The (Deeply Determined, Exceptionally Sensitive, Sometimes Insecure and Downright Huge) Heart of a Champion
This story was originally published in the September/October, 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine, before Wellington went on to win her fourth Ironman world title in stunning fashion. It was the first in-depth profile of Wellington—one where a writer uses long interviews with friends and family to paint a picture of who Wellington is outside of sport—ever published. She was featured on the cover with a crown as the Queen of Ironman.
We all know Chrissie Wellington as a three-time Ironman world champion, the iron-distance world record holder (8:18:13), the Ironman world record holder (8:33:56) and the course record holder in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (8:54:02). But few of us know who Wellington is as a person. Her fame has come so fast and furiously, getting to know the girl behind the glory has taken a backseat to acknowledging her many achievements. In fact, Wellington has never been the subject of an in-depth magazine profile.
Recently, Wellington, who is originally from Norfolk, England, granted me access to a number of her closest acquaintances, and I shared a marathon heart-to-heart session with the icon herself, helping me to uncover the off-course, off-camera Chrissie. And I can attest, while she’s as obsessively driven and outrageously successful in other aspects of her life as she is in triathlon, she’s also down-to-earth, at times uncertain and even insecure.
Walk into the home that Wellington rents with her boyfriend and fellow pro, Tom Lowe, on Boulder, Colo.’s north side and the first thing you’ll notice is the fireplace mantel. On it resides a collection of six greeting cards, inspirational missives given to Wellington by caring confidantes at various pivotal points in her life. One gives reassurance for her 2007 decision to quit a secure government job and make the precarious leap to professional sports. Another, a fierce “You showed them!” following Kona 2007, refers to the teammates who shunned Wellington when she first joined Brett Sutton’s TeamTBB training squad. Wellington carries the cards everywhere she travels.
Wellington’s friend and family relationships are utterly core to her being, and she expends massive amounts of time and energy nurturing her connections around the globe.
“As a result of living in so many cities in the U.K. and traveling to numerous countries, Chrissie has met countless people,” said her mother, Lin Wellington. “It never ceases to amaze us how she manages to keep in touch.”
The three-time world champion is far more concerned with the goings on in her friends’ lives than in spouting off about her own.
“When you see Chrissie—and sometimes it drives me slightly mad—she bombards you with questions about you,” said Naomi Flood, Wellington’s best mate from graduate school at the University of Manchester. “She’s not one of these people who wants to talk endlessly about herself.”
Matthew Wellington, Chrissie’s younger brother, agrees: “Pretentiousness and my sister are like chalk and cheese. It just doesn’t happen—ever.”
Georgina Cashmore, a former co-worker of Wellington’s and one of her dearest friends to this day, summed up her pal’s sincerity by saying, “Chrissie will always make space for you in her life. If she says she will be there, she will be there. If she can’t be there, she will tell you she can’t. She will protect me beyond all else. She rightly expects the same in return and knows that no matter what I will always love, support and ground her. It is a no-fuss friendship—we tell each other what we think even if it’s not what the other wants to hear. She farts—I tell her it stinks.”
I repeated Cashmore’s words to Wellington, and her eyes welled up (despite a burst of laughter).
“That’s touching to me more than anything,” she said, “because it means I’m doing something right. [It’s] sort of a vindication of who I am—that I’m valued as a friend, not just as a sporting icon.”
In a way, she hoards love and support; she holds it close, almost in fear it might slip away.
“Chrissie doesn’t do second in anything—not as a friend, a daughter, at work, in training or in competition,” Cashmore said. “She takes second place extremely personally and it rocks her to the core to feel that she has failed in any part of her life. Chrissie fears how her actions will be interpreted or how they will impact others, she fears not being able to be true to herself and true to others, but most of all she fears being away from those she loves.”
The love Wellington cherishes is a two-way street, however, even with those she hasn’t met.
“Letters and e-mails and messages—I save them all. I save every single message that I get to my website,” she said. “Because it’s important.”
She replies to fans personally as often as possible.
Wellington’s heart stretches even wider when it comes to the charitable causes she supports—groups such as the Blazeman Foundation for ALS, a nonprofit that seeks to find a cure for the fatal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord; the KIDS Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to childhood injury prevention and recovery; and GoTRIbal, which seeks to use endurance sports to empower women.
Wellington’s belief in charity is something she harbored as a young girl.
“In 1986 [at the age of 9] Chrissie was watching a program on TV that explained the plight of some people in Africa who needed urgent medical attention,” said Lin Wellington. “Without hesitation, Chrissie jumped up off her chair and announced that she was going to organize a ‘bring and buy sale’ in our village, to raise money for those afflicted. The result was that over 300 pounds was raised, which in those days was quite a lot of money.”
The following year, she wrote a variation of the theater production “Aladdin” and then persuaded her classmates to perform the piece before a packed schoolhouse, announcing to the audience that it was a benefit for victims of the famine in Ethiopia. She again raised a significant sum.
“My dream, even as a kid, was to make a difference in the world,” Wellington said. “I remember being so disturbed by the images of famine. I would just get incredibly saddened by inequality and suffering. I try to say this in interviews now and I think it kind of sounds trite, but I want my legacy to be more than any world record. Being a role model for kids, being quite vocal about development and advocating for charities—it’s not to be a goody two-shoes. It’s not to pull a media stunt. It’s because sport has power and as sports people we have a platform. That’s really my motivational force.”
Early on Matthew Wellington noticed his sister’s desire to make a mark on the world: “She could have been a physicist on the Hadron Collider if she wanted. She could have been a hedge fund manager making 4 million a year. But instead she worked for the government and for an NGO in Nepal.”
Indeed, Wellington’s original plan was to be a lawyer, but a two-year stint traveling abroad opened her eyes to a new world, one in which she felt compelled to champion the underprivileged. She received her master’s degree in development studies from Manchester, then landed a U.K. government job working for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that combined her academic aptitude with her natural public-speaking savvy. While at DEFRA, Wellington represented the U.K. at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, wrote and advised on ministerial speeches for British dignitaries including Prime Minister Tony Blair and DEFRA Secretary of State Margaret Beckett, and spearheaded negotiations for the U.K.’s environmental reconstruction policy in Iraq.
“What’s weird about my life now,” Wellington said, “is I had this whole life beforehand that nobody really knows about. I suppose everyone does—but it’s not like I was Macca [Chris McCormack], growing up dreaming of racing Ironman. I didn’t watch Ironman Hawaii on TV. I didn’t know it existed. I had never heard of it.”
Instead, her intensity and passion were channeled first into academics and then into her professional life. Eventually, this segued into athletics.
“I traveled through Africa, Asia and Australia. In Sydney, I started to feel pretty unhealthy from all the eating and drinking I had done. I remember not wanting to run because I’d go bright red, so I just started walking,” she reminisced. “Then I entered the City to Surf 14K race. I was very nervous; I’d done no training. In my diary I wrote, ‘This is going to be torture. I’m going to go bright red. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish.’ It was 14K. I did it in 1:19 [a little over 9-minute-per-mile pace] and I was exhilarated! So when I got back for grad school I ran and swam to become healthier. Being an obsessive-compulsive person, that grew quite quickly into exercising every day.”
Best mate Flood laughs when she remembers Wellington’s initial foray into running: “She just kept running. It was a bit like Forrest Gump. It wasn’t necessarily healthy. She didn’t have good trainers. Her feet were cut to bits. The blisters were phenomenal. It was really horrible at one point, but she wouldn’t stop running. It was kind of her way of focusing on something.”
Following her time at Manchester, Wellington lived and worked in London, where she ran the London Marathon as a fundraising event and dabbled in short-course triathlon.
Tammy Nelson, a friend with whom Wellington shared an internship selling charity Christmas cards, recalled, “She did the marathon in 2002. She did really well—she came in the top 100 women [83rd, in a time of 3:08:17, to be exact], which was pretty good considering she was just doing it for fun and for charity. It was at that point I realized she must actually be pretty good at sport.”
Disillusioned with high-level government bureaucracy and desiring more hands-on development experience, Wellington took a sabbatical to work in Nepal, where she helped to improve water and sanitation conditions. She also improved her own endurance.
“There’s a town called Pokhara, 200K from Kathmandu [Nepal]. We wanted to go there for New Year’s Eve, so we mountain biked,” she said. “It was me, the Nepali mountain bike champion and a few friends. We set off at 7 in the morning, going and going and going, on these shit roads, carrying our rucksacks. It’s friggin’ not flat. But I would not give in. In the end it was only me and the Nepali mountain bike champ—everyone else got on the bus. We arrived, had a shower and partied all night long. That was quite epic.”
Her brother believes that she found her way into professional triathlon simply because she loved running and riding her bike.
“I reckon some Ironman athletes train from when they’re 12, 13 years old. Christine [he eschews her well-known nickname] was mountain biking through the Himalayas only five or six years ago,” he said. “She didn’t even know she was training for Ironman. If there is ever a film written about Christine, it will be a hybrid of ‘Rocky’ and ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ ‘Rocky’ because from early on she did this without money, without sponsorship, without huge amounts of specific training. Rocky came from nothing and trained in the woods lifting logs, whilst Christine biked across Nepal. And the analogy to the Che Guevara character in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ is her freedom of spirit and her ambition to travel and see the world. And the two connected is brilliant.”
Eventually, the pull of competition proved irresistible, and after winning the overall title at the age-group world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2006, Wellington gave herself a one-year window to succeed as a professional athlete. That was all the time her savings would allow. She sought the guidance of tough-love triathlon coach Brett Sutton, who, through his controversial school-of-hard-knocks approach, helped channel and calm the rookie’s overwrought nature.
“Brett treated me like shit when I arrived. Like absolute shit,” stated Wellington. “He went to great lengths to make me angry. He didn’t pay any attention. He welcomed the fact that all the other girls hated me, because I was a threat. I’ve spoken to Brett since then. He knew I had something special, so the way he approaches that is to not make that person feel special. He put me in a house with five guys and told them to steal my food, throw things, be boorish, turn the music up—just to toughen me up and make me into a friggin’ warrior. But I guess it worked.”