This week a social media post by James Cunnama informed the tight knit triathlete community of his retirement from racing as he transitions to his next adventure in the corporate world.
However James' triathlon journey is so unreal I couldn't let it end there, as he is the epitome of how unique the sport of triathlon is. James is one of you, a great fan of triathlon, who was an age group triathlete dreaming what could be possible.
I first heard of James through my pros who traveled to race Ironman South Africa. He showed his love of triathlon with action, and started his journey as a volunteer for the race. He was in fact the taxi driver in Port Elizabeth for the pros arriving in the airport. James picking them up and taking them to their hotels, pointing out where registration is and the variances of Port Elizabeth. He did such a good job that the great duo of Ironman, the Baylisses, remarked to me how well they were looked after on their trip to that race.
"We were picked up by an age grouper named James. He was so enthusiastic, and hoping one day to become good enough to be a full time pro himself".
Yes, James was like many age groupers who gave their time readily to be part of what triathlon used to be, a celebration of health, community and participation. James had his triathlon dreams, that maybe one day he could develop enough to be the one sitting in the taxi rather than driving it.
As both Bella and Stephen Bayliss pointed out to me, James was 'a strapping lad' which implied he had an imposing physical presence. This conversation was close to 15 years ago, hence I have no clear thoughts about how James and I got together but to fast forward the story, 'the strapping lad' arrived in our training base in Subic Bay Philippines, to get the docs appraisal of whether he could one day realize his dreams.
I do remember my approach with James. I said hello, we chatted. I took him to his spartan room and left him there, alone, for about 3 days. Not the usual introduction, and making the athlete feel comfortable in a new environment.
While obviously annoyed with me, he took it on the chin and got to work. Indeed this lad was an imposing specimen. Our coach, athlete, friendship has lasted for 14 or 15 years. In this time James Cunnama turned himself into not just a pro making his living at triathlon, but into an absolute champion. He climbed the heights few ever reached, culminating in what he may feel is the pinnacle of his career with a 4th and a 5th place finish at Kona - the holy grail of triathlon in James and many others dreams.
My opinion is James Kona's results were brilliant, as the course didn't play to James strengths. He became nearly unbeatable in Europe, in the toughest triathlon tests in the world. At Alpe d'Huez and the hardest Iron distance race in the world, Embrunman, he was an absolute monster. Most athletes revered by the triathlon masses for their results in Kona could not live with James in the mountains of France. I have yet to see a big man ride so well in mountain passes with 8 to 20% climbs of 10 to 20kms at a time, he just flew up. He was a one of a kind. The French marveled at how this big unit could ride the Cols, then run sub 2.45 marathons after it.
James was a special athlete and is a special person. He did the whole tri story, as he married his love Jodie Swallow, a three time World Champion herself, and they now have 3 beautiful children. The measure of the man comes from communication to his old coach. He has made the hardest decision all athletes make, when to retire. The difference with James, he is still a weapon, and has lost none of his triathlon super powers. However as a husband and father, he told the old coach that his family must come first - it's time to build for the future. That is why his story should resonate with us. He started at the bottom and he climbed the mountain to the top. Why top? James Cunamma didn't need packs on the bike. He was a pure non drafting champion. He could run off a 180km solo mountain ride like no one else. I'm so proud to have been involved with James over the years. Not just his impressive race resume, but with this recent decision, he has put family first, and stepped away from the thrill of racing and winning because it was the right thing to do. His example is often used at Trisutto, and he will be viewed by old coach as one of his greats. James, all here that trained with you, and know you, wish you and your family the very best for the future. Your old sparring partner The doc