Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Triathlon: Unsung hero ends on high

Today's World Cup triathlon is the end of an era. Andrew Alderson looks at the legacy of Kris Gemmell - for many, the man behind the medals - and Bevan Docherty's ability to be a man of steel in the Ironman.

Kris Gemmell suffered to improve the chances of his fellow countrymen. Photo / Greg Bowker
Kris Gemmell suffered to improve the chances of his fellow countrymen. Photo / Greg Bowker

Kris Gemmell will not appear on any Olympic medal scroll but he remains the catalyst in New Zealand's triathlon glory years from 2004 to 2008.

Gemmell's support of Olympic medallists Hamish Carter and Bevan Docherty in their respective gold and silver in Athens and bronze for Docherty in Beijing is often pushed to the periphery. Medals are a public and government investment focus; how they were created behind the scenes tends to be ignored. Gemmell is the equivalent of Joe Stanley passing for John Kirwan to score tries or Ewen Chatfield bowling economical spells while Sir Richard Hadlee took wickets.

The 35-year-old's triathlon career - at least over the Olympic distance - ends today on the Auckland waterfront but if it wasn't for his selfless efforts ahead of Athens 2004, New Zealand may not have celebrated one of its greatest Olympic moments. Gemmell was a shock omission for those Olympics - but was recruited to train in the Carter camp under coach Chris Pilone and the Docherty camp under Mark Elliott, the man who has since masterminded New Zealand's five track cycling medals at the last two Olympics.

That showed the level of respect for Gemmell, seen as someone prepared to suffer agony to improve the chances of his fellow countrymen. When Gemmell's coach John Hellemans retired after Beijing, Gemmell asked Pilone if he would consider coaching "a tired old hack". Pilone did not hesitate.

"For him to so narrowly miss selection and contribute as he did [ahead of Athens], I defy any athlete of mine to do the same. I initially opposed Kris going into both camps. I thought it might be disruptive but we became good friends." "I feel comfortable saying I felt I played a big part in the Athens build-up," Gemmell says.

"We trained every day for five to six months and it made the difference between a podium finish or elsewhere in the top 10. I happened to be at most of the key sessions 12-16 days out, I saw how well each of them [Carter and Docherty] was going. I just couldn't pick a winner.

"It was beneficial for me too. I was in the best shape of my life and won my first World Cup [at Gamagori in Japan] just a few weeks later. It was a catalyst for continuing my career."

GEMMELL LOVED being part of the high performance programme from its infancy. "The moment which stands out is training with Bevan on his way to winning the 2004 world championships. Bevan had already qualified for the Olympics. I'd missed out but told him I'd be keen to help. We went to France and roughed it, living by ourselves in an apartment, the old school way. I suppose we had processes and planning but we basically trained our butts off.

"Bevan had the ability to put me under stress and pressure at every training session. We had arguments, bitched and moaned at each other but it was nice to know before the race something special was going to happen."

Docherty said: "Kris' problem is he's always so helpful and has made so many sacrifices for others. I'm selfish but Kris can't be that person. It's probably been detrimental to him. I know it was really hard on him not to qualify in 2004 but he just tried to help me train. He was my little training bitch.

"I owe a lot to him, it was fantastic to have someone of that calibre. It definitely lifts you and it's one of the reasons the [2012 Olympic medallists] Brownlee brothers are so good today because they have a similar competitive arrangement."

Pilone says Gemmell made the difference as the liaison between the Carter and Docherty Olympic camps in 2004: "Mark [Elliott, high performance manager ] and I used to meet in my flat and basically planned the campaign on scraps of paper. We still had to keep our distance at times given we had rival athletes on our books. Gemmell would consult with us and he would say it might be an idea to keep them apart. Otherwise they would have trained each other into the ground.

"Despite the rivalry, I developed an outstanding working relationship with Mark. I thought he was the best high performance manager in any sport by a long way. He was measured and cool under pressure and delegated well. He ran that Olympic programme on bugger-all money and they got two medals. I remember fellow coach Pete Pfitzinger leaving a message on my phone the day we lost him [from triathlon]. I thought someone had died. I sat on the couch and cried."

Gemmell's efforts helped Docherty become one of New Zealand's great athletes and it seems appropriate their careers at the Olympic distance should end simultaneously.

Elliott wishes he could witness Docherty in action today but, being a man of his word, he spoke at the Oamaru Squash Club's 75th anniversary last night - honouring a promise to his mother, a dedicated club member.

"Bevan would be the first to admit he's not the most naturally gifted athlete but he'd be one of the most hardworking," Elliott says. "It's reflected in his longevity. He religiously beat himself into oblivion. In that 2004 build-up, I came to the conclusion he couldn't be broken. He just monstered the workload. One day he did 40km on the bike with Gemmell, then they destroyed each other over five six-minute reps on the run at 3km pace.

"His mental capacity to cope was phenomenal. He was bloody-minded, clear about what he wanted and consistently applied himself. That's what makes you imagine he could go on to succeed in Ironman. Some people do 16-hour days but it is not necessarily visiting the deepest, darkest places Bevan did in training on a daily basis. Somehow he embraced it."

- Herald on Sunday

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