When you think of triathlon during the 1990’s, it’s impossible not to think of Emma Carney. Multiple ITU World Titles, a record number of ITU World Series wins in one season – seven in 1996. She was ranked the number one ITU triathlete in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and achieved 19 World Cup wins faster than any other triathlete. With a race to win attitude and a drive like no other, she dominated the sport.
But in 2004 while training in Canada, tragedy struck. Carney suffered a cardiac arrest. Realising that her all or nothing approach had caught up to her, she was forced to retire early from the sport.
To truly understand this drive and passion, we need to go back to her childhood, one that by fate could have been very different.
“I was very fortunate growing up that my Father was involved in the sports industry. Being surrounded by sporting heroes, my dad said that if you are a sportsperson in Australia and you do well it’s a good lifestyle. I have always enjoyed sport so it was something I wanted to do.”
Migrating from the UK at the tender age of 2.5, her dad had a dream to live in Australia, seduced by the glowing landscape and scenery the country offered.
January 1975, and with an original plan of stopping in Darwin curtailed by cyclone Tracey, the family’s introduction to the country was not easy. Carney’s mum especially found the adjustment a struggle, raising three daughters in a strange place far from her family. But with resolute determination that was later very evident in Carney herself, the family settled in Melbourne and their new life began.
Enrolled at Wesley College, Carney quickly set about her new life and started to develop her sporting prowess, especially showing talent across ball sports. After a few mishaps driven by her competitiveness, Carney quickly found herself sanctioned to the running team
“Apparently I used to throw the ball at people rather than to them. The school sat me down and tried to explain that not everyone plays to win. I had no idea what they were talking about, so they asked me to stick to running.”
While finding it frustrating it was this decision by the school that put Carney on the right path, giving her an outlet for her will to win. And she started to win, a lot. At the age of 13 she set a Victorian State record in her 3,000m debut. She was winning national school titles and represented Australia in Cross Country, but her dream was to represent Australia at the Olympics and she would do anything to reach that goal.
While smart and studious, Carney’s priorities were quite clear; her training was always done before she would move on to her homework. But the relentless running started to take its toll, and she started to pick up a few injuries, the jump from junior to senior athletics was not proving easy.
“I got down to a sub 9:10 for 3km but to be international level you have to find another 30 seconds, that’s a huge jump.”
Carney’s first experience of triathlon was in 1991 at the World Championships held on the Gold Coast. Given triathlon wasn’t in the Olympics, Carney didn’t take to the sport initially. However, with the injuries she was facing in running, Carney decided to try something new.
A local triathlon race in Elwood would be the setting. We could say Carney took to the sport quickly by winning her first race, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Exiting the 700m swim around seven minutes behind the leaders, Carney then set off as fast as she could on the bike. On the run Carney found herself in unfamiliar territory.
“I was used to running on a track and seeing where everyone was, so when I got off the bike I just ran and asked every girl I ran past whether they were winning because I had no idea. Eventually, I passed the winner.”
The rest is history as they say, but Carney will admit her career is anything but stock standard. She won the first ever ITU race she competed in, the 1994 World Championships in Wellington NZ, something that her father had predicted 18 months earlier after that first triathlon in Elwood.
From this point onwards Carney had to basically reverse engineer her career and learn how to race, learn the sport and do most of this in the public eye. Within this learning was understanding how to lose and lose well. However, not a huge amount of losing happened with Carney forging a winning streak of 12 straight ITU World Cup wins between 1995 and 1997.
However, after these initial highs her career began to slide. Initially not knowing the issue, Carney trained harder, which all culminated to that day in Canada. As a result of the cardiac incident, Carney had an ICD implanted to monitor cardiomyopathy in her right ventricle, which is not only a reminder of how valuable life is but also a lesson learnt in athlete management and development.
“I really struggled when I retired. I felt that my career had only just begun and I wasn’t finished with racing. I felt I had so much more to achieve.”
Six months post-retirement, Carney lost her older sister to cancer. During this time, she became lost, and muddled through life without any real passion. She had completely cut triathlon out of her life, with a high resentment against the sport, the organisations and even the athletes competing. But try as she might, she couldn’t ignore the fact that she still cared for the sport.
“I know I’m not normal, but I also know that fundamentally sport is vital for physical, social and mental wellbeing. I’m living proof of that.”
Taking this holistic approach combined with the valuable knowledge she learned as an athlete and her experience of coaching, Carney is moving onto a new project with an audacious finish line – to bring Australian Triathlon back to the pinnacle of sport. Her starting point? Identifying new talent. Cue Emma Hogan, young triathlete from Far North Queensland who was introduced to Carney through a mutual friend.
Although Hogan didn’t initially know much about her coach (she did know about two other Emma’s – Snowsill and Moffatt), before committing to the move she immersed herself in Carney’s story and became drawn to her dominance and attitude of racing to win. Living in-between talent identification areas, Hogan is under no illusions to the pedigree of her coach and gravity of the opportunity she has been given.
“It’s a privilege to have someone who understands the sport. She has a wealth of experience, both good and bad, but also understands me and what my goals are.”
Hogan was and still is your typical active Australian kid. She is 19 years old and much like Carney, her parents had a huge role in her love of sport. Not only from a genetics standpoint, but also exposure, being dragged from one sport to the other with sport proving to be a channel for the relentless energy and ambition she had, much like her coach.
A visit to the AIS in Canberra as a child instilled a dream that is still developing, with the fundamental goal remaining the same; to achieve the ultimate in the sport, Olympic Gold. And while this ambition aligns with Carney’s ultimate goal, she had to ensure the fit was right for both of them.
“It’s the small moments in-between trainings that I noticed initially, Emma doesn’t need to go shopping or go and do this or that. Yes, we have downtime, but she is very committed to the overall goal.”
It’s not lost on Carney the fact that she recognises similar traits that exist in herself and it’s this ability to recognise them that proved to be the deciding factor. While understanding that the sport of triathlon has changed, the fundamentals have remained the same - knowing how to race, how to race to win, how an athlete handles themselves, Carney wants to ensure that future talent are well-rounded in sport and in life.
“I’m trying to coach Emma with lessons I wished I had learnt. Hopefully I’m doing it right. It’s not about yelling and screaming but pulling it apart and figuring out the simplest way to get there, small goals we can tick off every day.”
But the transition hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Hogan being from Far North Qld has really struggled with Melbourne’s seasonal weather, being away from her parents and family and even mundane things like traffic. Hogan has had to adjust, but it’s a small sacrifice she is willing to make to chase the overall dream.
“I honestly didn’t think about it too much, it’s just what I want to do. After year 12 my parents asked me what I was going to do, I said move to Melbourne.”
Like any relationship, honesty and feedback are key for the coach and athlete to succeed, something Carney wasn’t the greatest at giving when she was being coached. With Hogan being so new to having a coach, initially their relationship was tested. But eventually, as the knowledge of their own styles grew, their ability to understand each other also has.
One thing Carney is very aware of is the need to develop the complete athlete, and not just the physical side. Social media didn’t exist in Carney’s day and while it has allowed greater exposure and support for athletes, she is also aware of the risks associated with it.
“We only had limited tv exposure so you could sort of hide if things weren’t going well. Today, we are constantly exposed so you need to learn how to handle this, handle sponsors, handle expectations and handle accountability very early on.”
Hogan is under no illusions as to what it takes, fuelled by watching her parents relentless work ethic and the simple mantra ‘You Get Out What You Put In’, she has approached the training with aplomb, especially being exposed to a new variety of training and competition with Carney installing track and x-country racing into her development and racing schedule. This has given her more exposure to racing, something that Carney found key in her own development as an athlete.
However, Carney is not trying to create the next Emma Carney. She understands that Emma Hogan is her own athlete and she is trying to educate her on how to race, capitalising on Hogan’s ideal build, her intelligence and her talent while teaching her the ability to think while racing, like a game of chess.
While Hogan is laser-focused as to what she wants out of the sport, she is also adamant about doing more than just winning races. She’s conscious of why she is racing, looking at the bigger picture and inspiring others to live a healthier life.
“Pinnacle of the sport is Olympic Gold and multiple World Titles, but it’s not just about winning races. It’s realising I’m racing for my family, my country, and Emma and creating a lasting legacy that inspires others to do the sport.”
With Australia’s history of Emma’s in triathlon, you would think Hogan would be baulking under the pressure. However, she sees it as more of a driver to one day have the privilege of being among those that have come before her, regardless of their name.