Born in Cape Town, where he learend to swim, his family moved to Durban when he was 9. Growing up, surfing and rugby were two of the major sports in Durban, but Lessing resisted the pressure to make the change to these activities. He trained an average of 3 hours a day in his areas of interest: sailing, swimming, track, cross-country and duathlon. He developed an interest in hiking and hiked in the Drakensberg.
McCarney encouraged Lessing to try a family oriented race he organized at Kloof High School. In 1988, Lessing was the South African triathlon champion, winning his Springbok colours in 1989 when he was selected to compete against Americans Emilio de Soto and Rob Bistodeau in South Africa. However, he broke his leg in another triathlon, and never did compete in Springbok colours.
Simon completed High School in November 1988 and was due to his National Service, but as a long time supporter of the End Conscription Campaign, made an easy decision to leave South Africa and try to fulfill his athletic dreams in Europe. Simon explains, “As an 18 year old it was a huge eye opener as I had never left isolated South Africa before. It was also an opportunity because at the time, South Africa was banned from competing in international sport and moving to England gave me the chance to pursue an international sporting career under the British Flag." Simon's mother was born in England and that entitled him to dual citizenship from an early age.
He moved to Europe, where he was part of the South African group in France, coached by Andrew Dean.
He who won five International Triathlon Union (ITU) world titles (1992, 1995(2), 1996 and 1998), and he set an Olympic-distance world record in 1996.
After dominating the sport for nearly two decades and setting a world record for Olympic-distance triathlon, Simon Lessing has earned his place among the best of the best, writes Matt Anniss…
For professional triathletes, retirement can be a curse. Stripped of their purpose and lacking an outlet for their competitive instincts, life can quickly become stifling, empty and directionless. Only those who discover a new focus in life will survive.
A few years ago, you would not have put money on Simon Lessing being one of those survivors. Throughout his 19-year professional triathlon career, he gave the impression of being one of the most driven and single-minded athletes on the planet. For the South Africa-born British superstar, second simply wasn’t good enough: it was all about winning.
And win he did – over and over again in a near two-decade dominance of Olympic-distance triathlon that was nothing short of astounding. He won two European titles, four ITU World Championships, one ITU Long-Distance World Championship, a clutch of Ironman 70.3 races and even a smattering of full-length Ironman events. The only prizes that escaped him, much to his annoyance, you would expect, were the Olympic and Ironman Hawaii titles.
His career record, which also includes a world record time for an Olympic-distance triathlon of 1:39:50, may not be bettered for a long, long time. Even for someone so dedicated and driven, retirement had to come sooner or later. The moment of truth came last year – almost two decades after he entered his first professional triathlon in Southport, Merseyside. On that day, he came “fifth or sixth” in a field that included some of the sport’s all-time greats. It was a sign of things to come.
Some triathletes suit a ‘pipe and slippers by the fireplace’ kind of retirement; Lessing is not one of those. Yet when we call his home in Boulder, Colorado, we find the first triathlete to be awarded an MBE is in a remarkably relaxed mood – despite the early hour (he claims to be suffering from insomnia). He is, he says, thoroughly enjoying his retirement.
“I wouldn’t say I miss competing,” he says in his clipped South African tones. “When you look at it, I raced for 23 years without a break. I really reached that stage, the last couple of years especially, when I was finding it hard to get motivated on race day. I actually enjoyed the training aspect, but on race day I felt I’d rather be somewhere else than on the start line. A lot of people have asked whether I wished I was still competing, but when you can honestly say that you don’t, that’s a good sign with regard to retirement.”
Lessing, it should be said, has had plenty of time to get to grips with retirement since “hanging up his socks” last year. It’s something he gets asked about a lot, he says, but he has no regrets. “I’d been thinking about what to do next for quite some time – through last year I was working on a number of projects I knew most likely I was going to be involved in. It helped me with regards to my enthusiasm and channelling that into the sport in a different way, as opposed to just looking for self- satisfaction in terms of results.”
Rather than go ‘cold turkey’ and turn his back on triathlon, Lessing has thrown himself into coaching, dedicating his time to developing a winning mentality in triathletes of all ages and abilities. Until recently, his coaching roster included one Chrissie Wellington, but a difference of opinion over training methods and ideology saw the pair part company.
Lessing is reluctant to talk about this episode (“We just had different philosophies,” he says codedly), but is clearly enjoying life as a coach: “Triathlon was something I did in the first place because I really enjoyed it and had a love for it,” he says. “I still carry that, and I still enjoy so many aspects of the sport. Quite honestly, I was thinking about this the other day in terms of it being a year since my last race.
“I honestly feel healthier and I think I’m happier. When I say happier, I mean that I’m not having to deal with the stresses and strains of getting ready for a race, having injury issues, having the pressures of sponsors and dealing with the expectations of the people around you. It’s nice doing things in my own time again without any of that. I certainly feel that I’m enjoying my training more now.”
Despite having hung up his spikes, Lessing still finds time to train – not to prepare himself for races, but because he enjoys it. “It’s nice not having that pressure now – I’m rejuvenated,” he says. “I can relate to so many age groupers now in terms of what working out means on a daily basis. It’s a release and I feel better for it, quite frankly. It’s obviously keeping me healthy and that’s my number one priority now.”
Looking back on Lessing’s remarkable career, it’s easy to forget just what an outstanding athlete he was – and how total his dominance was of the sport throughout the 1990s. He was, quite simply, a phenomenon – an athlete who worked hard year after year to maintain a stranglehold on the sport’s major prizes. It could easily have been so different.
As a child, he was a gifted swimmer and runner, but it wasn’t until his teens – and an off-the-cuff suggestion from one of his swim-club coaches – that he discovered tri in his native South Africa.
“I pretty much fell in love with triathlon the first time I tried it,” he says. “Triathlon complimented the foundation that I’d set myself as a youth with regards to swimming and running. People often ask me how I found triathlon. I actually think triathlon found me. I found what I was good at, quite honestly. When you’re good at something it motivates you and creates an interest. It was just the element of something completely different and new, but bringing in elements of two sports which I was pretty good at.”
By the time he turned 18, he’d already decided he wanted to pursue triathlon full time. As a South African who had grown up during the apartheid era, this was no easy feat. The country was still under sporting sanctions, so to realise his dreams he would have to move abroad. He chose the country of his mother’s birth – England.
“It was the first time I had ever been outside of South Africa,” he says. “It was certainly a culture shock. I spent the first month living in a youth hostel in London, trying to train around the parks. I remember trying to catch the tube in London with my bike and bike bag, wanting to get from one place to the next, spending hours completely lost.
“This was all a completely new world to me. I basically had to look after myself. It gave me a sense of what I was really looking for in terms of what I wanted to achieve, and what’s important and not important. Really, the first year was all about self-discovery and finding out more about myself than I ever would have if I’d stayed in South Africa.”
Early in his career, Lessing took the decision to pledge his allegiance to Great Britain in order to fulfil his ambitions of international competition. It’s a decision he says he has never regretted – he was always proud to race under the Union flag, even when sporting sanctions were lifted on his home nation.
“I was brought up in an English-speaking country with an Anglo-Saxon background. Britain certainly had its influence in South Africa and that’s still carried through today culturally. It almost just felt to some extent that South Africa was a satellite to my British heritage. My allegiance, it didn’t feel strange at all.”
Under the British banner, Lessing won his first European title in 1991, following it up a year later with a debut ITU World Championship. Three more titles would follow in a ‘golden decade’ that also saw him claim an ITU Long Distance World Championship in 1995.
In many ways, Lessing’s era of dominance was a golden period for triathlon, a relatively young sport that was taking tentative steps towards Olympic status. Lessing, the sport’s undoubted number one for much of the 1990s, spent much of his time fighting off claims to his crown from some of the most talented triathletes of all time, most notably Spencer Smith. This created an excitement and intrigue that has still yet to be matched.
“The thing about triathlon in the 1990s was the consistency of the athletes in terms of the races,” Lessing says. “You could go to any given race and you’d have Spencer Smith, Brad Bevan, Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, Greg Welch – all these guys racing. These were the stars of the sport, and you knew they would be up there racing and they would be consistent. You knew that, for example, Brad would finish top three, Mike Pigg would be in the top five, if not win, and Spencer would be up there. We were very competitive and the athletes were very talented.
“I think that often gets lost. I often hear people say that because it was 15 years ago, a lot of the athletes weren’t that talented. I totally disagree with that. I think there were lots of extremely talented athletes, which led to very close racing. More than that, the consistency created an identity within our sport and created that style which we don’t necessarily have any more. I think there’s too much of an element of inconsistency in racing today.”
Lessing’s rivalry with Spencer Smith, in particular, was headline-grabbing stuff. Certainly, the South African believes the intensity of his rivalries with Smith, Welch and others played a huge part in his impressive performances during that era.
“We all got to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, so we had to perform to those strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “I knew, for example, that if I raced Mike Pigg in an Olympic-distance event I would come out of the water a minute ahead of him, I knew that he would bike a minute faster than me and I knew that I had to make that up on the run if I was going to beat him. That kept you honest – there was no messing around. It was a great way to see whether you were progressing from season to season to season.”
Lessing didn’t have it all his own way throughout his career, though. Although he was seen as the best – with results on the circuit to match – he could never translate his dominance into an Olympic title. Although favourite for the Sydney 2000 triathlon, he finished a disappointing ninth. When he later decided to devote more time to trying to crack Ironman, the Hawaii title eluded him. Brilliant, yes, but not superhuman.
“The problem with Ironman specifically is that it’s a learning process,” he says. “Obviously you have athletes like Craig Alexander who adapted really quickly to Ironman, but the large majority of us struggle. It is a learning process. I don’t think I gave myself the time to go through that process.”
He did score some notable wins at the Ironman distance and its 70.3 baby brother but he could never quite achieve the levels of success that he experienced in Olympic distance. Despite this, he has no regrets about extending his career into the noughties in order to give Ironman a go.
“In hindsight I probably could have done that a couple of years earlier,” he says. “But for me, Ironman was always going to be the cherry on the top. I didn’t feel like I necessarily had anything to prove and I was doing it for myself. I think quite honestly it extended my career by a good five years or so. Yes, I had some good Ironman races and I had some not so good Ironman races. In a way, it could be frustrating, but I don’t really regret it.”
Now enjoying his retirement, Lessing has no time for regrets. He prefers to celebrate his achievements and look forward.
“The one thing I would say I’m proudest about is not a particular race or result, but my consistency – the fact that I could race from 1989 through to 2007 being as consistent as I was. Time was never important to me, even when I was setting records. For me, triathlon is about who you beat and what position you came. If you can prove your consistency in that, that defines who you are as an athlete and whether you are a success or not.”
By that measure, Lessing is arguably the sport’s greatest-ever athlete. A man driven by a desire not just to win, but to better himself. A man constantly striving for (but never, he claims, achieving) the perfect race. A man to whom competition was all. It seems strange that we’ll never see him race again.
“I do feel like there’s a little inkling of a light starting to flare up again in terms of the want of competition, or at least setting myself some goals aside from training,” he says, hinting at a return to the track in 2010.
“I think I will jump into doing a few races, just shorter sprint and Olympic-distance races, next year, just for the fun of it. Really the most important aspect to all of this swim, bike, run stuff is setting yourself goals – having short-term, mid-term and long-term goals. So many people don’t do that – they train, train, train and at the last minute they just jump into a race. It’s nice to be on this journey in terms of starting at one place and then getting to the finish line months down the line. It just gives you purpose.”
Maybe this is one triathlon legend who’s really not ready for the pipe and slippers yet.
A quarter-of-a-century has passed since Simon Lessing first graced the shores of Cape Town for pre-season training. Although he was born in the 'Mother City,' Simon grew up in Durban before taking himself to Europe straight after high school. Initially based out of a London youth hostel, he ended up in the South of France, where he would remain until the late-nineties. Not allowed to even train back in South Africa after those first two European seasons, the lifting of the sporting boycotts saw Simon trade Zimbabwe (off-season '90/91) for Cape Town as his pre-season base for 1992.
Constantia is one of the most upmarket and affluent suburbs in Cape Town, if not the whole world. Nestled beneath the backside of Table Mountain, it was here that Simon and Canadian athlete John Westdal based themselves from January until April. Utilising the nearby swimming facility and soft running trails, they would also make a tri-weekly trip to Stellenbosch for 100km rides in the company of the local cycling studs.
Simon's presence was interesting for many South African triathletes. It had been only a few years since he was a regular feature on the local circuit before disappearing overseas. And now here he was: a Nike-sponsored, Cannondale-powered international racing prodigy with consecutive top-ten placings at World Championship-level, not to mention a European crown. His lanky frame and hair beads complemented a highly articulate and supremely confident manner, far beyond his then-twenty-one years actually. Sure, his accent had changed a bit (typical international South Africans!) but that was part-and-parcel perhaps of years spent finding his way around deepest darkest Europe and fitting in there.
At the request of the coach, Simon even obliged by giving the local swim squad a talk one evening on his international exploits, detailing everything from his initial difficulties with all things French, the sophisticated triathlon club structure, duathlon dismissal ("a sport for triathletes who can't swim") as well as an insight into his training. Running as the first session of the day ("you have better running form first thing in the morning"), heart-rate monitored training rides and his favourite swim sets (8x100m on a 1:05 interval, sometimes freestyle, sometimes IM) were all contrary to what the overseas magazines preached at the time. But hearing it from Simon Lessing, it just made sense. Needless to say that he rarely ran over 45min in training, but mostly at 3:30/km!
So it was with much anticipation – and not a little persuading from the organisers – that Simon eventually elected to race the end-of-season Prestige Triathlon at Gordon's Bay. This was an annual event where South African national teams competed against each other, in the absence of international competition. With the doors of world sport finally having been opened late the previous year, this event was the last of its kind, but not without some international flair. Zimbabwe's Mark Marabini, a regular fixture on the European and UK scene in the eighties, headed an invitational team from that nation.
As far contests go, Simon completed the swim and bike with old SA buddies/fellow Euro travellers Kevin Richards and Harald Zumpt, both resplendent in their Springbok colours. He then scorched the fast and flat 10km run in a shade over 32min, not bad off of base training as he put it.
By then it was time to head back to Europe and the exceptionally difficult racing scene there. Come August, Simon had won all of his races but was still regarded as an outside contender for the ITU World Championships in Muskoka. An outside contender? That's right, the North American media were largely oblivious to the level of racing in Europe. Not the North American athletes though, many of whom had already been pulverised by the former 'Bananna Boy' in Embrun (pictured above) shortly prior. The final men's podium reflected this observation and was a changing of the tide really; Simon Lessing outlasted Rainer Mueller and Rob Barel for World Champion glory making it a European clean sweep and signalling the start of a new era.
The reason Simon Lessing looks so young in the header image is because he was seventeen years of age at the time. It is mid-December 1988 and the setting is Gordon's Bay, a small seaside resort town some 45 minutes drive from central Cape Town. Simon has just graduated from high school in the sub-tropical city of Durban and is breaking the tape for his first national title.
It's crazy to think that Simon was already scooping titles almost thirty years ago. A promising junior who was nipping at senior heels from around 1986, it was perhaps unsurprising that the product of Kloof broke through on that late-summer's day. Already an innate swimming and running talent, Simon was encouraged and nurtured by his swim coach, the late Dave McCarney. One of South Africa's foremost triathletes of the early to mid-eighties, McCarney was part of the London-Paris Triathlon winning Leppin Team, a throwback relay event between the two capital cities. Comprised of such local endurance luminaries as Alec Riddle and Nigel Reynolds, the team was backed and supported by Dr Tim Noakes and Comrades legend Bruce Fordye, then in the prime of his running career. And it was Reynolds who, along with McCarney, would have a lasting influence on young Simon's future career direction.
Already a stalwart on the burgeoning French professional triathlon circuit, Reynolds encouraged fellow Durbanites Simon and Michael Myers along with Eastern Cape athletes Kevin Richards and Mandy Dean to come and sample the athletic fruits of Southern France. A resident of Corsica, Reynolds possessed a significant racing palmares and had already assisted in bringing a 'rebel' French team to SA shores earlier that year.
And Simon's results on the South African circuit certainly underlined his growing talent. After beating the cream of the local talent over the sprint distance that December, he repeated this feat a few months later at the Olympic distance, but not without some controversy. Tim Stewart, a Cape Town medical doctor who had finished a close second to Simon in Gordon's Bay, took the national title in Port Elizabeth in February, with Simon taking runner-up spot. This was to be short-lived though as Stewart was accused by another competitor of drafting, and was subsequently disqualified. Ironic in a sense that his accuser would then test positive for a banned steroid, and find himself ejected from the final results.
And such is the osmosis of the sporting world that both Stewart and Lessing, team mates on the Springbok Triathlon Squad of 1989, would both represent Great Britain a few years later.