One week after his discouraging performance at St. Anthony’s in 2009, when he quit on himself after receiving what he felt was an unfair penalty, O’Donnell raced Ironman 70.3 St. Croix.
It was a turning point in his career.
At the 32-mile mark, he almost crashed when he followed Stuart Hayes of Great Britain off the road and into the grass. Then he spent 20 miles expending energy catching up to the leaders. With 5 miles to go, Kiwi Bryan Rhodes and Dirk Bockel of Luxembourg made a break—and O’Donnell, whose early triathlon identity was as a top-rate swimmer and biker without a first-rate run, could have pushed the panic button.
“I didn’t bite,” said the new O’Donnell. “It was the first strategic race I ever had where I said to myself, ‘I’m going to stay here and set myself a running race. I know I can run.’”
O’Donnell started about 80 seconds down from Igor Amorelli of Brazil, Rhodes and Bockel.
“I started the run with Richie Cunningham, who is a fantastic runner when he is on, and [he] was the guy I was really worried about,” said O’Donnell. “We were running time into the leaders and on the first steep hill on the golf course, Richie popped me. That was the moment I needed mental toughness to stick to my plan. So I held the margin to 20 meters and at the end of the first lap [of two] I started to pull back on him and I thought, ‘All right! I’m not out of this.’”
By the time he was done, O’Donnell passed everyone ahead of him with a race-best 1:17:05 run split.
It was the first time in his career that he had relied on his run to win. To add icing to the cake, he won St. Croix by breaking the course record set by two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander.
“[At the finish] I let out a scream like a battle cry,” said the normally soft-spoken O’Donnell. “My eyes were on fire, and I let out this roar and thought, ‘Maybe that was a little too much.’ But it was so emotional for me, the culmination of everything I had put into the sport over the years, a realization that what I’d been doing was working and I was on the right course.”
Despite O’Donnell’s newfound success at the 70.3 distance, old dreams die hard, and he couldn’t extinguish his desire to take a second go at qualifying for the Olympics, especially after taking second at the USA Triathlon elite short-course nationals in Tuscaloosa in 2010.
“I felt I had some unfinished business,” O’Donnell said. “I felt that if I had been chasing an Olympic slot with the run I had developed in 2009, the results might have been different.”
Indeed, the Olympics had been a lifelong dream.
“As a kid growing up swimming, the Olympics is the end-all be-all for that sport,” O’Donnell recalled. “Our whole family grew up watching Matt Biondi and Summer Sanders represent the U.S. in the sport we loved. When I got into triathlon, it was a natural desire for me to think of the Olympics. I wasn’t on a level of swimming that could make the Olympics, so triathlon was a way I could be a part of the bigger dream. And being a military guy and a person who devoted his life to serve his country, the opportunity to represent the United States on the biggest athletic stage in the world was something I had a hunger to do.”
But there was someone in O’Donnell’s life who would help him change his perspective, even if she didn’t intend to: Australian triathlete Mirinda Carfrae.
At a dinner the night before St. Croix in 2009, O’Donnell stuffed a few brownies down his hatch, which drew stares from some of the athletes—including defending women’s champion Carfrae. The night after O’Donnell won in St. Croix and Carfrae finished an off-form second, O’Donnell got a laugh from Carfrae when he said, “If you had eaten one of those brownies, it might have helped that last mile and a half.”
Six weeks later, the two triathletes went on their first date together.
“We shut the [restaurant] down,” O’Donnell said. “We were eating and talking outside and time just seemed to disappear. All of a sudden we looked around and all the chairs were stacked up on top of other tables. I think there was a connection there.”
And while O’Donnell followed Carfrae to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in 2009 to watch her debut at the Ironman World Championship, where she would finish second to Wellington with a record-breaking marathon split, it wasn’t until Carfrae’s second attempt at Kona, in 2010, that the allure and magic of the Big Island actually set in for O’Donnell.
For one thing, last year O’Donnell found himself in the fortuitous position of having front-row seats to all the action.
“I was lucky enough to be in a control car observing the entire bike course and the men going up to Hawi,” he said. “It taught me to be patient. And to know the players and when to react to certain moves and know which moves not to react to.”
But the biggest impact came simply from watching his girlfriend—a woman whose relationship with him had only strengthened during the year they had been together—accomplish a goal she had sought for years.
“Watching her face when she crossed the line [in first], I could feel the emotions she was expressing,” he said.
The feeling was powerful.
“I felt the energy and the history in Kona and I came away really wanting to experience that for myself,” he said. “There is something in the air that is raw excitement and positive energy.”
After his stay on the Big Island, it didn’t take him long to decide that he was made for the iron distance.
“I wasn’t a superstar ITU racer, but I was on the national team, and at the end of ’08, people were asking me if this was my first year as a professional,” he said. “That shows you just how much off the radar ITU racing is in the States. At the end of the day, it is also about career development and reputation. I feel I am really starting to develop that in long course. I am building a brand that will carry on after my racing career is over in eight years, and I can be a part of the sport after my racing career.”