Indeed, in early 2011 she was still dealing with the consequences of a broken sacrum from a bike accident and was unable to train, forcing her to miss a large portion of the squad’s base work on the bike.
“I still have a lot of fitness to be gained where we haven’t done tons of the hard work that I know we can do,” Groff said. “But he didn’t want me doing the hard work until I had the technical ability to execute it. So there’s this progression over time where we had to turn things back a bit, deal with technique before you can layer on the hard work. Or you’re going to end up with somebody being injured, or they revert back to their old patterns of inefficient running or what have you.”
The time I spent with Smith bore Groff’s words out. During a swim session in Sedona attended by Barbara Riveros Diaz, the 2011 sprint world champion who has worked with Smith since 2009, and squad newbie Anne Haug, Smith watched Haug closely. He was analyzing whether she could let Riveros go during a set where Haug was supposed to be swimming at 70 percent and Riveros was supposed to be going harder.
“Somebody’s supposed to be at 70 percent,” he remarked to Haug after she got a little overenthusiastic.
She settled down, though, and Smith said afterward that he was “pleased” that Haug could do exactly what she needed to do without worrying about others.
Smith also remarked that he will stop a swim workout if he feels that an athlete is too tired to keep swimming with proper technique.
“Instead of doing 2K of rubbish, it’s better to turn up later and do another 3K of value,” he said.
During another swim workout, Smith mentioned that he had changed Riveros’ scheduled morning bike ride to a run because it was particularly frigid that day and when it comes to Riveros, “If it’s too cold on the bike, the swim is just going to be worthless,” he said.
He then went on to help Haug get the feeling of using her entire forearm as a paddle instead of just her hands, giving her the “anti-paddle”—a paddle that forces you to slice through the water as if you were swimming with fists—to accommodate her in this endeavor.
All the while, he was constantly watching, analyzing and scanning his athletes from various different positions—atop a starting block, crouched near their heads. He stopped his athletes often and critiqued them on everything from how relaxed their hands were to the frequency of their kick to a subtle movement in an athlete’s fingers.
“[Darren] has a good eye for what actually needs to be addressed and he’s willing to tell an athlete that without worrying about hurting their feelings,” Groff said. “If you can listen to it, then it’s all good stuff.”
To put it another way, Smith isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.
“[Darren] always thought I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough,” squad member Andi Giglmayr said. “He was quite tough on me in the first year, especially—quite tough. I found it a bit unfair at the beginning sometimes, but now I see he was doing it not because he likes someone more or less—it’s his way of getting the best out of each person.”
It’s this detail-oriented attitude and individual attention that has allowed Smith to accomplish something that most would say is impossible: morphing non-swimmers into strong swimmers on the ITU circuit, where, unlike in Ironman, swimming is of utmost importance and can be the difference between first and 30th. The success of Norden and Riveros, who both lacked swim backgrounds, are case in point.
“Darren is a true professional in making especially short triathletes with no swim backgrounds into really good open-water swimmers, and swimming is my worst discipline,” Haug said in explaining why she recently joined the group. “Now I’m on the best squad in the world with the best coach.”
Many of Smith’s athletes who lack swim backgrounds have similar words of praise.
“I went from being a really bad swimmer to someone who, like this year in Mooloolaba, I was out of the water and immediately with the first pack,” said Giglmayr, who has been working with Smith since mid-2009. “It’s a big improvement.”
But getting on Smith’s squad to potentially make these sorts of improvements is no easy task.
Before anyone is allowed to join the squad, Smith screens the athlete, ensuring that they will contribute to the squad just as much as they will benefit from it—and that they won’t disrupt the all-important yet tenuous environment within which his athletes train, an environment where his athletes espouse to his core values: honesty, hard work and innovation.
But beyond the values that Smith feels his athletes must adopt, he also believes that an environment conducive to success and happiness is one where he is always egalitarian.
“As soon as there is a suggestion that there’s favorites, then it all goes pear-shaped (goes wrong) very quickly,” Smith said. “So guess what? I don’t do favorites. Never have, never will. Everyone is special. Nobody is more special.
“And also I think very clearly and carefully about who I allow into the squad,” he continued. “I know the whole dynamic of a squad or a business. Your office will change if you have a bad egg, somebody who is too selfish or just has the wrong way of operating. I’m the same. So it’s certainly not worth my while, is it, to have somebody who is very talented but who is a rat bag. I just don’t go there.”
The group environment was often the topic of discussion among Smith and two young coaches he invited to tag along with him in Arizona: Tom Bennett, head of T2Coaching who works with athletes out of London, and Zane Castro, who coaches Olympic hopefuls out of Austin, Texas.
When the athletes were resting between workouts, Smith, Bennett and Castro were in their shared condo sitting around a dining table, lost in conversation about how to make themselves and their athletes better, including how to improve their environments.
“Most squads will have one or two lead athletes, but with Darren’s squad you’ve got a number of potential Olympic medal contenders,” said Bennett, who was also in Sedona to serve as the squad’s on-site massage therapist. “As a coach, Darren works hard to balance each athlete’s needs and individual personalities on a daily basis—not favoring one over the other.”
Smith also never coaches more than one athlete of the same sex from the same country, ensuring that his athletes will never be vying for a spot on the same Olympic team.
“When I accomplished my one goal of the year, which was to qualify for the Olympic team, I knew that I had the support of my training partners at that moment,” Groff said. “Being able to celebrate with them is something really special.”
Smith’s environment also includes a world-class support team: a sport psychologist, physiotherapist, a full-time rehab person and coaching assistant, and a dietician—who happens to be Smith’s wife, or “boss,” as he often refers to her.
Smith receives additional feedback from a running coach based in Kenya and a former Ukrainian swim coach, and he is always quick to seek the advice of world-leading experts in whatever topic is relevant to his team at any moment (including overtraining, baffling calf injuries and sports biomechanics). He’s quick to tell you that he realizes how lucky he is to have access to such expertise.