After the swim, Sutton doled out the day’s workout. Half the group would ride down to the track, complete their track session and then finish with a two-hour ride, which concluded with the climb back to Leysin. Sutton’s ITU athletes would drive down to the track for a speed workout, followed by a long and painful run back home.
Ellis, who joined TBB in 2010, says it has taken her time to adjust to Sutton’s day-of coaching style, but that she now prefers not knowing the day’s workout until it’s upon her. “I have less time to obsess about it,” Ellis said.
Ellis had previously worked with athletes-turned-coaches Siri Lindley and Dave Scott, and says Sutton’s coaching approach centers heavily on holding his athletes back in their workouts. She says the group would race each other every day if they could, but Sutton’s authority actually keeps them from destroying their bodies during training.
“He has athletes that are all self-grinders; maybe he just attracts that type,” Ellis said. “I don’t think he has to push anybody here.”
Ellis sought out Sutton after struggling with chronic injuries for two seasons. Sutton says Ellis’ story was similar to other elite athletes who had contacted him at the midpoint of their respective pro careers. For their entire lives as athletes, Sutton says, they’d been coached to push themselves too hard during their workouts. Despite the commonly held belief that Sutton is a whip-cracker, his job was to calm them down during training.
“Why are you always injured—you’re built like Conan the Barbarian,” Sutton said about Ellis. “She was mentally choking herself in training, and she couldn’t race.”
Wellington and Sutton parted ways in 2008, but her ghost still lingers around the TBB training camp. Team veterans still talk about Wellington’s prowess in training sets, and of the hot and cold relationship between the coach and his premier athlete.
Sutton doesn’t hide his displeasure with Wellington’s decision to leave triathlon in 2012, and says he does not believe she will return. But Sutton lays blame on the coaches and managers surrounding Wellington for fueling her push to achieve records instead of notching victories.
“She could be winning until she’s 45—she’s that superior. And where is she now? She’s burned out,” Sutton said. “She was never allowed to go as hard as she wanted in my training. I knew everything physical was tied up with her mentality.”
In her book A Life Without Limits, Wellington chalked up her departure to a blend of philosophical differences with Sutton, and the fact that the TBB financial structure was unable to pay her the market rate for a two-time world champion.
“I had a manager and sponsors that I wanted to retain, and that didn’t fit with the wider team framework,” Wellington said in an interview in May. “As you mature as an athlete, you start to need more.”
Wellington’s book also discussed Sutton’s infamous past. In 1999 he confessed to having had sex with a teenage swimmer he coached in 1987, and he received a two-year suspended jail sentence and a three-year sanction by the ITU. Sutton has spoken publicly about the incident—and his great sense of remorse over it—before, and says that he gave Wellington the thumbs-up to include it in her book.
“It has shaped my life in a profound way, every day, and nothing has changed in terms of remorse,” Sutton said. “I tried early on to not think about it, to not be me, but it didn’t work. It is part of the package.”