Taking a Chance
History classes were always filled with bloody tales of epic battles, heroes and villains, revolutions and conquests; the Nazis; Communism; the Holocaust. History was certainly dramatic, but it always felt slightly removed – it placed a comfortable measure of time away from us, not to feel overly affected. Few of our grandparents, who lived these tales, remain with us and as time goes on our emotional connection to atrocities lived by our ancestors dampens.
We are not though, disconnected from history. We live it. Events in our lifetime will be taught in the classrooms of our own grandchildren; the race riots of 1960s America; the rise of Isis; North Korean armament.
My husband has touched a part of recent history more shocking than most. He was born into apartheid South Africa.
Apartheid was thankfully demolished in the early 1990s but the effects and repercussions of such exploitative and marginalising legislation live on. There are still racial tensions, massive political concerns and huge government corruption. There are still racial quotas set for employment, for sporting representation and for government funding.
Apartheid has shaped South Africa and it’s people beyond measure – and still does. The united South Africa still sees in black and white.
Most South African people suffered in some way during apartheid. Sportspeople paid a huge price for their government’s actions. The world sanctioned South Africa, banning their participation in any international sports event between 1964 and 1995. For 28 years, apartheid crippled South African sport.
Twenty years on, free South African athletes shine in the world’s spotlight. Their accolades reach far beyond any funding or support granted them. There is no sustained ‘World Class Performance Program’ (GB), or ‘AIS’, in South Africa to speak of – what provision there is, is inadequate. Athletes routinely pay to represent their country on the world stage – coaches often drop out of sport due to lack of finance; bureaucracy too often drowns development.
James Cunnama is the fastest Ironman athlete ever from Africa (7.51.02 at Ironman Frankfurt in 2017). He has finished the highest of any South African ever in the Ironman World Championship (fourth in 2013). He has won Challenge Roth (2012), Embrunman (2016), Alpe Du Huez (2010/2016), the inaugural Ironman Hamburg (2017), Ironman Florida (2010) and medalled at multiple Ironman 70.3s across the world.
Currently, on a winning streak in 2017 with wins at Ironman Hamburg, Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote and Ironman 70.3 Weymouth, my husband has proved himself a contender for the Ironman world title in 2017.
I grab him for a chat about his past, his present and his future in triathlon.
Kona 2017: James had an amazing race on The Big Island this year, finishing in fifth position.
James Cunnama: “I don’t remember much. I had a childhood. It’s the only childhood I know, so I can’t say what was weird about it. But in hindsight, I guess I was in a weird situation – no international sport, no black people in my school, a country on the edge of civil war … But I was not yet seven-years-old when Mandela was released in 1990; I turned 11 on the day of the first democratic election, which ended apartheid – on 27 April 1994. In 1995 South Africa was back on the world sports stage, winning the IRB Rugby World cup and in 1996 competing at the Atlanta Olympics. I hardly registered that this was a huge shift in the sporting world of South Africa. My dreams of world domination had hardly begun, so I never faced the possibility of politics ruining them … Well, I still do, but different politics …”
The long absence from international presence meant that young South Africans, like James, had no native role models to emulate in international sport. That allowed domestic competition to draw a higher amount of focus. The feats that home racers, within South African competitions, achieved were more recognised and supported.
Adoration of endurance events like the ‘Comrades Marathon’ (an ultramarathon of 89km), and the ‘Dusi’ (120km river paddle), mushroomed during the apartheid era. Furthermore, when winners of these races, like Bruce Fordyce, used their notoriety as platforms to protest the regime their influence reached far wider than sport. The Comrades marathon cemented a place in South African political history.
While the rest of the world’s children projected their dreams towards winning the Olympics, the World Cup or the World Championship, winning ‘Comrades’ was all James Cunnama ever thought of.
James Cunnama: “I think I was very young when I envisaged a career as an ultra-runner. I grew up watching Comrades start/finish in my town, and training with Comrades runners (albeit not elite runners in any way – picture bellies and shuffles mostly …). I dreamed of emulating Bruce Fordyce’s accomplishments. I don’t know why that particularly appealed to me, maybe it was the biggest sporting event I knew of, maybe just the proximity of it. But I soon found I had a propensity to run far – the further it was, the better I was compared to my peers … Looking back now, maybe that was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that I wanted to be good at long distances, or maybe it was just a meeting of talent and opportunity …”
The ‘talent’ that James speaks of is ridiculously abundant.
Historically, I have difficulties with the premise of that word – that talent is a ‘gift’ and not something that encompasses much dedication and commitment to developing. With James – watching him run track, timing his splits and knowing his training history, his ‘gift’ is undeniable.
Our upbringings within sport sit at polar opposites. I joined a structured program with coaches and development opportunities from the outset. I trained more than twenty hours a week from the age of thirteen. James didn’t train at all – he went jogging with a bunch of oldies before school. If he felt like it.
L-R: Winning at Challenge Roth 2012, running strong at Kona 2017 and with partner, Jodie Cunnama.
James Cunnama: “I think what drew me to the sport was the simple pleasure of it. I used to run early in the morning, before school with my mum’s Comrades training group. We’d run from a different person’s house four mornings a week, and they’d pick a route, usually off road, through forests. It was a good way to start the day. We’d end with tea and cake at the host’s house… making it an even better way to start the day for a growing boy…”
As a teen, I raced multiple times across a weekend, gallivanting across the UK – from cross-country to gala, to award ceremony. James rarely raced and spent his weekends cavorting outdoors with his brothers. He went to parties and he played. He went on school trips and he broke bones.
James Cunnama: “I grew up on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg and was a few hundred metres to the endless pine plantation forests (this pine gradually changed to gum plantations – a tragedy as far as I’m concerned…). These forests went pretty much forever, and we used to use them a lot – walking dogs in wellies when young, running, riding mountain bikes, going on long hikes.”
In fact, James knew nothing about triathlon until 2005 – when Ironman South Africa first came to his University town of Port Elizabeth. Still running, still loving sport and excited by the event, James signed up as a volunteer to help the following year.
The next year, having quizzed racer Steven Bayliss about his training and lifestyle, James raced as a professional. In 2008, after finishing a distant 10th in the professional field, so chuffed from the result, James managed to extrapolate that he had real potential. He had heard that Brett Sutton was a ‘good coach’ and so he mailed him. He wrote to him saying he wanted ‘to win the Ironman World Championship’.
When I joined Brett Sutton I was already ITU World Long Distance Champion, I had medalled at World Cups, been to the Olympics and raced at a good international level for 10 years. Brett put me on ‘trial’. I was still on ‘trial’ when I won the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. James did one track session and blew up completely, Brett took him on.
James Cunnama: “I think from the first contact we clicked. I had a certain cockiness, he had a blunt, to-the-point honesty. As harsh as it sometimes was, I liked that. We never really clashed, not like so many other people I have seen come and go through his coaching over the years. We understood each other and got to work. I guess it is that simple. Soon the results started coming and that cemented my trust and confidence in him as a coach.”
James and Brett’s relationship is a strange thing. They share an understanding and respect rarely seen between coach and athlete. They communicate without saying much at all. James is the only athlete I have ever seen be more cross at Brett than Brett is at him.
In 2013, however, after James’s highest placing in Kona (fourth), we were all cross at each other. Brett was mad because James hadn’t won, James was mad because Brett was mad he hadn’t won and I was mad because, a fourth place in Kona, when ‘sick as a dog’, should be acknowledged for the accomplishment it is – at least not desecrated for a few weeks after.
We all fell out without saying much at all.
James Cunnama: “I don’t think many coaching relationships, like actual relationships, end well. It is personal. It has to be. So, when it breaks down, it hurts. Both sides. After 2013 Kona (where I came fourth) Brett and I fell out. Actually, I think the falling-out started much earlier, and I was hurt by it. I probably took it way too personally.
“But Brett and I never achieved our goal. We never reached the best that our combined forces could achieve. There was unfinished business. While I had some success away from Brett, even winning some events, I didn’t manage to win under his guidance, I wasn’t getting the best out of myself. And time was ticking on my career. Jodie kept in contact with him throughout (despite also leaving his coaching) and she instigated the move back to Brett. Jodie, Brett and I all wanted the same thing – me to be at my best. So, the hatchet was buried and we got (back) to work.”
James hadn’t spoken a word to Brett for three and a half years. I had forgiven our history (although I am still quite mad at him for training Ryf to beat me at the Ironman World 70.3 Championship in 2014) and we communicated a little, more as friends than anything else. Brett guessed I was pregnant early on and wanted the best for our family, a family, he, after all, had introduced and encouraged at the very beginning. James rejoined Brett in May.
The plan has worked so far. Whether it’s the training, the coaching, the baby’s imminent arrival, or all three, James is winning almost everything he races and is back to running 2.40 marathons while doing so.
It’s a tricky thing for both an Australian or a South African male to back down. James is very far from the ‘Saffa’ stereotype, but if there is one trait he does exhibit, it is his stubbornness. When Brett and James finally reunited it served to highlight the significance of family, for both of them. The future now transcended the arguments of the past. The motivation for results takes on a whole new meaning with a new baby to support and a wife on maternity leave.
Our professional sports life revolves around relationships and memories as much as any other sector of life does. Sport provides us with a platform to better ourselves, to challenge our beliefs and review our priorities. Those challenges, in turn, transform into our biggest accomplishments in life.
James Cunnama: “I am most proud of simply being a professional athlete, chasing my dreams and living them. That sounds all gushy, but I took risks and made it work – I passed up doing Sport Science Honours. After uni, I took a job where I could train (and learn) at the expense of big career possibilities, and then when the opportunity presented itself, I went all-in, quitting my job and leaving home (and SA) for six months at a time, living hand-to-mouth until I made some money. Maybe I was lucky – certainly, some luck was involved – and maybe it was just youthful confidence, but in sport, I am most proud of how, on the smallest sign of promise, I created opportunities and then seized them with both hands. I’ve seen lots of peers fail with far more talent and opportunity than I ever had…”
I too am proudest of James for prioritising our family in difficult circumstances. He has more than ‘stepped up to the plate’, with me stuck on the sidelines in pregnancy. It hasn’t been easy – we have both made big sacrifices this year. We have spent more than half my pregnancy on different continents, both working ferociously in different ways, to make it work. As I sit in my prenatal classes alone, amongst the supportive partners of the other mothers, I rest safe in the knowledge that sometimes the most important kind of support is to be absent, to miss out, to try the extraordinary.
We took a chance this year on sacrifice, perseverance, confidence and trust, and it worked out. Even if it hadn’t, I hope if nothing else, we have learnt to teach that lesson to our son.