Inside The Brett Sutton Suffer Camp

  • By Fred Dreier
  • Published January 24, 2013
Photo: Jeff Clark

Submission to the Sutton school of training isn’t the only requirement for TBB athletes. They pledge 20 percent of the winnings from their top-three finishes to their coach. They call Sutton “Boss” or “Doc,” and he signs his emails with these names. They must also maintain a level of humility within the squad, and live within a semi-militaristic top-down social structure. Sutton sits atop the pyramid, with the ensuing hierarchy determined by an athlete’s race results and history within the squad. Confidence is tolerated, but only to a point. Even world champions can receive a public tongue lashing at the morning swim practice, a blunt email exchange, or worse: a one-way trip home.

“I would definitely call it mind games,” said Wellington, who spent two years with Sutton. “It might not work for everyone—it might be detrimental to some.”

James Cunnama, who joined up with TBB in 2008, said the informal hierarchy is the toughest pill to swallow for many new athletes. Newcomers like Brett Carter, he said, must help Sutton with menial tasks, such as moving bike bags or laying out road cones for running workouts. They must also fall in line behind the veterans on group training sessions.

“You get tension when some guy feels good and smashes everyone on an easy day,” Cunnama said. “Some people get caught up in the petty stuff, so it isn’t tolerated.”

Sutton says the hierarchy keeps the peace within his team. Despite their physical prowess, triathletes are emotionally fragile creatures, he says, and he can’t let the egos override the training. If Mathias Hecht punished the boys on the bike yesterday, then Sutton would allow Cunnama to have his revenge on a run set a couple of days later. The training battles are fought on a daily basis, so an overactive ego, a personality conflict or hurt feelings could easily shatter the squad’s delicate balance. The social structure, Sutton says, lets an athlete know exactly where he or she stands.

“Nobody is an all-star here,” he said. “And the only way you do that is by cutting the heads off the ones that stick up and don’t understand the environment.”

Sutton shoots down any critique of the social structure he’s created. The hierarchy, he says, is what incubates athletes as they develop. He points at Cunnama and Caroline Steffen as the squad’s current top athletes, and says both have risen through his system. When Cunnama showed up, Sutton says, he could barely swim, and he was at the mercy of the other pros. But he pushed himself to improve. Sutton points at Brett Carter, and acknowledges that in 2012 he’s a nobody, but after two years of testing himself against Cunnama, he might win an Ironman.

“People get upset because I say Dave Scott and Mark Allen aren’t real coaches because they coach a bunch of age groupers,” Sutton said. “You know why? Because nobody can develop an elite athlete from nothing the way I can.”

Sutton patrols the green infield at the community running track in the Swiss town of Monthey as his athletes run sets around the unique 300-meter brown oval. Just days after their respective wins at Challenge Roth and Ironman Frankfurt, Cunnama and Steffen jog easily alongside Bayliss, who finished fifth at Roth. Mary Beth Ellis leads Carter, Dellow, Andreas Castillo and Aaron Farlow through a series of longer, endurance-paced runs. Swiss ITU racer Nicola Spirig sprints through a series of anaerobic sets, her pink running shorts flapping like a flag as she speeds around the track.

“Come on, push girl! Hubba hubba hubba!” Sutton yells after Spirig, who sprinted to an Olympic gold medal in London just three weeks later.

Running slowly in the opposite direction is Australian Carrie Lester, who has battled illness and injury since winning Ironman Cairns in early June. Sutton separates her from the group in hopes that her body will recover with a lighter load. Lester brushes away tears as she trots by.

“Competition can be a good thing; it can also be a bad thing,” Sutton said. “Some of these girls are so competitive they can hurt themselves in training.”

Like every TBB workday, the day started at 7:30 at the small Leysin community swimming pool. Sutton had walked along the deck, holding Bella and Stephen Bayliss’ infant son, Charlie, while simultaneously looking for signs of fatigue in his athletes. He oversaw three different swimming workouts during the session, with his ITU athletes working on faster sprints and the long-distance athletes swimming with hand paddles.

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