“The mindset of the best in the world is that they’d rather have four great years than 10 good ones”
Wise heads know the best thing that can happen in childhood is anything that profoundly inspires you. The right happenstance at the right time can spawn in the young mind a dream so tantalising that you’ll do whatever is necessary to make it come true. Henceforth, the rest of your life – or a good chunk of it – has purpose. And apart from the love of another and bread on the table, what else does a man need?
For Aaron Royle such an experience occurred on September 16, 2000 – day one of competition at the Sydney Olympics. Then a pint-size 10-year-old and promising swimmer, he had travelled down with his family from their home in Newcastle for a night at the pool. The boy watched wide-eyed as the last race, the men’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay, culminated in a sprint finish between the US’s Gary Hall Jnr and local hero Ian Thorpe. Hall was a world-beating 100m specialist and fresh as an alpine lake; Thorpe hours earlier had won the 400m and seemed to be tiring, falling half a body length behind. Inconceivably, Thorpe surged, passing Hall with a stroke to spare. “The roof lifted,” remembers Royle. “Even now when I think about it, I get goose bumps.”
From that night Royle’s mission was to become an Olympian. Fifteen years later he’s effectively licked it, booking his ticket to Rio via a top-10 placing in a qualifier held on the city’s Olympic course last August.
His story is a lesson in what’s possible. Unblessed by outrageous natural athletic talent, he has achieved what he has through an unshakeable commitment to gruelling training, alongside a determination to crash through what he had perceived to be his limits. “That’s the mindset you need in triathlon right now,” says Royle. “You have to be prepared to push yourself over the edge.”
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Bend It, Don’t Break It
Actually, that’s maybe only half-right, clarifies Royle as we chat at Diggies cafe at North Wollongong Beach. It’s here that most mornings Royle assembles with his partners in self-punishment, fuelling up on black coffee in preparation for training slogs that last for hours. “Aaron’s polite and unassuming,” says Diggies manager Elise Flowers. He also has “no ego” – or much less than the older, high-achieving recreational cyclists who also frequent the cafe.
Extracting the best from yourself requires judgment, says Royle. You need to understand that your body does, absolutely, have its limits. Take, for example, the time swine flu struck down Royle while he was in Abu Dhabi last year. Trying to be sensible, he spent 10 days in bed once home. “But then, against the advice of my coach, I rushed back for a WTS (World Triathlon Series) race in Auckland,” recalls Royle. “Halfway through the bike leg I pulled over and thought, <I>What the hell am I doing here? I’m an idiot.”
So, yes, there are limits. But in good health they’re probably much further away than you think, says Royle.
One likely difference between you and an elite triathlete is that you are your own master, maybe a gentle one. When distress kicks in, you quit. Royle, on the other hand, has a coach – Jamie Turner – who will demand he persist.
Stride to Greatness
Right now Royle is pounding the rock with a specific goal: he needs to shave time off his run. His swim and bike legs are excellent. They’re setting him up for a glorious finish. But while his running’s good, it’s not quite good enough. “If you want to win the Olympics, you’ll have to run a sub-30 [minutes],” says Royle. For him, that means carving something like 20 seconds off his 10-kay PB.
Seems like a tough ask for a guy who’s trained as much as he has – honestly, what more can he do? But Royle is undeterred. “I just need to get stronger so I can go with the best over the last couple of kays,” he says. “Winning comes down to who can stay at that higher-end threshold for the longest.”
To this end Royle runs six or seven days a week, often twice a day, principally at speeds ranging from a doddle (5:00min/km) to darn quick (2:40min/km). He also has a sprint coach, Paul Hallam, because there’s always the possibility that the Olympic triathlon will come down to a dash between two, three or more (spent) athletes.
Royle’s had to develop the belief that there’s speed in his legs as well as miles. And he’s acquired not only correct sprint technique but also the discipline and wherewithal to employ it when his lungs are burning and his legs are fairy floss. “You have to stay relaxed through the shoulders,” he says. And keep driving your arms while not letting your hips drop. “The rest of the world is improving every year. I’ve just got to improve at a quicker rate than they are.”
“You need to have a bit of faith in your coach . . . trust that he knows what he’s doing,” says Royle. In the lead-up to a big race a few years ago, Royle trained twice a week with fellow triathlete Ryan Bailie in a heat-and-altitude lab at the NSW Institute of Sport. With the dials set to 36 degrees celcius, 80 per cent humidity and an altitude of 3000m (about 800m higher than Mt. Kosciuszko), Royle went hell for leather on a stationary bike and treadmill for 90-minute sessions, each draining him of 3-4 kilograms of body mass and spitting him out “delusional”.
“Jamie, every week, just kept pushing and pushing to see how far we could be pushed, and I got pushed to the limit,” Royle recalls. “Luckily, before I fell off the edge, I caught myself and ended up winning the under-23 world title.”
Falling off the edge, Turner explains, means taking your body to a place “from which it can’t rebound”. That seldom happens, he reassures.
Using another metaphor, Turner urges Royle during training to “pound the rock”. It may take 101 blows for the rock to crack. But it wasn’t the last blow that did the trick; it was the cumulative effect of the 100 before it.
“Aaron gets that,” says Turner. “He’s able to pound the rock. Athletes who can’t, who are looking for instant gratification . . . they’re going to struggle.”
Ranked ninth in the world at time of writing, Royle has his sights set on the greats. “You look at [British triathletes] Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee,” he says. “They’ve been injured the past couple of years, but they’re the best the sport’s ever seen and they continually try to get themselves right to the edge.
Maybe they’re injured because they’ve pushed too hard? No doubt, concedes Royle. “But the mindset of the best in the world is that they’d rather have four great years than 10 good ones.”
Ride Out The Rough Times
Any guy who trains while others sleep, whose body routinely aches from overexertion, knows about doubt. “You have your days when you hate it, of course,” says Royle, “especially the days that don’t go so well, or you’re coming back from injury or illness and you know you’re not performing at a level anything like what you know you’re capable of.”
Even then, deep down, Royle knows he loves what he’s doing, and until the next wave of enthusiasm rolls in he’ll fall back on habit to stay afloat. “The routine of what I do is all I know,” he says. “It’s all I’ve ever done: I get up, swim, bike, run, eat, sleep, repeat. It’s all I know.”
It’s no picnic. But what is that’s worthwhile? Give up and squander the hard work? Forget it. Royle pushes on in pursuit of the goal conceived on that heady night poolside more than 15 years ago.
“It’s hard to explain the feeling you have after a good race,” he says. “If I could bottle that up and have it every single day . . . ” Sure. But then the possibilities that await in Rio wouldn’t be so magical, would they?