Who can beat Jan Frodeno?

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Drawing from his experience re-entering the world of ITU racing in his attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, Macca gives us the lowdown on how the sport has progressed — and who Jan should watch out for.

There’s two ways of looking at it. Jan is always ridiculously fit. He lives, eats, breathes, sleeps health and fitness. He’sone o f the most talented that have ever done the sport. There is a lot of talent floating around at the moment, but none within the space of Jan Frodeno. So it’s not a matter of Jan getting any better; I just think he’s maintaining his place and the other athletes are the same or have semi-plateaued.

For instance, I think you’ve seen the best of Patrick Lange. I hope he proves me wrong; he’s a fantastic athlete and winning Kona twice, he’s amazing. But I just think mentally Jan’s got his measure. I think Lionel Sanders has succumbed to the fact that he’ll never beat Jan Frodeno and that that really leaves only athletes who believe they can.

We’ve talked about Alistair Brownlee before, Javier Gomez potentially, but there’s not a lot of new talent coming that that Jan has to deal with. So it’s, it could be a semi vacuum and not a vacuum because of lack of talent, but a vacuum potentially because Jan is so far ahead of the curve. And he’s just going to ride this wave until age takes him out of the game. At 39, 40 this year, he’s still showing he can do great things.

And I think the fact that there’s a pandemic suits him a lot better cause he wasn’t a heavy racer. He didn’t usually have heavy work, heavy race volumes, race loads. So he’s used to preparing for and executing an event.

The only thing that tends to stop him is he does tend to break a little bit because he runs so lean and so fit and active all the time.

If you follow the history of the sport, during the Mark Allen days, the Greg Welches, a lot of athletes who were successful and able to be competitive tended to have a single weakness. You know, they migrated from different sports: “She wasn’t a very good swimmer, but a great runner and good rider.” Mark Allen, he was an okay swimmer.

Then the next evolution came, which was Spencer Smith, Simon Lessing, and my generation where that gap was closed. We tended to be able to do everything pretty well, but we weren’t exceptional on anything, just quite balanced across.

Then you had the next wave of talent, which was Javier Gomez that were strong swimmers and more. That was brought on by that ITU draft legal racing. They come from a high performance program, starting triathlon as 10-year-olds. They’re not only weakness-free across the three disciplines, but they’re very, very close to the top in the breed of the individual disciplines. So that was that evolution and Jan Frodeno is of that ilk.

A lot of athletes during my time in ITU racing, when the drafting came in they migrated across to Ironman racing because they couldn’t swim. What you’re seeing now in long-course, there’s still a migration of a lot of the German athletes or the European athletes that can’t make those high performance programs within their native countries. When they move across to ironman racing, they still hold a weakness.

But what you see with Jan Frodeno is an ITU athlete who’s been at the top of the world of that sport and the Olympic gold medalist, who’s now put some endurance base on him and opted to move across to ironman. And he has no weakness. Jan has just moved across at the perfect time. In 2014 or 13, when he came over, he made Sebastian Kienle obsolete overnight. Kienle is still a remarkable athlete, but can no longer overhaul his swim. Technique, flexibility, all these things come into play. If you haven’t done it since you were young, it’s very hard to continually see improvement in it.

Lionel Sanders could never do an ITU race. He’s a bit like Normann Stadler back in my day, who had a big bike and needed a big bike to make up the deficit. Unfortunately, when you’re giving Jan Frodeno three minutes out of the swim, he can ride a bike just as good as you. And he can run just as good as if not better. So that time given up (including transitions) starts to matter.

Normann Stadler couldn’t make the German Olympic program which had massive German talent back then. He went to Ironman at 24. And if you follow Stadler’s career in Kona, he was remarkable. He was in that top 10 so many times.

So when an ITU athlete moves across to ironman, it’s not discrediting those athletes that are there, because they do a marvelous job. The athletes that come from ITU aren’t inferior. Once they improve their disciplines, which they’re capable of doing because they have the engine capacity to do it, they’re going to become more and more difficult to beat.

Take it from me, a guy that came from ironman and tried to make it to the Olympics in 2012. The biggest thing that really took me back was just how much swim pace had increased. You know, when I was racing there were outliers who swam very well: Craig Walton and Benjamin Sanson and a lot of the French were very good. They used to have 30, 40 seconds on us. And then the main group, which was, you know, most of the guys, Greg Bennet, myself, Miles Stewart, Tim Don, Simon Lessing. Everyone is that outlier at the front now. I was swimming the house down, 50, 60K a week — the best I’ve ever swum. And I was fifth last out of the water!

These athletes who have been super dominant the past decade or so, they all hail from the ITU. On the women’s side there’s Annie Haug, Daniela Ryf, even Mirinda Carfrae. There is that complete changing of the guard in the way ironman racing is raced, with more swim talent that can also bike up the front and run.

Everyone says Josh Amberger is the best swimmer in the sport. Jan Frodeno is on his feet. Everyone says Cameron Wurf is the best bike rider in the sport. Jan Frodeno is riding with him and/or dropping him. And everyone says Lange is the best runner in sport. Jan’s matching the run speed. So how do you beat that?

I keep saying Alistair Brownlee is the only person that doesn’t buy into that, who thinks he can beat him and will have a crack at it. Gustav Iden and Kristian Blummenfelt bring that youthful exuberance to the game because they haven’t been beaten up and bruised by this guy yet. I believe that sort of athlete can dislodge him over time.

Chris “Macca” McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Victorious 13 team, board member of the Pho3nix Foundation, and CEO of MANA Sports & Entertainment Group.


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