Athlete Interview: Maik Twelsiek

Are female coaches breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling?

TriEqual talks to two female coaches as they prepare their athletes for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

Text by Jordan Blanco  |  Lead image by Witsup

Earlier this year, Time magazine pondered the question of “Why are there so many men coaching women’s sports and so few women coaching at all?” Historically the domain of men, 2015 might just be the year that women are beginning to break through coaching glass ceiling. In the US, Jen Welter made headlines earlier this year when she was appointed the new coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Meanwhile in basketball, Becky Hammon made history by becoming the first paid assistant coach in the NBA.

On a global level, British tennis star, Andy Murray, has probably done more to support female coaches than any other, fiercely defending his choice of Amelie Mauresmo as his personal coach: “I wasn’t thinking of it being a groundbreaking move or having an influence that could cross over into other sports,” said Murray to The Red Bulletin. “Then, after seeing the response to it, and some of the things that have been said… I’ve actually become very passionate about getting more women in sport, giving women more opportunities.”

In triathlon, Siri Lindley is arguably the highest profile female coach having steered Mirinda Carfrae and Leanda Cave to Ironman World Championship titles. However, the pointy end of the field is still largely dominated by male coaches such as Brett Sutton, Joel Filliol, Matt Steinmetz and Cliff English. It’s even more rare to see women coaching men at the elite level.

Two female coaches are breaking that trend as they prepare their athletes for potential podium placings in Kona next week. Ironman 70.3 and Xterra World Champion, Julie Dibens, is the coach of choice for Kona rookie, Tim Don, while Marilyn Chychota coaches German uber-biker, Maik Twelsiek. We caught up with coaches and athletes alike to hear more about their coach-athlete partnerships.

What stands out most when talking to Tim Don and Maik Twelsiek is that they chose their coaches because their skillsets, leadership and communication style stood out relative to other coaching options and the fact that they were female never entered into the equation. In Don’s case: “I wanted to work with somebody who had a great understanding of ITU racing and how to train to be a World Champion as that is all I have done since the 90’s.” He respected Dibens’ own transition from ITU and the personal success she had attained in non-draft, long course racing.

Twelsiek is the first to admit that he bucks the typical German characterization of organized and on time so more than anything, he was looking for a coach to help keep him accountable for both his workout and recovery habits. Communication with his coach has been lacking in the past but that has changed with Chychota: “Marilyn doesn’t let me go MIA… she will ping me relentlessly and even track me down via my wife, Hillary Biscay, to ensure she is updated on my training and workout performance!”

Dibens confesses that she feels some pressure as the coach of Don, both on a personal and professional level: “He’s relatively new to 70.3, Ironman and non-draft racing and it’s not always easy for ITU athletes to make that transition.” She also acknowledges that she had to earn his trust at the outset, convincing him that changes to his run program were necessary to boost his steady state biking and helping him gain consistent results.

The transition to long course hasn’t been easy for Don with much less racing than on the ITU circuit, as well as not having a coach present for most of his training and racing. However, he acknowledges that he’s also in a different place in his career at the current time: “I am a different athlete now that I have a family so I was not looking for a training squad where sometimes the quality can get diluted. I think Julie and I have a good balance of athlete-coach.” He also talks of the specificity that Dibens has brought to his long course training: “She has developed my biking a lot more for time-trialing and also got me to be more patient with run training.” Finally, Don appreciates Dibens attitude to coaching and working with other specialists: “She is amazing at working with other coaches to help her athletes get the best out of themselves whether it is a strength and conditioning coach, run specialist or another sports scientist.”

In contrast, Twelsiek is happy that Chychota hasn’t changed too much about his training as he feels he already had a good sense of what worked for him: “I think the key is that she understands that I know what I am doing, so we put my ideas together with her knowledge into a plan that makes sense.”

Like most professional women, Both Dibens and Chychota don’t consider that their gender or the gender of their athletes should be a serious consideration. It’s certainly not something they spend time thinking about.

“I’ve never looked at it as a woman coaching a man”, comments Chychota, “Through the years I’ve coached more men than women but that doesn’t matter… I have high expectations of my athletes, and put in the same level of work as I expect from them… I’m fully invested whether it’s a man or woman.”

Dibens agrees and notes that she doesn’t really take into consideration whether the athlete is male or female: “[my job is] to get to know the in’s and out’s of that athlete as a person, what makes them tick, what motivates them.” She adds, “coaching isn’t just about writing some awesome workout, it’s as much about learning how to get the athlete to do the right work at the right time, and help them control their emotions on a day to day basis.”

We are looking forward to watching Don and Twelsiek do battle in Kona next week and hope that they fully reap the training rewards for themselves and their coaches, Dibens and Chychota.