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Posted: July 7, 2005
Triathlon: A Brief Chat with Lance Watson
"Just The Winningest Coach in Triathlon "
Lance Watson has been coaching triathlon and distance running since 1987. Over the years, Lance has coached some of the most successful athletes in the sport of triathlon and duathlon
1. Runner's Web (RW:): Lance, you've been coaching for 18 years+. How did you get your start in coaching?
Lance Watson (LW): I grew up playing ice hockey. In my teenage years I realized I was too small for hockey, and saw Ironman on TV in Hawaii, which looked like a great new athletic challenge. This was 1985. I was captivated and trained for my first triathlon. I also trained a friend for it. Like many I immediately had a passion for the sport and wanted to share it. This is where the coaching started; I was 17 at the time. Needless to say, there were a few Coach Watson training guinea pigs in the early days! I did my university degree at Langara College and then UBC, and was applying what I was learning along the way to my training groups, which made for a fantastic learning environment. My athletes started developing and doing well provincially, and ultimately better athletes started looking me up. In the early to mid 90's I coached track and cross country under Dr. Doug Clement and Marek Jedrezejek. This was excellent experience in learning how a high performance group functions. Through the mid to late 90's I organized independent high performance training camps and competition tours through Europe and Australia. I managed to have a few athletes stand on the podium at Nationals and Worlds during that time period. Though I had been having international success previously, things took off in 2000 when Simon Whitfield won Olympics, and Lisa Bentley also won her first of 8 Ironman titles (and counting). That year we moved to Victoria, got the National Training Centre in Victoria up and running (utilizing some previous work and partnerships built here by Barrie Shepley) with my partner Paul Regensburg, and I have been there since. In 2002 I finished my N.C.I. Level IV Triathlon Certification diploma, and coached teams and my individual athletes into the Commonwealth, Pan American and 2004 Olympic Games. I am also a level III certified distance-running coach, and have a real soft spot for distance running.
2. RW:: Tell us about your athletic background.
LW: Ice hockey as mentioned, nothing of note! I have competed in over 100 triathlons (and at least that many road running races), and managed to win a few minor ones. I was a pretty bad pro or a pretty good amateur, depending on how you look at it!
3. RW:: You've coached many of the worlds' best multisport athletes. At the risk of putting you on the spot, could you pick what you consider your greatest success story - the athlete that you've helped make the greatest improvement.
LW: There are a few I am proud of, it's hard to pick one...
I have coached Brent McMahon from Age 15 to making the 2004 Olympic Team, which was special. He is really breaking through this season.
I feel like Lisa Bentley going 9:03 in Ironman Australia last season was an excellent example of long-term improvement and sticking to a plan; we have worked together for 6 years. She is one of the dominant long course athletes in the world now.
There are many other highlights, as a result of many hours of hard work:
Laura Reback out sprinting Michelle Jones for Silver at Worlds in New Zealand last year; my wife Lucy Smith winning Silver at World Duathlons and Cross Country Nationals at Stanley Park in 1998; Greg Bennett resurrecting his career and going to the next level by holding World #1 rank for 2 years; obviously Simon's Gold in Sydney was life milestone.
4. RW:: With the obvious exception of Simon Whitfield, Canada has produced considerably more top female triathletes than male. What do you think this is so?
LW: I believe in our nation, sport is a more viable career path (sociologically) for women than in some other countries of the world. There are federations who don't put much emphasis on women's sport, or field many teams. We have more women competing, and more resulting success. Canadian women seem to have great work ethic, and are tough. With equal prize purses and fewer women overall in the fields, more Canadian women have a chance to earn money and keep their career alive.
5. RW:: What accounts for the Australian domination of women's triathlon? Is it a lifestyle thing?
LW: The Aussies do pretty well in the men as well! Bennett, Robertson, Stewart, Hill, Atkinson, Kahlefeldt, Thompson, etc. They are an awesome sporting nation. Swimming and endurance sporting culture is more prominent in Australia. All you have to do is go to a kid’s race and you see these little surf swimmers with 6-packs that have truly embraced triathlon as their sport. There are thousands of kids. They have had triathlon in the schools for years.
6. RW:: What is your opinion of draft-legal triathlon? If you had the power to do so, would you make the Olympics draft-free?
LW: Our sport has evolved to draft legal triathlon due to necessity. The level of our top athletes are too close, and it is impossible to keep them apart on the bike. You end up having situations where top ranked athletes are penalized when they are unable to avoid the draft. 20-40 other athletes of similar ability surround them. Penalties and DQ’s look bad for the race, athlete, media, etc. The reality is at the top level of sport there are only a few percentage points that separate the athletes in ability.
I also think that there is a lack of appreciation of the skills and training specificity to get ready to race a criterium after a swim, and then running really fast (sub 31 minute 10k for the guys) off that style of riding. A draft legal race may have 10-20 bursts of 500-900+ watts if it is flat and technical, and different demands if it is hilly and tactical. There is a lot of lactic acid to tolerate from sprinting, and this adds new challenge to the running. On the other hand, non-drafting may entail 55 minutes at 325-375 watts power output (for the men), which suits a different kind of athlete. Some athletes run very well of non-drafting bike rides well, and poorly off draft legal riding. Becky Gibbs-Lavelle is a good example of an athlete who runs better off non-drafting than draft legal riding.
I would like to see more hilly and technical draft legal bike courses. I love non-drafting as well. An individual time trial concept is interesting to explore.
7. RW:: Is having one national training center (the National Triathlon Center - NTC, in Victoria) the optimum approach for the development of the sport of triathlon in Canada?
LW: Finances allowing, we should have 2 national centres, but first we need to make sure our existing one is sufficiently funded. We need a network or regional centres (4 to 8). In Victoria, with our partner Pacific Sport, we are able to leverage partnerships to make resources go further and get better return on investment. We get about $3 of value for every $1 invested by Triathlon Canada. We share with other high performance sports, and have access to a full time exercise physiologist (Dr. Gord Sleivert), a full time strength and conditioning coach, sport psyc, nutrition, housing, food, equipment etc. It is important to build legacy and infrastructure, a pathway for our youth, and one of many resources available for our current elite. Simply, as an independent coach in today's competitive international arena, you can not possibly have the resources to access all the support you need- facilities, testing equipment, single sport specialists, etc, in an integrated manner. By having all this in one area you can impact and educate many athletes efficiently for generations to come.
8. RW:: Why do you think Canada provides such minimal support - in terms of funding, facilities, etc. - for the development of sport? It seems that every four years there is a lot of talk which dies very soon after the Olympics. Do you have any suggestions as to how this situation could be improved?
LW: On one hand we feel fortunate in triathlon, because our annual operating budget has increased ten-fold sine the pre-Olympic (2000) era. But, when you compare to many nations in the world, you realize we are still scraping together what we can. The concept of Pacific Sport, and many sports under the banner of this national sport centre, is great on one hand, because it is economical. The concept is necessary on the other hand because of limited funding. Currently we are in a talent ID crisis in triathlon in Canada, I would say that is largely due to lack of funded (salaried) and developed professional coaches in the country. Ultimately, hopefully, we recognize long term health benefits of sport and athlete role models, and invest in this as Canadians. If our society doesn't want to invest in sport, it will be up to us as sport leaders to find creative ways to find resources and fundraise to compete with the rest of the world.
9. RW:: What do you do away from coaching to relax?
LW: Well, I love to run. I started playing ice hockey again. I love to get out of town and rent a cabin with family and just play; to try and unwind!
10. RW:: You've recently become a father. Tell us about this experience.
LW: Yes! Ross Benjamin Smith Watson was born in March. He is baby number 2. Our daughter Maia is now just turned 5, and great fun. I get more "Maia time" now that newborn Ross is bonding with mom. Kids keep you grounded, and keep things in perspective!
11. RW:: You currently run a coaching service through your LifeSport website. How is this venture going?
LW: It is great. I really enjoy working with athletes of differing abilities. I admire people who fit it all together- family, career, health and fitness, personal competitive goals. They are always amazed at how much they can accomplish in limited training time if they have specific and detail oriented training that is geared to their individual needs.
12. RW:: Based on your extensive experience, which sport - swimming, cycling or running - provides the best start for world-class triathletes?
LW: Well, at the Olympics, generally you have to be able to swim to be in the game. I see triathlon as a great post age-group swimmer or college swimming competitive pathway. That being said, you podium or win it on the run. I would like a group of youngsters coming up who participate in swim club and run track. (Contact me please if you know any!!)
Rough targets for a 16-17 year old would be:
For Ironman, running would be my choice. Many times, runners have the engine and can learn to ride well enough. Lisa Bentley and Heather Fuhr are good examples of this. The swim is relatively short in Ironman. Obviously some dominant riders have done well at Ironman as well.
13. RW:: Do you recommend that athletes specialize in triathlon early or should they specialize in one or more sports and then move into multisport training? It seems that the run portions of triathlons are getting faster which would give an advantage to someone with a strong running background.
LW: With young kids a variety of sporting experience is good and I think will help them succeed when they do specialize. At age 13-14 I like to see some immersion in triathlon, but with a primary fall-winter-spring focus on swimming and running. In Victoria we are developing kids from early teens onwards in the Commonwealth Triathlon Club, and then the Regional Triathlon Centre, before they graduate to the National Centre. This is done in partnership with Island Swimming and with school cross-country and track. Many of our recent Triathlon Junior National Champions have come through this system. But also out of this program Kirsten Sweetland won the BC 3000m track Championships (10:03) as a grade 11 student, and Andrew McCartney was 3rd in the 1500m. Andrew is also probably one of the 2-3 most talented freestylers in the province. If we had 6 or 8 functioning development systems like this across the country it would greatly increase the talent pool of youth in our sport. Kids from age 13-16 should mountain bike or BMX once a week for fun and skill development.
14. RW:: Do you think the sport has peaked in terms of participation and interest? What accounts for the rapid growth of the sport?
LW: The sport seems to continue to grow like crazy. New Ironmans are popping up and filling up immediately. Memberships to national federations continue to climb in the US and Canada. Race participation is up across the country. I’d like to see more focus on sprint events. I think that would attract another level of participant to a healthy, balanced sporting experience, without having to do mega-miles.
Generally, I think Ironman markets themselves very well, and the Olympics has added another level of exposure to our sport. Our Canadian athletes have been very successful at major games (Sharon Donnelly, Simon Whitfield, Jill Savege, Carol Montgomery), and Peter Reid, Lori Bowden, Heather Fuhr and Lisa Bentley have given us great national profile through their Ironman success. Simon’s gold medal in Sydney greatly impacted interest in Canada.
15. RW:: You've been at the coaching game for 18 years. How long will you continue to coach? Do you see yourself moving into the administrative or political (ITU) arenas?
LW: Right now I love what I do. I think this is where I best impact high performance success in Canada. Other things interest at me as well. Coaching mentorship. Creating a functioning long-term pathway for talent ID and talent development in Canada, which includes infrastructure and legacy. It is hard to foresee how long I can keep up the 60-70 hour workweeks necessary to be successful at this level, but right now I am very immersed in it and passionate about it.
Thanks for doing this Lance, and continued success with Lifesport.
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