endurance athletes are given the ultimatum of choosing between their sport and a long-term relationship, it’s usually the latter that loses out.
By Jonathan Horn
our de France, 2009. It’s one of those murderous stages in the Alps that can make a sprinter cry for his mother. “Doga food,” a European star tells reporters in sing-song English when asked how his legs feel. As the cyclists totter over the finish line in dribs and drabs, their wives, mostly in their 30s, wait patiently. They know the signals, the right and wrong time to approach, the exact words to say. They blend into the maelstrom of reporters, mechanics, team managers, race organisers and assorted lurk merchants. More prominent are the casual partners, groupies and hangers-on. They’re younger, slimmer, bolder and must work quicker. They make eye contact, pout and pounce. Last year I spent three weeks reporting on the Tour de France, talking to athletes, talking to partners, observing and listening. I’ve subsequently interviewed scores of amateur athletes in sports such as marathon running and ironman triathlon – disciples of the “lonely” pursuits, those requiring mind-boggling amounts of training and almost total dedication. In the absence of any hard data, I was testing a hypothesis that had occurred to me through evidence seen with my own eyes and through the contacts I had made as a specialist triathlon and cycling
writer: that endurance sports devotees suffer the highest attrition rates of relationships of any section of society. From world superstars to plodding age-groupers, the sentiments were the same: when it comes to juggling a long-term relationship and a sporting obsession, it’s the former that usually gives. “I’ve lost count of the number of girlfriends I’ve had who just didn’t get it,” one cyclist told me. “They love the whole scene when you’re winning stages, but hate it – and us – when you’re putting in eighthour days in the saddle.” “It’s the recovery that fucks us up,” another said. “The body needs to recover – it’s just as important as the training. So when you’ve spent half the day riding in the hills and your legs feel like shit, you sure as hell don’t feel like playing on the swings with your kids. Or even getting jiggy with your girl.” Not surprisingly, the partners we spoke to had a different take on things. The way they see it, their partners are (or were) to varying degrees egotistical, obsessive, insecure, selfish, narcissistic and demanding. They’re methodical and focused one minute and completely unhinged the next. They have oodles of discipline but rarely do they have self-awareness. As Jeff Bond, }
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I’ve lost count of the number of girlfriends I’ve had who just didn’t get it
former chief sports psychologist at the AIS for two decades, told us: “These athletes often have exceptional sporting careers, yet they’re also at the high end of psychological risk.” Christi Valentine-Anderson is a sports writer and commentator who has followed the Tour de France for almost two decades. Looking at the team photo of the 1994 Motorola Team, which featured Lance Armstrong and her former husband Phil Anderson, she notes that of the two dozen athletes in the frame, all but one have since divorced, several multiple times. Valentine-Anderson says Tour de France cyclists “exist in a world of bad boys who live like a circus family”. She believes team managers must shoulder a lot of the blame. “They feed the egos, massage them and then throw them aside when it doesn’t work out.” There’s an ingrained distrust of wives on the circuit, she says: “Some bimbo who’s hanging around the team hotel isn’t going to get inside their heads as much as a wife – the wives change the athletes’ focus away from the ‘family’ that is the cycling team. As a result, the team managers are more accepting of the casual girlfriends of the married athletes than they are of the actual wives themselves. Unless your husband is winning, you’re not welcome as a wife, even in the lobby of the team hotel.” Valentine-Anderson says she has the utmost respect for how dedicated these super athletes are, but believes it’s a double-edged sword. “The same qualities that help you succeed as a professional athlete also destroy you as a human being,” she says. “These people don’t switch gears when they cross the finish line. They can endure suffering more than the average person. And ultimately, being married to an elite athlete is to be married to an individual, a person who has no concept of team, a person who starts every sentence with the word ‘I’.” Many pros are young, childless and get paid bucketloads to do what they love. Every minute of their day is devoted to training and recovery. They’re even paid to sleep. Amateur enthusiasts, or age-groupers as they’re known in triathlon circles, don’t have that luxury …
ort Macquarie, april 2009. The Australian Ironman Triathlon is two days away. A mid-30s couple sits eating breakfast. Hubby has just punched out a 90-minute swim set and a two-hour ride. It’s his taper, he says. He’s no pro, but a very handy age-grouper, always at the pointy end of proceedings. Tomorrow he’ll have his first day off in 364 days. He says he might get a massage and go for a walk. During the course of the meal, the couple doesn’t exchange a single word. After polishing off his muesli, hubby says quietly: “Off for a run.” Twenty years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a scathing article titled “Triathlons Dehumanise”. The gist was that combining three such demanding sports asks everything of the body and nothing of the imagination. It also questioned the number of amateurs who are drawn to Ironman events. “While champions in every sport must devote disproportionate amounts of time to exercise, only in triathlons will you find mediocre – even lousy – athletes who devote so many waking hours to an activity in which they compete only to finish.” Though it’s predominantly an amateur sport, Ironman triathlon isn’t like mid-week tennis or indoor cricket. It isn’t an excuse to get out of the house, raise a sweat and play sporting superstar for an hour a week. It’s all-consuming. Training loads can exceed 20 hours per week in the lead-up to a big race. And throughout the training cycle these part-timers exhibit all the traits that characterise the obsessive-compulsive personality – wake, train, check equipment, eat, work, write lists, eat, weigh yourself, snooze, train, eat, write goals, sleep, repeat. Ironmen always claim their massive workload is therapeutic, a means of slipping into a meditative state and switching off. Indeed, Jeff Bond says running and cycling for hours on end provides “extended periods of immersion in rhythm – an important comforter”. But that’s little comfort to their other halves. From their perspective, if their partners aren’t out training, they’re sleeping. Or eating. Or bitching. And the ironmen don’t get it until it’s too late. Several told Inside Sport they’ve arrived home from a triathlon weekend away to an empty home and a relationship down the tube.
Tellingly, a number of triathletes who spoke to us were adamant they have the highest divorce rate of any sport. No number crunchers at the Australian Institute of Family Studies are able to corroborate this, but the anecdotal evidence is strong – these sports can spell trouble for a normal adult relationship. Lisa, an Australian Ironman competitor, told us: “Triathletes, particularly long course competitors, are highly driven, motivated people with lofty goals and aspirations. Many struggle with the balance. I know many fellow athletes whose marriages are under stress or have fallen apart.” Like Michael, an age-grouper who took up triathlon four years ago after playing footy at a high level in his 20s. “When I do something, it’s fair to say I generally do it pretty full-on. And Ironman is full-on to the max. I’d train at four in the morning, at lunchtime, after work, on weekends. I was addicted, totally hooked. I was working 55-hour weeks as well, mind you. My wife and I met when we were 21 and she hated everything about Ironman. She just didn’t get it at all. She loved the footy environment with the other girls, but she always resented the tri thing. I came home from IM Oz and was stoked because I’d just posted a personal best by 45 minutes. And she’d packed my bags for me. It was all over. She told me she felt like a third wheel to triathlon. She told me she thought I was having affairs with the other chicks in my club – not true. And she told me she was leaving. So I’m just sitting there, in my running gear, thinking, ‘Fuck.’ You know what? I went running that very night. Pathetic, I know.” Jenny is 37, a mother of two and has the physique of an Olympic runner. After her second child, she says she was “as depressed as a person can be”. Instead of booze or pokies or drugs or even an affair, marathon running became her hit. She’d played basketball and tennis to a high standard, but this was something else. She’d regularly log over 150km a week and spent a small fortune on massages, shoes and physio bills. She’d put the kids to bed, wait until her husband fell asleep, and then duck off for sneaky training runs at midnight. Suffice to say, sex was a distant memory. The more PBs she recorded, the more her husband resented it. After a while, he shot through, leaving her with the kids, the mortgage and the empty road. Trouble also seems to manifest when one partner takes up these sports in their 30s and 40s. At the amateur level, triathlon, marathon running, open water swimming and cycling tend to be sports for the middle-aged. They’re activities that former footballers and netballers take up when they get jack of knee injuries and concussion and training on muddy grounds. They’re, as Stef told us, “mid-life crisis sports”. “The 35-44 age bracket is always the most packed,” she says. “Forget RSVP, forget speed dating – if you want to meet single 30 and 40-somethings, join a tri club. But everyone comes with baggage. And everyone’s screwed up in their own way.” It’s clear that taking up a punishing distance sport represents a form of therapy for some whose marriages have gone belly up. It offers a form of self-punishment, freedom, a new social circle, a newly sculptured body and a means of switching off. It seems especially so for women. “A few years into my marriage, after I had twins, my former husband used to call me fat,” Stef told us. “The prick used to make all these snide little remarks and all the while put me down. I took up tri around this time and shed two stone in 12 months. Suddenly I had abs. Suddenly I had a life and an excuse to get away from him. And of course he hated that.” The marriage ended but her sporting career went gangbusters and she made it to Hawaii last year. “Without the sport, I would’ve continued being a little mouse. And there’s so many girls like me.” But other issues surface. “Many people in their late 30s and 40s who become concerned about their loss of youthfulness, weight gain and general fitness take up a distance sport and progress to the stage where they start to become obsessed,” says Bond. “These people feel bombarded by the media about the ‘body beautiful’ and feel compelled to }
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My ex absolutely resented my involvement in running
prove they’re still young and can regain their youthful fitness and competitive edge once again.” We showed Bond’s quote to Jenny. She laughed: “Yep, that’s me! What better way to shed kilos than run 42km on a Sunday morning? But the most important thing is this – I’m conscious of my insecurities, as every woman is. But I love what I do. I love the way it makes me feel. I love how it makes me look. So tough titty if anyone thinks it’s too extreme.”
ane is the partner of an Australian Ironman triathlon competitor and a self-confessed “sporting illiterate”. Her husband is heavily involved with a tri club and “couldn’t live without it”. In the lead-up to an Ironman, she says he doesn’t even make it to social functions; instead he nods off around 8pm. He’s eaten her out of the house. After an event, she says he goes on a bender with his tri mates for a fortnight and “binge eats”. She says she loves him, but can’t abide what she calls a “self-indulgent, time-consuming, pointless and relationship-killing sport.” Allan Pitman, an Australian triathlon coach who has mentored scores of Hawaiian Ironmen and seen just as many marriage bust-ups, says problems emerge when the non-participating partner has no interest or involvement in the sport. “The most common cause of breakdown I have witnessed is not to do with the personality of the athlete, but more to do with the low self-esteem of their partner. It’s almost always been partners who have nothing in their lives and who are envious of this ‘addiction’ that their triathlon partner has.” Which explains ex-husbands like Jenny’s, the Australian marathon runner. “My ex absolutely resented my involvement in running. He saw it as time away from him. Never mind the fact he spent almost every waking minute in a pub. He couldn’t understand why I never wanted to go to the pub with him.” Lauren Swigart, one of America’s premier age-group triathletes, knows how that feels. “I’m a reasonably elite triathlete – I’ve placed second in my age group in the last two years at the Hawaiian Ironman – but that didn’t matter to my fiance. He gave me an ultimatum –
triathlon or him. I just wish he would’ve involved himself somehow.” And that seems to be the crux of it. Inside Sport spoke to dozens of pro and age-group athletes from both Australia and the US – over the phone, via email and through internet forums. Almost without exception, the athletes who claimed they were making it work included their partner in their training. Their partner goes to the pool with them and reads the paper. They go for their recovery walks together. They act as marshals and volunteers at events. However, several ex-partners of triathletes and cycling nuts were completely dismissive of this. “My former husband always tried to involve me in his Ironman training,” says Patricia, an American respondent. “But it was always a one-way street. It was always, ‘We’ll go for a jog together.’ But it was never, ‘I’ll come and read books with you and go to the theatre.’ It was just typical of his and many other part-time athletes’ selfish mindset – the idea that those who have no interest in sport will change to accommodate it. But guess what: it’s quid-pro-quo, buddy.” The ex-fiance of an Australian female triathlete concurs. He says he signed up for “enjoys quiet walks on the beach”, not “enjoys two-hour open water swim sessions”. “When I met her, she wasn’t interested in sport at all. I didn’t have a vision of up to 15 or 20 hours of training a week. But it quickly became an obsession with her. And here was I, suddenly being told to accept it as part of our lives. To accept the fact she’d be asleep when the sun went down on a Saturday night. Apparently I was being selfish by not involving myself in her cliquey tri club. I’ll be honest: triathlon became a dirty word to me.” With each break-up comes claims the non-participating partner simply didn’t understand what they were going through. That they don’t understand why their partner is always so tired. Why they’d rather go to bed than go out to dinner. Why there’s never any holidays that don’t revolve around races. As one triathlete told us, “I can remember a number of times when I tried to do the right thing by my wife [like coming home from a long ride and heading straight out shopping] and an hour or so later I felt like dying.” “What they’re going through?” Patricia asks dismissively. “Spare }
me. They make the choice, remember. Apparently they do this for fun. If they can’t function as normal human beings after spending six hours on their stupid bicycles, maybe they need to reassess where they’re at in their lives.”
s it better, then, to hook up with someone who knows exactly what beat you dance to? Many respondents point to the tendency of athletes in extreme endurance sports to couple up. Type A meets Type A. Obsessive plus obsessive equals married bliss. In reality, we’re probably all looking too much into it. Two athletes in the same sport are just as likely to hook up as two colleagues who work at the same law firm. They mix in the same circles, they’re on the same page and they’re attracted to fit bodies and compulsive personalities. Like Emma Snowsill, the Olympic gold medalist who’s engaged to (and coached by) Craig Walton, a former triathlon world champion. Or fellow Olympian Greg Bennett, who’s married to America’s most recognisable triathlete, Laura Bennett. Or surf-lifesaving superstars Dean Mercer and Reen Corbett. Or, perhaps most remarkably of all, adventure racers Richard and Elina Ussher. If ever a sport was going to make a relationship go the way of the pear, you’d think it would be theirs. The nature of adventure racing means that more often that not they compete together on the same team for days on end, with little or no sleep and even less edible food, hurling themselves down rapids, across rocks and over cliffs. “I couldn’t take a harden-the-fuck-up approach as she doesn’t respond well to that,” he says. “But somehow we make it work.” It’s not just the pros that manage to carry it off. Sixty-one-year-old Allan Pitman and his wife toed the line at last year’s Hawaiian Ironman. “We fight, we laugh, we train hard and we wouldn’t change anything,” he says.
ary Neiwand is a dual Olympic silver medalist, a threetime World and Commonwealth Games sprint champion and arguably one of the greatest ever Australian Olympians never to snare Olympic Gold. On the bike, he was a remorseless machine, the king of the big stage, both bull-nerved and canny. When the music stopped, however, he was a walking time bomb. Yes, he was a sprinter, but the training time and dedication required had equalled any endurance athlete. Things spiralled out of control to the point where he tried to kill himself, overdosing on tablets. He was drinking heavily and his weight ballooned to over 114kg. He was paranoid and depressed. He was also stalking both his ex-wife and her new partner. A court heard he’d bombarded his partner with text messages and prank calls and that he was lurking with intent outside her home, convinced she was having an affair. He was also accused of secretly urinating in her champagne glass. Earlier, he’d breached an intervention order requiring him to stay away from his ex-wife. Unlike the other amateurs and pros who spoke to Inside Sport, Neiwand was obliged to sum up his relationship to a throng of bloodthirsty reporters in a ten-second grab, where he naively informed all and sundry that he was “not ashamed of anything he had done”. Even more foolishly, he then agreed to a radio interview with Derryn Hinch, who proceeded to tear him to shreds. The other athletes featured here invariably dealt with their relationship breakdowns by immersing themselves in their sport. Neiwand had 18 months to think about it in Victoria’s notoriously brutal Port Phillip prison (“It was a hellhole – sharing cell blocks with murderers, druggies, all sorts. It was the lowest time of my life.”) Tellingly, he says he was well prepared for the deprivations by the years he spent in Charlie Walsh’s Spartan training camps. Inside, he got help, got fit, got on medication and did a lot of thinking. The man who emerged from the abyss is obviously well qualified to discuss the difficulties of combining a sporting career and a relationship. “When it comes to relationships, in some ways it’s easier being the sportsperson, because you get your life mapped out and paid for,” he says. “Your partner, on the other hand, has to live around your life. }
Things got to the point where Neiwand tried to kill himself
I was away for the majority of the year, year after year, which wasn’t ideal for a relationship. As I was the older rider most of the time, I thought I had to be one of the boys and did things I’m not proud of. “It’s easy for the athlete to think, ‘This is great, I am great.’ You get everything for free – travel, clothes, parties, endorsements. It can easily become a rock star lifestyle, so you really need some good people around you for support.” Neiwand is by no means the only pro cyclist to fall through the cracks. In many ways, Australian cycling has been a den of iniquity for some time and it’s only natural that young athletes and their families would be casualties. Once every couple of years they were hailed as Australian sporting heroes. The rest of the time they were essentially anonymous, training like fiends, injecting vitamins in their butts, living a dormitory lifestyle and trying to somehow maintain their relationships. Neiwand and many others were trying to maintain their sanity as well. After his track career and 17-year relationship went under, Stephen Pate was jailed for intentionally causing injury and false imprisonment – he had run a knife across his wife’s neck and threatened to slice her throat. Jobie Dajka battled depression and alcohol abuse and ended up taking his own life last year. “They tore your heart out, put you in a heap and closed the door,” his father Stan eulogised in a none-too-subtle stab at a governing body he believes had let his son down. Neiwand concurs: “We were taken from our families and put into an institute to solemnly train for gold medals. Our coaches lived with their families and were on some very good wages. We lived in a dorm set-up, with minimal wages, getting no education or direction for life after cycling. “If it was a company I had worked at for that long, I might’ve got a gold watch. Instead I had to start life again, look for a job, get an education and try and fit into the mainstream. There was no institute, no phone calls, no offers of assistance. I had to start again alone.” One former AIS coach we spoke to, who doesn’t wish to be named, doesn’t buy into that. “Any time I hear these athletes crap on about how hard they’ve had it, I just want to bring out the violin,” he says. “Spare me, guys. Go and dig ditches or clean bedpans and see how you like that. These blokes are funded by the taxpayer to do something they love. And when they can’t sustain a relationship for more than ten minutes or learn how to tie their shoelaces, suddenly it’s our fault. Well, they’ve gotta learn how to live as adults, like the rest of us did … ” Neiwand and Pate’s woes are at the extreme end of the scale, but it’s not all rainbows and butterflies out there on the road. Alistair, an Australian age-group triathlete, was typical of those who admitted that when it comes to matters of the heart and the love of his sport, the latter always wins out. “Training consumes a huge part of my life out of work,” he says. “My past five relationships have ended the same way, with complaints of my time devotion to the sport. I can’t honestly see my current relationship lasting long. We’re four months in and already she wants me to sleep on the couch on swim squad nights.” Conversely, Kate, an American age-group triathlete, says it all comes back to basic elements of trust and respect. They’re the cornerstones of any successful partnership, irrespective of whether one half dons flippers or cleats every morning. “If one partner feels the other is being selfish or obstructing the relationship through their commitment to something the other doesn’t enjoy, you’re in trouble,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s triathlon, skateboarding, origami or a Civil War re-enactment club, they will feel bitterness about it, unless they become involved somehow.” Everyone we spoke to echoed her point. You have to get your partner involved. It’s all about balance. You have to know when to be an athlete and when to be a dad and when to be a husband. They’re buzzwords and cliches for sure, but they resonate. As Jeff Bond says, “It takes two partners with great levels of empathy and self-awareness to avoid or manage the many challenges that will inevitably arise. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it takes special people and a special effort to achieve the balance.” n
A happy exterior hid an almost-tragic inner turmoil for Gary Neiwand.
It’s all about balance