We meet up with 36-year-old Jan Frodeno in Girona on one of his rare days off. Home to just under 100,000 inhabitants, the city is an hour’s drive from Barcelona in the green hills of Catalonia. The Costa Brava is around 25 kilometres away, the outline of the Pyrenees is within view. Nature parks, mountains, coves, cycle paths, lakes, heated swimming pools in winter, mostly really good weather, plus easy-going Catalans, all provide the ideal training and living conditions for Jan Frodeno. He is an Olympic champion, a world champion in the medium and long distance, and since last year, also the world record holder for the long distance. Between 2015 and 2016, he won the title of all triathlete titles: the Ironman in Hawaii.
Jan Frodeno lives in Girona half of the year with his Australian wife and their son. The other half of the year he lives in Australia. Over the next few weeks, he will take part in a number of competitions on several continents – and win virtually all of them. He is self-confident. Strong. A born winner. Naturally, for the Mercedes-Benz brand ambassador, a day off doesn’t mean just lazing around. Today it means work before pleasure. Getting up at 6.30 a.m., doing a round of Pilates followed by a gruelling five-and-a-half-kilometre swim. Taking a shower, grabbing his first cup of coffee and doing this interview.
Then finally moving on to the much more pleasant part of the day for Frodeno: a test drive in the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 4Matic Coupé. After which comes a six-kilometre run and some strength training. His mother, who now also lives in Girona together with his father, is cooking a delicious pasta dish this evening – at least he hopes so anyway. He really loves his mum’s cooking. Smiling casually, he pulls up on his ultra-light bike, wearing jeans, a light sweater and trainers. He lives just a few hundred metres down the road, not far from the old city wall. At his side: his trusty mongrel Duke, who he picked up from the animal shelter a few years ago.
The Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 is parked temptingly close to the Ironman: 270 kW (367 hp), 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbo engine, 9G-Tronic automatic transmission. Short switching times. An endurance sprinter that plays to its strengths both on- and off-road. The all-wheel drive system and two turbochargers deliver sporty driving performance. In just 4.9 seconds, the Mercedes-AMG sprints from 0 to 100. While chilling in his favourite cafe at the foot of a stone stairway, the pro athlete orders a double espresso and a bite to eat: curd cheese, wholemeal bread and fruit. Duke gets a bowl of fresh tap water. Then the interview gets under way.
In the early days, you often used to dream about being defeated on the home straight – and in some races, even experienced it. What did you dream last night?
Oh, I haven’t had such frustrating dreams for a long time. In the early days, I was constantly plagued by the fear of losing in those final few critical metres. And yes, I did lose some races on the home straight – the European Championship, the World Cup. That was around ten years ago – and extremely exasperating. But I didn’t want my sports career just to be about competing with the best, rather about being one of the very best. So I decided to virtually start all over again as an established, highly successful athlete. I faced up to my fears and weaknesses, my own expectations and those of everyone around me. You could say I reprogrammed myself. Luckily, with much success.
So it really is true then that despite basically being this extremely successful athlete, you used to see yourself as a ‘loser’, a ‘weakling’, a ‘failed swimmer’?
Yes, that’s true. I doubted myself and my capabilities. It took a great deal of inner strength to help me discover my ambition – and find a way to realise it to the full. Essentially I’d say that each and every challenge I've set myself and then also achieved has helped me grow more.
The triathlon involves swimming, cycling and running. What do you like best?
I much prefer cycling or running. Swimming will probably always be my least favourite.
How often have you thought about Hawaii today, about the competition of all competitions, the Ironman, which you won in 2015 and 2016 – and aim to win again this year?
I reckon four or five times. Like this morning, while training in the pool ...
Where you swam further early in the morning on your day off than most normal people would in a year ...
Honestly? I’d much rather have headed straight to this cafe for the interview than to the pool. And even more so driven straight out in the AMG. But what else can I do with so many important competitions coming up. Plus I want to defend my title in Hawaii. When I say want to, I mean have to!
How much body fat do you have right now?
No idea, I don’t measure it. Right before a big competition it’s usually between four and five per cent.
All the competitions you’re entering right now before the Ironman, are they all in preparation for Hawaii?
Yes, this year, everything else has to take a back seat to the Ironman competition in Hawaii. As I said, I aim to defend my title. The triple. The third win a row.
How long do you have to work out on an average training day to outswim, outride and outrun everyone else?
Six, seven hours, split into three sets. Plus physio and a nutritional programme.
My days and training schedules are very strictly regimented. It’s a full-time job that requires a great deal of discipline – and me being extremely hard on myself.
Do you still regard second place as a defeat, humiliation, failure?
Not to the same extreme as before. But generally, I think whoever comes in second is just the first loser. The thought of just reaching the finishing line is still sometimes there ... but being a pro, I always want to win. Obviously!
When was the last time you whited out?
Ah yes, white. Not black, like many people who’ve never experienced it believe. No, I haven’t trained myself unconscious for a long time, but I have experienced it. It gave me a sort of kick. I’m still always trying to push myself to the limit – but without overdoing it.
You are now 36 years old and have accomplished a great deal, if not everything, in your sporting career and field: you are an Olympic champion, a world record holder, a world champion. Did you not reach the finishing line a long time ago? What keeps you motivated, what drives you?
It’s this inner desire, maybe even obsession, to improve every day. That’s what drives me. I’m well aware of how damn hard it’s going to be to pick the right time to retire. But it’s as simple as this: despite my two wins, I still haven’t completed the perfect race in Hawaii. I want to be able to say: this is as good as it gets! Maybe I’ll be able to in October.
Can you endure a few more questions?
Of course. I’m an endurance athlete.
If you could be an animal, what would you be?
Hmm, my star sign is Leo. Lions have a leisurely air about them, rising above everything with their power and presence. It took me a long time to rise above everything. Yes, a lion!
If you could be a car ...
Oh, there’s something about AMGs that gets my pulse racing. I’ve always been fascinated with them. The sound, the design, the unbridled power ... super sports cars to me are real dream cars.
And when I look at the GLC 43 Coupé here, this is no exception. Naturally, I’ve read a bit about the car. An all-round on- and off-roader, looks aggressive, dynamic, well-trained and toned. It has power, bite. It’s an athlete, a master of the sprint and long distances. Yes, I like it.
Do the achievements of others command your respect?
All forms of outstanding achievement command respect. There’s nothing better than seeing courage and passion unite. Not only in sport, but also in business. In management. And in politics, too.
For many, you are the one who commands respect. Do you see yourself as being the toughest athlete in the world?
Oh no, I’d never say that. I love sport too much. And have the greatest respect for the achievements of other athletes. I admire clean cyclists, biathletes. Extreme surfers, too. So it's a clear no: I don’t see myself as being the toughest athlete in the world. Just as someone who is determined to chart his own course in a very demanding and exciting field of sport.
So would you say your profession is your calling?
If you develop a real passion for it, being a triathlete isn’t torture. Quite the opposite in fact: it’s my dream job.
What’s your greatest strength?
Most definitely my mental strength. This is something I’ve trained myself over the years. I’m also convinced that the Ironman competition in Hawaii will ultimately come down to a competition of minds.
In the competition for the championship title, the two-time Ironman champion is focusing on his mind rather than a well-honed body?
Yes, you could say that.
When you’re in pain during a competition, when it really hurts, how do you overcome it? What’s your secret?
Pain has long been my faithful companion during major competitions. Like the fear of defeat before it. I really don’t enjoy it. But it’s subjective. I try to picture it in a positive light by using extreme concentration.
It probably sounds strange but when you paint it in a positive light, it doesn’t hurt as much. Then suddenly it doesn’t hurt at all.
And running seems like floating or even flying?
Runners' high. Exactly. Great!
How often do you suffer?
Often. But it’s like this: I’d rather suffer through a competition than suffer losing.
What’s your greatest weakness?
Being a bon viveur. I’m really good at indulging, I love coffee and also enjoy the odd glass of wine. And pasta just tastes so much better when it’s not wholemeal.
When do you think you’ll feel like you’ve reached the finishing line?
Inwardly, I think I’m one of the happiest people on earth right now. But I don’t think I’ve reached the finishing line just yet. I’m 100% focused, motivated and goal-oriented. Right now, like I said, my goal is to finally deliver the perfect competition in Hawaii. But of course, at some point my subconscious will pipe up and whisper: boy, it was a blast!
We’re on the home straight now with the interview ...
That’s good because funnily enough, my foot is slowing itching to hit the accelerator. I’m looking forward to driving.
What drives your sporting career?
Overwhelming ambition. The sole aspiration of being at the top of my game. Right up front. Turning around knowing that the others are behind me. At a safe distance. Knowing they can’t catch up. You’re flying. You’re winning. That’s it. That’s as good as it gets!
Final question before we hop in: What drives your success?
A mixture of adrenalin and endorphins. When you triumph, when you’ve given it your all – and when you’re a true champion for yourself, your rivals and the fans, there’s no better feeling. I hope to experience this in Hawaii. And be able to say: that was the perfect competition.
Okay, now the very last question: This dream of delivering the perfect competition, how does it play out?
It starts with preparation. Not being plagued by injury – not breaking or tearing anything. So far, this year, I’ve been lucky. And during the competition itself: running on full, delivering a smooth performance – I’ve just got a few more watts of horsepower than my rivals. Every metre, every stroke and every step on the pedals is exhilarating. It carries me through to the finishing line, to a safe win.
Jan Frodeno is now grinning full of anticipation. He swiftly grabs the car key and heads for the driver’s side of the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 4Matic Coupé. The seat, side mirror and desired temperature are quickly adjusted and he has already buckled up. When the V6 twin turbo finally unleashes its rich sound in Girona’s Old Quarter, there’s no stopping either athlete any more.