A World Champion's Story
Starting out as a bike mechanic in 2011 at the back of William Keith’s bike shop in my hometown of Somerset West, had you told me I would be The 2017 Xterra World Champion I would have politely laughed to myself and questioned your sanity. Studying a Bcomm Accountancy degree at the University of Stellenbosch had conditioned me with a pretty realistic and reasonable pattern of thought and becoming The Xterra World Champion certainly would have challenged this logical mind of mine, purely because I knew just how big of an ask it was. However, I have never been one to shy away form a little hard work and I have always believed from a young age that if I put my mind to it I had the ability to turn any dream into reality.
During my university years I can clearly remember staying up late into the early hours of the following morning watching the Xterra World Championship race each year, glued to my computer screen or twitter feed trying to get the latest update on how my fellow South Africans were fairing up against the best Xterra athletes in the world. These names represented hero’s to me, Conrad Stoltz, Dan Hugo, Nico Lebrun, Ruben Ruzafa, Josiah Middaugh, Eneko Llanos, the list goes on - I idolized these people but in some strange way also believed I could one day walk amongst them and hopefully with a little luck, hard work, tears and plenty USD have my chance to dance under those same lights.
A dream or goal can be an incredibly powerful thing but ultimately we all have to make that first step in the direction we have chosen and if we are prepared to maintain that unwavering degree of diligence, the hope remains that maybe someday our dreams could become reality. But where did this dream start? As a 19 year old unable to swim and a disproportionate body size thanks to an ‘unhealthy’ amount of time in the gym I was not exactly your ideal elite triathlon athlete but crossing that finish line in Langebaan [my very first triathlon in 2009] filled me with pride and there is where my story began.
My initial interest in the sport of triathlon quickly grew into a passion and soon after became a complete and utter obsession! Everything I did from the moment I woke to laying my head back on that comfy pillow I had triathlon on my mind and, like most of us, all I really wanted was to try and get that little bit faster. I had developed great rivals on the local provincial triathlon circuit which most, I am happy to say, flourished into lifelong friendships. I loved the community, the vibe and the atmosphere before, during and after every race, I thrived in this competitive space and just felt as though I could not get enough of it. Most of all I loved the training, the daily grind which most hate, that methodical process of learning what works for your body and the repetitive implementation of your chosen program - then seeing the fruits of your labor in a slightly more efficient pedal stroke or marginally faster swim time. It motivated me beyond measure and today I still believe its my greatest strength as an endurance athlete, that ability to persevere when times get tough and push through when others fold under the relentless strain of a monotonous training regime. Each block in that philosophical wall fills me with confidence and by the time I reach that start line I know with complete assurance that I have done all I could have, which calms my nerves, focuses my mind and excites my soul! After some success on the local scene my sights soon gazed beyond the confines of the South African border and specifically towards that of off road triathlon, better know as XTERRA.
I had the privilege of sharing a year at Paul Roos Gymnasium with none other than Dan Hugo. Dan was in his final year while I was just a junior at the school, his position as head boy and leader of the student council naturally earned your respect but going much beyond that he was a phenomenal sportsman and could deliver a mean, tear jerking speech on any given Monday morning school assembly. Naturally I continued following his movements after school particularly within the world of Xterra and once I found my passion for the sport my interest in his journey only grew. Dan had an incredible following and was in many ways the trendsetter within Xterra, living this glamorous life on the road hopping between idyllic islands, the bright lights of New York City and completely ridiculous photo-shoots on the lava rocks of Hawaii surrounded by drop dead gorgeous woman! I loved everything I saw and dearly wanted in, but like most, I wasn’t sure how to transition from local weekend warrior to global ‘superstar’ and icon within the sport. Then came my lucky break, a stray dog wondered into the street during a pre race spin in the USA colliding with Mr DG Hugo and causing a fair amount of damage to that pretty body in the process. Now I am not one to try and gain off of others misfortune but after returning to South Africa, licking his wounds and beginning the slow grind back to fitness I saw an opening and went for it. Dan needed a training partner and I was only too happy to oblige. I scrapped my training program and basically just did as he told me. I figured that he must be doing something right and whatever I could learn in the process would surely be incredibly beneficial to my rise in the sport. From then on, until his eventual retirement from the sport in December of 2014 we did practically every session together. Either he spotted my talent early and wanted to keep me close for practical reasons (Keep your friends close but your enemies closer) or he was just incredibly generous and truly wanted the best for me as both an athlete and human being; for records sake I am still giving him the benefit of the doubt and sticking with option B.
After Dan’s retirement I was somewhat thrown into the deep end, which both scared and liberated me at the same time. Up the creek without a paddle so to speak, but creativity and ingenuity are the birth children of necessity and I thrived in this new roll within my own triathlon career. Over night I became South Africa’s leading Xterra male and took a lot of confidence from this when traveling and racing abroad. In 2015 I won Xterra Buffelspoort, Xterra Philippines, Xterra Reunion, Xterra Malaysia as well as the Asia Pacific Xterra Series. It was a break through season in many ways and after a less than satisfying performance at the Xterra World Championships in 2014 it was the first time I began looking towards Maui through a renewed lens and growing confidence that I could maybe one day win this race! Despite this impressive season I opted to miss out on the 2015 edition of the Xterra World Championships. Perhaps it was the lack of confidence in my own abilities or the financial strain and pressures of a long year abroad but sitting at home in Stellenbosch following the race live I promised myself that as long as I continue calling myself a professional triathlete I will be on that start line in Maui each and every year from now onwards and put my hand up for a chance to win this incredible race.
The sport of Xterra triathlon is incredibly complex and multi faceted and has taken me many years to get a good handle of. There have been so many role players over the years and all have played their part in some or other unique and influential way. Noteworthy mentions include Flora Duffy (multiple world champion both on and off road) who has been an incredibly consistent and reliable training partner over the past few years. James Reid (South African mountain biking star) who single handedly took me from an above average cyclist to one of the top mountain bikers on the international Xterra circuit. James and I spent a year living together in Stellenbosch and I benefitted immensely not only from his knowledge on the bike but also his professional approach to sport off the bike. Ernie Gruhn (the ultimate running guru) who has without doubt been the most influential coach I have had throughout my career. Better known for his work with runners in particular Elana Meyer, Ernie’s calm yet calculated approach to a holistic training program tailored to each individual athlete has been the glue holding it all together for me. We have an incredibly good relationship and without much overthinking or long-winded conversations we have been successful in getting the most out of my body as and when needed depending on the time of the season. Much of my recent success can be directly attributed to Coach Ernie and I am incredibly grateful and thankful to have him in my corner!
Looking ahead into 2018 I am very excited at what the future holds for me. No doubt racing as The Xterra World Champion will come with added pressures and difficulties but also some amazing new opportunities. I look forward to discovering new Xterra races around the globe and hopefully use this unique platform to better showcase the sport that I so dearly love. My early season goals will include Ironman 70.3 East London, South Africa and Ironman 70.3 Davao, Philippines, which is a new and exciting challenge for me and I cannot wait to see how I fair against some of the worlds best half Ironman athletes. My attention will then shift back to Xterra with the SA National Championships in Grabouw in February followed by a busy Xterra racing schedule across Asia Pacific, Europe and the Americas. My main goal for 2018 will be to defend the Xterra World Title in an attempt to become one of the few multiple world champions.