-- By Matthew Johnston, Toronto-based film producer
David McNamee was overlooked at the 2017 Ironman World Championship, even after his 3rd place finish. It was the 39th edition of the Ironman World Championship and David’s finishing time was good enough to win 35 of the previous races. Stepping onto the podium made David the most successful British male athlete in the history of this iconic race, the Superbowl of triathlon. The journalists I spoke with at the event didn’t know much about him except that he’d come from the ITU (International Triathlon Union; short-course triathlon which is the Olympic format). In December, I went to visit David in Girona, Spain, to learn more about him.
Over coffee in his flat David tells me he started becoming a perfectionist when he was 8 years old, around the time his mom got him involved in competitive swimming. He had early success in swimming, then badminton, then chess, then you name it. “I won this bible competition when I was in Boys Brigade, out of thousands of kids across the UK. I wasn’t religious. I just knew if I memorized the words I would win.” David sums it up “I used to feel like I need to succeed at everything because I couldn’t let people down.”
Ironman athletes tend to peak later than many other sports, which is good for David because he needed time for a mid-career reboot. In his early 20’s, David was on a direct path to his Olympic dream with the world’s most successful triathlon program, British Triathlon. It started off well, David took 2ndplace at the U23 World Championships in Beijing two months after he started training with British Triathlon. But inside that system David ran into serious problems. David struggled to make things work, but the stress mounted and everything in David’s life began to crumble. After a bike crash left him seriously injured, David decided to quit triathlon at the age of 26.
“I went to see Dr. Steven Peters who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. Peters gave me his book [The Chimp Paradox} which I’ve read dozens of times over last the past four years.” David tells me a lesson from the book. “A three-year-old kid comes home from school with a drawing. Mom tells him that he’s awesome and sticks it on the fridge. This is actually a bad thing. It enforces the idea it’s only when you do something impressive that you get positive attention.” Peters suggests these early experiences can leave gremlins in your mind that often drive unhealthy behaviours.
Moving away from the UK was part of David’s re-boot. He needed time and space to gather himself and get his mojo back. “The last nine months [with British Triathlon], I felt worthless. It’s taken me a long time to build my confidence.” David admits that he still struggles with the gremlins in his mind. For most of his life David has focused on winning the approval of other people and not being focused on what he wants to do. David still meets regularly with a psychiatrist to work through his experiences. “I’ve come to terms with what happened. I don’t feel the need to justify myself anymore.”
David excels on the swim and the run, it’s his bike that needs work. Girona is exactly where you want to go to fix that problem. Road Cycling UK estimates there are 100 pro cyclists living in Girona. All the right infrastructure and services have been built here, including the first-rate cycling cafes such as Espresso Mafia, La Farbica and Federal, each of these cafés are owned by a pro cyclist. Girona is nestled between the Med to the east and the mountains to the west, in 15 minutes you clear the city and enjoy smooth, lightly travelled, country roads. I follow David for part of his ride the following day through the plains then into the hills where he builds his fitness on the climbs and works his bike handling skills on the hairpins. It’s sunny and cool. Perfect riding conditions surrounded by perfect scenic views.
During the 2017 training year David was riding in Girona with Jan Frodeno and Nick Kastelein (together known as the “3 amigos”) while being coached by Dan Lorang and Alex Sans Vega. Dan’s pedigree as a triathlon coach is top-shelf. Vega is from the pro cycling world, an unknown in triathlon circles, but is a former pro cyclist who made a name for himself as a Directeur Sportif leading pro cycling teams to wins at each of the UCI World Cycling Tours. David has perfectly located himself, he’s made all the right connections and he’s putting in the work to improve his bike.
David struggled with the double-hit of ill-timed sickness and a mechanical failure during the 2018 race season. We really haven’t seen what he’s capable of at this stage of his career. I’ll be eagerly following David through his final preparations and race-day performance this year at the 40thEdition of the Ironman World Championship.
Back to the gremlins; “My Mom raised four kids under very difficult circumstances. She survived by always making the best of the situation, often ignoring problems or working around them rather than dealing with them head on. I have that trait” says David. Yes, David is working on his bike. But he’s also doing the work he needs to stop seeking approval from others and start living for himself.