Australians have typically been described as friendly, laconic, rugged, no-nonsense down-to-earth types obsessed with sport. If you accept the stereotype, Chris McCormack is as Aussie as they come.
Refreshingly candid and outspoken – with a huge smile and heart to match – Macca has stamped himself as the most dominant force in triathlon since he made his debut in the sport 10 years ago.
He came within a hair’s breadth of winning the latter on October 21st. It took a record bike split and personal bests on the swim and run for Germany’s Normann Stadler to top him by just over a minute. Both Stadler’s 8:11:56 and McCormack’s 8:13:07 finishing time would have won every Ford World Ironman Championship in the last 10 years.
“I think the realization that I was not going to win the race hit me about one mile from home,” said McCormack. “I had the gap down to 43 seconds but it is a downhill finish. When Normann crested the hill for the final mile, he looked over his shoulder and smiled and I knew it was over.”
The fireworks that exploded after the race between him and the German had the censors scrambling, but more than ever, it served to ignite McCormack’s desire to go back and win Hawaii.
Had he won this year, it would have been easy to just change gears and focus on representing Australia in Beijing in 2008 - a course, McCormack believes, that would suit his strengths.
Now, he wants that Kona title more than ever. One suspects, it’s as much to win Ironman’s crown jewel, as it is to silence Stadler and the like who accused him of being a “tactical” bike rider.
“I was very disappointed in what Stadler said post race. The guy just put together the perfect race and won the Ironman.”
Powering through the lava fields, where the controversy began - Photo: Lynne Bermel
In the world of triathlons, few can argue with McCormack’s versatility and unparalleled rise in the sport.
He only started racing in 1996. Less than a year later, he had a World Triathlon title and had won the ITU World Cup Series. Since then, he’s won just about every short course title in the world.
He was victorious at Ironman Australia in his first try at the distance and has gone on to claim seven more Ironman wins. He was recently named “Triathlete of the Year” by Competitor Magazine for his six wins on six different continents in three different distances.
Many argue that McCormack has the potential to match the six World Ironman titles of Mark Allen, after whom his career is modeled.
While McCormack also cites Oscar Delahoya and Sebastien Coe as athletes he’s looked up to, it is Allen’s persistence and desire to win Hawaii, as well as his versatility, that most inspires him.
“[Allen] was the most dominant triathlete on the planet, but failed seven times in Hawaii before winning it,” he says. “He also didn’t allow himself to get pigeon holed into a certain genre of athlete. He was a triathlete, whether it was a sprint race or an Ironman.”
While McCormack himself once dreamed of equaling Allen’s record, he’s resigned himself to the realization that it may not happen. He will be 33 next year and he doesn’t plan to continue racing beyond 38. “Besides,” he says, “times have changed since the days of Mark Allen and Dave Scott. Now there are so many other prestigious races around the world that take a lot out of you.”
“What my team and I have decided to focus on is being Chris McCormack, and not Mark Allen. If that means I win 5 titles or 2 titles or 6 titles, then so be it.”
Of course, he’d also like to race in Beijing, if that can be worked into the schedule and his national federation allows it. “In a perfect world, I will be able to do both and hopefully the Australian Triathlon Association will not force me to choose one or the other.” He’s currently in discussions with his federation.
If he had to pick, McCormack says the choice would be easy since the elation of victory in Hawaii is so much greater, as is the sheer enormity of the task. As well, his family can share the experience, something that the Olympics, with its more regimented and restrictive system, doesn’t allow.
He believes he finally has Hawaii dialed in.
“In the past, I was a super swimmer and super biker with a fragile marathon. I have always had issues in intense humidity and although my swim hard/bike hard approach was winning me races around the world, it would not win me the Ironman. I’ve now developed my marathon to be the strongest in the world.”
“You just have to look at the history of this event. The marathon is the key to success in Hawaii. You have to be within striking distance of the leaders. If you are, you will win the race. This year it did not happen, but I am a statistics man as well, and I know that more often than not, this will work.”
“I’ll continue to improve my marathon over the next few years and rely on this as my weapon to win the race. Of course, my swim and bike will remain strong but, for me to get the best out of myself in Hawaii, this is the approach I’ll continue to take.”
Over and above his tactical prowess and his obvious genetic gifts, what makes Chris McCormack so successful is an overwhelming belief and confidence in Chris McCormack.
“Self doubt is the biggest obstacle any athlete will face. I think my biggest asset is self belief and a great team of people. This has never wavered.”
“I build my self belief from the fact that my training is well executed and controlled, my planning is superb and we do not cut corners. When I stand on any start line I know that we have executed our plan to perfection.”
He admits his only fear at the starting line is an equipment malfunction because that is beyond his control.
His overwhelming belief in his thorough preparation extends to his sponsors. He’s been signed on with Under Armour for several years and they’ve just come out with slick promotional videos featuring his story. “They will be the biggest sporting goods company in the world in the next decade,” he says matter-of-factly. “They are too skilled and too motivated not to be.”
You get the feeling that McCormack is one intense character. He is, but he’s also fun-loving Macca through and through.
When he’s not racing, he’s hanging out with his family and friends and catching a wave on the beaches of Cronulla, a 40 minute drive south of Sydney. “I love it.”
He’s got a lot on his plate these days, studying for a Law Degree at Macquarie University, running his bike shop, Precision Cycles, in Sydney and spending time with wife, Emma, and daughters Tahlia, 3 and Sienna, just over 8 weeks old.
“I was sitting in a café at Ironman Australia a couple of years ago, and a young guy came up to me and said, ‘Macca you’re my idol, mate. I want to be just like you.’ I looked at this kid and saw myself at his age. I said the same thing to Mark Allen when I was 17 when he was here for a race.”
“But what I’ve realized as I got older that trying to be a Mark Allen is not what I should focus on. I should try and be Chris McCormack and set my own legacy.”
That’ll be some legacy.
The 2006 Ford World Ironman Championships will air on NBC on December 9, 2006.
For more on Chris McCormack:
Under Armour Macca Experience Site: www.underarmour.com/macca.