Ask these three who is the best and you will probably get a diplomatic answer – at least from two of them. But in their minds, the question would be answered before it was finished being asked. Their self-belief is unwavering. Anytime, anywhere, any distance – if they were on the
start line, in their eyes they were the man to beat.
Throughout triathlon’s evolution – from non drafting, to drafting and then back again; the 20 minute triple sprint hot dog course to the eight hour Ironman war of attrition; the advent of the Olympic era; and then back to the classics – other athletes have chosen to specialise, while these three have chosen to adapt. They continue to rack up wins in the biggest races on the triathlon calendar, year after year, and they have been doing it for two decades. While Greg Welch, Brad Bevan and Miles Stewart were Australian trailblazers of the sport, the Three Kings have redefined what it means to be a professional athlete.
Sporting careers are fleeting. To put it in context, a three-year, first grade professional football career (AFL, NRL, soccer) is regarded as a success. In five years you become a club legend. Ten years and you reach rarefied air. The very special, genetically gifted few pass 300 first grade games or approximately 12-15 years at the top. There have been 50 odd AFL players who have achieved this legendary status in the entire history of the game – names such as Leigh Matthews, Robert Harvey and Jason Akermanis. In league, there are approximately 15, including high profile players such as Darren Lockyer, Terry Lamb and Brad Fittler.
Outside of the codes, other sporting legends who come to mind are Roger Federer who broke onto the tennis scene in 2000 and reached his first final and hasn’t looked back, and Kelly Slater, who has 11 surfing world titles and been at it for 20 years. In the pool, Kieren Perkins won gold in 1992 before ending his career with silver in Sydney 2000.
What these athletes have in common with Alexander, McCormack and Bennett is that they have made their sporting passion a career. In what is arguably the toughest – physically, mentally and emotionally – of all athletic pursuits, these three have continued to lift the bar. At 39-40 years of age, these three are still the favourites in any race they tackle.
In the late 80s it was triathlon’s Big Four – Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina – who were taking triathlon to the world stage. Teenagers across the globe watched in awe, and began to dream big. One of those dreamers was a plucky Australian tradesman from Bangor in Sydney’s south, Greg ‘Welchy’ Welch. He began nipping at the heels of the Big Four. Welchy hit it big, when he placed third behind Allen and Scott on that legendary day in 1989 that will forever be known as the day of the Iron War.
Welchy went on to win the Ironman World Championship in 1994 and over this time he inspired many, but in particular, three teenage boys – one from the north of Sydney, one from the south and one from the inner west – to dream big. They would go on to be triathlon’s three kings.
So what sets them apart?
Perseverance and never showing a sign of self pity. “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself,” – this poem by DH Lawrence sums up the Three Kings perfectly. Do anything for 20 years and you will encounter adversity – injury, lost loved ones, financial hardship, fear and doubt thundering at you, but these three have stared the beast in the eye numerous times throughout their career and took it head on.
THE BLUE COLLAR CHAMPION
Craig “Crowie” Alexander proved to the world that good guys can win, and now sits atop the summit. Despite his 12th place in Kona this year, Crowie is still the King of Kona, with three Ironman World Championships to his name.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that this year’s Ironman World Champion is another Australian, Pete Jacobs – who no doubt has been inspired by these three. Crowie’s victories in recent years somewhat overshadow what he has achieved over the Olympic distance. Crowie was always at the top end of Olympic distance, but bureaucracy made things challenging. A lesser man would have packed up shop. Not Crowie. He kept on plying his trade, believing and going about his business. When he turned up to Lifetime Fitness in 2005 it was arguably the best field ever assembled.
He went about systematically tearing athletes apart and went on to win, just as he has in Kona. For those who had seen him in camp, it was no surprise.
THE ROCK STAR
Chris “Macca” McCormack is the one mentioned in the same breath as Mark Allen when the ‘best ever’ is debated. Macca has had well-documented challenges, both personal (mother) and professional (Sydney Olympics) but the one that sticks out is his Kona journey.
I roomed with him a number of times during the late 90s while we chased points on the ITU World Cup circuit. Always a student of the sport, he knew every minute of every race that had taken place on the Kona blacktop. We wasted hours talking about these historic battles and the legends they made. While watching him crumble year after year it was as if he was destined to serve a six-year apprenticeship like the great Mark Allen. He persevered, and the rest is history.
THE CONSUMATE PROFESSIONAL
Greg Bennett redefined triathlon racing, and through the golden era became the greatest Australian triathlete of all time. Bennett, the ‘sprinter’, adapted his body to become an endurance athlete. In 1998 I shared a house in Switzerland with Andrew Johns, Jan Rehula, Chris Legh and Greg Bennett. Every morning he would rise an hour before everyone else to warm up, massage and tape his feet. He did this day in and day out for three months as he battled excruciating tendonitis. It would take him 10-15 minutes before he could get over 10min/km pace, but not once did he complain, and not once did he contemplate not preparing for the next race.
Why did Australia rule the triathlon world for the better part of two decades? Simple. Crowie, Macca and Bennett. These three Sydney champions have stood the test of time atop triathlon’s castle and redefined what it means to be a professional triathlete. Fear has never held them back. They continue to lift the bar. I can only hope there are a few teenage boys
in pockets of Australia as inspired by these three as they were by their hero Welchy.