After dominating the sport for nearly two decades and setting a world record for Olympic-distance triathlon, Simon Lessing has earned his place among the best of the best, writes Matt Anniss…
For professional triathletes, retirement can be a curse. Stripped of their purpose and lacking an outlet for their competitive instincts, life can quickly become stifling, empty and directionless. Only those who discover a new focus in life will survive.
A few years ago, you would not have put money on Simon Lessing being one of those survivors. Throughout his 19-year professional triathlon career, he gave the impression of being one of the most driven and single-minded athletes on the planet. For the South Africa-born British superstar, second simply wasn’t good enough: it was all about winning.
And win he did – over and over again in a near two-decade dominance of Olympic-distance triathlon that was nothing short of astounding. He won two European titles, four ITU World Championships, one ITU Long-Distance World Championship, a clutch of Ironman 70.3 races and even a smattering of full-length Ironman events. The only prizes that escaped him, much to his annoyance, you would expect, were the Olympic and Ironman Hawaii titles.
His career record, which also includes a world record time for an Olympic-distance triathlon of 1:39:50, may not be bettered for a long, long time. Even for someone so dedicated and driven, retirement had to come sooner or later. The moment of truth came last year – almost two decades after he entered his first professional triathlon in Southport, Merseyside. On that day, he came “fifth or sixth” in a field that included some of the sport’s all-time greats. It was a sign of things to come.
Some triathletes suit a ‘pipe and slippers by the fireplace’ kind of retirement; Lessing is not one of those. Yet when we call his home in Boulder, Colorado, we find the first triathlete to be awarded an MBE is in a remarkably relaxed mood – despite the early hour (he claims to be suffering from insomnia). He is, he says, thoroughly enjoying his retirement.
“I wouldn’t say I miss competing,” he says in his clipped South African tones. “When you look at it, I raced for 23 years without a break. I really reached that stage, the last couple of years especially, when I was finding it hard to get motivated on race day. I actually enjoyed the training aspect, but on race day I felt I’d rather be somewhere else than on the start line. A lot of people have asked whether I wished I was still competing, but when you can honestly say that you don’t, that’s a good sign with regard to retirement.”
Lessing, it should be said, has had plenty of time to get to grips with retirement since “hanging up his socks” last year. It’s something he gets asked about a lot, he says, but he has no regrets. “I’d been thinking about what to do next for quite some time – through last year I was working on a number of projects I knew most likely I was going to be involved in. It helped me with regards to my enthusiasm and channelling that into the sport in a different way, as opposed to just looking for self- satisfaction in terms of results.”
Rather than go ‘cold turkey’ and turn his back on triathlon, Lessing has thrown himself into coaching, dedicating his time to developing a winning mentality in triathletes of all ages and abilities. Until recently, his coaching roster included one Chrissie Wellington, but a difference of opinion over training methods and ideology saw the pair part company.
Lessing is reluctant to talk about this episode (“We just had different philosophies,” he says codedly), but is clearly enjoying life as a coach: “Triathlon was something I did in the first place because I really enjoyed it and had a love for it,” he says. “I still carry that, and I still enjoy so many aspects of the sport. Quite honestly, I was thinking about this the other day in terms of it being a year since my last race.
“I honestly feel healthier and I think I’m happier. When I say happier, I mean that I’m not having to deal with the stresses and strains of getting ready for a race, having injury issues, having the pressures of sponsors and dealing with the expectations of the people around you. It’s nice doing things in my own time again without any of that. I certainly feel that I’m enjoying my training more now.”
Despite having hung up his spikes, Lessing still finds time to train – not to prepare himself for races, but because he enjoys it. “It’s nice not having that pressure now – I’m rejuvenated,” he says. “I can relate to so many age groupers now in terms of what working out means on a daily basis. It’s a release and I feel better for it, quite frankly. It’s obviously keeping me healthy and that’s my number one priority now.”
Decade of dominance
Looking back on Lessing’s remarkable career, it’s easy to forget just what an outstanding athlete he was – and how total his dominance was of the sport throughout the 1990s. He was, quite simply, a phenomenon – an athlete who worked hard year after year to maintain a stranglehold on the sport’s major prizes. It could easily have been so different.
As a child, he was a gifted swimmer and runner, but it wasn’t until his teens – and an off-the-cuff suggestion from one of his swim-club coaches – that he discovered tri in his native South Africa.
“I pretty much fell in love with triathlon the first time I tried it,” he says. “Triathlon complimented the foundation that I’d set myself as a youth with regards to swimming and running. People often ask me how I found triathlon. I actually think triathlon found me. I found what I was good at, quite honestly. When you’re good at something it motivates you and creates an interest. It was just the element of something completely different and new, but bringing in elements of two sports which I was pretty good at.”
By the time he turned 18, he’d already decided he wanted to pursue triathlon full time. As a South African who had grown up during the apartheid era, this was no easy feat. The country was still under sporting sanctions, so to realise his dreams he would have to move abroad. He chose the country of his mother’s birth – England.
“It was the first time I had ever been outside of South Africa,” he says. “It was certainly a culture shock. I spent the first month living in a youth hostel in London, trying to train around the parks. I remember trying to catch the tube in London with my bike and bike bag, wanting to get from one place to the next, spending hours completely lost.
“This was all a completely new world to me. I basically had to look after myself. It gave me a sense of what I was really looking for in terms of what I wanted to achieve, and what’s important and not important. Really, the first year was all about self-discovery and finding out more about myself than I ever would have if I’d stayed in South Africa.”
Early in his career, Lessing took the decision to pledge his allegiance to Great Britain in order to fulfil his ambitions of international competition. It’s a decision he says he has never regretted – he was always proud to race under the Union flag, even when sporting sanctions were lifted on his home nation.
“I was brought up in an English-speaking country with an Anglo-Saxon background. Britain certainly had its influence in South Africa and that’s still carried through today culturally. It almost just felt to some extent that South Africa was a satellite to my British heritage. My allegiance, it didn’t feel strange at all.”
Under the British banner, Lessing won his first European title in 1991, following it up a year later with a debut ITU World Championship. Three more titles would follow in a ‘golden decade’ that also saw him claim an ITU Long Distance World Championship in 1995.
In many ways, Lessing’s era of dominance was a golden period for triathlon, a relatively young sport that was taking tentative steps towards Olympic status. Lessing, the sport’s undoubted number one for much of the 1990s, spent much of his time fighting off claims to his crown from some of the most talented triathletes of all time, most notably Spencer Smith. This created an excitement and intrigue that has still yet to be matched.
“The thing about triathlon in the 1990s was the consistency of the athletes in terms of the races,” Lessing says. “You could go to any given race and you’d have Spencer Smith, Brad Bevan, Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, Greg Welch – all these guys racing. These were the stars of the sport, and you knew they would be up there racing and they would be consistent. You knew that, for example, Brad would finish top three, Mike Pigg would be in the top five, if not win, and Spencer would be up there. We were very competitive and the athletes were very talented.
“I think that often gets lost. I often hear people say that because it was 15 years ago, a lot of the athletes weren’t that talented. I totally disagree with that. I think there were lots of extremely talented athletes, which led to very close racing. More than that, the consistency created an identity within our sport and created that style which we don’t necessarily have any more. I think there’s too much of an element of inconsistency in racing today.”
Lessing’s rivalry with Spencer Smith, in particular, was headline-grabbing stuff. Certainly, the South African believes the intensity of his rivalries with Smith, Welch and others played a huge part in his impressive performances during that era.
“We all got to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, so we had to perform to those strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “I knew, for example, that if I raced Mike Pigg in an Olympic-distance event I would come out of the water a minute ahead of him, I knew that he would bike a minute faster than me and I knew that I had to make that up on the run if I was going to beat him. That kept you honest – there was no messing around. It was a great way to see whether you were progressing from season to season to season.”
Lessing didn’t have it all his own way throughout his career, though. Although he was seen as the best – with results on the circuit to match – he could never translate his dominance into an Olympic title. Although favourite for the Sydney 2000 triathlon, he finished a disappointing ninth. When he later decided to devote more time to trying to crack Ironman, the Hawaii title eluded him. Brilliant, yes, but not superhuman.
“The problem with Ironman specifically is that it’s a learning process,” he says. “Obviously you have athletes like Craig Alexander who adapted really quickly to Ironman, but the large majority of us struggle. It is a learning process. I don’t think I gave myself the time to go through that process.”
He did score some notable wins at the Ironman distance and its 70.3 baby brother but he could never quite achieve the levels of success that he experienced in Olympic distance. Despite this, he has no regrets about extending his career into the noughties in order to give Ironman a go.
“In hindsight I probably could have done that a couple of years earlier,” he says. “But for me, Ironman was always going to be the cherry on the top. I didn’t feel like I necessarily had anything to prove and I was doing it for myself. I think quite honestly it extended my career by a good five years or so. Yes, I had some good Ironman races and I had some not so good Ironman races. In a way, it could be frustrating, but I don’t really regret it.”
Now enjoying his retirement, Lessing has no time for regrets. He prefers to celebrate his achievements and look forward.
“The one thing I would say I’m proudest about is not a particular race or result, but my consistency – the fact that I could race from 1989 through to 2007 being as consistent as I was. Time was never important to me, even when I was setting records. For me, triathlon is about who you beat and what position you came. If you can prove your consistency in that, that defines who you are as an athlete and whether you are a success or not.”
By that measure, Lessing is arguably the sport’s greatest-ever athlete. A man driven by a desire not just to win, but to better himself. A man constantly striving for (but never, he claims, achieving) the perfect race. A man to whom competition was all. It seems strange that we’ll never see him race again.
“I do feel like there’s a little inkling of a light starting to flare up again in terms of the want of competition, or at least setting myself some goals aside from training,” he says, hinting at a return to the track in 2010.
“I think I will jump into doing a few races, just shorter sprint and Olympic-distance races, next year, just for the fun of it. Really the most important aspect to all of this swim, bike, run stuff is setting yourself goals – having short-term, mid-term and long-term goals. So many people don’t do that – they train, train, train and at the last minute they just jump into a race. It’s nice to be on this journey in terms of starting at one place and then getting to the finish line months down the line. It just gives you purpose.”
Maybe this is one triathlon legend who’s really not ready for the pipe and slippers yet.