Kevin Mackinnon has some ideas on why Craig Alexander might be one of the greatest athletes our sport has ever seen.
What defines greatness? When it comes to sport there are likely a few key criteria: an ability to win (and, possibly even more importantly, an ability to win when it counts), the mental ability to be successful both during competition and away from it, heart, desire and determination. In triathlon, I would argue that greatness also requires both an ability to rise above the competition, and the ability force the competition to raise their own levels in order to compete.
We’ve been blessed with some pretty great IRONMAN athletes in our time. I got to race against Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Greg Welch, who I would argue had all of the above traits. Paula Newby-Fraser is virtually a living embodiment of all of them, too, as is Chrissie Wellington – especially with the “raise the standard” aspect.
Craig (Crowie) Alexander has, over the last decade or so, taken all the above components and managed to up the ante. He’s able to win, able to win when it counts, is a winner and classy individual both during and out of competition, and routinely displays the heart, desire and determination of one of the sport’s greatest champions. In addition to all that, though, he’s respectful of his competition and the athletes who went before him, he shows a remarkably healthy perspective on sport and life, and is possibly one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. I’m not sure I’ve ever met an athlete who manages to balance it all so well.
Let me make one thing abundantly clear: this column is not meant to be any sort of hagiographic biography. Crowie wouldn’t appreciate that. He’s the first to make fun of himself and joke about the fact that he’s hardly a flamboyant character who ignites a press conference. What often gets lost, though, in those press conferences and interviews, is that fact that when you chat with Alexander, he’s happy to tell it like it is.
I caught up with Alexander two nights before he dominated the field at IRONMAN 70.3 Eagleman in June. I wanted to focus on another trait that I feel makes Alexander so exceptional – his ability to learn from his “mistakes.” (If possible, please note the emphasis on the quotes around the word mistakes - I hardly consider fourth in Kona a mistake.) Alexander did, though, evaluate what went wrong at the IRONMAN world championship in 2010 and come back a year later with a 13-minute faster bike split that helped him set the course record in Kona.
It’s not about the bike
“It was all about the bike,” he laughed. I wouldn’t let that one stand. I guessed that there was a lot more than just improved aerodynamics that went into that faster bike split. I figured there was a year’s worth of hard riding, too.
“I was just motivated to have a different mentality going in,” he said. “I wanted to race like someone who had won there before, with that sort of confidence. As much as it hurt for me to lose in 2010, it was probably good for me and was the best thing that happened to me. It makes you re-evaluate things. I’d always felt I was a great bike rider, but I’d never had to show it because the game plan I had was working. In a hot, hard race like Kona … it always pays to be conservative. The race finishes with a run and I was able to win a lot of races that way. It was time for me to show a different string in my bow. I always thought I was a very good bike rider. The thing that is always underestimated about our sport is that, at the end of the day, the person who crosses the finish line first isn’t usually not the best runner – it’s the best triathlete. That’s because the way you run is impacted by how strong you are on the bike. In turn, how well you ride and run is impacted by how well you swim. That’s the unique thing about our sport, it’s how all three sports work together.”
“I think last year I had a bike focus in terms of the way I train, but I also wanted to be more proactive. I wanted to shoot up the road a few times … that (the IRONMAN World Championship) was a satisfying win because it showed a versatility that I always knew was there, but somehow always came into question.”
Trash Talk? Crowie’s version.
This is a guy who simply gets it. He’s figured how to win on his own terms. He doesn’t have to denigrate his competition to pump himself up. Heck, he goes so far as to boost his competitor’s abilities.
“You are a reflection of your competition,” he says. “You are who you are because of your competition. When they improve, you have to improve. Whatever I’ve won it’s because of my competition, I’m a reflection of the people I’ve raced.”
In looking at the race in Kona this year, he’s quick to rhyme off a bunch of names.
“Chris (McCormack) is back in the fold – Andi and Michael (Raelert) – they are in the middle of the radar. Marino (Vanhoenacker). Eneko (Llanos), Frederik (van Lierde), Rasmus (Henning), Pete Jacobs. They’re good. That’s my competition. People always say to me that when I do interviews I always name at least eight guys. Well, I do, because they’re good.”
While he’s quick to acknowledge his competition, don’t think he’s handing over the champion’s mantle quite yet, and don’t expect that any pre-race trash talk will affect his attitude, either.
“I’m going to Kona to try and win,” he says. “It’s OK to respect and admire your opposition. They’re not going to get in my head and talk me out of my performance. If anything, they’re going to motivate me to be better. I don’t feel the need to denigrate my competition. For me, personally, I feel it’s important that go about my business and prepare my own way.”
Like the man who managed to wrest the title from him in 2010, Chris McCormack, Alexander is a true historian of the sport. In the same way he can throw out the names of the men who he will compete against for the title, he can reel off a list of men who served to help him aspire to greatness.
“I am fortunate because I came through in a golden era in the sport,” he says. “When I started we had Greg Welch, Brad Bevan and Miles Stewart. Then I came to the U.S., and sunk my teeth into the non-drafting scene, I had Simon Lessing, Craig Walton, Simon Whitfield, Greg Bennett, Andy Potts, Hunter Kemper, Bevan Docherty, Hamish Carter. I’ve had to race them all – it’s been my honor. Inside Triathlon named the 10 greatest triathletes of all time and Greg (Bennett) and I keep joking about it, because we’ve raced practically all of them. It’s our generation. The athlete you become is because of who you race. It’s sink or swim.”
Perspective. I think that’s the word I’ve been searching for as one of my definitions of greatness. Family has always been an important aspect in Craig Alexander’s life. Having just turned 39, Alexander is used to the “retirement” questions that inevitably creep into any interview.
“Lucy (Craig and wife Neri’s oldest daughter) just turned seven. There are other things in life other than triathlon. As much as I love the sport and it’s my profession, family has to come first. I’m lucky, I’m blessed, I have a great family that is totally supportive. I wouldn’t be able to have the results that I have without Neri. Every year we evaluate in November, December. That hasn’t changed – we figure out how it will impact the kids. Maybe next year I’ll race – I’m not planning on retirement. When you get to your late 30s, it’s an inevitable question that comes up – I’m not offended by it, it is what it is.”
The Kona Course Record
“I think it took a complete race, but it also took great conditions,” Alexander says of his course-record performance last year. (Go figure – yet another opportunity to downplay his achievement.) “Times are so condition-dependent. The thing about Olympic swimming and track and field is that there are so many variables you can control. You can’t do that in our sport. It was an honor, but I think you need to put an asterisk next to that and say the course has changed a few times as well.”
(OK, now I have to interject. Most of us who have been involved in the sport consider the course that Alexander was on to set the record is much more difficult that the one Luc Van Lierde set his record on in 1996.) Remember I said that, given the chance, Alexander will tell it “like it is.” Here we go:
“Had I timed my race better and not lost my salts, I wouldn’t have cramped, and I would have gone a bit faster last year. It still wasn’t the perfect performance as much as it was a great performance. I look back to ’09, and I remember you interviewed me in Muskoka when I had an incredible race there. I wasn’t able to maintain that form a month later, and had to gut it out for a tough win in about 8:20 on an incredibly hot and windy day. In my mind that’s a comparable race to the 8:03. It’s a feather in the cap and I’m honored to be the course record holder there. I think, given the right conditions and the right field, eight hours could certainly go for sure.”
Remember I said this wouldn’t be a hagiographic story? Now’s the time where I get to point out exactly how hard it is to do all this. In order to be a three-time IRONMAN world champion, to be the second-highest (behind Greg Bennett) prize-money winner in the sport and to have won possibly more IRONMAN events than anyone else on the planet, you do a lot of work. You leave nothing to chance and you prepare, and prepare, and then prepare some more. A few weeks ago Alexander was in a wind tunnel in North Carolina testing helmets to wear in Kona in October and fine-tuning his bike position. Everything is tested before he competes with it.
“I don’t do anything by half measures. That race (Kona) deserves your full attention. Certainly the competition you face there requires that you leave no stone unturned.”
There won’t be anything left to chance on October 13th, 2012 when the world’s best IRONMAN athletes take each other on at the world championship. Craig Alexander actually doesn’t need another title to maintain his status as one of the best our sport has ever seen, in my mind. Here’s the final reason that I consider him to be a great champion: if someone does get to the line ahead of him, they will deserve the title. Craig Alexander will be bringing his best, and it’s going to take something special to beat him.
You can reach Kevin Mackinnon at email@example.com