Suffer Camp: On Location With Team TBB

  • By Fred Dreier
  • Published Jan 9, 2013
  • Updated Dec 4, 2014 at 5:45 PM UTC
Photo: Jeff Clark

Submission to the Sutton school of training isn’t the only requirement for TBB athletes. They pledge 20 percent of the winnings from their top-three finishes to their coach. They call Sutton “Boss” or “Doc,” and he signs his emails with these names. They must also maintain a level of humility within the squad, and live within a semi-militaristic top-down social structure. Sutton sits atop the pyramid, with the ensuing hierarchy determined by an athlete’s race results and history within the squad. Confidence is tolerated, but only to a point. Even world champions can receive a public tongue lashing at the morning swim practice, a blunt email exchange, or worse: a one-way trip home.

“I would definitely call it mind games,” said Wellington, who spent two years with Sutton. “It might not work for everyone—it might be detrimental to some.”

James Cunnama, who joined up with TBB in 2008, said the informal hierarchy is the toughest pill to swallow for many new athletes. Newcomers like Brett Carter, he said, must help Sutton with menial tasks, such as moving bike bags or laying out road cones for running workouts. They must also fall in line behind the veterans on group training sessions.

“You get tension when some guy feels good and smashes everyone on an easy day,” Cunnama said. “Some people get caught up in the petty stuff, so it isn’t tolerated.”

Sutton says the hierarchy keeps the peace within his team. Despite their physical prowess, triathletes are emotionally fragile creatures, he says, and he can’t let the egos override the training. If Mathias Hecht punished the boys on the bike yesterday, then Sutton would allow Cunnama to have his revenge on a run set a couple of days later. The training battles are fought on a daily basis, so an overactive ego, a personality conflict or hurt feelings could easily shatter the squad’s delicate balance. The social structure, Sutton says, lets an athlete know exactly where he or she stands.

“Nobody is an all-star here,” he said. “And the only way you do that is by cutting the heads off the ones that stick up and don’t understand the environment.”

Sutton shoots down any critique of the social structure he’s created. The hierarchy, he says, is what incubates athletes as they develop. He points at Cunnama and Caroline Steffen as the squad’s current top athletes, and says both have risen through his system. When Cunnama showed up, Sutton says, he could barely swim, and he was at the mercy of the other pros. But he pushed himself to improve. Sutton points at Brett Carter, and acknowledges that in 2012 he’s a nobody, but after two years of testing himself against Cunnama, he might win an Ironman.

“People get upset because I say Dave Scott and Mark Allen aren’t real coaches because they coach a bunch of age groupers,” Sutton said. “You know why? Because nobody can develop an elite athlete from nothing the way I can.”

Sutton patrols the green infield at the community running track in the Swiss town of Monthey as his athletes run sets around the unique 300-meter brown oval. Just days after their respective wins at Challenge Roth and Ironman Frankfurt, Cunnama and Steffen jog easily alongside Bayliss, who finished fifth at Roth. Mary Beth Ellis leads Carter, Dellow, Andreas Castillo and Aaron Farlow through a series of longer, endurance-paced runs. Swiss ITU racer Nicola Spirig sprints through a series of anaerobic sets, her pink running shorts flapping like a flag as she speeds around the track.

“Come on, push girl! Hubba hubba hubba!” Sutton yells after Spirig, who sprinted to an Olympic gold medal in London just three weeks later.

Running slowly in the opposite direction is Australian Carrie Lester, who has battled illness and injury since winning Ironman Cairns in early June. Sutton separates her from the group in hopes that her body will recover with a lighter load. Lester brushes away tears as she trots by.

“Competition can be a good thing; it can also be a bad thing,” Sutton said. “Some of these girls are so competitive they can hurt themselves in training.”

Like every TBB workday, the day started at 7:30 at the small Leysin community swimming pool. Sutton had walked along the deck, holding Bella and Stephen Bayliss’ infant son, Charlie, while simultaneously looking for signs of fatigue in his athletes. He oversaw three different swimming workouts during the session, with his ITU athletes working on faster sprints and the long-distance athletes swimming with hand paddles.

After the swim, Sutton doled out the day’s workout. Half the group would ride down to the track, complete their track session and then finish with a two-hour ride, which concluded with the climb back to Leysin. Sutton’s ITU athletes would drive down to the track for a speed workout, followed by a long and painful run back home.

Ellis, who joined TBB in 2010, says it has taken her time to adjust to Sutton’s day-of coaching style, but that she now prefers not knowing the day’s workout until it’s upon her. “I have less time to obsess about it,” Ellis said.

Ellis had previously worked with athletes-turned-coaches Siri Lindley and Dave Scott, and says Sutton’s coaching approach centers heavily on holding his athletes back in their workouts. She says the group would race each other every day if they could, but Sutton’s authority actually keeps them from destroying their bodies during training.

“He has athletes that are all self-grinders; maybe he just attracts that type,” Ellis said. “I don’t think he has to push anybody here.”

Ellis sought out Sutton after struggling with chronic injuries for two seasons. Sutton says Ellis’ story was similar to other elite athletes who had contacted him at the midpoint of their respective pro careers. For their entire lives as athletes, Sutton says, they’d been coached to push themselves too hard during their workouts. Despite the commonly held belief that Sutton is a whip-cracker, his job was to calm them down during training.

“Why are you always injured—you’re built like Conan the Barbarian,” Sutton said about Ellis. “She was mentally choking herself in training, and she couldn’t race.”

Wellington and Sutton parted ways in 2008, but her ghost still lingers around the TBB training camp. Team veterans still talk about Wellington’s prowess in training sets, and of the hot and cold relationship between the coach and his premier athlete.

Sutton doesn’t hide his displeasure with Wellington’s decision to leave triathlon in 2012, and says he does not believe she will return. But Sutton lays blame on the coaches and managers surrounding Wellington for fueling her push to achieve records instead of notching victories.

“She could be winning until she’s 45—she’s that superior. And where is she now? She’s burned out,” Sutton said. “She was never allowed to go as hard as she wanted in my training. I knew everything physical was tied up with her mentality.”

In her book A Life Without Limits, Wellington chalked up her departure to a blend of philosophical differences with Sutton, and the fact that the TBB financial structure was unable to pay her the market rate for a two-time world champion.

“I had a manager and sponsors that I wanted to retain, and that didn’t fit with the wider team framework,” Wellington said in an interview in May. “As you mature as an athlete, you start to need more.”

Wellington’s book also discussed Sutton’s infamous past. In 1999 he confessed to having had sex with a teenage swimmer he coached in 1987, and he received a two-year suspended jail sentence and a three-year sanction by the ITU. Sutton has spoken publicly about the incident—and his great sense of remorse over it—before, and says that he gave Wellington the thumbs-up to include it in her book.

“It has shaped my life in a profound way, every day, and nothing has changed in terms of remorse,” Sutton said. “I tried early on to not think about it, to not be me, but it didn’t work. It is part of the package.”

At the time of Wellington’s departure, TBB had a handful of sponsors, including bike company Cervélo. But none of the marketing agreements included bonus structures that would allow the team to pay its athletes up to market value, should they win a title. Alex Bok, the Dutchman who owns The Bicycle Boutique (TBB) bicycle stores and co-owns the team with Sutton, says the team’s new sponsorship agreements have incentive plans to pay the athletes based on their market value. Caroline Steffen, Bok says, will earn approximately $150,000 a year as a base salary—with winnings and prize money pushing that number substantially higher.

“Brett told me we had to double the budget for this year because he doesn’t want to lose athletes,” Bok said. “We will get that done.”

But Bok says the goal of the team is to retain its collection of both top-end and up-and-coming professionals. Just having stars, Bok says, does not give age-group triathletes an incentive to follow the squad. In July he unveiled a dealer affiliate program that would allow the lesser athletes to boost their salaries by referring age groupers to purchase sponsored product.

“We could have another million in sponsorship if we just kept the top six athletes and sent everybody else home,” Bok said. “That’s not our structure.”

Bok also wants to groom a new generation of coaches to pass on Sutton’s methods to age groupers, so the prospect of being a future TBB coach is also an incentive for the newer athletes on the squad. Bok and Sutton have ambitions of growing the TBB brand into a large-scale training umbrella for amateurs, with the most talented amateurs being funneled upward into the elite squad. Sutton has his American athlete Scott DeFilippis oversee the amateur TBB network, which currently has eight coaches and about 50 amateur athletes.

“I think we could have 500 athletes in the U.S.,” DeFilippis said. “We’re not selling some cookie-cutter 12-week plan,” he said, explaining that in the TBB model, the plan isn’t laid out from the beginning. Rather, it’s adjusted throughout the season based on an athlete’s performance in training and racing. “We look at coaching as an art, not a science.”

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