Triathlete Courtney Atkinson on his bid for a third Olympics. By Cindy MacDonald.
Triple threat: Courtney Atkinson, 36, triathlete
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I grew up on the Gold Coast swimming next to Grant Hackett with Denis Cotterell’s squad at Miami and competed at a national level in surf lifesaving as a primary school kid. Then I went to The Southport School where they have a big sports program and that’s where I started to run. Putting those two things together, this new sport of triathlon seemed to suit.
It’s obviously one of the more difficult sports – you have to divide yourself between three disciplines – but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s in my blood, it’s what I know, it’s what I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very painful and hard thing, but for some crazy reason I’m that way inclined.
I competed in the Olympics at Beijing and London and I was the top Australian male at both. I actually stepped out of the Olympic side of the sport after London and only decided at the beginning of last year that I wanted to go to a third Olympics. No one has done that in Australian triathlon – male or female. That’s obviously a nice motivator. And when you’ve been at the pinnacle of sport or, I suppose, whatever you do, it’s very hard to get that satisfaction or excitement out of whatever you’re doing unless you’re back at that level. When I stepped away from the Olympics, initially it was kind of exciting because it was like a change of job, a change of scenery, a bit of an adventure. But I’ve kind of come full circle because I really miss the pressure of an Olympics campaign.
Australia has had a great history in triathlon. Every Games [since the sport’s inclusion in 2000] we’ve medalled in the women’s race, so we’ve had some real quality women – they’ve all been great workers and very tough. We’ve never actually had a medal in the men’s triathlon. But I don’t really think about comparing the men’s and women’s racing – it’s a completely different style. The men’s racing often is a lot more about speed.
I’m the oldest of the men’s group by far, with the most experience. That obviously has its advantages but also we’re really looking towards the young guys – they’re going to be the future, the next generation of triathletes here in Australia. I’d love to put my hand up and be able to help them. I’m the only male who’s been to the Olympic Games who’s vying for the team this time, so I think that’s a benefit in that I have been through the process. Even little things like first entering the village or going to the food hall can be very overwhelming until you get settled. Having someone with a bit of experience helps.
Beijing was my better result on paper but I had very high expectations going in, so I won’t lie, it was a little bit of a let-down [to finish 11th]. Coming in to London I was in pretty ordinary form, so on paper 18th was worse but I actually over-achieved on what I thought I could do.
First and foremost I’ve got to make the team for Rio. I’ve had some good performances that prove I’m definitely in the ballpark but I’ve also had some average ones. That’s to be expected. I’ve changed my swim coach to focus more on getting off the start line quicker. I’m actually swimming under Richard Scarce, who is [2015 100-metre freestyle World Championship silver medallist] Cam McEvoy’s coach. I’ve really focused on things I need to improve coming back. It seems to have worked so far, but you don’t really know until you get out there and race.
Grant Hackett and I are similar ages and he’s come back, too. I ran into him recently and I said, “It’s funny, after all this time we’re back doing the same thing, going up and down.” And Craig Mottram is another guy of a similar age who’s doing the same thing. It’s kind of nice. The age thing these days is not as big a deal if you keep yourself healthy and fit.
My best result was a fifth at the World Championships in 2009 and I won a junior World Championship in 1999 as a 19-year-old. But for me it’s never been about the results – don’t get me wrong, we love to win – but it’s always just been about proving myself time and time again. I’d much rather have a long, successful career than just win one race.
When I’m not training I’m kind of a home dad, and I feel very, very lucky to have been able to do that, to have my passion turn into my career and have kids and be able to travel the world with them and show them great things. I’ve always pinched myself and gone, “Is this real?” I love what I do so everything else is just a bonus.
You have different values of what’s important once you have children. I’ve got a four-year-old son, Leo, and a nine-year-old daughter, Chloee. The younger guys I train with, their whole life revolves around eating, sleeping and training. Having kids keeps you sane. I don’t have an alarm clock – my boy comes and jumps on my stomach at 5am.
It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for me to be swimming six to eight hours, riding six to 10 hours and running six to eight hours a week. That’s about 20 to 25 kilometres swimming, 350 to 400 kilometres riding and 100 kilometres, give or take, running. It’s definitely not for everyone.
• Triathlon: ITU World Triathlon Series – Gold Coast
Saturday, 9.36am (AEST), women’s; 12.36pm, men’s, Broadwater Parklands
• Soccer: A-League – Central Coast Mariners v Newcastle Jets
Saturday, 5.15pm (AEST), Central Coast Stadium, Gosford, NSW
• Swimming: Australian Championships
Until April 14, evening finals, SA Aquatic & Leisure Centre, Adelaide
• Netball: Adelaide Thunderbirds v Melbourne Vixens
Sunday, 11.30am (ACST), Titanium Security Arena, Adelaide
• NRL: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Gold Coast Titans
Sunday, 2pm (AEST), Southern Cross Group Stadium, Sydney
• AFL: Western Bulldogs v Hawthorn
Sunday, 3.20pm (AEST), Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2016 as "Triple threat".
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