Despite not winning since his famous 2014 Kona victory, SEBASTIAN KIENLE has only got faster. We chatted to the popular straight talker who was en route to IRONMAN African Championships as firm race favourite after his return to the Kona podium in 2019.
Interview by Paul Ingpen
Sebi, you were ready for your trip to SA and we were so excited to see you race at IRONMAN African Championship for the first time. How has life changed for you and how do you foresee 2020 playing out?
What has changed is that this is the first time in 20 years that there is no real goal on the horizon. It’s good to have some dates for races now, but nobody knows if they will take place. Sure, as a professional athlete, the daily training is your job but you don‘t get paid because of your training; you get paid because you take centre stage at races and represent your sponsors. If the economy is doing badly, the sponsors are doing badly and, therefore, they cut marketing expenses. On the other side, for me the glass is half full; we‘ve always been able to go outdoors to do our training in Germany and I‘ve been able to swim.
What do you make of the Zwift racing? There are some interesting performances showing.
I‘ve not been involved in any of those races but I know how motivating it can be. I‘m doing a lot of my sessions indoors on my TACX NEO on Zwift and when I‘m not on a structured workout, I tend to go way too hard because I can’t help but accelerate when one of those pixel guys overtakes me... But I don‘t want to ‘waste’ all my motivation now; maybe you’ll see me on some Zwift races in August.
Last year, five years after your first IRONMAN World Championship win in Kona, you came home in third place behind Jan Frodeno, who broke the record in spectacular style, and Tim
O’Donnell, who had his best result ever. Did you surprise yourself, or were you expecting a strong race after your heel injury was sorted and your running had been so strong?
To be honest, I expected a little bit more. The prep was near perfect and I already proved to myself in Frankfurt last year that I’m able to challenge Jan if I have a good day. I had a sub-par day at the 70.3 Worlds, but my running was very strong, so I was hoping to top that in Kona.
You mention Kona, which has now been postponed. How does that make you feel as a pro?
I look at it from a glass-half-full perspective. Next year, there will hopefully be two chances to win Kona. I think it was the right thing to do to postpone it to February even if everybody knows that there is still a chance that it could be cancelled. But the pleasant anticipation gives me enough energy to do the work until January. The main goal is to become a better athlete.
How are you training under these social-distancing circumstances without knowing when you will race again?
I spent the first week of the full lockdown in Fuerteventura and I can therefore appreciate how good we have it here in Germany that we‘ve always been allowed to go outside to work out. And I realised that I love the sport for a lot of reasons.
Riding the trails for two hours outside is like therapy. For every half an hour of news you watch or read, you need two hours of sport.
To have a goal during these times is very important so we try to focus on things that last. Build a foundation, not just for the next month but for the next years. A lot of injury
prevention, getting some speed back with running, and in the last weeks a lot of work
in the pool.
Are you still enjoying the journey despite having achieved the pinnacle of multiple IRONMAN Kona, European Championships and IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship crowns?
Oh, like never before! I think sometimes it can be quite a good lesson to have a challenging year. Of course nobody enjoys that, but if you’re able to come back, you really start to appreciate the simple things.
Like going for a run without pain. Also, you realise time is limited; at 25 you don’t think
this lifestyle will come to an end one day.
You were quoted as saying: “Triathlon is not a very spectacular sport – you
cannot see the hard work that goes into it.” Don’t you think it’s becoming
more glamorous nowadays and shows the hard work more than, say, road
cycling or even football, where team dynamics play such a big role? The
hard workers like you, Dani Ryf and Jan Frodeno shine as individuals,
especially in the full-distance races.
Yes and no. The amateurs with whom we share the course know how hard you have
to work to perform at this level. But on TV, let’s say, gymnastics looks way more
spectacular. You can actually see the ability of the athletes. In long-course triathlon
there is nothing spectacular, but if you like to see people suffer, it’s a great spectator
sport, I guess. But the problem for a spectator is that the strongest always wins, so that takes away some of the excitement.
We were treated to a training run and then a night of straight triathlon life talking at your Triathlon SBR mag dinner before the Cape Epic. The attendees loved your raw honesty
and down-to-earth nature. It seems those character traits have made you a favourite among fellow athletes as well as with fans and the media worldwide. As a respected elder statesman of the sport, are you ever tempted to speak about negative issues like drugs, drafting and questionable race or team tactics?
Oh I do. Sometimes my wife needs to hold me back. I can easily get caught up in endless doping discussions on Twitter.
Also, the media likes to ask questions about drafting because they know I don’t hold back and mention names. But this takes a lot of energy. So if I think there is anything wrong, I prefer to speak directly with the athlete. In the end I think there is a pretty good culture in our sport and we all need to protect this culture.
Are you excited about The Collins Cup? What new aspect do you expect it to deliver to the sport?
Super-excited. During the Cape Epic I realised that I really miss a team aspect in our sport. And how great it is not to race against Jan, but with him in one team!
You’ll be 36 next year, yet you appear to be running faster than ever. How are you feeling about getting older?
The biggest change is that I don’t struggle with my Achilles like I did during the last
four years. Therefore the sport is much more enjoyable. If it is fun, it’s easier to do the real hard training. I also changed coaches in 2018, and at my age a new stimulus can help a lot. I‘m not done yet!
Who do you think are the most exciting prospects to challenge the big names like you, Jan, Alistair and Patrick? And Daniela on the ladies’ side?
Rudy von Berg. He does a lot of things right and has already shown his potential. Daniel Baekkegard has the whole set, but it depends on how he plays his cards. Sam Long has huge numbers, but no results yet. And, of course, a whole lot of shortcourse guys. Short-course cycling has changed a lot during the last years; it’s way more aggressive. On the women’s
side, I would say Laura Philipp. She’s not really a newcomer but I know how hard she
works and, despite a lot of problems, she came fourth in Kona last year. If she gets the swimming right, she can do it twice next year. And I‘m also positive for a big comeback for Lisa Nordén. She’s also with my coach now.
How do you see racing changing in future if at all?
Hopefully nothing changes. But to be realistic, a lot of organisations are struggling. There will be less races on the circuit in the next years. Triathlon is an expensive sport and if the economy struggles, we will struggle. Sport and movement are essential to humans, racing is probably not, especially not on a professional level.