It is one thing to be competitive in your sport of choice. It is another to be the very best, the one with the target on your back. In basketball, LeBron James comes to mind. Whenever another team lines up to face the Cavaliers, James is the athlete they know they have to contend with. Our list includes those athletes who are at the pinnacle of their sport, the ones all the others have to think about whenever they go to the line.
Craig Alexander took second in his first attempt at the Ford Ironman World Championship in 2007, to fellow Aussie Chris McCormack – under four minutes from winning it all in his first shot at the prize. So when he sat down with six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott to discuss his strategy for the 2008 race, he was taken aback when The Man couldn’t quite figure out what Alexander was talking about. “Strategy?” asked the King of Kona. “Unless you come out of the Natural Energy Lab shoulder-to-shoulder with someone, there is no strategy. Set a pace and then run at that pace. THAT’S your strategy. What do you think you can run, Craig?”
Alexander didn’t hesitate. His training told him that he could get off the bike and run a 2:36 marathon, and that’s what he told Dave Scott. So what was the response?
Alexander laughs at the memory. “Dave told me to run mile one at a six-minute pace and then just keep clicking them off, one after another.”
So in 2008, Craig Alexander trained to run six-minute miles from mile one through mile 26, and he knew that if he had to on race day, he could definitely run a 2:36 marathon off the bike.
He didn’t have to. He caught Eneko Llanos of Spain before heading into the Natural Energy Lab at mile 16 and never looked back. He had won the biggest prize in his sport, the Ford Ironman World Championship, and he rolled into 2009 wanting nothing more than to repeat that performance.
A number of people feel that his biggest rival come October will be fellow Aussie and 2007 Ironman world champion Chris McCormack, who dropped out in 2008 after a mechanical failure on the bike.
They went head-to-head at the Singapore 70.3 in mid-March, and they came off the bike together. In the half marathon, following up on his conversation with Dave Scott, Alexander ran away and hid – putting four minutes on Macca to, hopefully, set the stage to become the first male to repeat as Ironman world champion since Tim DeBoom in 2002.
Chrissie Wellington’s story is hard to fathom. One minute she is working in Nepal managing a community-led sanitation program, and the next she is winning the Ford Ironman World Championship. And she did it without an aero helmet, without a long-course resumé of any sort, without having trained with a heart monitor or a power meter and with a huge smile on her face all day long. And why not? When she would ride her mountain bike at 12,000 feet in the Himalayas, she dealt with 50 mph winds, a 30-pound mountain bike with panniers, parasites in her belly from the nasty water and trails that climbed forever. To her, the Ironman was nothing more than a catered workout with people handing her food, water and Gatorade along the way. Are you kidding? This Ironman stuff is easy!
So after winning Ironman events in Korea, Kona, Australia and Frankfurt, all within 14 months during 2007 and 2008, the Brit heads into 2009 unbeaten, untested and unthreatened. How dominant is Ms. Wellington? She flatted in Kona last October, lost at least 10 minutes and then broke the marathon course record and won by 30 minutes. Belinda Granger from Australia took the lead while Wellington struggled to repair her flat. When the NBC camera crew rolled up her way, she let them in on the reality of the situation. “Chrissie’s still going to win,” Granger insisted. “It just won’t be by as much as it would have been.”
Oscar Pistorius was less than a year old when he had both legs amputated below the knee because of a birth defect. The South African remembers how clumsy and heavy his early prosthetics were and how, at the age of 7, he tried to avoid Sports Day at school by sending a note supposedly from his mother to his teacher so he wouldn’t have to compete with the other kids. “I wrote ‘Dear Mrs. So-and-So,’” Pistorius remembers, “Oscar can not participate in Sports Day because he is very sick today. Thank you so much for understanding.’ I signed my mother’s name and I got good hiding when my parents found out.”
Through high school, Pistorius played water polo and rugby with able-bodied athletes and did very well. Then in 2003, he was tackled hard during a rugby match and badly hurt his left knee. Part of his rehabilitation? Running on the track. Eight months after the injury, he was in Athens at the Paralympic Games, where he took home a bronze at 100 meters and a gold at 200 meters. Before he was injured, he had never heard of the Paralympics. In 2008, he took home gold medals in the Paralympics in Beijing at 100, 200 and 400 meters, and he is currently ranked number one in the world at all three distances.
But Oscar Pistorius, at only 22 years old, also became a subject of worldwide debate when running’s international body (IAAF) banned him from running against able-bodied athletes in international competition – saying that his Ossur prosthetics provided him with an unfair advantage. The Court of Arbitration for Sports eventually overturned that ruling, but Pistorius missed making the South African Olympic Team by less than one second. He ran 46.25 in Lucerne, Switzerland, for the 400, but he needed to run 45.55.
The amount of media attention focused on the world of disabled sports because of the Pistorius case was off the charts. Everyone had an opinion. But in the eye of the storm, Oscar Pistorius just focused on the job at hand and marveled at the more than 90,000 spectators who showed up at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing whenever he raced. His job is to run fast, break records, motivate others and, most importantly, change the perceptions of what someone without legs can accomplish.
Taylor Phinney is 18 years old and has only been on the Velodrome for 17 months. But when your mom, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, is an Olympic gold medalist and your dad, Davis Phinney, is an Olympic bronze medalist and the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France, genes definitely play a part. In August Taylor took seventh in his first-ever Olympics in Beijing, and in late March he became the first American male in 13 years to win the World Championship in the 4,000 meters individual pursuit in Pruskow, Poland. He also broke his own American record earlier in the day. “I would have liked to have done better in the Olympics,” said the kid called Mini Phinney during his VeloNews Junior Cyclist of the Year award acceptance speech on January 31, “but I figure I should have four or five more opportunities to get an Olympic medal,” he joked.
He’ll also have a lot more opportunities to become one of the greatest cyclists who ever lived.
Shalane Flanagan is a two-time national champion at 5,000 meters and holds the American record for the distance (14:44.80). The very first time she ran the 10,000 meters, at the 2008 Stanford Payton Jordan meet, all she did was run 30:34.49, breaking Deena Kastor’s existing American record (30:50.32) by more than 15 seconds. Like cycling phenom Taylor Phinney, she is following in her parents’ very fast footsteps. Her mother, Cheryl Treworgy (formerly Cheryl Bridges) and her father, Steve Flanagan, were both top runners. Mom actually set the world record in the marathon (2:49:40) in 1971 and set U.S. records at three miles and the 5,000 meters. Shalane’s dad’s best time for the marathon was 2:18.
In 2008 Flanagan won the USATF Cross Country National Championship, won the 10,000 meters and took third at the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Then it was off to Beijing where she became the second American woman to medal at 10,000 meters, taking home the bronze and breaking her own American record by 12 seconds with a time of 30:22.22.
Ryan Hall remembers that his dad always had a way to calm him down before a baseball game or a running race, no matter how important. “Ryan,” he’d say, “there are millions of people in China right now who have no idea what you’re doing and really don’t care. There is no reason to be nervous.”
Great advice, Dad. Except that the 26-year-old American Olympic Trials champion and 2:06:17 marathoner – the fastest ever time for an American-born man – was standing at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon in Beijing.
After a quiet chuckle to himself about the fact that billions of people in China knew exactly what he was doing at that very moment and that, for once, Dad’s calming thought might not work very well on this particular day, the first American to go under an hour for the half marathon (59:43) took 10th place in his first-ever Olympics.
Hall has been up in Mammoth for months running 120 to 130 miles per week in preparation for the Boston Marathon. Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Josh Cox and assorted other top runners have been living and training up at altitude all winter. When the snow is heavy, they drive down the mountain to about 5,000 feet, bundle up and get their training in. “I’ve been dreaming of running Boston since I was a little kid,” he admits. “If you want to be remembered as a great American marathoner, you need to shine at Boston.”
His goals are lofty. No American male has won Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983, one year after Ryan Hall was born.
Last year Hall drove in the lead vehicle and watched the race from the front. “I had ringside seats and it was great,” he says. “But nothing compares to actually training on the course.”
In March he pulled a Lance Armstrong and flew to Boston to do a little recon. He drove the first six miles of downhill and then ran the last 20. “I was surprised how undulating the course was,” he admits. “There isn’t much flat, just a lot of ups and downs. It reminded me of Central Park.”
Central Park? Yep, that’s right, Ryan Hall has had some pretty cool experiences in Central Park. That’s where he qualified for Beijing by winning the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.