REACHING FOR THE TOP
He studied history and international relations, is one-half of Skullduggery Coffee, has a love for heavy metal music and, it seems, has finally found his calling in long course racing. AT’s Aimee Johnsen chats to Josh Amberger, the newly crowned Asia-Pacific Ironman Champion about his early years in ITU, his rise through the long course ranks, training for Kona and more. Find out if his potential has finally been unlocked.
Firstly, congrats on the big win at Ironman Cairns – what a great performance. Have you come down from that high yet?
Thanks, Aimee. When I’m training and in need of some thoughts to occupy my consciousness, I have been casting back to Cairns, and the feeling of running down the finish chute to grab the tape. I then say to myself, “I can’t believe I won an Ironman!” So perhaps, not really – I’m not down from the high yet!
Let’s go back a little bit – we’ll come back to Cairns. How did you get into triathlon and what attracted you to the sport back in those early days?
I’ve been doing sport my whole life. Literally, from before my first birthday, I was doing the whole learn to swim thing. I swam in the same pool for the first 12 years of my life under numerous coaches at a club in Brisbane called Northern Districts Swimming Club at Everton Hills, where I still live today. It was just such a fantastic environment in which to grow up. Many champions like Tracey Wickham, Bronte Barratt and Trent Grimsey, to name a few, came out of this program. The competitive and fun environment cultured my love for training and competition, which remains integral to my being over 15 years on. But as a swimmer, I only got so far because I yearned for something with more variety, so I settled willfully on triathlon by the time I was 15.
Like a lot of long course stars, especially in this country, you kicked off your career on the ITU circuit and were part of the Triathlon Australia (TA) program as a teenager. Full of promise with plenty of talent, you got a sixth at the ITU Junior Worlds in 2007 (as a 17-year-old) and backed that up the following year with a fourth place in 2008. The next two years were interesting – a blow up with TA officials in 2009 that ultimately resulted in your funding being cut in 2010. Talk us through that time. Did you have confidence you could still ‘make it’ at ITU level without TA support, or was it fate accompli that you needed to move on?
It turns out that my free-spirited nature was more suited to the DIY nature of long distance triathlon. — Josh Amberger
To say I had just one blow up is an understatement. Imagine being an 18/19-year-old kid far away from home in Asia or Europe (it happened twice), being told that your position on a team has suddenly become untenable, and you’ve now got to find your own accommodation or your own way home with your own resources, without any assistance whatsoever. It’s not possible to explain the occurrences in short form, but I remain unapologetic that I was stifled by particular men at that time. It was tough, for sure, but of course, we must always learn and grow. Once I was cut completely from funding, it was clear I needed to forge another path. Racing is all I know, so to forsake this would be to disregard my own spirit. While I’m not a believer in fate or anything, it turns out that my free-spirited nature was more suited to the DIY nature of long distance triathlon anyway.
Where does that leave a young talented athlete if the governing body pulls support – financial and otherwise? Could triathlon have lost you at that point?
It leaves an athlete with a choice. You push on by your own means, or you quit and join the workforce. This is not symptomatic to triathlon – it happens in every high-performance sport. But this is life – nothing ever stays the same and change is inevitable. Whether I was cut short from funding early or unjustly is not something I grappled with, for me it was about creating opportunity from that point onwards. Ultimately, ‘the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.’ For me, I needed to fight a personal battle to stay in the sport, and there was no questioning this. I wanted to find a way because I have never wanted to do anything else.
The Olympic non-draft circuit in the US and with the emergence of the global 5150 series gave you a new focus in 2011. How did you find that change of scene?
The 5150 series was a path-breaking series and came at a most opportunistic time for me – just as I was flicked from the ITU program. While it’s currently in disarray and no longer exists as a professional series, at its peak in 2011/12, it offered a one million USD prize purse for the grand final in Des Moines, Iowa. It gave me a very clear goal in moving my career forward – put ITU racing to bed, and chase the HyVee 5150 Championship prize purse.
In my first year of racing independently, I must have put almost 50k USD away for myself in prize money, and possibly more the following year. Not only did it give me a financial means to continue, but it was also the awakening I needed to harden and learn to be self-reliant. I am able to reflect on these years with fondness and conclude they were seminal in curating the athlete that I am today. But to say that I needed to be self-reliant is not to say I didn’t need any help – I needed more help than ever. I travelled the world staying with generous people who opened their homes to me to stay for weeks or months on end – without this, it would not have been possible. The biggest adaptation was more just about getting used to the loneliness of being on your own training and racing schedule and inspiring yourself to get out and do the work that needed to be done to get to the next level. Coming from a team environment, that was most trying. But I coached myself at the time and learned a lot about performance. I also put myself into situations where I could meet industry figures, and fortunately met people that have gone on to be lasting sponsors, not to mention the friendships forged along the way too. I soaked everything in from the best athletes at every race I went to and at every training base I utilised – Boulder CO in particular. So, it wasn’t just a change of scene; it was a total change in self.
In 2012, you had what many called your breakout year in long distance racing – your first 70.3 win. You then went on to get seventh at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in just your third ever 70.3 race. You must have had great confidence you were on the right track, moving to half iron-distance racing?
For sure. 2012 was a great year, and as mentioned above, was critical in my development. In 70.3 racing and Olympic Distance non-draft racing, I just felt at home. All of the frustrations of ITU were gone. I could race for myself and not for the guys that didn’t want to do any work on the bike that would blitz me on the run. Non-drafting triathlon, in a way, is me personified. You can’t rely on anyone else but yourself on the race course. I had started to make a professional wage, and most importantly, I was having a lot of fun. I really was starting to live the dream.
Since then, you’ve been one of the most successful half iron-distance/70.3 racers in the world with more than a handful of wins, and even more podium finishes to your name, and you’re not 30 years of age yet. But you haven’t been able to reproduce the same level of result in a championship race, as you did back in 2012, and at the end of last year (after your 12th place at the 70.3 worlds) you wrote on your blog: “At this point in my career, I haven’t proven to be a championship racer. That’s the hard truth.” Is that what drives you? Is that what you define your success by because your results last year are impressive on paper!
If it’s title’s I’m winning, then so be it. But I feel the same rush should I be fighting to win at the Byron Bay Triathlon, for instance. — Josh Amberger
At that point in time last year, it was the hard truth. I could win and podium at many races, but not the biggest races. My run hadn’t developed at the same pace that the 70.3 distance has changed, as guys like Gomez and Frodeno have stepped into the distance. But it’s not just these guys; it’s the Tim Reed’s and Sebastian Kienle’s who’s run legs are getting better and better each year also. The run has always been my weakest, but I feel now with my new coach that we are finally starting to address and fix the core problems of my running. Since I wrote that, I have won the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship, which is my first championship win. It’s not a World Championship – I’m still training hard for that one! But to answer the question, titles don’t specifically drive me, it’s the feeling of competition, and being competitive. Fighting to win gives me adrenaline to push on day-by-day. If it’s title’s I’m winning, then so be it. But I feel the same rush should I be fighting to win at the Byron Bay Triathlon, for instance. I mentioned earlier that I grew up competitive; I think this will always be ubiquitous!
I saw an interview you did with Bob Babbitt a couple of years ago, and you said you were in no hurry to start Ironman racing, you wanted to take your time. So how did you come to the decision that it was the right time to step up to the longer distance?
Good question. In revisiting that conversation with Bob in my mind, the answer I gave then came at a time that had its own set of peculiarities. I’d just had a shocking season in 2015, with some injuries and niggles, and was rebuilding the machine for 2016. I’d just had a great season opener with a second at Ironman 70.3 Dubai and seemingly was back on track when Bob dropped the question about Ironman. I’d planned on doing my first Ironman that year because my body was feeling really good, but I just wanted to focus on that one Ironman in Port Macquarie and not get ahead of myself. I think that some athletes put the cart before the horse with Ironman, and they start thinking about Kona when they should be thinking about the next five-hour brick session. So for me, it was always an internal thing. Ironman would happen as my young body would allow it, rather than being aloof about it and getting caught up in the glitter and glamour of Kona, and other big full distance events. I think I’ve always had a good sensory perception on my physical wellness, for lack of a better word, and in 2017, I was feeling great and wanted to dive right into it.
Last year (2016) you made that much-anticipated Ironman debut at Ironman Australia. It was no doubt utterly disappointing for you to be DQ’d. How long did it take you to move on from that? Are you someone who dwells on things or are you the move on quickly type?
It was bitterly disappointing. I’m not ashamed of what happened. I was penalised and later (half way into the marathon) DQ’d for urinating, as everyone does in Ironman, in their race suit with typically no harm done to any party but your own person. Like other times, I could learn and move on to the next race, or I could dwell on it and feel victimised. I voiced my concerns to the parties involved, and whether related or not, the two rules that I was implicated in have since been amended and clarified. I was removed from the race course without appeal and was told I could no longer continue the race. If an athlete is DQ’d, it is now allowed for an athlete to continue in the race, and thus giving the opportunity to lodge a protest at the finish with a result to be reinstated should that protest be successful. This was something I was denied.
Fast-forward to this year, and you sign up for Ironman South Africa and also Ironman Cairns – two regional championship races. It is a brave move to take on two big races with big fields in just your second and third attempts at the distance. Talk us through that decision.
When you’re in tune with yourself and your performance, you just know when change is needed. — Josh Amberger
I just wanted to get a realistic expectation of where the level was at globally, and where I stood among the other men. There was no better way to do it than with two regional championships races. South Africa and Cairns were 10 weeks apart, so realistically it gave me enough time to hit both races with fitness and a degree of freshness.
You get 18th at Ironman South Africa (SA), off the back of racing the inaugural Super League Triathlon at Hamilton Island (17th place finish). What lessons did you take away from the race at SA? Did you implement any changes in your prep for Cairns?
I took away lessons in timing. You just can’t be doing something so unknown and foreign like Super League, and then expect to do an Ironman on another continent two weeks later against a field full of hitters. I’d do Super League again, but not before Ironman. Subsequently, I just wasn’t prepared for either. We tried to mitigate the damage that would happen in Super League by preparing a little bit for Super League, but at the same time forewent training critical for Ironman. So I ended up with a conditioning not great for either race. For Cairns, we had a 10-week stretch of training with no interruptions. This was the key.
Turning up to Cairns, did you have a predetermined goal in mind – a certain finish time, an approach to the race you were trying to nail or was it the win you knew you could get?
The primary goal was to go better than I did in South Africa, to prove to myself that I could be competitive at Ironman, and secondary to that, I wanted to win. It might seem like an ‘all or nothing’ kind of thing, go better than 18th but not worse than first, but that’s really what racing is about for me. I was training with the goal to win. I was never confident prior to the race that it could actually happen, but that’s what kept me motivated to take it to another level in training each and every day. I knew I needed to get better after the defeat in South Africa in order to win Cairns.
I don’t think it surprised anyone in the triathlon community that you are capable of winning an Ironman race – you are highly regarded around the world, but perhaps the win this year was a bit earlier than many might have pencilled you down for. Are you surprised how quickly you’ve got it together at this distance?
I’m definitely surprised. As I spoke about at the beginning, I still find it surreal. Cairns hurt a lot, I was in crushing pain most of the way, but man it went smoothly. Not one hiccup; no cramps, no penalties, no nutritional deficiencies, no toilet stops, not a single bad patch, just a whole eight hours of typical Ironman pains. It just went well. I don’t expect every Ironman to be as unabated, so for this reason, it will probably remain as a surprise for some time.
It has been well publicised that you’ve had a big coaching change this year to Cam Watt who is a coach under the Tri Sutto camp. You have previously moved away from a squad-training environment in your ITU days, to self-coached for many years and then most recently you worked with Cliff English via correspondence. What instigated the change back to a more traditional, hands-on coaching, squad type training environment?
Instinct instigated this change. When you’re in tune with yourself and your performance, you just know when change is needed. Perhaps I suspected this for a while and was scared of change again, but in the end, it was the only option for continued performance gains.
Your result at Cairns would suggest the move has been a positive one. A comment was posted on our twitter after your win – “’Has a potential’ is a bitch of a statement to hear if you can’t unlock it. So often Tri Sutto the locksmith,” (@TrentChappo). Do you feel your potential is being unlocked? If so, that must be liberating!
You got to love a Trent Chapman quote. But yeah, I do feel as if I’m being unlocked – in a physical sense, but also a mental sense too. Our training has been a lot about maturing the racing mind as much as the racing body, which is just something I never got from training myself, or training with a correspondence coach. Being personal with Cam each day has really helped me develop my mental toolbox. But developing Zen isn’t the whole picture. Of course, I’m under a whole new level of physical duress in training. There have been many long hard days of training so far in 2017.
The win at Cairns gets you on the start line in Kona, which I understand wasn’t necessarily the number one focus this year. How has that changed in the last few weeks? Do you now prep for Kona in a different mindset?
So yes, I am now preparing for Kona. It’s in the plan. As I said, I didn’t want to think about Kona if I didn’t have the means to be competitive, but I’m confident now that I’ve found my distance in Ironman. The choice to train for Kona was entirely mine – no pressure has come from Cam or any of my sponsors. There’s no reason we can think of not to do it, so to throw the opportunity away could only be a hindrance in the long term.
You have always been known as one of the best swim/bike athletes in the sport. Is that a tag you like?
Yes, it’s a tag I like. It doesn’t mean that I can’t run, but I think at the same time it’s a concept that puts fear into my competitors when they race me. They know there’s not going to be one moment where they can relax the entire race unless I’m lying in a gutter because they will be chasing me until they can catch and bury me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a hell of a thrill to be leading a race from start to finish.
You’ve spoken before about the admiration you have for Sebastian Kienle – he came out and trained with you in Oz prior to the 70.3 worlds in Mooloolaba last year, and you’ve been to Europe and trained with him. Tell me about that friendship – how did that come about? I don’t imagine Sebi lets too many competitors in his circle!
I think Sebi noticed me as a young guy in 2012, giving it a crack and not holding back on the race course. You get what you see with Sebi – he’s very honest, and I think he likes to see the same respect for honest racing from his competitors too. In 2013, I went to Europe to race the 70.3 European Championships on an amazing course in Wiesbaden, which sadly no longer exists. He introduced himself to me after the race briefing and asked me to lunch. I tried to act cool, and I guess I wasn’t too awkward, so the friendship was born. We share a bit in common, not everything, but quite a few things. I’m still trying to teach him what coffee and beer are supposed to taste like, but we both have great hair, which was an immediate bonding point. To have good friends in a sport that is so physically demanding is pretty special, and it’s been fun to train with him when it’s worked for both of our schedules.
What’s next for you?
I’m building towards Kona with the ITU Long Distance World Championships in Penticton seven weeks out, and the Beijing International Triathlon five weeks out. Either side of this I’ll just be doing a lot of training, both in Bend Oregon, and the Hills District Brisbane. In non-triathlon related endeavor’s, Ashleigh and I are actually in the stages of building a house, so that’s happening in the background, which is very exciting. We should have a fully working concept ready for building approval by the time this is in print. Skullduggery Coffee is also chugging along nicely too, which has been a lot of fun to develop, and Willy and I would love to keep growing this on the side as well.
Fun Facts about Josh:
- He has an Arts degree with a major in History and International Relations
- His sister Eloise is a two-time Olympian in the Synchronised Swimming
- He is one-half of Skullduggery Coffee with Dan Wilson
- He has a love for heavy metal music and vinyl records
Thanks for the thoughtful interview!
PHOTOGRAPHY: Korupt Vision