Triathlon Plus/TriRadar columnist Steve Trew asks why one triathlete’s achievement is another triathlete’s failure.

Triathlon Blogs - Steve TrewBack in ’85, I ran the London Marathon and also the Malta Marathon. The times for both were remarkably similar – around 2 hours 53 minutes. In the London event I finished somewhere outside the first 1,000. In Malta, I finished 10th! Now, my sense of satisfaction was a little higher in Malta than London, but only a little. The reactions to my race from my London and Maltese friends were, however, somewhat different.

After London, I went out that evening with aching legs for a drink (or several). In Malta, I don’t think I paid for a drink or a meal for the rest of the week. I was an instant hero, an instant success. In every restaurant I was introduced to people, wine was sent over and flowed freely.

The legend Dave Scott tells a story about a lady in her late 70s who came to him to be coached so that she could take part in the USA Masters swimming championships in 400 metres freestyle. Now Scott, being Scott, gave it everything. Each session scheduled and planned out; times and recoveries, total distances, stroke and technique analysis, all points covered. Then came the big day. Scott was nervous for his swimmer. Armed with a stopwatch, and having given last-minute tips, Scott left poolside and went up to the top of the seating area to watch and worry.

The gun fired, the swimmers dived, surfaced and stroked. The anxious Scott had his finger poised over the stopwatch so he could get the split times for each length, to analyse and feed back to his swimmer. In lane eight, his swimmer went into the turn, Scott’s finger poised… and the lady stopped, lifted her arm and waved at the crowd! She did this at the end of every single length. At the race finish the crowd stood and gave the ovation due.


To this lady, success was being there, and proving to herself that she could be there. Success is indeed relative. Times and finishing positions are important, but not necessarily of the same importance to each individual athlete.


When Seb Coe took silver behind Steve Ovett in the Moscow Games of 1980, he didn’t think ‘fantastic achievement’. Rather it was a ‘nothing’. Perhaps it was this failure, in his eyes, that pushed him into regaining his pride with a magnificent victory in the 1500 metres (Ovett finished third). To both of these runners, truly the ‘best in the world’ it was gold or nothing. Steve Ovett spoke afterwards about the bronze meaning nothing because he hadn’t taken the gold medal. Can you imagine? Only a bronze or silver at the Olympics? ONLY!

But that’s the difference, isn’t it? Success is absolutely relative to the person, the athlete’s personal individuality; strengths, weaknesses, experience. First time under the minute for 100 metres front crawl? Awesome! But if you’re Michael Phelps or Ian Crocker or Ian Thorpe, then maybe not. Under a minute kicking that 100 metres? Step forward Phelps, Crocker and Thorpe. That’s their success. For us guys, under two hours for an Olympic-distance race is totally awesome. For a couple of brothers named Brownlee, maybe it’s not.


But that first time under the magic minute or the magic two hours, that’s success. And then we move on; what was outstanding becomes commonplace, and then the next outstanding achievement will also become commonplace. Success is always there, but it’s never constant – if it was then it wouldn’t be success because success by its very nature has to be difficult to achieve.

For our sport there are many ways to measure success. There’s the whole race of course, time and finishing position. But there are also the individual disciplines; an ordinary race, but front pack of the swim rather than dragging off the back? Fantastic! Finishing the 10k without walking? Magical! First half-Ironman – oh my God! First Ironman, “I never thought I could do that! There is nothing in the world that I can’t do if I want to.” Our own definition of success can change our perception of the world and what is possible. Then it becomes just good, or even normal, and we need to go up a level, become outstanding. That’s success – getting better, and then getting better again.