By Aimee Lagman
It was like any other day for the Kona legend. Wearing her simple black dress that couldn’t hide her beautiful athletic physique, Coach Ani welcomed me to her house with a warm smile as she carried her one-year-old girl boss, Amaya. Soon would follow, Dash, a handsome foreign-looking boy calling her “Nanay.” To them, she is their mother. To me, I see triathlon royalty. I am Ani de Leon Brown, a Philippine triathlon icon with a long list of impressive credentials, including becoming the first Filipina to qualify for the Ironman World Championships twice. As a coach, she is the driving force that brought home silver and gold medal in women’s triathlon for the past two SEA games. She is also responsible for bringing the biggest female contingent to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Coach Ani, year on year, has proven to break boundaries in the Philippine triathlon scene as an athlete, coach, and a woman. This is why she is at the top of her game.
Her last race was the 2017 Ironman World Championship in Kona Hawaii, the Holy Grail of triathlon. My first question was what made this race different from her first Kona race. To my surprise coming from a seasoned triathlete with several titles and podium finishes under her belt, her answer was humbling. “It was hard.” She explained no matter how you prepared or even if you were racing the exact same course, the race day conditions would affect your performance. This year, the strong winds came from all directions. The scorching hot weather didn’t make the 226-kilometer journey easy. But it’s more than just a race. “What it represents is bigger than me,” Coach Ani said. It shows where the Philippines stands in this sport. According to Coach Ani, this is the biggest Philippine contingent with eight Filipinos and the biggest female contingent with three Filipinas. “We’ve come a long way since 2002, as before we were just two. Now we are eight.” We came in as a surprise.
The biggest misconception about doing triathlon professionally, as a full time coach, is that you have all the time in the world. Not for Coach Ani. It’s like a 10-to-12-hour job. She has her hands full with her duties as a high performance coach at the Triathlon Association of the Philippines, head coach of the Active Health Triathlon Team, and founder of Next Step Triathlon Coaching. Not to mention other responsibilities such as brand ambassador of big sporting brands like ActiveHealth, Rudy Project, 2XU Gatorade, etc. Imagine doing all these while being a hands-on mom of two. “You don’t get to train when you are with your students, you monitor their progress. The squad trains twice a day. In between, I have to take care of the kids and work on administrative tasks.”
So how did coach do it? Her secret is maintaining a schedule. She does her workout late in the afternoon after the squad’s training sessions. For longer workout, she splits it into two. For example, she is required to do a 21-km run in one day. She runs 11kms in the morning and finishes it off with a 10-km run in the afternoon. On weekends, she takes advantage in doing long rides and long runs with her students. She swims regularly as the race day approaches.
Of course, nutrition is equally important as the training itself. This may vary for every individual. But the basics should cover knowing what works for you. “Nutrition doesn’t only apply on race day but the preparation leading to it. Eat clean and eat based on what your body needs for that particular day. During long trainings, I take kamote and Active Health Carb Gel, for hydration I drink water and Gatorade. Multivitamins also help me with immunity and a post-game drink to help my body recover faster so I am ready for my training the next day.” explains Coach Ani.
Coach Ani’s slot to Kona wasn’t handed out in a silver platter. She qualified when she raced in Ironman Xiamen and Hefei where slots for Ironman in Kona were offered, earning a spot among 2,000 world’s best triathletes competing in the World Championships. Coach Ani always has a plan and knows how to strategize according to each goal. Her understanding and familiarity with Ironman races led her to decide which races to join to earn her points to qualify. Because of this strategy, she wasn’t the only one who got in. Her students Chang Hitalia and Berns Tan also qualified. At the SEA Games, the teamwork demonstrated by Claire Adorna and Kim Mangrobang resulted in a huge seven-minute lead, as well as a historic back to back first and second place win.
Ani is not slowing down in fulfilling her goal: To bring home an Olympic gold for the Philippines in triathlon. “We have a mountain ahead of us. With our back to back SEA Games win, we are getting closer. We’re going to get there. You just need someone to pave the way. I’m a strong believer of growth mind set to be able to exceed yourself,” says Ani.
An athlete’s disposition is vital. They have to be mentally, emotionally, and financially secure. Let them focus on their training so their only concern is performance. Athletes now are very fortunate. It was different during our time. Aside from the government, the private sectors are also supporting the athletes. You can feel that everyone is working together to achieve the goal.
Ani De Leon Brown is showing no signs of slowing down in placing the Philippines in the global racing scene, a true Iron Woman who continues to define the sport as an athlete, coach, and a woman.
You seem to have what I call The Midas Touch. Your touch is equivalent to glory for athletes. What’s your secret?
You have to set a goal that is realistic and you have to be honest with the athlete. Then, you have to plant seeds that it can be done. Training is one thing, mental check, as well as planning, strategizing, and knowing your competition is another. For Claire and Kim, it was finding a greater cause bigger than themselves. For Berns and Chang, they have the discipline. They have built their skills and endurance through the years. The only thing that was lacking was self-confidence.
What do you think is the impact of the SEA Games win to the youth and Ironman Kona adult qualifiers?
It means a lot for the growth of the sport, especially for the kids. You need someone to open the doors and show that it can happen, paving the way for others to follow. Berns and Chang’s accomplishment gives us hope, they are living proof that it’s never too late to start.
You have the killer instinct in spotting the next big players in tri. How do you find promising athletes?
It can still be the hit or a miss. For Dan and I, we look for the “mongrel” attitude. We describe it as an animal instinct that an athlete possesses. It’s that hunger to win and you usually see it during race day. That one is special because it can’t be taught. Of course attitude, love for the sport and discipline is also important too.
Ten years from now where do you think this sport will be?
Sport is getting bigger and promising. Looking at Alaska IronKids, it started with 80 kids. Last year we had 350. This is where we want it to be, to draw in the next generation to the sport.
When is the best time to get the kids into the sport?
Better to start them young. It’s the best time to learn technical skills and form. You can mix their activities with other sports to avoid burn out. Most important is that they are enjoying it. When they reach ages 13 to 16, it is crucial because they can decide for themselves. This is also the best time to build fitness and motivation.
Why is triathlon big in the Philippines?
It’s a sport that everyone can do and everyone is a winner when they cross the finish line. Your biggest competition is yourself. Here, everyone is equal. You also get to compete with pros. You all get to start in the same starting line and do the course together. Plus, you can start at any age. You just have the heart to do it.
What can you say about safety issues surrounding the sport?
What I see now is that race organizers are starting to be stricter by requiring validation and proof of participation. Aside from organizers, athletes have to be responsible and honest with their capabilities. They must not leave it to chance or rely on race day magic. As a beginner, I fully recommend to get a coach. Coaches like me take precautions and proper assessment of our students. For those doing the full Ironman next year, we require medical clearance. Our standard is if they can’t finish a 70.3 in 7:30, we don’t recommend doing the full next year. We all need to be responsible for our safety.
What’s it like being a female and a mom in this sport?
I can say triathlon promotes gender balance. It is one of the few sports, which started with equal price money for men and women. The rules are the same. There are even women that are faster than men. The cut off time is the same as for everyone.
On being a mom and bouncing back from pregnancy is challenging. If you are a mom of two like in my case, it didn’t stop me from racing. After five months after giving birth I raced. I wanted to prove to myself that I could go back, that I could still race. It’s hard to get back into shape definitely. It’s all in the mind and how bad you want it. Also for females, it’s okay to be pregnant and active. You have to listen to your body. You need the right people to support you and of course work with your doctor.
What are your thoughts on the new technologies and breakthrough for the sport?
These are tools to guide you. Just don’t let them define you. Mental and emotional state cannot be measured. You must know your body. Like what Chris Wellington said, “I don’t need a watch to know I’m going my race pace.” You need to memorize the feeling of your effort. The strengths and limitations of the human heart can only be defined by the individual.