Coach's Note By Lance Watson
What is a Hall of Fame Career
This past month I was inducted into the Triathlon Canada Hall of Fame for a career of coaching. It was incredibly flattering, and a wonderful affirmation of my career thus far. As people have continued to reach out enthusiastically to congratulate me, they always ask �How does it feel�? My answer is always, �It feels great!� And it does, but I am still trying to put it into a perspective: what does it mean? In most sports, when you are inducted as a coach, it means you had an impact on an era in your sport in a significant way. To be inducted alongside the likes of Ironman legends Lori Bowden and Heather Fuhr is an enormous compliment. They truly emanate �Hall of Fame� as they were giants in the sport at the pinnacle of their careers.
When you begin a career in coaching, it never starts with Hall of Fame aspirations. I think most people who stand out in their field typically follow their passion, immerse themselves in what they are good at, and back it up with hard work. In 1987, when I first discovered triathlon at the age of 18, I decided it would be a good idea to start coaching as well. While there are many triathlon coaches now, it wasn�t a common career path then. Early coaching wasn�t so much about coaching as it was organizing a group of friends to train together; dishing out random workouts that included stair repeats, sand running, and sit ups; and interspersing everything with various swimming, cycling and running sessions that typically added up to the goal race distance. In fact, prior to our first triathlon, I felt it was a good idea to do the whole race the day before to �make sure� we were ready. I was the only one who showed up for that practice. There weren�t too many triathlon training playbooks then, and you couldn�t just Google it. Ultimately it was my solid leadership and organizational skills coupled with a lot of passion that was the starting point.
As I immersed myself into the sport and went on to study Human Kinetics, I was lucky enough to be mentored by some great run coaches at the University of British Columbia. Taking an Assistant Coaching role, I was able to learn from National Team run coaches there. With this came some provincial team coaching appointments and even a National Team appointment to coach an Ekiden (Marathon Distance) Relay team in Beijing. This experience at the University was an instrumental step in learning how to organize and manage groups in a high performance environment. It also taught me how to tend to the needs of individual elite athletes while tapping into group training energy as well. I saw how top level athletes handled themselves day in and day out, observed habits and what worked, and studied how their coaches kept them on track. By applying what I was studying at University and experimenting on myself and my athletes, my triathlon group started to have more success and started to qualify for teams.
In the mid 1990�s my wife Lucy and I took a big step. Cranking up our Visa card, we headed over to Europe for a �tour�; for me to coach and for her to compete. At that time there wasn�t an annually structured national team program, just some occasional athlete funding to help get to World Championships. Triathlon Canada�s entire budget then was probably less than $100k, with which they did a good job providing for their athletes what they could, but essentially we were on our own.
It was a big adventure and a leap of faith touring with a small group of elite athletes I had developed in my home town. Brent McMahon was part of this group with me, travelling Europe as a 16 year old. To this day, I am still amazed his parents left their precious son in my care overseas when I was still only 26 years old myself!
The athletes garnered experience in international competition, learned about racing and training in different cultures and honed their skills on the European racing scene. They were preparing in an independent and somewhat entrepreneurial way to compete in World Championships by living off prize money and sponsorships supplemented with help from race directors and home stay families. PowerBar, a new company twenty years ago, sponsored us by providing a steady supply of malt nut and chocolate bars: their early flavours. We ate a lot of PowerBars and slept in many airports to save money during those early days.
The athletes progressed well, qualifying for national teams and making it into some World Championship top 10�s. We met and trained with several young foreign athletes, ones who later became future Olympic medalists. Kiwi Bevan Docherty was one of them. I remember watching him as a 19 year old and in one particular race, despite a broken nose, he was forced to finish in order to receive the prize money. Englishman Tim Don also came over and became World Junior Champ. Training and racing in France and Germany was the development path of most top pro athletes in the 90�s and the secret to the Aussie dominance during that era. The Canadians progressed and I started coaching a few internationals as well. Using our growing contacts, Lucy signed a contract with a French Club in Paris, who provided us with an apartment and modest salary. This was our European base for 3 summers. From Paris, we could travel easily to races almost every weekend. This was an intensive learning experience time for me as I was immersed in coaching and managing the group and the racing was frequent and high level.
In 1998 I met Lisa Bentley in person for the first time when she joined me at our spring California camp. We almost didn�t make it to this camp though. We had driven from Vancouver to San Diego in an old Jeep Grand Wagoneer when the truck started to break down enroute. Loaded with five athletes, their gear and bikes, we drove the freeway through LA at about 20 miles an hour. The grit and resourcefulness I developed during those early years was a bonus in the years to come coaching on the National Team.
Lisa had almost gone back home before I arrived in San Diego as she didn�t like to travel in the early years. Thankfully I was able to convince her to stay and eventually convinced her to travel to Australia, where she subsequently agreed to stay at that camp too. As a result, she broke through that season with her first Ironman podium in New Zealand and went on to win there the next year. These were the days when there were only a handful of Ironmans in the world and therefore victories were much more rare and precious as well. Over the course of her career, Lisa achieved wins at 11 Ironmans and was considered one of the very best in the world. (Lisa was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2013).
In the late nineties we learned the exciting news that Triathlon would make its debut at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Armed with that knowledge, in 1999, we headed to Queensland for our Australian training camp. That fall a young Canadian named Simon Whitfield approached me about joining the group. He came out and tried us out for a while, getting a feel for the group. I knew Simon was a good young runner and he had already become Canadian Champion. At this time he was ranked around 50th in the world and had big plans, hoping to qualify for the Olympics.
Incidentally, that winter I was invited to interview for the National Team Head Coach position in Scotland. There was no National Head Coach in Canada and it sounded like a great opportunity. I travelled for 36 hours from sunny Gold Coast of Australia to snowy, rainy Scotland to run a camp with two other coaches as part of the interview process. Arriving jet lagged from the Australian mecca of outdoor 50m pools, golden sand beaches, and shorts-weather riding, admittedly I was less than inspired to be back in the �Vancouver winter� conditions I had escaped. I arrived alongside Aussie Darren Smith, who was also interviewing, who is now a very successful coach. Darren eventually took the job and I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to stay the course I had set in Australia. If you believe in destiny, perhaps that was a moment of truth, as 2000 turned out to be a landmark year in my career. To use the clich�, it was exactly the moment in my career when opportunity met preparation.
In 2000 we were gearing up for the Olympics. Simon had some breakthrough World Cup finishes to make the National team and Canadian Sharon Donnelly qualified as well. On my way home from Scotland I found out that Lisa had won her first Ironman. Additionally, that year I coached Tereza Macel and Jamie Cleveland to win Nationals; Jamie also won Ironman Florida. Melissa Spooner, part of the squad, won Ironman USA in Lake Placid. Returning to Canada in the spring, my (now pregnant) wife Lucy and I moved to Victoria to commit to building Canada�s first National Triathlon Center in the lead up to the Olympic Games in September. Two weeks after moving, our first child was born. Internationals like Greg Bennett and Laura Reback (later Bennett) joined us in Victoria. With a new baby, a fired up squad, and the Olympics looming on the horizon, things were hectic but very exciting.
Then came the Olympic Games themselves and the first Olympic triathlon events. That was a story unto itself. Needless to say, nothing you learn in coaching school prepares you for the emotion of the Olympics. Family, extended family, past school friends and old coaches, colleagues, and sponsors all show up and are emotionally invested. Each athlete�s life story was presented in this group consisting of those who had supported them and those who had an impact on their athletic careers. Media attention was amplified. It was a circus and it was thrilling. Triathlon was right there on the opening weekend in front of the Sydney Opera House and our team received full emotional bang for our buck.
Day 1 was the women�s race. Carol Montgomery crashed and broke her arm. Having also qualified for the 10,000m event in the games, which was a historic double, she was unfortunately unable to compete in either. Another crash occurred to Sharon Donnelly. Fortunately she was able to get a replacement wheel and managed to soldier on to finish the race with blood streaming down her leg.
Day 2, in the men�s race, unbelievably Simon Whitfield also got tangled in a crash late into the bike. He managed to overcome what should have been an insurmountable deficit to run back to the front of the race, only to drop back again. With an incredible sprint in his arsenal of prowess I could see, with about 400m remaining, Simon had pulled back within striking range of Vukovic, the German. As he blazed past Vukovic in front of the grandstand to capture Triathlon�s first ever Olympic gold medal, I sprinted through the spectator seats parallel to him and hurtled into the press box to grab him at the finish. In hindsight I probably should have been arrested for this move but I do believe security turned a blind eye. I hugged him so hard over the barricade I actually felt him go limp in my arms (probably from suffocation). It was an emotional call home from the steps of the Opera House as I recounted the day with my wife Lucy, who was holding our 3 month old baby girl. She said people were out in the streets cheering and banging pots when he won, as if it were the Stanley Cup. Simon wept into his champion�s bouquet on the podium as our national anthem was played and they raised the Canadian flag.
Between 2000 and 2005 I continued building the National Triathlon Center with my long term coaching partner Paul Regensburg and was named Head Coach for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. This was a good run as we backed up the Olympic Gold medal with two team gold medal wins at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and a gold at the 2003 Pan American Games. Greg Bennett was ITU world ranked number one and finished 4th in the Athens Olympics; Laura Bennett stood on the podium twice at Worlds; and Canada�s future Olympians were developing at the Triathlon Center. I was Canada�s first fully funded coach and enjoyed contributing knowledge in the new Coaching Program. I was also able to provide coaching mentorship to now recognized coaches Joel Filliol and Cliff English who came to Victoria to spend a year learning their craft at the National Triathlon Center.
In 2005, with the birth of my son, I decided it was time to leave the National Team and Triathlon Center, with the relentless travel it entailed, and re-enter the world of private coaching. This was another leap of faith: leaving a reliable pay cheque and a role that I had created to launch LifeSport Coaching with Paul Regensburg. It was unnerving but exhilarating all at the same time; bringing the skills I had developed and honed, along with the coaching education and mentorship experience, to build something that could benefit athletes of all levels. I dedicated myself to increased focus on long distance triathlon and non-drafting racing while continuing to coach a few Olympians, including Brent McMahon, to 2012 in London.
Along the way I was able to work with and learn from many great champions and top Hawaiian Ironman finishers including Linsey Corbin, Chris Lieto, Kim Loeffler, Amanda Stevens, and Magali Tisseyre to name a few. I am grateful that they entrusted me and my leadership during some key chapters in their careers. Choosing a coach is never a light decision for a professional athlete, as racing is their life, so I am always flattered when they approach me to coach them.
Finally, helping me to bring my coaching career full circle, was Brent McMahon�s World Record Ironman debut at 7:55 in the fall of 2014. I have had the pleasure of coaching him and watching his progressions since 1995 where he started out as a Junior prospect, then became Junior National champ, made the Senior National Team and became Senior National Champion, World Cup Winner, Xterra World Championship medallist, two time Pan American Games Medallist, two time Olympian, multiple Ironman 70.3 winner and World Record setting Ironman. 2015 marks 20 years of coaching Brent and has it ever been an amazing journey.
So, what does it mean to be inaugurated into the Hall of Fame? I am still processing this. I didn�t start for the accolades. I just immersed myself in coaching and coached my butt off for the last 28 years. I do what I love to the best of my ability and was lucky enough to find my calling. Somehow along the way I have created a body of work that my peers deemed worthy of this incredible honour. �Hall of Fame� sounds like it should be the end of the journey, but really it is only about half way done. I can hardly wait to see what the next 20 years bring with our incredible sport and the adventures that await.
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level.