it was always a fun environment. I left Brendan when I was 16 and moved to Shaun Stephens, the current Triathlon Australia head coach, and stayed with him until I was 21. I matured under Shaun and I’ll always value his guidance. Since I left Shaun I’ve been training myself.

ST: You’re only 23, so how does coaching yourself work?

Josh: I got to a point where I just wanted a change. I think I have a good physical knowledge of peak performance and I am disciplined enough act on this without relying on others. I have total responsibility and there’s no one to else blame if I fall short. The freedom it gives me is very nice, and I feel it is crucial to enjoy what you’re doing. That said, I’m not a die-hard isolationist. I may get to a point where I can no longer improve by myself. If so, I will choose a coach carefully -- there’s a lot of mugs around.


ST: Did you have setbacks growing up that helped shape you?

Josh: I was given all the necessities by my parents. I had a good education & our family home was a nurturing environment. Everyone had very good health & I didn’t really have any hardships. The only setbacks I experienced growing up I brought upon myself. I was a snotty kid & tended to mistreat or disrespect a lot of others without realizing it. Maybe this is ubiquitous for all male teens, but I thought I was more virtuous than others. Ironically though, I would sometimes feel socially inferior at the same time. As a result I would be ostracized from some groups & perhaps lacked deep relationships I should have developed. I suspect, though, that this is a syndrome with kids who grow up training 10 times a week.

ST: What misadventure did you have growing up?

Josh: I laugh at how immature I always was with my good teen friend Sweeny. We were ALWAYS out of hand often quite repulsive.

ST: Were you more likely to be a well behaved little snot, or a rebel without a cause?

Josh: Haha. Both. It would depend on what company I had at the time.

ST: What should be the Australian national anthem? It can't be Advance Australia Fair!

Josh: True Blue by John Williamson

ST: Should vegemite be the Aussie national food?

Josh: No. I’m a peanut butter lad.

ST: What famous person do you most resemble?

Well, some days I feel like I’m Goku [the good guy] & others I feel like I’m Vegeta [the devil’s advocate]. If this is esoteric, you need to wake up to some Dragon Ball Z asap!

ST: What led you to major in history and international relations at University?

Josh: History was my favourite subject. From an early age I was studying broad topics like globalization, imperialism, genocide, industrialization. I guess it stuck, and I wanted to learn more about the world through which I travel so often. Studying history & international relations, you learn how the world works and how we’ve come to be in the present. The triumphs and tribulations of mankind, the brutality and perseverance of those before us will always inspire me. When people ask what I study, I always get an obligatory “What can you do with that?” I’m not going to be a doctor or an engineer. I’m actually going to be able to think and know primary facts about our existence -- things a lot of people today are void of. Ultimately, careers for history & international relations majors are broad. Something in diplomacy might be desirable in the future. However, I’m certainly not looking for another career now!

ST: What is the best Australian film?

Josh: I’ll dip the hat to Snowtown for its dark & ominous art, and also The Hard Word & Two Hands because they’re quintessentially Australian.

ST: The worst?

While the storyline may become somewhat of a prophecy for the future, Tomorrow When the War Began is just terrible.

ST: What is the most overrated virtue?

Josh: That’s an oxymoron. I don’t think any virtue should be subservient to others. But for fun, I’ll dob in compression & short cranks.

ST: It’s funny you should tab tri hardware as a virtue. What is the most underrated vice?

Josh: Home bike fit.

ST: What trait do you hate the most in yourself? In others?

Josh: My facial hair is embarrassing & I have a bad habit of wasting time. I’m not perfect, but I’d say compulsive liars infuriate me.

ST: What has the fact that many of Australia’s original settlers were
convicts meant to the national character?

Josh: We’re pretty heavy on the drink.

ST: What is the stupidest misconception about Australians?

Josh: Seldom do we throw another shrimp on the barby. Anyhow we call them prawns!

ST: What is the difference between Australians and Yanks?

Josh: Haha, good question! I feel as an Australian, we have a more advanced concept of pool etiquette & can understand the rationale behind circle swimming in lanes. And a lot of Americans struggle with our omnipresent sarcasm! Furthermore, our election campaigns don’t drag on for two years & we have advanced far beyond Mr. Coffee machines!

ST: What is the most obvious thing about Americans that Americans have no clue about?

Josh: You can’t force democracy.


ST: How long after starting triathlon before you turned pro?

Josh: I started in the professional ranks when I was 17, three years after turning to triathlon. Call it semantics, but there’s a big misconception about turning ‘pro’. I will turn pro when I have enough bucks to move out of the family home. Until then, I Can only consider myself semi-pro.

ST: What was your first race that made you feel you could make it as a pro?

Josh: The 2007 Noosa Triathlon. This is Australia’s biggest and most prestigious race. 2007 was Craig Walton’s retirement race, and he won for a seventh time. I was fourth, behind Craig, Dave Dellow & Paul Matthews.

ST: Your first performance that made you feel you belong among the best?

Josh: I think that will be forthcoming, but I’ll accept your portent.

ST: Of Australia's legendary triathletes, who made the greatest impression?

Josh: Macca, for sure. I only met him last year after I beat him in the Zürich 5150. When you’re with Macca, you don’t speak because he’ is full on and doesn’t stop. I never really bought into the hype until I actually heard the guy. After Zurich, he took me and some others out for dinner, and he was fascinating and inspiring. He tells the best stories; from business deals, to parties to stirring up Normann Stadler. Hanging out with him inspired me to a point where I won’t stop until I can be as successful as him.

ST: How old were you during your promising two years at ITU Junior Worlds?

I was 17 when I finished 6th, and 18 when I was 4th.

ST: Talk about those races.
Josh: My 6th place was in Hamburg (2007), behind current Olympians Alistair Brownlee & Vincent Luis. I was 4th in Vancouver (2008), again to Vincent Luis, but this time also to Jonathan Brownlee. The race in Vancouver was brutally cold [water was 56 degrees] & were the most testing conditions a triathlete could endure. As a result, I missed the podium by a few seconds to Jonathan Brownlee because I couldn’t feel my hands to take my helmet off or put my shoes on.

ST: What is missing from your ITU skills? You have a first class swim and bike.

Josh: I'm not a fantastic runner. In ITU I ran 32 minute 10ks. Non-drafting I'm sitting at low 33 minutes.

ST: What was good for you in Triathlon Australia's high performance

Josh: ITU is brutal & fast, and without taking part in the Triathlon Australia High Performance program I would never appreciate what it takes to make it in this sport. The successful long course athletes who come from ITU far outnumber those who only know non-drafting.

ST: Why did you leave?

Josh: I’m not against it, but I’m certainly not an advocate. My turning point came when I was cut from funding in 2010 and left to operate on my own. There is a bad culture of corruption within the system & a lot of the staff are very misguided and far too despotic. This has made it all very counterproductive for a long time, and I think it reflects on the comparatively poor standing and depth of the men’s ITU ranks compared to the non-drafting athletes who have a free reign over the direction of their careers. Australian females are performing as strong as ever because, I believe, what typically spurs female performance is getting smashed with arduous training programs & having controlling coaches. This doesn't work for males, we're more free spirited..

ST: After you told the national triathlon poobahs to get lost, what was next?

Josh: They never really seemed concerned that they were losing me as one if their athletes. Ultimately, they withdrew funding, which made it really hard for me to buy back into the program.

ST: What happened there?

Josh: In 2009, I was booted from the Young Guns tour [an experimental Australian triathlete development program] while we were in Japan for a race, which preceded a tour of Europe. I did my own swim workout separate from the team before the race and was booted following the argument with the team coach -- ironically about doing my own workout in an individual sport. It was handled very badly by all parties and I was sent back to Australia after I won a race. You have no advanced concept of conflict resolution when you’re 20, but neither did Triathlon Australia. Basically, I didn’t really fit into a dogmatic institutional mould.

ST: So what did you do after this?

Josh: At the end of 2010, it was announced that the Hy-Vee would be changing formats to a non-drafting race and would be incorporated in the 5150 series. This was a perfect opportunity for me to try something different from ITU and national teams, and also build up my savings. I started racing predominantly 5150 races and have also started doing some 70.3s.

ST: In the wisdom that comes with being 23, do you regret burning bridges with various organizations?

Josh: I don’t think I’ve burned any bridges, and I think those who know me also understand my nature. I still race in ITU events for Australia and I’m certainly not done with the ITU format. Being out of the system actually encourages me to take part. I’ve still got a lot of untapped potential and I’m always looking at racing ITU events where the course will be challenging & fun to race.

ST: Talk about some of your milestone races this year?

Josh: I won my first 70.3 in Singapore on my second attempt at the distance [in a time of 3:54 with a 5 minutes margin of victory over Denis Vasiliev] Since then I’ve had a string of three 2nd place finishes -- Klagenfurt 5150, Berlin 5150 & the shortened Muncie 70.3. I also had a close 4th place at St. Anthony’s 5150 after leading until 9km on the run.

ST: What are your target races this year?

Josh: Hy-Vee and [the] Las Vegas [Ironman 70.3 World Championship] are big priorities. I’ve qualified for both and performing in championship races is what a young athlete like me needs to establish a career.

ST: How did you do in Des Moines in 2011?

Josh: 24th. But I was first out of the water to Andy Potts by 1 minute, and got $15,000 in swim primes.

ST: Why did you start racing 70.3s?

Josh: The athletes that I admire are the ones that can race any distance or format and race it well. Andy Potts and Reinaldo Colucci come to mind. I want to become a complete triathlete like those two guys. I also intend to do the Iron distance, but right now I’m looking at longevity. There are guys who sold out to the spoils of iron distance at a young age and from all the evidence it seems to be counterproductive in the long run. .

ST: Why is it so tough for Australian triathletes to make a living?

Josh: Along with the Kiwis, we have to invest more time, money and emotion. To make a career in triathlon, you need to be either in Europe or America. And these are the farthest places from Australia. We need to establish homes & bases for ourselves all over the world, and the investment is huge. Europeans and Americans don’t have to do this at the scale we do. We also have to live away from friends and families for months on end. Watching relationships deteriorate and acquiring sponsors from a foreign country are tough.

ST: How many couches have you slept on?

Josh: A lot, but not too many. Everyone has a story and I really enjoy getting to know the people I stay with. Cordial salutations to everyone who has taken me in! At the moment, I’m staying in Boulder with a family friend.

ST: Explain some of the ways a starving young triathlete survives?

Josh: I’ve certainly learned how to stretch a
Dollar/Euro/Yen/Yuan/Won/Franc/Durham/Peso etc. I’d tell you my secrets for getting out of bike fees, but I can’t let those go mainstream. Basically when I’m away from home, I have to rely on other people’s generosity. Also, the longer it takes WTC to make payments, the less of it I have to spend.

ST: You've seen several young triathletes burn out. Why is this?

Josh: They either aren’t realistic about their talent, or they are in situations that disenchant them from competing. It really breaks my heart when I see young kids walk out on the sport, especially when a coach drives them to quit. I encourage young triathletes to never be afraid of making changes to preserve their career. I’m always available for advice!

ST: What kind of crazy things can happen when you are travelling the world?

Josh: Mate, you wouldn’t believe. There’s a lot of fun to be had, that’s certain. I’ve been semi-abducted in Morocco resulting in a day of ‘accidental’ tourism, chain smoked 1,000 cigarettes when watching World Cup soccer amongst 100,000 Germans, watched road fatalities in China, eaten ‘delicacies’ in South Korea, gotten drunk at karaoke with old, gay Japanese men, paid for taxi fares from the driver’s own coin purse (sometimes things get tight)…. Oh yeah, & plenty of gastro.

ST: Ashleigh Gentle is your girlfriend, and current ITU star on the rise. What makes her the most beautiful woman in the world for you?

Josh: She is just so natural and in tune with herself and her morals. She is also very smart, always fun to be around and still very girly! She is very attractive both in her demeanour and physically, plus she is also the only lean triathlete who is also HERE AMBERGER SEARCHED FUTILELY FOR A POLITE SIMILE. She also bakes.

ST: How did you two meet?

Josh: On the circuit, it’s a standard formula.

ST: How do you make a long distance relationship work?

Josh: There is a mandatory Skype & email each day. We both catch up with each other along our tours. That/s why I race a lot of the European 5150s and she’s coming to Boulder next week!

ST: What did you think about the Australian Olympic selection?

Josh: I had issues with both men’s and women’s selection. Straight up, I rated Macca for the men’s team. Not only was he in the mix as top performing male in a number of selection races,[albeit out of the top 20] but he also had a king’s ransom of courage to give it a shot and I really admire that. I thought it was disrespectful of him when he announced he was going for the team. I thought he hadn’t understood how far ITU has come since his exit. However his results proved me wrong. He might not have been a medal chance if selected, but do our other men have medal chances?

The female selection was also very surprising to me. To pick young talent over a proven winner in Emma Snowsill is a travesty. History has proven over and over that if you push young females too far too early, with too much pressure, they will crumble. If selection was based on this year’s performances, Ashleigh would be in the team. But I think it’s a blessing she’s not, because she has her longevity to look forward to!

ST: What is the most irritating thing in triathlon?

Josh: People who take the sport too seriously. At the moment, I have a 99% stress free lifestyle as a triathlete and it’s fantastic. I’m always close to bankruptcy, but I’m not worrying about money because I’m enjoying the journey. Triathlon should be relaxing and rewarding no matter what level you’re performing at. It should be your solace, not something that stresses you out.

ST: Tell us about your sponsors.

Josh: Being only 23, it’s hard to find people that take you seriously, and it’s hard to get companies to look at the developing talent. But I’m lucky to have a good little team that believes in me! Rocket Science Sports gives me the best race gear and also supports me in getting around the world for races. Cervelo supplies me with bikes, and I also have some grassroots support from the enthusiastic lads of Flo Cycling, and also Neways and Garmin.

My biggest sponsor however, is the belief and investment that I’ve made in myself!

ST: If you retired from tri, what would you do?

Mad chill.