I've always wanted to be a freak of nature. The good kind, where I'm so genetically gifted I can wake up and run a sub-2:45 marathon, or take the bike out for a 30-mph spin on my rest days, or call the International Olympic Committee and let them know which event I'll be entering in London. That kind of freakiness would be pretty terrific. The only catch being that it doesn't exist. Turns out that, even in a super athlete, the freakiest set of lungs, heart and power-to-weight ratio is still governed by the brain and soul, which remain quite human.
On Oct. 8, triathlete phenom Chrissie Wellington of Great Britain won her fourth Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Her friend and training partner, Leanda Cave, who placed third in Kona, lovingly referred to Wellington as a freak of nature. It was hardly the first time the moniker had been attached to Wellington. Her dominating success over the past five years has been the talk of the triathlon world, coupled with the sentiment that Wellington is considered a champion in character as well as sport. But a freak? Wellington doesn't see it that way. In a phone interview from Hawaii, she discussed the human aspect of being a freak of nature.
Kathryn Bertine: Rumor has it that swim company TYR is coming out with a new wet suit line called the "Freak of Nature," in honor of you.
Chrissie Wellington: It's not in honor of me, it's just a name. It's a top-end wet suit. It's going to come in a briefcase and have a serial number. It's absolutely amazing. It'll maximize swim potential. It's very high-end. But it isn't named after me!
KB: I'm going to have to call TYR. I think you're being modest. For an athlete, the term "freak of nature" is both a noble tribute and a slightly backhanded compliment. It almost implies that you're so talented you don't have to work as hard as everyone else. What do you think about such a label?
CW: Honestly, to me it's amusing and flattering. Yes, I do have a physical talent, but it is useless without hard work, drive, diligence and perseverance. I do have some genetics, but the key is the hard work I put into training and racing, physically and mentally.
KB: You're known for both your mental toughness and your physical power. Do you think you embody one trait more than the other?
CW: Ironman is 50 percent mental and 50 percent physical. No part of winning an Ironman is without the mental strength of an ox. Rest recovery, previous experience and preparation are what it takes to complete a finish-line victory.
KB: Can we expect TYR to come out with a wet suit line called "The Ox"?
CW: No, I think the horns would get in the way. And that hair might weigh us down. Triathletes are pretty clean-shaven. They wouldn't like The Ox.
KB: Good point. So, halfway through this year's Ironman World Championships, I noticed an interesting stat about the ages of the women. The top 10 women in Kona at the halfway point were 36, 33, 33, 33, 39, 32, 34, 36, 30 and 40. Do you think "freaks of nature" bloom later in their athletic careers?
CW: It isn't just the women, it's the men, too. I think it's the nature of the event. The physical and the mental side of endurance sports are a lot more suited to those who are older. I just think that the physiology of the athletes in their 30s, they're more suited to it. The athletes in their mid-to-late 30s are achieving great things. … Look at Craig Alexander [three-time Ironman world champion]. He's 38. I think triathlon is more open to those past their 20s. Also, it usually means the older athletes have had a previous career, and that makes for a more interesting group of people.
KB: You certainly started down an interesting career path in 2002, working for the U.K. government in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as an adviser on international development policy. In 2006, you began to race triathlons. In 2007, you turned pro. True or false: Freaks of nature have no weaknesses.
CW: We all have weaknesses! For me, there's my bike handling. And I rush at things, not being deliberate and methodical. And I'm clumsy. I need to take control of these things. And on the mental side, I often think too much. I need to rest my mind and switch it off. My former coach, Brett Sutton, used to say to me, "I can make you a champion, but I'll have to cut your head off."
I acknowledge these things, then I change them. For example, my glutes and hamstrings were notoriously weak, but my run times have shown that I worked on that and I changed it. Weaknesses are things you can control. You just set about working to improve it.
KB: Please comment on Freak of Nature myth No. 87: I don't need physical rest, I simply take my cape to the dry cleaners every now and then.
CW: No, it is so important to have an offseason! At least a month. Without that, you can't come back stronger.
KB: In many of your past races, you've put enormous time gaps on your female competitors -- males, too. Heading into 2011 world champs, you fought off crashes, injury and illness and were still able to conquer Kona. However, Mirinda Carfrae of Australia and Leanda Cave of Great Britain were within striking distance of the title, showing that you are a world-class champion but also very human. How difficult was this particular victory?
CW: In [the spectators' and commentators'] eyes, they've never seen me directly race other women. But whether I race others or I'm alone, I'm fierce and dogged and need to be composed under stress. Ironman 2011 was the hardest-fought victory of my career. It tested me to my absolute limit. I was absolutely spent at the finish. Every athlete's wish is to give everything they have on race day, and I got my wish. I was drained, and that's what I'm most proud of.
KB: The world is obsessed with your smile, and rightfully so, as you're one of the few professional athletes to smile as you compete -- not just when you win. Is smiling your choice, or is it hardwired within the genetic structure of freaks of nature?
CW: Some people noticed I wasn't smiling as much this year. That was actually a choice I had to make. I wanted to smile but I was in a lot of physical discomfort during this year's race. My coach, Dave Scott, said, "You have to conserve every ounce of energy you can." I had to use every ounce of my heart and soul in that performance.
KB: You were definitely smiling at the finish line. You've won 29 out of 38 races in the past five years. Does victory hold a deeper meaning to you than just "winning"?
CW: When I win, it's not just a victory, it's a platform. Being a public figure in the sport, I show women and girls what's possible, and I can convey that in the matter in which I win.
KB: And what is it, specifically, you want women and girls to see when they look at you?
CW: Growing up, I read the teenage magazines, and I was bombarded with images of waiflike supermodels. I see that I have an impact on young girls. I think they need positive role models; I want them to see a positive body image and role model. Strength in body and in mind … I hope that lends itself to healthy eating and behavior. I want to show people their limits are not where they think they are. If I can achieve it, I hope they know they can achieve it. Life's about testing yourself and your limits more than you thought possible.
KB: I see you're also conveying your message in a book. We're eagerly awaiting your memoir, "A Life Without Limits," coming out in the U.S. in May. Do you have any words you live by?
CW: My favorite poem is Rudyard Kipling's "If." I think it summarizes all you need to be as a human being and a successful athlete.
KB: Thank you, Chrissie Wellington -- our freakishly human, physically smiling, mentally ox-ness, Ironman world champion. Whether you should be characterized as a freak of nature is debatable. It's indisputable, however, that you are freakin' awesome.