A former Dartmouth runner and current pro triathlete talks exclusively on how she influenced the American record-holder’s path to multisport.
Running left Nicole Kelleher literally limping at her college graduation. The Dartmouth alumna’s self-described “unbelievably bad luck when it came to injuries” included mononucleosis several times, a femoral stress fracture, an articular cartilage lesion, and a “major” knee surgery, she says, which required two years completely off running.
So Kelleher left the sport — and sports in general — after graduation in 2004, without much thought aside from pursing medical school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. When a doctor cleared her to run again in 2009, the full-time med student experimented with triathlon to avoid further injury. She found her calling, winning race after race, with the highlights of becoming the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Champion in 2010, and then a third-place finish at the USA Elite National Championships the same year.
“As soon as I started doing triathlon, especially when I got hooked up with a coach,” she says, “I never had another substantial injury after that.”
RELATED: Alan Webb Turns To Triathlon
It was in Charlottesville a year later, in late 2011, when Kelleher says she met the Webbs. Alan, the American record-holder in the mile, and his wife Julia had recently moved from Oregon to train under former UVA cross country and track coach Jason Vigilante. Kelleher and Julia Webb became teammates on the Ragged Mountain Racing club in town, and it was through this relationship that Kelleher says she and Alan began to speak in earnest about his transition to triathlon from running.
Macklin Chaffee, a 3:39 1500-meter runner who was training with Webb under Vigilante in Charlottesville at the time, remembers Kelleher and Webb’s first talk about triathlon distinctly.
“It came out that he was a prolific swimmer in middle school and early high school,” Chaffee says. “As soon as Nicole heard that, she was like, ‘Oh my God, you should try triathlon. You’d be amazing at it. You’re obviously good at running, and here you are, you have all this background in swimming. The biking is honestly the least important part.’”
The seed, Chaffee says, was planted.
“I don’t take credit for getting Alan Webb into triathlon,” says Kelleher. “[But] discovering more about his swim background, I encouraged him and suggested that he might make a really world-class triathlete if it’s something he decided to pursue.
“He made it clear to me [that] if there was a point which he felt like he might have better success, he would consider triathlon.”
They talked often, she says, of her injury history before and after triathlon. “That was something I related to Alan, too,” she says. “You can build a huge aerobic base in other ways than just pounding away hard miles on the road.”
Webb, whose official running retirement announcement came on Saturday through a blog post made by wife (after rumors of his retirement began swirling last week), was a talented age group swimmer before he gave it up to pursue running full-time. In 2001, he set the high school boys mile record of 3:53.43. As a freshman at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., he swam times that, in some cases, were little more than a second off national qualifying marks. While wife Julia points out that his wingspan was lacking when compared to others his age who would go on to become Olympians, it’s illustrative of the fact that although Webb was not the swimming wunderkind he was in running, he was — at the very least — very good.
In an interview with USA Triathlon published on Sunday, Webb said triathlon “was something I wanted to do since I was a kid.” While he may have been thinking about it since then, Kelleher provided the framework for the actual transition, and says they would often talk about her experience in more than just abstractions.
Biking, she maintains, is the least important part of Webb’s triathlon. ITU-style racing, which the Olympic race adheres to, is draft-legal, unlike most triathlons. Drafting makes biking require less effort, so if Webb could get out of the swim in the first or second group and hook into a bike pack, she says, he could figuratively be pulled along during the leg. And then it would be left up to the run.
“Really you don’t have to be a very accomplished cyclist to excel at that type of racing,” Kelleher says. “If he could develop his swimming back to what it was, he could be a factor pretty much right away.” If it does, Kelleher says, “he has a very good chance of going to the Olympics in 2016.”
Kelleher isn’t the only one who believes it. Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s High Performance General Manager, says, “To medal on the international stage requires a world class-caliber run.” It’s a statement that was nowhere more apparent than at the 2012 Olympic Games, where Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee ran 29:07 in the 10K run leg to secure gold. Brownlee competed in a standalone 10,000m race at the 2013 Payton Jordan Invitational, running 28:32 for the win the “B” heat.
That is where Alan Webb comes in. Though he’s known for his mile speed, Webb displays an unusual breadth in range, running 27:34.72 for 10,000-meters in 2006. Simply put, when Webb transitions to triathlon, he brings the fastest running credentials to the sport in its history. Lukas Verzbicas, also a sub-4:00 high school miler who recently quit collegiate running to pursue triathlon on the professional level, doesn’t even come close to matching Webb’s personal bests from the mile to the 10K.
Kelleher hasn’t spoken with Webb since his announcement, but says that if she were asked for advice, she’d give the same that was given to her as she was just starting out.
“You’re already a developed athlete,” she reminds Webb, “so you should A. trust your own instincts, what works and doesn’t work, because you might know better than other people; and B. not be afraid to expect a lot from yourself right out of the gate.”
For these reasons she’s sent her congratulations to her friends, the Webbs, in celebration of his tremendous career and for his prospects in the future.
“I’m excited to be a big fan of Alan Webb, the triathlete,” she says.