When you ask English why he works with O’Donnell—a man who started his triathlon career in short course as part of his dream to represent his country in the Olympics—he doesn’t talk about watts on the bike or body fat percentage or any other popular quantification that passes for critical judgment of triathlon talent. And he doesn’t talk about O’Donnell’s 2009 ITU Long Course World title, his six Ironman 70.3 wins, his six U.S. Military Triathlon championships, or his multiple long-course world championship medals.
When he talks about why he coaches O’Donnell, English says the 30-year-old possesses that certain critical quality of a champion.
“It’s a fire,” said English, who observed that quality up close when he coached McGlone. “It’s the quality of staying hungry and the habit of always giving your all. It’s easy to go hard when you are in the hunt. But even if you are running 30th or 40th or 50th, you have to run like you are winning the damn race.”
Back in 2009, O’Donnell roared back from a discouraging 11th off the bike to third at the line with a race-best run of 1:15:45 at the New Orleans 70.3—one of the first demonstrations of his first-rate running ability. But during the very next race, St. Anthony’s Triathlon in St. Petersburg, Fla., O’Donnell got a penalty on the bike he felt was unfair and lost heart.
“I got off the bike in 11th[again],” he recalled, “But when I started the run, I was running with some people on my shoulder I didn’t feel should be there. And boom! I just let them go.”
After the race when English asked, “What the hell was that?’” O’Donnell replied, “Yeah, I gave up.”
“He knew he had wussed out and pouted,” recalled English. “I didn’t raise my voice. We didn’t have bad words. But to be able to do the type of training to win at this level, he needs to be honest with himself and with me. And it turned out OK, because he admitted it, and he remembered it in his next race.”
The St. Anthony’s performance was a rare exception that proved the rule, as O’Donnell is a guy whose entire life is defined by his plunging ahead in the face of all discouragement and embarrassment.
O’Donnell says he was “by far” the slowest swimmer in his family, the child who could not make the B standard on his club swim team while his brothers and sister were champions. He was also the fellow who could only manage a 47-minute 10K in his first try for the Naval Academy Triathlon team, the fledgling pro who once got lapped in the run at the Chicago Triathlon, and the guy whose elite international prospects were initially discounted by most experts because they did not believe the swimmer-turned-triathlete could ever run a 31-minute 10K off the bike.
Yet O’Donnell was never discouraged by his initially lackluster results. By the time he graduated from Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School, he had set multiple school records and achieved Pennsylvania all-state honors in swimming—and his times were good enough to earn a place on the NCAA Division I Naval Academy swim team.
O’Donnell’s quest to become a world-class triathlete—and specifically to master the run—involved a little more struggle, however. Not long after he graduated from the Naval Academy in 2003, he won the USAT Under-23 U.S. National Championship in Kennebunk, Maine. The success was encouraging but the run split wasn’t: 35:03. His split at the 2003 ITU Under-23 World Championships in New Zealand was even slower—43:02—with rigorous study at the University of California, Berkeley’s ocean engineering program partly contributing to his subpar performance.
As he continued his short-course career, the run splits continued to roller-coaster.
By 2008, his 33:55 run split at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Tuscaloosa, Ala.—2 minutes and 48 seconds slower than the top mark, set by Matt Reed—meant he would cross the line in sixth and fail to earn a spot on the Beijing Olympic team.
During this period, he says he was learning how to run efficiently, how to race and how to endure the pain of redlining effort. But due to circumstances involving the Navy and USA Triathlon, he never had enough time to spend five or six months carefully building the aerobic base that is required for a true breakthrough in running. Instead, he was left without the aerobic speed required to mix it up with the true studs of triathlon.
After his failed Olympic bid in 2008, O’Donnell found himself free to spend uninterrupted time with English, focusing on his run. To amp up his run without breaking O’Donnell down, English cut O’Donnell’s swim and bike workloads in half and built his running mileage up to 98 miles per week at the top end of his training cycle.
O’Donnell emerged from six months of this type of training, in the spring of 2009, with a new identity—that of a dangerous runner. While his greatest success came at the half-iron distance, he also proved he had the sheer run speed that could translate to a 2012 London Olympic slot. By the end of 2009, he would place second at the USA Triathlon Elite National Championship with a run split of 29:54 on a slightly short 10K course. And at the 2010 USAT Elite National Championships, O’Donnell found himself with a run split on a slightly long 10K course that was only 14 seconds slower than that of Jarrod Shoemaker, one of the ITU’s most deadly runners. O’Donnell’s run splits, whatever their measurements, were fast enough to earn him the U.S. elite men’s runner-up spot for two years in a row.
While O’Donnell has shown himself to be an athlete who refuses to give up, perhaps the best example of his iron will came in November of 2005—two years after his Annapolis graduation and after finishing his graduate work in ocean engineering at Berkeley—when O’Donnell was assigned to Navy diving school in San Diego as part of his required training for a special operations forces assignment in Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
“I was this kid straight from grad school who had never done any hard-core Navy training, and they were ready for me,” he recalled.
The master chief was a hard-driving former professional football player, and O’Donnell’s first task was to pass a simple physical test by doing seven pull-ups. The skinny Annapolis grad, one of just two officers in the class, did what he thought were seven pull-ups.
“You failed!” the master chief roared.
He had only cleared the bar in proper form two times.
“They gave me five more days to pass the PT test, and I failed again,” O’Donnell said. “I went before a Navy board and they dismissed me from the class. For a guy who hates to fail at anything, this was huge. Shattering. My head was spinning.”
His commander in San Diego assigned O’Donnell to an officer known as Big D, who would help him regain all those upper-body swimming muscles he’d lost when he became a triathlete. In February, he went back and banged out three times as many properly executed pull-ups as required.
But the master chief and his cohorts kept up the pressure. Near the end of his training, O’Donnell faced a test called sharking that prepares Navy divers for combat in open water. The candidates dive to the bottom of a pool and instructors swim down and hit them, pull off their masks and regulators, tie their air hoses in knots and move their oxygen tanks to the other side of the pool. For good measure, the instructors mete out a few shots in the gut. Recovering from these attacks and straightening out air hoses and regaining the oxygen supply might take anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds. While this was bad enough, O’Donnell said he later learned that his instructors wanted to make his test tougher than everyone else’s. A fellow diving school candidate told him that one of his instructors had yelled: “Keep O’Donnell down there. Let everybody have a hit on him.”
Despite the increased pressure during his second go at diving school, O’Donnell made it through his sharking test, and he eventually graduated at the top of his class.