I originally came from a speed water skiing background, competing at the highest level in the sport.
started water skiing at age 7 with my family every weekend. However, at age 23, I had a serious accident on the Hawkesbury river and was helicoptered to hospital with suspected spinal injuries. The result was a badly crushed brachial plexus nerve, so my arm was temporarily paralysed for about 3 months. I was lucky not to sever the nerves as I hit the water so hard that it was like hitting a brick wall. I’d actually decided to retire after that race, given the high risk of the sport, and then the accident happened. It was clearly time to move on.
After that I took up triathlons. I dabbled for many years, representing Australia twice at Age Group level, but I was not an elite competitor. I didn’t have a coach, so there was no one to tell me to slow down, or stop if I had an injury. I just kept plugging away. In my coaching life now, I’m able to share the wisdom I learned the hard way with my athletes and ensure they have adequate rest and structured rehabilitation of injuries when needed.
In 2007, I began coaching a couple of juniors. I got my qualifications and in 2008 took over the ACT Junior program, developing it into a highly respected program which produced a number of solid athletes. This really signalled the start of my coaching career. I took opportunities where they came and worked really hard to make success happen.
I started my own squad, coaching 6-7 athletes. I didn’t have time for age groupers then as I also had a full time job with the Government, so I coached juniors during the week before and after work, working 60-70 hours a week in total. After a number of years, I started getting invited to national camps and training some very good athletes, including my first para-athlete.
TAKING ON PARA-ATHLETES
Michael Milton is a dual Paralympian – summer (cycling) and winter (skiing). He wanted to do triathlon and came to talk to me. Normally, the coach interviews the athlete to see if they want to take them on, but it was the other way around with Michael! We worked well together and went to the Para World Championships in 2012.
After this I was asked to run an AIS para-triathlon camp because para-triathlon was announced as a new sport for Rio, and Triathlon Australia were keen to get things started. A number of athletes from around Australia came to the camp, and it was an overwhelming experience because I hadn’t worked with athletes with such a range of different disabilities before. I ended up taking on another young guy called Jonathan Goerlach, who is a visually impaired athlete. He is the best visually impaired triathlete in the country, is the fastest 5km runner in the world for triathlon, and one of the fastest cyclists, but swimming was his downfall. We’ve worked on it intensively over the last few years and he’s now competitive on the world stage.
In January 2015, we had the national championships, after which I gained more para-athletes: Katie Kelly, Kate Doughty, Emily Tapp, Nic Beveridge and Jack Swift. By the World Championships in September that same year, I had a world champion, Katie Kelly, in the visually impaired classification, No.2 in the world with Emily in the wheelchair class, and No.3 in the world with Kate Doughty in PT4 amputee class. In 7 months, we had 3 podiums at world level. Things changed dramatically from then. I’d already been named Head Coach for the para-triathlon team, but we had to find out what classes had been chosen to debut at Rio. Some athletes missed out, like Jonathan, as they chose not to run the male visually impaired class, but several others were able to qualify to compete when their classes got the Rio nod.
There are 5 classes in para-triathlon. PT1 are your wheelchair athletes, male and female, and PT5 are the visually impaired athletes. Between those, PT2, 3 and 4 are based on the severity of their disability. PT2 is the most severe, such as an above the knee amputee. PT3 often encompasses cerebral palsy and a few other disabilities. PT4 is usually below the knee amputation, or missing a hand, or similar. PT2s are usually slower than PT3s, and PT3s slower overall than PT4s.
At Rio, for its first inclusion, they couldn’t run all 10 para-triathlon classes, so 6 classes were chosen to showcase the sport. This means the PT1 male wheelchair class was in but not the female class, both male and female PT2 got in, no PT3 classes at all, both PT4s did, and then only female PT5s (visually impaired) got in, but not males. Obviously we were disappointed that Jonathan didn’t get the opportunity to represent his country this time around, being a PT5 male, but we’re hoping that some of the omitted classes for Rio will instead make the 2020 Tokyo Games.
What will happen after Rio is that the classes will change again inevitably, as there has been a lot of discrepancy surrounding the classifications for some classes. For example, Jack Swift who has a partial leg amputation is racing against guys who have two legs but are missing a hand. While Jack is the best leg amputee in the world, he just can’t compete with guys with two legs. It’s just not fair. No athlete competes just to make up numbers – they all want to do the best they can possibly do. Obviously classification is a work-in-progress. At least with visually impaired guys like Jonathan, the severity of blindness is factored into the class, where completely blind guys get a head start on those who have partial vision. It makes it fairer across the board.
The para-athletes had to qualify for Rio selection by winning at the Australian Championships, winning the Oceania Championships or being on the podium at a World Paratriathlon Event. Katie Kelly qualified a spot for Australia because she won the World Championships, and is now selected to compete in the visually impaired class. Because of her visual impairment, Katie has to use a guide and rides a tandem bike. Her guide is none other than Australian legend Michellie Jones, a multiple world champion and Olympic silver medallist herself, now age 46. Michellie also helps Katie with her training and we are so lucky to have her on board. From my squad, I also qualified Kate Doughty, Nic Beveridge and Jack Swift who recently were officially selected for the team.
DIFFERENCES TO ABLE-BODIED COACHING
Coaching para athletes is challenging but very rewarding. It is a true partnership between coach and athlete and each athlete brings a unique set of physical limitations to the table. All the athletes still swim, bike and run. However, the PT1 class athletes, for example, are in a hand cycle and race chair so there are technical aspects surrounding these guys. There are obviously limitations around leg/arm amputations as well. Visually impaired athletes have their own set of challenges as they have to work as a team with a guide who they are tethered to when swimming and running. These are the little bits and pieces you need to know and learn in terms of coaching and adaptations required. These athletes work hard and I push them as I would my able-bodied athletes. Many of my Rio athletes are new to the sport of triathlon and like any new athlete, they are on a steep learning curve that they have to negotiate on the world stage.
When we went to the 2015 World Championships, we equalled America for the highest medal count on their home turf. The year before we only won 1 medal, but at Chicago we took home 7. We’re now definitely one of the top nations in the world for para-triathlon. I hope I have contributed to this in the last couple of years.
Getting funding is the biggest issue we have. A lot of athletes have to pay for themselves and require more equipment than other sports, but at the end of the day, many of the smaller para-sports struggle for funding. Compared to the big sports like swimming and athletics, ours is only a small program. Crowdfunding is sometimes used or some athletes self-fund to help them achieve their goals, however we really need a corporate sponsor to get on board then we would be set. It would be fantastic if we had a Lottery arrangement like the British do.
MY COACHING JOURNEY
As a coach, I’ve had mentors along the way, and Triathlon Australia has been fantastic. They’ve given me opportunities, such as the para Head Coach position, I’ve been on national camps and had development opportunities. Darren Smith had his elite squad training alongside us in Canberra in the lead up to the London Olympics, so it was great to rub shoulders with those guys. My coaching pathway has always been a little unique, as I’ve created and taken advantage of opportunity where I could. My goals are to put a junior on the World Junior team and to qualify an athlete for the World Championships in Hawaii, which I did this year. I also have athletes on the verge of World Cup starts so taking them to the next level is also a goal of mine. I’ve certainly learnt a lot as a coach in the para space and being part of the High Performance Program. Coaching at the High Performance level is hard work, challenging at times but very rewarding and I have had colleagues support me and back me along the way.
I’ve got the knowledge from doing the sport, but competition knowledge alone doesn’t make you a good coach. Having worked with the highest government officials in security and client service-type jobs for 20 years, I know that building and maintaining relationships with the athletes is key. Obviously I’ve done the coaching qualifications to get to this level, but it’s more about the experience of being around other coaches and getting hands-on experience. You learn from your athletes and from your mistakes. I’m not perfect, but that is okay. I’ve also had great success over the years and am constantly learning and growing as a coach. I’m a strong believer of keeping things simple and adopting a common sense approach to make sure the athletes are in the best performance environment, training alongside other great athletes that add value to the program. I ensure we have great facilities, quality coaches and a daily training environment that promotes excellence. This is why our athletes are doing so well. A good coach will pick and choose things that will be right for their squad.
I’m very passionate about what I do and I just want the best for my athletes. I want to build and develop athletes to world level. Key focuses for me are helping all my athletes achieve but mainly my junior elite and senior elites, some of which are overseas in Europe at the moment, and obviously my Paralympians.
In regards to my Rio expectations, in the end it’s just another race. The athletes have to focus on the process and if they get it all right, then hopefully there’s a medal at the end of the finish line for them. They have worked really hard and I’m proud of what we have achieved in a really short time period.
ONES TO WATCH
In the PT1 class, we’ve got Bill Chaffey, who is the current 5-time World Champion and his main competitor will be a very talented Dutch athlete. In Kate’s class, we’ve got two strong girls: a Brit and an American. In Katie’s class there’s another good Brit to watch out for. The British and Americans are very strong and considered one of the 3 powerhouses including ourselves, and then you’ll have the odd country, like the Dutch, who will produce some amazing athletes.
Be patient with the athletes. Think about the process and development of the athlete. When I first started coaching, I was trying to do too much too early. Over the years I’ve settled down, and obviously my knowledge and experience has grown significantly. I’m now a little bit more reserved. It’s about the longevity of the sport, staying injury-free and allowing a little bit of freedom. The squad is a family and we thrive off each other. They make me get up every morning at 5am and do what I do because they’re so inspiring, so motivational and determined. How can you not get up for that? It’s such a great feeling.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!