Tri Talk with Barrie Shepley

Previously on Trimes we had a look at some of the life and times of Barrie Shepley.  From a youngster who formed The Ontario Association of Triathletes (OAT) to the voice of triathlon today Barrie has witnessed the sport develop and grow into the global presence we see today.

We had time to sit down with Barrie to chat a bit more, the stories that await you are of no other….get comfortable as true to character, Barrie delivers in detail.

T: Great to have you here on Trimes Barrie, you are a very busy, traveling man these days with coaching and the ITU circuit.  We appreciate your time to chat.  Tell us a bit about your first call for ITU, where/when and what were the nerves like?

B: My first calls for ITU were post-race TV productions that ITU created and sent out around the world. I would fly to London, England from Toronto at the time, and work with a few of the sports pioneers on triathlon related TV shows. I discovered early that I had a gift for the gab and had honed my skills at Graham Fraser’s local races (doing on site emceeing).  I was not nervous and stepped right into the opportunity. I think the genuine enthusiasm I had for triathlon enabled me to become pretty successful right from the beginning.  Television directors couldn’t believe I had not had a second of proper classical training, so right from the beginning, instead of being patterned after anyone else, I was simply just myself.

Within a few years, ITU moved their TV production to Vancouver, BC.  I would fly every Monday morning to Vancouver from my base in Toronto, do the Voice over for the World Cup race and then fly home that night on a red-eye. My mother was dying of cancer so I didn’t want to be away any longer than a day, so for 2+ years I did this 24 turnaround.  My wife was so incredibly understanding about my triathlon addiction (and she still is nearly 20 years of marriage later).

In the early days most of my commentary was live at race sites. Some of those days were 8-12 hours long (when there were multiple races, and distances) so learning how to keep a crowd interested for 8-12 hours means having a lot of stories about the athletes, and the sport. My goal was to always know a new story or two each week that I could add to the hundreds of details I already knew about the athletes. Whether it was about a 70 year old grandfather who was racing with his grandson, or an elite athlete who had just won a major race the week before, I wanted to have enough information in my head for a busy, long day. Many of the triathlons in the OLD (non-drafting) days were pretty boring for the 2000 spectators standing in a park waiting to see their husbands or parents coming off the bike and run. So it was my job to make the time seem shorter, by telling stories and getting people to understand just how amazing that 40, 50 or 60 year old age group performance was. It was the best training grounds one could ever ask for. I had 8-10 hours of LIVE (on site) race announcing (often by myself) where I could create my own style, make mistakes and try to bring joy and some education to the spectators. I loved it, but I would go home every Sunday night absolutely FRIED. It would take me 1-2 days to recover from those tiring race weekends. Unfortunately (or fortunate for my health), because of my newer role with ITU /Upsolut live TV shows I have done less and less in-stadium race announcing to the local crowds over the last 4-5 years. It has made my life easier, but I do miss the fun of getting a local crowd pumped up as a group of athletes come out of the water, off the bike or sprint to the line.

T: So you have been the voice of ITU triathlon for 12 years and have been a fan no doubt since its inception. How have you seen the sport evolve from your front-row seat?

B: ITU and their partners such as Upsolut have done an amazing job of continually improving the product (prize money, race venues, music, TV, and competitive racing). Obviously, the quality of the athletes has improved as well. In the original days, guys were sleeping 6-8 to a room (sometimes taking over President Les McDonald’s room as well). Home stays were critical and athletes were surviving hand to mouth (rarely with coaches, medical team, bike mechanics, etc). What did exist from day one was the desire, for great athletes (Brad Bevan, Greg Bennett, Joanne Ritchie, Carol Montgomery, Erin Baker, Simon Lessing, Greg Welch) to hammer each other in the 1500m-40km-10km race distance. Prior to ITU, the Americans had a few national US PRO race series and everyone raced there (and it was pretty much dominated by the BIG FOUR and Mike Pigg and the odd victory by Lance Armstrong etc). When Les McDonald and ITU created the World Cup Triathlon Series (mimicking World Cup Skiing), the entire world finally got into the action. In the earliest days it was Canada, USA, NZLD, Australia and the odd European country attending the limited races. Obviously the entire world order changed the day that Les and ITU got the sport into the Olympics. They understood that their KEY PRODUCT was the WORLD CUP (now World Triathlon Series) and the only way to get into the Olympic Games was through head to head racing in this dynamic race series. While the name of the series has evolved and changed with sponsors, the bottom line has stayed constant, pure, head to head smashing of the fastest triathletes in the world.
In my early commentary at ITU, I would do live on site commentary while it simultaneously went out online. Then a day later we would do the post-race Triathlon Magazine show. As the World Cup races got bigger and bigger and more Live TV opportunities sprouted, I had to step back from my on-site Live Stadium Commentary and just focus on the Live TV show. Today there are 20-30 cameras out on the race site, a major team of production technicians, directors and assistants and my job has gotten quite cushy just doing the TV commentary. I literally have the best seat in the house AND, I get paid for it. I still have to pinch myself that I have been so fortunate to be doing what I totally love.

T: Beijing 2008 seems so long ago. In this quadrennial the sport has increased significantly in depth, talent, youth, and nations. What has been the key to having the sport grow so quickly and well?

Two or three things have made all the difference. First the Olympics are the single most important sporting event in the world. No debate, and ITU are a part of it. As amazing as Simon Whitfield is, only a handful of people in Canada would have ever known his name if he hadn’t won the Olympic Games live on TV with 50% of the nation watching and cheering. Because he won on live TV coverage of the Sydney Olympics, over 85% of Canadians know who Simon Whitfield is, and that he is a triathlete. As each country has gotten more and more resources from their Olympic Committees, they have been able to hire more coaches, put on more camps and recruit more talented athletes. Look at Lukas Verzbicas. if triathlon was not an Olympic sport, he would have been at the University of Oregon for four years of running. The fact that someone can be the Olympic GOLD MEDALIST, and make a good living by being a top triathlete has made ALL the difference in the world in terms of interest and growth.  Participants now race youth, junior, under 23 and if lucky enough they race elite.  TV, coaching, money and a great sport are the real reason there are now more, world class (and soon to be world class) triathletes in the sport.

T: Some have said that Triathlon in Canada is starting to lag behind other nations in developing depth in the ‘next guard’. What are your thoughts on this and how can we continue to progress our talent pool of athletes and coaches?

B: If you compare Triathlon Canada or most countries to the UK, then YES, we are all light-years behind. The UK has done a great job for about 6-8 years with the money, and focus of the London 2012 Olympics to drive their behaviour. They have great depth from 16-23 years of age and they will reap that benefit for the next decade. Because the sport is not generally a young person’s sport, many countries (USA, CANADA, NEW ZEALAND, AUSTRALIA) all have very talented 28-35 year olds, who keep winning their biggest domestic races, and keep knocking the next generation down (until they can beat them). Whitfield has virtually never been defeated in Canada, Hunter Kemper the same in the USA. They are both going to their 4th Olympic Games. So, one of the problems is OPPORTUNITY. If old guys (sorry Simon) like Simon, Brent, Hunter and Bevan Docherty are not stopping or moving to other distances, it is more difficult for a 21 year old to knock them out and take away their funding/resources. Stephen Holmes and Alan Trivett at Triathlon Canada have created record amount of resources during their tenure and the secret now is to optimize those important dollars.

It is clear that this Olympics will be a major changing of the guard. Four of the men (Ivan, Reto, Tim, Juraci) and female Kyomi Nawata have all lost out on going to their 4 Olympics. Post London, there will be many openings for younger athletes around the world as the veterans like Hunter Kemper and Simon Whitfield either retire or move to less stressful different race format/distances. The priority of Triathlon Canada and other countries is to try to have some solid young athletes in the waiting when those opportunities come. This is not easy, because with few international starts for Canadian Elites, with few races in North America, with older athletes like Whitfield, McMahon and Tremblay, the younger generation have some significant hurdles to overcome. I am not making excuses for the development athletes (or Triathlon Canada) because if they want to be great, they simply have to find ways to solve those problems.
There are more high quality coaches in Canada today than there has ever been (I fully believe that). The depth of our younger athletes is improving (compared to 10-12 years ago). Obviously Simon and Paula were not normal young athletes. They were world-class at an early age, hungry as hell and committed to whatever it took to win big events. But the 4th – 5th or 6th best juniors and under 23s athletes in Simon’s generation were not as good or as dedicated as the 4th, 5th or 6th male or female development athletes are now. Canada’s problem is that the world-level is now much, much, MUCH, deeper and tougher then it was 20 years ago when Simon and Carol Montgomery were racing. So you now are asking a young bunch of kids, to achieve incredible performances, early in their careers (often while going to school) against Aussies and Kiwis who are 100% racing professionally at the same time. It is extremely hard to do, and my philosophy with my personal athletes is to DELAY early success, keep training hard, get their University degrees, build their skill sets, race moderately through their 18-22 birthdays, and then upon graduating from College or University, make a full on, world-class effort and see if they can narrow the gap to the best in the world.
There is no question however, that Triathlon Canada has to find, 3-5 mature, world-class single sport athletes and try to converting them. Right now Triathlon Canada has many good overall athletes, and very few with world-class single sport talent. Gwen Jorgensen and Lukas Verzbickas are two examples that the USA have recently found and it is not a big surprise that for the first time in 20 years, an American man (Lukas) and woman (Gwen) were on top of the Banyoles podium in a European WC.  Even though they both have a handful of races under their belts, they are already winning because of extraordinary talent (and hard work obviously).
To win in the future, you not only have to be dedicated and hungry, but you are also going to have needed to have picked the right parents (genetics). Right now we don’t have enough GIFTED athletes in the program in Canada. That is part of the focus of our TRI THIS TALENT ID. Trying to recruit a 14 minute 5km male runner (who has had a modest swim background) or a nationally ranked female swimmer who ran cross country in high school has to be a key focus. I honestly don’t think it should be that hard. Unless you are in the 0.1% club of genetic freaks, the reality is you are NEVER going to have an International Swim or Run career. The single sport levels are just too high. But, take that same athlete, who could have made B-Finals at nationals in swimming or been the 2nd man/woman on a University Track team, and you could have the makings of a World Class future Champion like Gwen Jorgensen, etc.  Really a great example of this was Paula Findlay. When her local Edmonton run coach (Glen Playfair), encouraged her to do a few triathlons, he realistically knew that even as a top Canadian University XC runner and swimmer, she was not going to go to the Olympics in them, but, she could be one of the best female triathletes in the world. When a great, Canadian single sport athlete finds out they can get paid by Triathlon Canada to covert to the sport from running or swimming, and they have a dramatically improved chance of going to the Rio Brazil 2016 Olympic Games it will become an improved situation for Canada.  There are kids like this in Canada, we just have to go beat the bushes, educate them, then support them once we get them into a program. Right now I have 22 year old former senior swimmer, who has won medals at University XC and track and I have complete confidence that 24 months from now she could be challenging for the podium in major triathlons. I don’t care where you are in the world, the talent is there, it is just a matter of getting them interested and cultivating the opportunity for them to blossom.

T: You are a man of some great one-liners. My favourite has to be the classic “…there is nothing more dangerous than a motivated Russian”. How much of it is rehearsed and how much is improv?

B:  100% off the top. I have nothing in front of me before the day starts. Personally I hate pre-written stuff. It sounds like a Shakespeare play. Andrew MacKenzie our producer for the shows, has worked with me for ten plus years and sometimes after we finish a show, he will repeat something I have said and just smile and shake his head. There are some athletes who have been easier to have fun with, Alexander Bryukhankov is so freaking tough, looks like death for the entire race and yet he never EVER gives up.  I respect that guy, and if I can build up his reputation as the tough guy Russian from one of the ROCKY MOVIES, the dude deserves it. You couldn’t recruit a guy like Bryukhankov if you wanted to.
I am passionate about the sport, and a bit zany. Two hours is a lot of time to fill on a live show. I love to have fun with the shows, and I just need to make sure that I keep finding the right balance of being respectful, professional, informative and fun. Obviously there is a risk when you don’t have pre-written material that one day, you make a major error and you get the PINK SLIP from the boss. I believe that part of my job is to contribute, in a small way, to the enjoyment and entertainment value of the sport. I know that the STARS of the show are the athletes, they are why we watch,  but if I can add to the enjoyment as a small bit player with my commentary, then I am pumped about that and I think it is good for the sport as well. My wife watches most of the shows from our home in Caledon Ontario and when I get home she sometimes says “I can’t believe you said that”.
Over the 20 years, I have had a very small number of people who have contacted me, feeling I was unfair to their children. I got the most flack during and after the 2008 Olympic Games when I was honestly assessing the BIG HOLE Simon Whitfield was in during the run leg. Some viewers didn’t like the fact that I was saying “Simon cannot let the gap occur between himself and the lead trio or his medal chances are slipping away. Having watched Simon for 20 + years, I knew he was not letting Frodeno and Bevan and Javier get away on purpose. He was watching his medal chances disappear up the road. It made it all the more truly exciting when he found that last bit of juice to be a part of the four man final sprint and get his silver medal in Beijing. I love these athletes. I love their work ethic, love their passion, respect how hard it is to win one of these things, and I want the average viewer at home to say “WOW THOSE GUYS ARE FREAKING AWESOME”. If I can get new viewers to get excited each show, then I have done my job.

During the Beijing CBC TV coverage when I was talking about Canadian Colin Jenkins (who had helped Simon win the silver medal), I meant to say his girlfriend was in the stadium watching him. I ended up mistakenly saying his fiancée. With 50% of the country watching, his girlfriend’s mother started getting calls inquiring when they got engaged. By the end of the race, Colin had 50 emails congratulating him on the upcoming wedding. As it turned out, he did have a ring with him and got engaged after the race, but he had a lot of congratulatory emails before he actually got down on his knee and asked his wife to marry him!

T:  What is the most bizarre thing you have seen happen at an ITU event?

B:  One time in Cancun Mexico, in the early TV days I had to do the live show under a small 10 x 10 foot tent with no sides, no computer screen and no live timing mat. Ten minutes into the race a massive rain storm hit. I had to move the electronic stuff into an OLD van, and keep the windshield wipers going to do the live coverage as the athletes were being pelted by hard rain. I could hardly see the athletes and I was having to make up 2 hours of material only seeing them every 8-10 minutes when they biked by the van. Not easy, but we did it.
Perhaps the biggest bummer moment for the sport (in my opinion) was the un-intentional error of a volunteer at the 2000 Perth Australia World Championships of sending the elite women to the finishing line 1 lap early. It was a massive, massive disaster. Countries were using that World Champs (just 4 months pre Sydney Olympics) as their final Olympic selection race. The great Emma Carney was an incredible runner and because the run was 2km short, she didn’t have time to catch her Aussie team-mate Nicole Hackett and didn’t make the Olympic team (she is the greatest triathlete to never make the Olympics in my opinion). Canada’s Carol Montgomery was only seconds behind Nicky Hackett to finish second overall when they crossed the line. Carol would have easily ran by Hacket with 2km of additional running to go, to win her first (and only Triathlon World Championship). It was a horrible day for everyone. The volunteers felt bad. The athletes were totally gutted. Many federations ended up in legal action to decide whether to keep the results, or have another Olympic selection race. Poor Carol Montgomery never got to hear her anthem.
I honestly have 30 other wild events that I will one day write about in a book, but the last crazy one that immediately comes to mind is the 2004 Edmonton World Cup Triathlon. Sheila Okelly and her team did an incredible job on that event. Triathlon Canada was using the event as a final Olympic selection for the women (Sam McGlone ran through Sharon Donnelly to win the last spot in the race). Twenty seconds after the women’s medalist crossed the line a biblical torrential hail/rain storm hit and it went on for 20 minutes (everyone running for cover). Jackie Gallagher and I were standing on the top of a metal grandstand trying to still call the last women in across the finishing line. Lighting was zapping all over and I thought we might actually get hit. The men were to start in 30 minutes, but there was so much snow/hail and flooding on the ground that the race could not occur. The men’s race had to be cancelled. The organizers simply divided the prize money up so that every male got an equal check. While Bevan Docherty (was not happy as he had expected to win) , my young athlete Sean Bechtel was pumped because he got his first paycheck (and didn’t have to even race). Sheila and the Edmonton World Cup Team did an amazing job of dealing with the realities of natural disasters that can hit an outdoor event.

T:  Over the opening WTS races you have had a good view of all the athletes. Who do you feel is on-track and could be a possible Olympic surprise a la Frondeno / Kate Roberts?

 B:  In my mind, the Olympic year is the worst of the 4 years to try to make any major predictions based on racing and results. First, everyone is in heavy training and often their performances are impaired in the earlier races because they are trying to do the work required to perform well in London.  Secondly, some athletes are in A++ form early (as they have had to make their Olympic Teams (Erin Densham or Manny Huerta are two that come to mind). Third, we have had major players away with injuries or illness (Alistair Brownlee, Jan Frodeno, Joal Silva, etc). Fourth there are some wise veterans who never show their cards till the games (Simon Whitfield or Hunter Kemper are two examples). Add those four very different variables and there are many people who could have big races in London and it won’t be till everyone is rested, fresh and hungry that we will honestly know.
While consistency has importance (Jonny Brownlee, Alexander Bryukhankov) the Olympics are about executing at the highest level, on the day it matters most, when everyone else is at their A++ level. I would expect, based on past Olympics to see a few new faces nibbling at the podium. Kiwi Ryan Sissons has shown some great promise, as has the Dutch Rachel Klammer, these two athletes could have breakthroughs at the London Olympic Games.
What is interesting to observe is the chess match that is going to occur in London. In both races, the top swimmers are going to try to make a pack and get away for the entire day. Helen Jenkins has team-mate Lucy Hall. The Brownlees have Stuart Hayes. The three Russian men should all be in the lead group out of the water. Will the breaks materialize? Guts and execution will dictate. The break-away group will give 110% to trying to keep a modest size group ahead for the day (and they have the ability to do so). The chase groups will unquestionably form some friendship/partnerships that are not driven by nationality, but by desire to level the field off the bike. The first key GAME CHANGER in my mind are likely the 3-4 good (not great) swimmers who may or may not make the lead pack. If Lisa Norden & Nicola Spirig both make the lead pack (which their improved swimming could do) then the numerous weaker swimmers who have benefitted from Nicola or Lisa’s great bike pulling over the years will have a much more difficult time. But, if both Nicola and Lisa don’t make the lead pack, there is a better chance that they can help power a chase pack that will bridge up allowing great runners like Emma Jackson and Gwen Jorgensen to now be a greater threat in the race.
Similarly if Jan Frodeno, Steffen Justice, Bevan Docherty make the lead swim pack then the lead group is suddenly much stronger, but if the three of them and Sven Reiderer miss it then they will be motivated to drive the chase pack for the entire 40km.  So for me GAME CHANGER # ONE, will be the small handful of great cyclist who MAY or MAY NOT MAKE THE LEAD PACK. I think they could very well set the tone for the day in both races.
We know the runs are going to be outrageously fast. The top 15 men and top 15 women will travel a faster average 10km pace than has ever occurred at any triathlon in the sport’s history. Sub 30 for sure on the men’s side and sub 33:30 on the women’s side. I could see a dozen men under 30 minutes and 6-8 women under 33:30. Those are insanely fast run splits and they come after what could be a very fast swim and bike. The London live crowds in Hyde Park and the 2 billion people who are watching at home are going to be in for a historic treat. Regardless of whether there are 8-10 in the lead pack (With 30 in the chase group) or 35 in the lead group off the bike, it is going to take historically fast running to have that gold medal around their necks. I’ve been to the three previous Olympic Games and I am more excited about this race then any of the others.

Obviously Great Britain is in a great position with incredible performances from their go to athletes, but I know that 8-10 other nations are doing everything in their power to prevent the domination that many are calling for. If you think back to the 1999 World Championships in Montreal Canada, the Australian women were 1,2,3, 4 and five across the finishing line, total domination. People asked why we were even having the Olympic Women’s Triathlon. Why not just give the Aussies the 3 medals and start the after-party. Well, as you know, it was Switzerland with two of the medals and only Michelle Jones with a silver. So as dominating as one group of athletes can be 3-12 months before the Games, ANYTHING is possible on a one day, event (sickness, injury, bike problems, crashes, bad decision making, bad luck or great luck, courage, execution).

T: You have signed up for an Ironman, Arizona I believe? How is the training going? Will we see you do a draft-legal race (Jarrod Shoemaker series) anytime soon as well? I could call it for you….. “Barrie having a ripppper of a run here!”


B:  As a very average athlete, with little extra time on my hands and a good chance of injuries, doing an Ironman is not a great choice.  Having said that, I have coached my age group athletes for 30 years, been to Kona a dozen times, and have seen my wife cross the finishing line 8 or 9 times in an Ironman. It was on my BUCKET LIST. The wisest year would have been next year in 2013 when I turn 50. My wife’s twin sister decided to race Ironman Arizona and it felt right to do it together. Caron (my wife) is taking the year off any major races to be a huge supporter to her twin and myself. As a weak swimmer, average biker, who hasn’t run a marathon in 15 years I have some major humbling experiences ahead of me. I recently did a 125km bike ride and couldn’t believe how tired I was. I said to myself, it was always much easier when I was writing down the 125km bike ride for my age group triathletes then to do it myself. My first race will be a 70.3 in Ireland on Sept 2nd, and then the Ironman in Arizona in Nov after the ITU season wraps up.  I like challenges, and trying to get the time to train for an Ironman, when I am at 15-16 major races this summer, still actively coaching (one of my athletes Andrew Yorke was recently selected as the Alternate for the Olympic Team in London), hosting a yearly Kids of Steel Race, involved in my business (Personal Best) and wanting to make time for my wife and our two spoiled cats is a massive balancing act. It is a busy, wild, insane life, but I am not complaining. The one thing I selfishly do 100% for myself is still playing ice-hockey.  For two hours a week, I am a goaltender and I think of nothing but trying to stop that black-rubber puck being shot at my head at 70 miles per hour. Some of the Canadian ITU staff are going to be playing the German Upsolut staff in a “FRIENDLY” ice hockey game in Hamburg in a few weeks. If you see the Upsolut boys missing a few teeth or with some fresh stitches you know the Canadian boys have won the game!

T:  Cheers Barrie, thank you for your time. It is always a pleasure waking up early to watch an ITU event and hearing the familiar voice we all associate with swim/bike/run.


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