Olympic Odyssey: Pizza Perfect
Former World Number one Chris Hill takes us to Beijing through the athletes eyes
At the 2006 Commonwealth Games, New Zealands Debbie Tanner missed the bronze medal by a heartbeat. Since then her career has been about controlling what is controllable, with a little bit of superstition thrown in for good measure.
Nothing is too foreign for Debbie Tanner. Thats because she will normalise it by wearing it down with routine. And this routine has put her in the box seat for something special in Beijing.
Her rise in the sport of triathlon has come through doing all the little things right. Nutrition, training, and recovery were targets for Tanner, now 25, leading into the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
That was what she learnt in the preparation before the race.
It is what she learnt after, having been beaten off the podium that was the impetus for barging into her countrys Olympic team at last years Beijing test event. And in doing so, she smashed a family hoodoo.
At the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, her sister missed the 200m backstroke bronze medal on the touch. In the 2006 Melbourne Games, Debbie missed bronze by a similarly tantalising margin to compatriot Andrea Hewitt.
The part that makes this spooky is that both races were on the same day, eight years apart.
It is funny, said Tanner. My sister got fourth at the Commonwealth Games in 1998, to the day. She was fourth by .03 of a second in the 200m backstroke. And on the same day eight years later I got fourth by point something of a second. So, it ran in the family.
It was disappointing not to win a medal by so little, but it was my first big race. If you were to ask me before if I would have come fourth and gotten so close to third and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, I wouldnt have thought so. So, it was as much of a learning experience as much as anything.
After this ill-fated sister act, it was with trepidation that Tanner went into her countrys Olympic trials last year. This was because her sister had missed her Olympic dream in 2000 due to politics. Would the family hoodoo raise its head at Debbies Olympic trial?
With her impressive Beijing test race result last yearleading the other Kiwi women home and beaten only by the best in the sport: Vanessa Fernandes, Emma Snowsill, and Laura Bennettthe answer was a resounding, no.
Ive come a long way since the Commonwealth Games and learnt a lot more, Tanner said about the added psychological strength that missing the bronze evoked. I have learnt about the mental side of it. I guess it is knowing a lot about yourself and what you can put out there on race day.
Tanners competitive form is enhanced by this added mental strength and awareness. Having said this, her race day success or failure is linked intimately with an odd ritual she always observes the night before, or so she likes to believe.
While she is not super superstitious, Tanner adheres to a diet of pizza-only the night before a race. And she is not the only triathlete with lucky race charms; some of the best in the business have put faith in them too.
1996 Duathlon World Champion Andrew Noble used to ride with a crystal under his seat. Sydney Olympic Champion Simon Whitfield apparently claps three times before a big race and inaugural ITU World Champion Mark Allen let his locks flow and refrained from cutting his fingernails for weeks leading into a major event.
Okay, so Tanner doesnt go that far, but she has a pre-race eating routine and shes sticking to it.
I went to Pizza Hut the day before the race in Beijing last year, said Tanner. It is just one of those pre-race things I do. We go to all of these different places all over the world and I always have pizza before my race, every single race.
I guess it is a superstition. I have got it in my head that I have to have it. It doesnt matter how good it is as long as I have it. It was really funny because in Wellington I didnt have a very good race. Before the race we went out, and of course my Dad said, Well go to an Italian restaurant. So we sat down and got some drinks, and no pizza.
Health freaks may gasp at the prospect of pizza before one of the biggest races of your sporting lifethe Olympicsbut for Tanner it is a good omen, and besides, given their metabolism, a World Cup athlete could dine out on a space shuttle the night before a race and have it digested by the 11am race start time.
All this talk of superstition is a way of saying Tanner is leaving nothing to chance. And this idea extends to all parts of her preparation, especially when Olympic pressure can rattle the most solid foundations.
It is important to have the same sort of physical preparation and the same sort of mental state preparation as any other race, she said. Because from what I have learnt from listening to people it is easy to get freaked out about this whole Olympic thing.
And in this situation of uncertainty, it is best, Tanner believes, to talk with people she can trust, people who have been there before. This means therell be no Freudian couch time during her preparation.
I think if we want to speak to a psychologist we can, Tanner said about her research into how not to become over-awed at the Olympics, but I think it is through speaking to people like Hamish (Carter, Athens gold medallist) and talking people like Beven (Docherty, Athens silver medallist), that you can get the most benefit, because they have been there and done thatpsychologists havent.
So, like Hamish before Athens, Tanner has decided to opt out of attending the opening ceremonies for a more routine preparation.
Im going to do the same thing as I did leading to Beijing last year, to keep it all pretty quiet and to use the same preparation. That is the important thing, not changing, or getting out of a routine too much, Tanner said.
There are five or six days after we have finished, so there is plenty of time to get involved in the whole Olympic thing. If you come away with a good race, everything else just tops it off.
Heading ever closer to Beijing, Debbie Tanner is controlling what she can with a regimented routine. One thing she cant control, however, is fate. But in her usual tenacious way shes wearing it down, one pizza slice at a time.
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.