Is Ironman Champ Chris McCormack the World's Best Athlete?

June 1, 2011

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He may be the world’s greatest athlete. An Aussie who has dominated a sport that originated on America’s West Coast, Chris “Macca” McCormack has the freakish ability to burn through what is arguably the most grueling race a human can enter, the Ironman Triathlon. But even topping his physical abilities is his mental prowess.

“Macca” reveals his physical and mental capabilities and discusses his career in his just-released book, I’m Here to Win: A World Champion’s Advice for Peak Performance [Center Street].

In an interview with STACK, McCormack talked about the supremacy of his mental training. He may not seem comparable to NFL or NBA athletes, but this 38-year-old professional triathlete belongs to a team, breaks down game film, strategizes plays, talks to the media, has sponsors and gets a paycheck for competing successfully. “I’m a professional athlete; this is my sport,” McCormack says. “My job is to win the race. If not, what am I here for?”

In 1997, McCormack became the first man ever to win the International Triathlon Union [ITU] World Championship, capture the ITU World Cup, and be ranked number one in the world in a single season. No one has since matched that achievement.

After bringing his training to America in 2000, he remained undefeated in the U.S. for three years, racking up 33 consecutive triathlon titles; won the Goodwill Games race against 30 of the top athletes in the world; dominated short-course triathlons in 2000, 2001 and 2002; won almost every major short-course title on the global triathlon calendar; and earned three consecutive “Triathlete of the Year” awards before moving to a new challenge in 2002: the Ironman.

Top athletes complete the Ironman World Championship in eight to nine hours. After swimming 2.4 miles and riding 112 miles, athletes run a full marathon [26.2 miles]. McCormack’s training has enabled him to swim, bike and run the race successfully, despite moments of physical exhaustion. He says his Ironman edge is mental.

“I accept it, embrace it. Pain is like emotions—they go high and low, and that pain is temporary. You just have to fight through that storm by focusing on things you can control. For me, it’s rhythm, breathing,” he says. “[The pain] comes and you overcome it, and then it’ll go away. But then in five to 10 minutes, your body is going to rebel again. I make the decision whether I control this moment or I give up and let my body win. Never give up—you own that moment. When you break it down, it’s simple. It’s actually blissful. That fine line between pleasure and pain is pretty sweet.”

Athletes must be accutely aware of their own mental and emotional vulnerabilities so they can overcome the fear that ensues when pain starts to take over the body. McCormack’s ability to fight through the lactic acid threshold—when his body is completely and absolutely exhausted—stems from learning to manage fear. “Whether you’re a high school swimmer or runner or a professional guy trying to win a race, you have to expect for any race, any physical test, you’re going to be at a point when your body is shutting down, and you have to expect that and deal with yourself," he says. "A lot of people push that aside, thinking ‘don’t want to know about it, don’t want to deal with it’—and they never prepare themselves. When they hit it in a race, it’s very foreign to them. They panic; their mind goes ‘oh, I can’t do this.’ You need to start dealing with that as part of your training. It’s all fear-based.”

He continues, “Nervousness before a race is fear—it’s fear of not meeting your own expectations of yourself—that when that moment comes, you’re not going to be able to deal with it. Most people don’t deal with that in training. They just train in the physical realm, when [winning or losing] really comes down to a single moment—whether you crack or you don’t crack. So you should be focusing more on the mental side, to some degree, because the physical stuff is easy to do and to coach. You need to break it down on a personal level and work it out for yourself; otherwise, it’ll end you.”

If you’re a competitive athlete and want to focus on your mental game, read I’m Here to Win. “Macca” is straight up and honest, putting forth embarrassing moments, times of doubt, and how he made it to the top of the podium so many times.

Photo:  trainingsmartonline.com

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