From being relentless to relentlessly giving
It had been more than a year since I had seen my good friend Michelle. Once teammates on the Great Britain Squad, we enjoyed many race battles on home soil and qualification headaches away from it. We have celebrated together in victories and commiserated failure and disappointment too.
Since then life, for both of us, has evolved. We still live in the ‘triathlon world’, but on opposite sides of the hemisphere. Michelle now holds a stopwatch – an incredible coach to world-class athletes.
I hold a baby and attempt to race her prodigies. As the generations move on, triathlon remains a stable passion in both of our beings.
Michelle is in South Africa supporting her athlete Emma Pallant in her debut Ironman appearance. I am there on sponsorship duty, still recovering postpartum. They are our official roles, but of course; it is on the run path where we first meet; then in the gym; and then on the run path again, such is our habitual need for physical exertion.
The race has begun and having just fed Jack I attempt to call Michelle to meet for coffee. Her phone rings dead. People like us are difficult to make a date with and yet easy to find. I walk to the hotel gym and park the pram. Michelle is on the exercise bike, following the race on her laptop and racing the competitors with her legs.
We talk for an hour. When we are done the floor is drenched with sweat. Michelle is not exercising; nine years ‘retired’ she is clearly still ‘training’. She looks incredible and I am reminded of her tenacity. Michelle Dillon was, and is, ‘hard as nails’.
“I like to bring my own experience that I had as an athlete to the athletes I coach, one of my strengths as an athlete was my mental strength, I like to install mental toughness into my athletes and make them believe anything is possible with hard work.”
Michelle was born in Wimbledon; a stone’s throw away from where she now lives with her husband, Stuart Hayes and from where she bases her coaching business. Her childhood, though, was framed a world away, in the Sydney boroughs of New South Wales; her family emigrating when she was eight-years-old. It was in Australia where she fell in love with cross-country running and laid the foundations for a career in sport. Her achievements in athletics, cumulated in her qualification to represent Australia in the 10-kilometre final at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. In that race Dillon finished seventh, well adrift from the likes of the eventual medalists – Yvonne Murray (SCO), Elena Meyer (RSA) and Jane Omoro (KEN) but it was Dillon that set the pace to her heroines for six kilometres. It was her that sent them to respectable times and honest inexperience of youth.
“I actually ran my 31.40 on the road, my best years as a runner was when I was 20-21-years-old where I was laying down some very fast times. Unfortunately, I suffered a lot of injuries – mainly stress fractures, my last stress fracture being a pelvic fracture. I had a year off running and decided I needed a change in my life where I could cross train, this is when a friend introduced me to triathlon.”
To put Michelle’s running prowess into context – Gwen Jorgensen’s recent win at the Stanford Invitational stopped a 31.55 (albeit it on the track and not the road). Dillon’s debuted her first track at 21 and ran a 32.30.
Arguments will forever rage about the pedigrees of runners-turned-triathletes but Dillon’s run prowess is comparable to Carol Montgomery, Annie Emerson and Emma Snowsill. Her times are more remarkable considering the perpetual injuries that regularly kept her from training and racing to her unmarred capability.
“Yes I was a walking injury when I was a runner back in my teens coming into my early 20s; we didn’t know what we know now, things like strength and conditioning, and the importance of recovery to prevent injury. Back then we used to think the more miles you can do the better athlete you would become. What I’ve learnt over the years is, it’s about getting the right balance and finding what works for you as an individual.”
When runners turn to triathlon to address their injury problems it indicates either an aptitude for workload or desperation to succeed in sport – for triathlon training is far from conservative on the body and the run splits raced off the bike offer no respite from long mileage and toil on the body. What triathlon does offer is an increased capacity to balance aerobic training; reinforced by swimming and cycling with the weight bearing forces on bones, tendons and joints that ‘just’ running accrues. For Dillon, initially, it provided more balance, at least in the physical realm, of training. Eventually, it provided her with a long, more successful career.
Training: Athlete, Emma Pallant and coach, Michelle Dillon.
“I did my first triathlon in Australia, and I won it even though my swimming was very weak. My dad mentioned that I should get in touch with the British Triathlon Federation and apply to race for my country of birth. I made the move back to the UK and based myself in Bath, where the high-performance centre for triathlon was. I worked with Chris Jones, a fantastic coach and together we made huge improvements in all three disciplines. Two years later I won my first World Cup in Noosa in 1999. It was a big move for me at the time but it was one that I don’t regret and paid off in my career.”
Emigrating from her Australian roots and the trunk of her family and friends was a courageous move to make at the age of 25, an age where many reach the twilight of their racing careers. The move, however, provided Dillon with an opportunity for support in training and the learning of triathlon that was not as abundant in Australian triathlon at the time. Australia already had multiple world-beaters on ‘its books’ and had little time for nurturing aged potential.
Conversely, Great Britain was establishing a nationally funded team, centralised from specific training centres and aspiring to produce champions as quickly and effectively as possible. Britain has seen it’s fair share of dual citizen patriots within the sport – a British accent seemed a rarity on the team but Dillon embraced the switch of citizenship with the most gusto of anyone. England is, to this day, her home. She married an Englishman and has gone on to coach many of Britain’s best. Her coaching business – ‘Team Dillon’ Coaching – is based out of Twickenham, their stomping grounds include the famous Bushy Park and the Surrey Hills that nurtured Chrissie Wellington when training from home.
The move was further remarkable given that she could not swim.
“Oh my goodness! Swimming for me was really hard to grasp. When I look back at how my stroke was back then I had no idea and everything any coach had said to me I just didn’t understand. I was dropping my elbows and had no catch or feel for the water, my body position was awful and I was just muscling through the water and trying to swim off a 1.35/1.40 cycle. It was so tough for me to be in the slowest lane at the high-performance centre and have the other triathletes in the squad swimming rings around me.”
Tough though the circumstance, enduring is an endurance athletes forte. Dillon ploughed from the back of the swims through the bike and further through the run. Sometimes she would drag packs back up to the front group. Sometimes she would break alone. For the first five years of the century, whatever she managed to catch became the measure of how hard the front packs had to push – what time they had on Michelle. We all knew that Michelle Dillon would not give up on catching until she crossed the finish line.
The dynamic between Coach Michelle and her athletes now is extraordinary. She travels alongside to camps and races; she cycles alongside during run sessions; she eats alongside at mealtimes; she trains them to become coaches – to earn income and gain experience. The level of involvement and amount of interaction is more akin to that of a family member than a professional coach. Perhaps that level of guidance is something that Michelle identifies as lacking throughout her career – her personality so strong as to reject help, too independent to rely on others and too intimidating to display need.
Success: Emma Pallant is seeing some big rewards under the guidance of Michelle Dillon.
“When I take someone under my wing I put everything into it and that means showing them the right way in life as well as an athlete. I want to help them create longevity in their careers and make sure they have a happy balanced life as well, as this is what makes a difference to an athlete’s performances.”
Talented athletes can get in there own way, so ambitious, impatient and stubborn their characters. It is no coincidence that some of the best athletes in the world suffer regular injuries. Part of the skill of coaching such people is refining an athlete’s aptitude and tempering their urgency. To create balance where there is obsession and perspective where there is stubborn direction. What would Michelle the coach tell Michelle the athlete?
“I would say: ‘Michelle, if you work on this strength and conditioning program regularly you will prevent a lot of heartache in the future with injuries.
If you work on your technique in the pool and not swim with a bad stroke you will get faster. If you have a good balance in your life and not be in a rush you will be able to slow down and see the small things that can make a huge difference. You will get there!’”
The power of hindsight is a very fortunate one.
Michelle harnessed unstoppable energy in her training and in racing her passion was extreme. While stopping to listen was not her forte, her urgency, work ethic and obsession were much a part of what made her successful. None of us will ever know how fast a stabilised, tempered or measured past version of ourselves would be.
As it stands, fiery Michelle Dillon strung together an incredible career. She medaled at World Cups 10 times between 1998 and 2007, won the World Duathlon title, finished sixth at the Olympics and podiumed at the World ITU Champs in 2002. Her decade in British Triathlon helped raise the standard of the British triathlon and boosted the profile of the sport nationwide. Success was interspersed too regularly with injury and Michelle suffered numerous layoffs that hindered her preparations and limited her innate ability to train so very hard. After a double spinal fusion surgery in 2007, Michelle was told to never run again. But she never was much of a listener. Eight years on Michelle finished second in the British National Duathlon Championships behind her own athlete Emma Pallant. Emma is 16 years her junior.
From athlete to Coach: Michelle Dillon is giving back her insights from her successful career.
“There were a couple of proud moments that stand out for me. Winning my very first World Cup in Noosa in 1999 – this was a great race for me and I hadn’t finished better than seventh in the World Cup in the lead up to this. I had a fantastic race that day and won by 45-seconds. The other race was a comeback race in St Anthony’s in the USA in 2007, where I had come back from a bulging disc and crawling to the toilet, to breaking the course record and winning St Anthony’s non-drafting triathlon. It was a very special moment for me after everything I had been through six months prior to that race.”
Like any elite athlete, Michelle’s proudest accomplishments dwell in the journey travelled to every finish line and podium. The price paid for a life in sport is not cheap – emotionally or physically. The price many legends of sport pay in terms of health and suffering are elevated beyond the realms of the everyday. What makes Dillon more remarkable is that those unjust setbacks have not tainted her love of the sport at all. Still, she is the energy at races. An advocate for both age group ambition and elite development, she cheers her age groupers as loudly as her champions. She still finds a way to dedicate hours to training and challenges herself daily, adapting her goal posts to her situation without complaint or melancholy.
“I have always loved pushing myself as an athlete and this carries over to all aspects of my life. I am a very driven person in all areas and I take a lot of pride in myself and my work; I want to live a healthy life and so I regularly set myself small goals and challenges like races to keep me motivated; it helps me stay in touch with training, which helps continually progress as a coach too.”
We all need someone like Michelle in our life, whether it is in our jobs, our training or as a role model. Her relentless ambition to better herself is transparent yet vibrantly colourful in its passion. This great athlete has evolved from being relentless to relentlessly giving. Michelle’s new humility, dappled by experience, introspection and commitment look set to provide her legend status not only as a triathlete but also as a triathlon coach.
Images: Darren Wheeler / www.thatcameraman.com