Sutton recognized Wellington’s strengths and weaknesses from the get-go.
“He said to me, ‘Physically, you’ve got what it takes to be a professional. Mentally, I’m going to cut your head off. Unless you get a rein on your mind, you’ll never be a champion.’ And by that he meant my propensity to stress, worry, overthink things, analyze and not relax. I needed to learn how to switch off,” Wellington said.
Sutton is known for being blunt. Effusive praise is hardly his modus operandi, as evidenced by the delivery of three short words following Wellington’s first Kona victory: “Good job, kid.” But he would give his disciple a lasting token that she still counts among her most prized possessions: a now-tattered copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” containing this famous refrain:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Wellington believes the verse is “about winning and losing, and seeing them both as things that will make you stronger,” she said. “Like when I raced Columbia [the 2009 Columbia Triathlon, where she finished sixth], everyone said, ‘Oh, you had a terrible race.’ But I saw it also as a triumph. I made big mistakes and learned from them. I don’t necessarily see triumph as being synonymous with disaster, but it can be. If you don’t build on success and use it properly and effectively, it can make for disaster. It can foster greed, selfishness and arrogance. Sometimes, for the most successful people, their success is also their downfall.”
While Wellington is obviously uncomfortable resting on the laurels of any triumph, her accomplishments are fueled by a deep-seated fear of victory’s ever-threatening partner, disaster, more so than any natural talent.
“The school results would come out and she’d get A’s in everything, whereas me and my brother would be lucky if we got one between us,” said Tim Williams, Wellington’s cousin and close mate. “I don’t think she was particularly more intelligent—she just learned how to study properly and applied herself, whereas the rest of us would piss about.”
Flood agrees: “Chrissie has loads of insecurities. I think that’s part of the reason why she’s so amazing at what she does. She channels her insecurities. That was definitely true academically. She was really frightened of not being at the top, so she just studied and studied and studied in order to maintain her position.”
Pal Nelson also feels that it’s Wellington’s fear of failure that ultimately empowers her achievements.
“She has exceptionally high standards of herself,” Nelson said. “Not of other people, but of herself. I think her athletic achievements are much more mind than physical strength. Her biggest competition is with herself. If she thought for one minute that she wasn’t doing her absolute best, then that’s what would disturb her much more than someone else beating her.”
Wellington’s failures have been few and far between, though always tough to swallow.
“At the age of 16, Chrissie and a friend took part in a pool lifeguard course. At the end of the course, they took the lifeguard test,” Lin Wellington recalled. “When I collected them from the pool, they both came out with faces like thunder and I knew straight away that they hadn’t passed. On inquiring how they got on, the reply was, ‘We failed.’ I inquired as to the reason and emphasized that they could take the test again, to which Chrissie replied, ‘It’s not the point. I’ve never yet failed anything.’”
While living in Nepal, Wellington befriended accomplished alpinist Billi Bierling, a kindred spirit with a love of all things endurance. The two women rounded up a group of friends for another epic mountain bike adventure, this time an 870-mile trek from Lhasa, Tibet, to Kathmandu.
“There was one day,” Bierling said, “poor Chrissie was so sick with giardia she could not cycle. I thought, ‘Oh my god, Chrissie must be very, very sick indeed,’ because normally she would still have been on her bike even if she was vomiting. But she couldn’t even hold on. She was devastated. She cried. I mean it was one day and maybe 30K, but she was absolutely devastated because it meant she wouldn’t complete the entire 1400K without getting into a vehicle.”
And then there was Kona 2010. If one were to believe the whisperings that overwhelmed the seawall on race morning, Wellington had either (A) cracked under the pressure of the competition, (B) torn her hamstring, (C) tweaked her back, (D) been pregnant, (E) suffered from PMS or (F) been afraid to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs—or any combination therein. In reality, she was simply physically ill. In fact, she was considerably ill, harboring a nasty mix of strep throat, bacterial pneumonia and West Nile virus. While Wellington had been in the spotlight long enough to know that with celebrity comes an unavoidable share of cruel speculation and innuendo, she still took the rumors quite personally.
“I was devastated not to be able to race and realize my potential. But I think quite quickly I was content with the decision I had made—there really wasn’t any other choice. But what was most difficult was how it was perceived by everybody else,” she admitted. “I’d been world champion for three years at that point. Did people really think that I’d have a nervous breakdown? Did anyone truly believe that I didn’t want to get drug-tested? That’s what hurt the most—the fact that even one person had that reaction. This is what I live my life doing. This is why I beast myself every single day—to be on that start line.”
In hindsight, Wellington recognizes the no-win futility of her options that day.
“It’s kind of funny actually,” Wellington said. “I didn’t start the race and I beat myself up. Cat [Catriona Morrison, a close friend of Wellington’s who also felt ill just before race day] started, pulled out for feeling like crap and she beat herself up. Dede [Griesbauer, another close friend] had a subpar race, finished and beat herself up for that. So all three of us opted for different routes yet we all berated ourselves for the decisions we made.”
A moment later she added, “I always wonder, in a race, if I’ve dug as deep as I need to go. When I’m out there I feel like I’m giving it everything, but then I cross the line and I’m not taken off on a stretcher. Part of me wants that. Part of me wants to be like Julie Moss, friggin’ crawling, totally spent. I mean I almost feel—isn’t it insulting to people to see me back at the finish line, laughing and bouncing around like I’ve just walked a 5K? But then the desire to be back at the finish line overrides that thought. But I do wonder, is there something I’m holding back in reserve?”
During her eternal quest for betterment, Wellington does hit some rather humorous stumbling blocks—and they’re not exactly what one might expect in contrast to her otherwise laser focus.
“Although she’s really intelligent, she has some very blonde moments,” confided cousin Tim Wellington. “Some of the simplest things stop her in her tracks. Directions, left and right—that sort of thing. Basic life skills. She’s quite messy. If she had jam on her toast the whole house would be covered in it.”
Younger brother Matthew Wellington will tell you that she can’t drive.
“She crashed my mum’s car more than she drove it,” he said.
But Wellington has no qualms about admitting her faults.
“Oh it’s so true!” said Wellington, laughing. “That’s why they call me Muppet. A muppet in the U.K. is a silly person. They say, ‘Oh, you’re such a muppet.’ I just trip up all the time, or bash my head or walk into a lamppost. I’m very clumsy. I drop food all over the place. I mix up numbers.”
Indeed, Wellington flip-flopped the numbers in her street address, sending me on a wild goose chase prior to our meeting. She also mistakenly told me she wears a size 9 shoe—I had offered to lend her a set of heels for this magazine’s photo shoot. In reality, she wears a size 10.
I planned to lend her the shoes because Wellington is not a woman who owns a pair of pumps. Quite likely, she thinks Manolo Blahnik is some sort of Eastern European dictator. She rarely invests in fashion.
“If you looked in Chrissie’s wardrobe, you’d still find clothes that she had when she was at Manchester,” said Flood. “She’s never been a shopper. That’s not her idea of a treat. It’s a struggle. I got married three years ago and she was very proud of herself because she managed to find a dress for 20 quid [pounds]. I was like, ‘Wow, well done. Thanks.’”