Olympic Odyssey: The Outsider

by World Triathlon Admin on 12 Jun, 2008 12:00

Former World Number one Chris Hill takes us to Beijing through the athletes eyes

Swiss triathlete Magali Di Marco Messmer is on the verge of making her second Olympic team, yet still considers herself an outsider for Beijing.

Magali Di Marco Messmer has done it all. She took bronze at triathlons first ever Olympic Games in Sydney, retired from the sport for three years, had a baby, missed the Athens team on a technicality, and continued on for the Beijing team.

Its a story that has all the scripted drama of an American daytime soap opera. The only difference being, these plot lines occurred over an eight-year period instead of daily half-hour instalments.

This timeframe gives Di Marco Messmers story some perspective and makes one wonder how she maintained the rage for so long. Perhaps the Chinese proverb on the front page of her website provides a hint.

The English translation reads, Whoever fights can lose or win; the one who did not bat lost forever.

Di Marco Messmer embodies this aphorism to a tee, which shows how well she knows her own history. She has certainly experienced the ups and downs of a sporting life over the last eight years, and through it all, she has chosen to keep on swinging.

The Olympics [Sydney], where I got the bronze medal, that was a great, great moment in my life, she said. Then I stopped for three years. The idea was to stop definitely but I had the virus [triathlon bug]. So, I started again in my professional [sporting] life.

Having given birth to her son Eliah, Di Marco Messmer decided to return to the sport in 2003. Unfortunately, she was deemed ineligible for the 2004 Athens Olympics, having not made her decision to re-enter the sport early enough to meet the Swiss selection criteria.

Di Marco Messmer rates this missed opportunity as her biggest career disappointment. A few months after Athens she proved that she could have been a contender by placing eleventh and fifth in the Cancun and Rio de Janeiro world cups at the end of 2004.

These results, as well as impressive top-eight world cup results in 2005 and 2006, were enough to prove she was still a contender for Beijing. In 2007, Di Marco Messmer stepped it up a notch sensing another Olympic opportunity was at hand.

She secured second place at Richards Bay, fourth at Edmonton and finished an impressive seventh at the Hamburg BG Triathlon World Championships to set herself up perfectly for selection in the Olympic year. Her 2007 Richards Bay result would bode especially well for 2008.

Di Marco Messmer had to finish in the top-12 in South Africa this year to put herself in the selection spotlight. With true experience and grit she placed third, all but securing her second Olympic Games trip when the team is named at the end of June. And these attributes that drove her to Beijing are sure to help her in Beijing.

I think if people go there and they are not tired, they will have a good result, she said of not getting carried away too much with an Olympic preparation. The Olympics are one race, a special race. I think it is easy for me to be an outsider than to be the big favourite.

This outsider mentality has merit because at 36, Di Marco Messmer is on the outer edge of a triathletes lifespan. But what she gives up in youth she gains in experience. The advantage of a relaxed persona at the Olympics cannot be understated.

I think it is a balance for the head having a family, she explained, but you are more tired when you have a family. You have to be very professional. You have to plan everything. So it is not easy. But for me it is a balance, triathlon is not the whole world.

This mental balance will help her Beijing preparation and her proven ability as a triathlon all-rounder, competent in all legs of the sport, will be an asset as well. Her technically strong swim/bike/run combo means she has the capacity to handle the new demands of the sport.

Now the swim is very fast, she said. But in Sydney it was almost the same. Back then we were a small group of five to ten athletes and most of the races this group went to the end. Now the Americans are swimming very fast. I think we have to work hard to be on the feet of the Americans. I think they are preparing to swim very hard.

Di Marco Messmer is not going to be crying all the way home to Switzerland if she cannot pull off another podium in Beijing. Shell just be happy to toe the start line once more.

I dont have the same objective for the Beijing Olympics, she said. In Sydney it was completely different. My objective this time is not to be on the podium. Of course, everybody wants to be on the podium, but if I am more realistic, I think to be in the top-eight would be my goal.

In the furnace of Olympic competition, Magali Di Marco Messmers past Olympic experience could see her sliding out of the top-eight toward another podium. Either way, she is comfortable avoiding the role of being a Beijing favourite, more content to be an Olympic outsider.

Former World Number one Chris Hill brings his unique elite athlete perspective in weekly Olympic columns to ITUs website, triathlon.org.  He competed on the ITU World Cup circuit, winning three titles and ten medals in total.  He was crowned the overall World Cup series champion in 2001.  That same year he was silver medalist at the ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Canada.  Watch for Chris Hills column, Olympic Odyssey every week on triathlon.org.

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