By Rebecca Wiasak
I first met Tyson Mahon the triathlete in transition at Mooloolaba this year. Seven years earlier when he was a track runner, we were best mates. Despite the time that has passed it feels like nothing has changed. We are older, better educated and more attractive. But during that time Tyson has lost and won a few battles. We caught-up in his hometown Geelong earlier this week where he helped me fill in the gaps, and talked me through the sport switch.
TT: If either of us is ever famous and writes a book, I’d like a chapter dedicated to our reunion in transition at Mooloolaba. It was a bit like a movie script.
TM: I actually think about it now, and it was like the perfect moment. It was the time I needed someone the absolute most. And the person that I loved the most throughout my entire life, I finally run into, after so many years of not seeing them. It was just amazing. It’s one of those things where if I didn’t have someone like you there on that day, I would have been an absolute mess. I thought I would say that, because it was a really intense summer.
TT: I guess we should go back to the start. You were a junior prodigy. You grew up at the beach at Torquay and did nippers and surf-lifesaving before finding a talent in athletics. At what point did you decide which sport to pursue and how difficult was it to make that decision?
TM: That was an interesting one. I remember Dad taking me down to surf-lifesaving. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I was there with my cousins and somebody handed us these caps and we chucked them on. There I am with my cousin and was like “What’s going on? What are we doing here?” We just thought let’s go along with it. Dad said he was taking us down to a carnival and we just assumed there were going to be rides and stuff. As it turns out, it was a competition and we had never competed before. It was just us running around with garden hoses in our hands and doing flags and all these different activities.
So that’s kind of where I began in terms of my sport. We had a lot of fun and the purpose of going to athletics was to get some fitness for surf-lifesaving. Dad suggested it, so a few of my mates from surf-lifesaving went down to Little Aths. We kept turning up every Saturday and all of a sudden I started to do quite well in sprint hurdles. Then you’re making states, and winning medals at state championships. One of my teachers at school thought I had a bit of talent and suggested I go and see this guy Bruce Scriven and try to set up a meeting with him. So I went to train with Scrivo and there were all these people running around and I was super nervous when I first went there. You’ve got people like Georgie Clarke running around the track with her brother Tim Clarke, and Paul Byrne rocking up so it was a great little environment to be part of.
So I think after starting with Scrivo, I went up to him and said “look, they’ve put me in the 800m at school so do you mind if we do a bit of 800m training so I don’t look like an idiot.” I trained one day a week, won the districts, won the states, and then ended up winning national titles, which was a huge buzz. So after a few years of just doing running and collecting a few more national titles, I started breaking records and Scrivo basically strongly suggested I make a choice between surf-lifesaving and running. You can see that there may be a future in it, you’re excited, you’re a young kid, and you think Olympics. Surf-lifesaving obviously isn’t in the Olympics.
TT: You trained with exceptional athletes including Georgie Clarke, Richard Jeremiah, and Craig Mottram. How hard was it being the youngest in the group and living in their shadows?
TM: It was funny because that was one of the big appeals training in that group. Those people made the group what it was. It was always a real buzz just to go to training. The sessions at Landy Field, you’re rocking up and you’ve got all these world-class athletes all running around the track, and you’re a part of it. I never looked at it as vying for attention from Scrivo. I just looked at it as I’m so lucky. Why not make the most of it. You look at someone like Georgie Clarke and what she was able to achieve so young, and particularly Craig Mottram…just to have access to those people and to see them every single day at training, see what they were doing, see how they interacted, see how they attacked and approached each session. If you could call it an apprenticeship, it was a fantastic one to have.
TT: I was always very jealous of your squad. There was this massive rivalry between the different sides of the track. You had the Deakin Athletics Club athletes on one side running off down the Barwon River for a 30-minute warm-up whereas we would jog a lap of the track and were just there for fun.
TM: There was a bit of a distinction between the two sides. As a young athlete, the fun element was there at times, but when you’re put in that professional environment…as much as it was a fantastic opportunity to see what was going on, I always felt like I had to lift my level. Being 14 or 15 you’re never going to match what an older person can do. I did envy the other side of the track at times, particularly when there was a 400m session and you guys were doing sprints or something like that. I was thinking ‘sometimes I wish I could just do that.’
TT: You were a multiple national champion yet despite all your success in athletics, after the Mooloolaba triathlon you said you still had unfinished business. Were you in a bad headspace at that point in the season or do you genuinely believe you left the track too early?
TM: I left because I was getting injured all the time, I couldn’t be consistent, and my body wasn’t allowing me to do the training. The training wasn’t being adapted either. I wasn’t turning up to races and feeling like I was invincible like I used to. As a result of that, my attitude changed towards my training and my racing. I hated it. I resented training. I resented the people I was training with. The training group was never the same when Georgie and Craig left and they left a massive hole. I felt like there was a point to prove because they weren’t there anymore.
I missed out on World Youth, World Cross-Country, World Junior Championships, and all those things I was really looking forward to as a stimulus to get some passion back in. Those injuries really knocked me around. I was living as a day-boarder for 12 hours a day out at Geelong Grammar and it’s not really conducive to being a professional athlete. But also at the same time, I think that saved me from making some mistakes because I was able to focus on my education. I was able to get a great TER and get into uni. I think that was almost a blessing in disguise. Unfortunately I’m one of those people that is all or nothing.
I left Mooloolaba feeling really dejected and really contemplating whether I would continue in the sport, or if I would go back to sport. There were some really big decisions to be made. I ended up going over to Singapore and decided to persevere with the season. That was one of the worst decisions and best decisions I could have made because it forced a lot of change. The positive changes have led me to a brand new training environment where I am the happiest and fittest I can remember.
TT: There was a very intense period there when you were at Geelong Grammar School and battling debilitating injuries. How do you drag yourself out of that state which is almost bordering on depression?
TM: It has taken me a number of years to accept that experience. Part of me thought I would never be an elite athlete again, and would just do sport for a pastime. That’s kind of what the intention behind triathlon was – to offer an escape from all the things that were happening in athletics. It was an opportunity to disappear and have some anonymity and turn up for races with no expectation, where nobody knows who I am, after so many years of everyone knowing every single stat about you – your personal best, your progressions, your height, your weight. It was a good idea to move on and get out of that situation.
Even when I won the open race at Noosa in 2008 and got my professional licence, I still wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do triathlon. I was always feeling like ‘would I ever get there in this sport’. It’s a lot different to running around a track. It’s a lot different to surf-lifesaving. The other thing that appealed to me about triathlon was that it wasn’t about your physicality, it was more about your mental toughness. Each race isn’t perfect. If you go into a race expecting a perfect race, you’re always quite disappointed.
I think the thing that hurt me the most was watching the Beijing Olympics. That cut me so deep. Just to see athletes that I had been racing against and was beating. Congratulations to them for persevering with their own personal issues and injuries. I felt like Beijing was always going to be my chance to represent Australia so to watch that on TV in my lounge-room in Torquay was so painful. It was just devastating but I tried to channel that for Noosa and then won there. That question has always been hanging over my head, whether I would go back to athletics and have a crack. It wasn’t until I had a really good chat with John Quinn earlier in the year after Singapore that I thought if I go back to aths, it would be stepping back in time. I’ve got all these great opportunities ahead of me with triathlon and that’s what I have been working so hard for.
TT: You kind of dropped off the radar for a few years. My Mum used to send me newspaper clippings from The Geelong Advertiser when you were still running. How did you get involved in triathlon?
TM: I ran into Jo King a few times and I had been struggling with some back and hamstring injuries and Scrivo was getting frustrated with me. Things were blowing up within the group. I had to start swimming because of the back problem and was thinking about getting a bike. She suggested I have a crack at tris. My intention wasn’t to be an elite athlete in the sport, it was just to do something different. Things were getting worse in athletics and I wasn’t able to string more than a few weeks of training together. When I decided to make the switch, Jo kind of helped me out.
I went into my first tri at Portarlington and won that. A year later I entered my first elite race and beat Peter Robertson. That was a good lift but I still wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be an elite triathlete. I was starting to collect a few more results that suggested I could do this, and that’s when I went up and won Noosa. I thought this is a great platform. Then two weeks after Noosa I got hit by a car, and that knocked me out for the rest of the season. I had been in contact with Jono Hall about the NTID program. I moved coaches to Jarrod Evans and that’s when I started being involved in the national high performance program.
TT: There is a real big push for the National Talent Identification and Development (NTID) pathway, and talent transfer between sports. You’re a prime example of what the program can achieve.
TM: It has been extremely beneficial for me. There was a time when I thought ‘how do you get into this high performance network’. I could continue to do elite racing at the Gatorade Series but that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. If I wanted to persevere with this, I wanted to take it to the next level. To get into NTID has certainly opened a lot of doors for me. They were doors that I think I would have been able to open myself but it has been a really good facilitator for me to get into races that otherwise would have been really difficult to get involved with.
Obviously there are issues with any sort of program or institute, but I think they’ve done a great job. I think it is a fantastic program to be a part of. It’s a really exciting thing for sport in general. Just because you excel in one sport, doesn’t mean that’s your sport. You could be better suited to another sport. There have been so many great examples like Emma Lincoln-Smith. I was team captain with her at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival and she went through the talent transfer to Skeleton and made the Olympic final. There is Bridie O’Donnell in cycling and so many others who are doing well in the program.
TT: The NTID program has given you the ability to travel overseas. You got your first international podium at the ITU Asian Cup in Singapore last year.
TM: That was the toughest race I have ever done because of the conditions. It was just so hot and humid. I was probably more proud of my 10th place in Hong Kong. The Oceania Championships in Wellington further reinforced to me that I’m not far off. I came out in the front pack, had an awesome ride and am more tactically aware of how things are fought out in these ITU races.
TT: You’re off to the ITU Asian Cup in Korea this weekend. What are your expectations?
TM: I don’t know what place I’ll get this weekend – I am not looking for an end result. I’m just looking for my experiences throughout the race. If I can walk away from it and be happy with the way things panned out tactically, and technically how I approached the whole race, and how I was able to follow the process, then I will be really happy. Obviously you go into a race wanting to win. The weather will be the biggest challenge.
TT: As an elite athlete, we all want to go to the Olympics. London might be too soon. Are you thinking about Rio?
TM: If I had answered this question last season I would have said ‘no way!’ My head was all over the place and I had no idea whether I wanted to pursue this. I look at the Olympics very differently now. It is something I will work towards, whether I think it is too soon or not. In this sport, there might be people dominating right now but things change so rapidly. Dominance can stop, almost in its tracks. I think it is an advantage being inexperienced and lesser known. If I can go under the radar a bit, that may work in my favour for London. Olympics are an end point for anyone – they’re the ultimate. But I think I’ve been focusing too much on those things and they look too big. Australia has so many talented athletes in this sport and that makes it a lot tougher.
TT: Until recently you didn’t exist in the cyber world. You didn’t have a twitter account or use facebook but have started embracing social networking. Is it all about building a public profile?
TM: I have been forced to. I think it was always just going to be a matter of time before I started using this stuff. I kind of felt like ‘I am so cool because I don’t have a facebook page, I’m not conforming’ but from a marketing perspective, these things are just integral. You can’t ignore the fact that they have been so successful. I will invest a lot more time into it but at the moment I am just focusing on getting to Korea in top shape both physically and mentally and I’ve got a busy couple of months coming up. I think the fantastic thing is that whether people care or not, it’s a great way to update them if I can’t get access to a phone or Skype, especially because my parents live overseas.
TT: You recently employed a management team to help establish your career and with their help, you have developed a fan-page on facebook and a personal website.
TM: I think it comes back to the reasons I do sport. I do it for my own enjoyment and what I can get out of it. I have never looked at a race as a dollar sign, whereas I know a lot of other athletes do. I have never looked at myself as an athlete being a dollar sign either. I have always assumed ‘don’t put the cart before the horse’ and I guess the fan-page and the personal website feels like I am doing that. At the same time it is about being smart. It’s not hard to develop a personal website or put a fan-page up on facebook, regardless of how stupid you look. I am not a very egotistical person. It’s confronting, especially with my under-the-radar approach. It goes against the grain.
At the moment I am a student and am not making any money, from anything. I don’t have the time to work part-time. I have been forced into this situation and have enlisted this management team because it goes with my philosophy of having this really great support network around me. As confronting as it is having those things on the website and putting yourself out there, I do think it is necessary in this day and age. You see artists like Lily Allen who have been able to use these platforms to market themselves. We can all snigger and laugh and say ‘what a wanker he is’ but you just have to put that aside. If I can get a couple of sponsors on board because of it, then it has achieved its use. I know I will get the results that will justify something like that.
TT: Maybe just don’t put a hit counter on your website.
TM: I haven’t and I am not going to either. It will do my head in. Even this count of fans on facebook at the moment – I don’t even bother looking at it.
TT: So the website is essentially about building a brand and attracting sponsors. Do you currently have any support?
TM: Apart from the NTID I don’t have any support. That has been my choice not to go out and actively seek those things. A lot of people have helped me out in numerous different ways, like cutting back costs so I can train with them and allowing me to borrow equipment like race wheels. Everything adds up over a month. The minute I get some money into my hands it just disappears and gets reinvested back into the sport. It would be fantastic to get some businesses on board and realise that I am a developing athlete and this is a long-term thing but to see that there will be returns as we go along. NTID have shown that they think I have a future in the sport. There are others who believe that as well. And I believe that.
TT: If you got injured tomorrow, would you be happy walking away from elite sport? At what point do you say ‘I have to grow up and get a real job like a normal person? Instead of living the dream like we all want to do.
TM: This ‘living the dream’ is completely overrated. I know that I have not gone anywhere close to what I am capable of doing. I am just looking at the next race and will see how that goes. I have said to a few of my coaches that I will give it a couple more seasons at the most. If I don’t see anything that indicates I am on a trajectory to where I want to head…then it is very difficult to justify this type of existence. I feel like I am working my arse off, every single day. There is always this huge session that I have to contend with and that knocks me for six.
But at the same time I hear all of my mates who are going off getting internships in Spain or they are in Melbourne and Sydney with real jobs now. I am not ready to step away from this. I am certainly not ready to give up on my dream of being the best athlete I can be. What am I going to do in the real world? By doing these two degrees [Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts], it has given me something to work with. I don’t know what I’ll do but I think sport is an attractive way to earn a living.
TT: Do you feel like you have sacrificed anything to be at this point? Any big regrets?
TM: I have no regrets. I am the fittest I have ever been. I am the most confident I have ever been in my life, and with triathlon. That has only come about because of what happened over the season. I never would have thought I would be chasing an Olympic spot on a triathlon team. I always thought it was going to be a 1500m spot. There are all these things that just happen in your life and you just have to take it on board, like the navicular stress-fractures, hamstring injuries, getting hit by cars, it has always led me onto something else. I like that because it shows that nothing is permanent and you are living in a temporary space. That is the same with my career outside of sport – I could be a baker if I wanted.
Sometimes you have to learn to not be so hard on yourself when things do go wrong, and you don’t meet your expectations. That was one thing I had to overcome in becoming an elite athlete again. I didn’t meet my ultimate expectation in athletics. I could liken it to going through a really bad break-up with someone that you put all these expectations on and you think you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. You’re hurt. You’re really guarded after that and it’s really hard to put everything back into something again knowing full well that the possibility of it all failing is very much there. I feel like I have been scared of being hurt again but now everything is falling into place.
TT: If you weren’t a triathlete what would you be doing and where in the world would you be?
TM: I would be backpacking around the world right now, living out of a suitcase or a rucksack. I would be soaking up every single experience I could, good, bad, whatever. I’d love to do some aid work in South America or Africa. I have always had a bit of a rebellious streak in me. I know I should be working a nine-to-five job but it’s something that I don’t necessarily want to do. If I had enough money to buy a coffee a day, some food, have a house to live in and a laptop or something, I would be happy. And of course, a pretty cool fixie!
You can follow Tyson’s progress at his website or on twitter: