Strong | Brave | Humble
Patriotism. It has always been held as an honourable quality in a person, portraying loyalty and belonging, commitment and sacrifice. In sport, especially, we display our international colours and hold our flags high with pride. Our homes mean the world to us. Our upbringings and values are reflected in our representatives abroad – our forces, diplomats, sportspeople and politicians.
Each year at Wimbledon I watch the British public swarm to the latest potential British hope irrespective of birth nationality, class or privilege. Citizenship alone suffices to stimulate support, no matter of attitude, manner or personality. People who wear your flag, were raised in your time zone and speak your language, hold familiarity and that bond does much to irradicate otherwise poignant differences in people. Those holding other flags assert opposition to the tribalist tendencies we crave to mark our territory and our very identity. It is entirely ridiculous in actuality, but it is universal human behaviour. Australians hate to be beaten by South Africans. The Welsh detest English sport. Everyone wants to beat the Americans. The closer we are, in culture and heritage the more we emphasise our differences. Sport becomes the perfect platform to market the productivity and advantage of our unique ‘brands’ of culture.
I’ve found it relatively easy to interview the subjects I have chosen for Australian Triathlete so far. It has always been my mission to expose the true personalities, motivations and histories of the understated and underexposed stars of our sport. Candid, honest and descriptive answers, only, allow me this level of personality-penetration.
When the editor asked me to interview an American triathlete, I got nervous. I hadn’t chosen to interview an American champion for the series yet. American sports personalities present very differently to British and Australian sportspeople, who tend to level with their audience, rather than be ascended to glossy, filtered, ‘heroes of life’. In a culture where motivational speaking is embraced without eye roll, I was worried that cliché and quote would dilute the integrity of the piece.
More fool me. How extraordinarily injudicious. Some brands of positivity remain very real, and the personality of Meredith Kessler is one of them. There are optimists who can understand trauma; there are those that can speak of regret.
“Positivity too is a mindset – a productive mission and one can always choose an attitude that moves you forward. Of course, this is never easy for anyone. This outlook also stems from experience. Personally, I feel stronger because of the hard times, wiser because of the many failures/mistakes that I have made and certainly happier because, like everyone in life, of course, I have felt epic sadness as well. These experiences have helped to enable me to look through a brighter lens rather than dark negativity,” says Meredith.
Meredith has indeed lived some rough patches. Like all of us, there have been as many mistakes, trials and tribulations as there have successes, glory and happiness. I have witnessed some of the lows personally, even featured in some of the drama and supported some of the heartaches.
I’ve shared in her disappointments at too many Ironman World Championships where she truly deserved better results. I’ve never really understood the issue with Mere’s below-par performance at the two majors, Meredith being a perennially tough racer who excels on extreme courses. Her best ‘World’ result was a respectable fourth in 2014, on the hard, hilly but fair Ironman 70.3 course of Mont Tremblant in 2014. Her best Ironman World Championship was a good seventh in 2013. Neither result demonstrates her pedigree. I have raced her at her best – when she has ‘whipped my arse’, twice for the top spot at the Ironman 70.3 St George American Championship.
“I fail in Kona every time – yet with that failure, I have also learned more than I ever thought possible and maybe, just maybe, that will help me try to ‘conquer’ it for once in the future. Once again, I have made many approaches to Kona – the conservative, the analytical, the preparatory, the fly in-fly out – we have done it all. Not caring about it, caring about it, changing my diet, not swimming in the ocean, trying to figure out through every means at my disposal. I watched a few videos this year of competitors that didn’t succeed, and a lot of their symptoms were what I have felt too. I don’t claim to have any answers, but I know there are other areas on the globe at different times of the year where I feel pretty good during a race. So, all you can do is continue to learn and try to figure out the island,” she muses.
Having logged a magnificent 11 Ironman titles in her nine-year career and claiming a further 21 Ironman 70.3 titles, it is clear that Meredith reacts well to pressure, and has the ability to lead and win races. The equation of Kona hasn’t worked out for her, but I have a nagging feeling it will – at the right time, in the correct headspace. I’m not saying that because I am nice. I am not that nice, not like Meredith.
“In 2009, I was just an aspiring female professional triathlete at the age of 30, looking to make a living and get on the podium in some races. Fast-forward to now, and I am genuinely grateful for a total of 30+ victories in our sport – none of which are ever taken for granted. I am not discounting ‘world titles’ in the slightest and to be able to get one in this lifetime would be cherished, as it sets up a platform of great things for the future,” Meredith continues.
I fail in Kona every time – yet with that failure, I have also learned more than I ever thought possible. – Meredith Kessler
Rarely have I seen such commitment to friendship or kinship in a competitor as given by Meredith to most in our sport. Truthfully, the extent of support initially felt so outrageously alien to me that it spun me off guard. To receive emails of luck, of congratulations, of support or indeed of genuine friendliness for no reason (other than friendship) from a competitor, is rare in our profession. So sceptical of genuine care in our competitive circles, trust of Meredith’s authentic generosity took me some time to build. It’s a scathing reflection of my own experiences in professional sport.
“The truth is: I think I’m just not that competitive – really? Unclear. I’m not sure how to accurately describe my thought process on it. That word – “competitive” – isn’t my favourite either because it means something different to me internally. I do not do cutthroat in sport, ever, and I often view some ‘uber competitive’ people that are obsessed with winning as just that – cutthroat. There is also a fine line between having a ‘friendly competition’ with your fellow competitors vs. having a deep seated obsession with defeating them so adamantly. When you are flirting with the latter, it makes the experience deflating and negative. The best way to balance this with triathlete colleagues is to never do facade. It’s more important to me to treat people how I would like to be treated,” says Meredith.
A successful professional athlete who doesn’t prioritise winning …
As professional athletes, we spin stories of strength, endeavour and perseverance that lead to our success. Compact sayings encapsulate winning formulas and satisfy the branding of winning. A champion’s words are so forceful, sure and confident.
Mohammed Ali: “My only fault is that I don’t realise how great I really am.”
Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Knute Rockne: “Show me a gracious loser, and I’ll show you a failure.”
Billie Jean King: “A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning.”
Tiger Woods: “Winning solves everything.”… (Except sex addiction it would seem).
Time, perspective and reality paint a different truth to these pithy one-liners. Imagine saying these sentences in public.
It isn’t a coincidence that these quotes come from American Champions. Sporting prowess fits impeccably with the concept of the ‘American Dream’ and perhaps explains the magnetism and concept of sports hero worship in the States. There is a definite trend to disengagement with such rhetoric elsewhere in the world. Meredith Kessler understands that.
“‘I’m here to win.’ ‘I am going to win.’ ‘I work harder than anyone else out there, and I will win.’ These cliched statements feel like nails down a chalkboard to me. Where’s the modesty, the vulnerability? It takes me back to my youth, being around the sport a lot, and those ‘winning quotes’, the cocky ones that float around like: ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ ‘The person who said winning isn’t everything probably never won anything.’ Yikes. Let me tell you something. I have never been treading water at the start of any race and been that certain that a win was on the cards. Never. A heck of the lot of the time I am feeling vulnerable, uncomfortable, unsure, scared – a heck of a lot of the time,” she confesses.
Meredith is on a mission to change perceptions of what constitutes sporting success in her country. In understanding that winning is (very much) not the only thing, even in elite sport, is to redefine ‘success’ and ‘failure’ from the devastatingly ‘black and white’ terms that guarantee failure for 99 per cent of people in sport. Sport offers much more in life than a victory or a podium place and that really is what all participation sport it about. It teaches ways to ride the journey of life and strategies to pursue the ultimate goal – a life of happiness.
“If I’m a happy human than I’m a happy racer,” says Meredith.
While sentences from Meredith’s dialogue can be extracted and can easily sound like cliched motivational speak, in totality, her approach is far from that. Unlike others, she values balance over obsession, prioritising family and friends over career and fortune in any sporting arena to pursue perfect equilibrium for happiness in her life.
“Becoming World Champion may never be on the cards for me, no prize is worth messing with that equilibrium,” she adds.
Now, as a 39-year-old veteran of the sport and the harsh lessons it teaches, Meredith feels more qualified to offer life advice to others. She is stronger in ignoring criticism, and the inevitable negativity that comes with occupying the limelight and scrutiny associated with American sporting fame.
“I am all about decluttering the riff-raff from our lives too. The 30-year-old Meredith is so different to the 39-year-old Meredith. That 30-year-old said yes to everything, ran around completely maximised, totally not present, not present at all. The older, wiser Meredith has learnt over time (and is still very much a work in progress) that we have to say no to good things to say yes to important things. Part of this valuable decluttering process is being very cognisant of making time for people that make time for you,” shares Meredith.
If there is any time to have learnt and processed such lessons it is the now of Meredith’s life; about to birth her first child*. She will face the delicate balance of prioritising a child with maximising her time spent training and racing to the best of her ability. It’s a pursuit she does not take lightly and one she is already allocating strategy and resource to in preparation for upheaval. The family recently moved cross-country from their 17-year base in San Francisco back to their family origins in Ohio where the help of grandparents and childhood connections will become the village to help raise a baby.
“We needed to simplify life and live in a more sustainable area of the US. My husband has been working hard to launch his new companies, and this was something we needed to do as a team, as he has done for me in the past on our life journey together,” explains Meredith.
As a support through our concurrent pregnancies, if pregnancy has caused me a headache, it has presented Mere with the nightmare of migraines. She has faced multiple complications and concerns, compared to my smooth experience of being a pregnant athlete, with grace and honesty. My perpetual moans, borderline pessimism, and hatred of pregnancy probably felt rather contrary in comparison, but I never felt judged or guilted for not ‘enjoying the journey’.
“Oh J! I don’t view you as less positive at all – I view you as realistic. I appreciate this candid and real outlook because it is ok for humans to feel regardless of the circumstances. The goal is to bust out BBK (baby boy Kessler) as best as we can in early November and return to my job of racing relatively quickly. These legs have several more years of competitive racing left in them – hopefully just with a tiny human in tow! I would venture to say that I would like to race professionally well into my mid-40s and/or when BBK starts to have extra activities going on in his life,” vows Meredith.
Meredith has made no bones about the fact she will pursue a full race schedule in 2018. Training, although understandably stilted and compromised by the progressing pregnancy, will not be affected likewise by motherhood. It is a tricky area for women in our sport, and any, to negotiate.
Our bodies must become vessels for children at a time running parallel to their physical maturation and optimisation in our careers. That coupled with the need for financial backing to pursue a professional season and a dwindling economy in the sport has laid heavy on Meredith’s mind through this year, on the sidelines.
“As we know, it is a business – and businesses have to sell a product, and we need to show them that we can help them accomplish this. With that being said, I constantly point to Rachel Joyce and other mums in our sport who have crushed it after having a child. They get a lot of press for their sponsors,
they generate a whole new following of age group mums, and they are beacons of light for women in the sport. Sponsors have to love and respect this type of exposure. That said, with a lot of my contracts up this December, I am still a squirrel trying to get a nut in the sponsoring department. Sponsorships (and money/support in general) have vastly declined in triathlon over the last few years. Even as a veteran triathlete in our sport, I often struggle to snag some contracts equivalent to when I was a first-year pro. This was even an issue when I was not pregnant, and racing was going well! Thus, I feel like I’m at a disadvantage going forward, yet I hope that sponsors will keep their faith and belief that I will deliver in 2018,” Meredith confides.
The approach of the crop of currently pregnant triathlon champions to their return to racing and their sponsors is uniquely interesting. Some have sat back, enjoyed time away, and trusted in the most natural process in the world – that life will evolve, babies will come, and sponsors will return. Others have grafted alternative paths of exposure and work for their sponsors, reached out to women in the sport, and assimilated projects and plans for an imminent return to the sport.
We are yet to discover which strategies pay off for each individual. Meredith has used the time to write a second book with her husband, this time concentrating on business plans and revenue generators for professional sports people to employ.
These legs have several more years of competitive racing left in them – hopefully just with a tiny human in tow! – Meredith Kessler
I feel like Meredith has a perpetual fire in her belly for action. Her energy is infectious, even to an eight and a half month pregnant seal. Sorry…athlete.
“Publishing a book was a bucket list item. It always feels good to start and finish something in the form of a book you can touch, feel and read. We were very grateful to receive wonderful notes from age groupers who learned tidbits of information from it – this is what makes it all worthwhile,” she says proudly.
I’ll end my piece about this remarkable competitor with one of Mere’s optimistic, sugar-coated gems of information. A piece of advice that should resonate with all – Aussie, Pom or Yank. Young, old, novice
“Never let success get to your head nor failures to your heart,” finishes Meredith.
Now that is brilliant advice.
*At the time of this edition of the magazine going on sale Meredith had given birth to a baby boy, MAK – Madden Ace Kessler.
Images: Korupt Vision