Miles Stewart grew up as a triathlete. He was born and bred to be a champion and in the blink of an eye and burst of speed at the 1991 ITU World Championships on the Gold Coast, that prophecy came true.
Since his retirement in 2004, Stewart has had to face some tough personal challenges, and all the skills he had learnt in professional sports were unable to help him. That steely determination, the win-at-all-costs attitude, the selfishness required was holding him back in the ‘normal’ world. So after three years of soul searching he started his new professional career that has now led him to become the CEO of Triathlon Australia.
Former International Editor for US Triathlete magazine, Shane Smith caught up with Stewart at his favourite café on the Gold Coast and below is what they chatted about over a short black and a vanilla latte.
Winning the 1990 World Championship on the Gold Coast
3.Is it better being a pro athlete now or in the 90s:
In the 90s
More media coverage
6.Is it true you ate chicken McNuggets before your World Championship win?
Yes, it is true
Thanks for the coffee mate and taking the time to meet up and discuss your new role at Triathlon Australia and to talk triathlon in general. So let’s get started with a few questions about your past, present and future.
Multisport Magazine (MM): How are you settling into the role as CEO of Triathlon Australia?
Miles Stewart (MS):Pretty good. Starting a year out from the Olympic Games was a tough time to begin but having been on the board for three years previously really helped out knowing who was who. Being involved in the High Performance Program and understanding the Australian Sports Commission and the AIS was really helpful and the feedback so far has been positive. And like anything I do in life I plan to give everything I have and I think I can make a difference.
MM: After you retired from racing in 2004 what plans did you have for the future?
MS:I didn’t really have a plan to retire so I didn’t really have any plans to move on from racing. I think when you have an end date it becomes an issue (with your performance). So, I woke up one day and rang my father and had a coffee with him at Mooloolaba and told him I was done. It had been 20 years of racing and my body had had enough. So, I just woke up one morning and said that was it. Interestingly enough I have never raced a triathlon since. So I really was finished.
Luckily during that time I was working with a sports psychologist from the AIS named Clark Perry. I was really lost with what to do and he said I had two options: Have a break/holiday to get over what I have done or try and use my name to forge my way into a career. But he said at some point I was going to need a rest as it takes a while to get over the grief or loss of the type of lifestyle and career I had.
I felt that the best option was to transition into a career while I had a name, which I felt, would be short lived. So I spoke to a friend of mine who was an ex-policeman who’d changed careers and moved into a retail leasing. He showed me some plans of a shopping centre he was working on. He explained the deals he was doing, the meetings he was having in coffee shops and cafes, and I thought when I wasn’t training that was all I was doing so this career path sparked some interest. And Real Estate was something I was passionate about so I started with PRD Real Estate on the Gold Coast and then I got a job in Brisbane developing properties and fell into the role. It was one of the hardest things I have had to do, going from an expert in one field (triathlon) into something I knew very little about and starting out at the bottom. However, this was great as it allowed the development of new skills and developing a base to build a solid career.
One of the issues I really did see in myself was all those skills that made me a good athlete didn’t necessarily make me a good person in a work place environment. Being competitive, wanting to destroy people or wanting to mentally get above people are not really social things inside a working environment. I was lucky to be working with a friend of mine who pulled me aside one day and he said I had to stop measuring him to the level I was holding myself, as it’s not fair. I was holding myself to a level that is unattainable and he didn’t want to do that or be constantly measured. So, I quickly realized in that environment I was the odd one out and I had to change.
MM: So how long did it take you to make the change? You were an athlete from the time you were eight-years old as a speed skater before becoming a triathlete.
MS: It took me about eight years to get it right. The way I was taught to view the world was very one dimensional and about winning at all costs. As a team leader this is not a great quality to have. There are elements of it that I needed but I also needed personal skills which included looking after and supporting people. In an athletic environment you had to be good or you were spat out the back, but in a work environment if you are struggling it is important to offer support. It took me a while to realize the better you are the more work you got, the worse you were the more support you got to improve, which is opposite to sport. In sport if you were no good you were gone. It took a while for me to adjust to that way of thinking.
MM: Anne Gripper, your predecessor, was one of the few CEO’s who left TA in a better position than when she started. What legacy do you think Anne left and what are the next stages you are going to lead TA through?
MS: Anne took over the sport at a completely different time than what I have. When Anne took over, TA was a mess and they were struggling to survive and Anne coming into the sport at that time was when we needed a calm, stable influence and Anne absolutely provided that.
If someone asked me if I would go back and take on the CEO role five years ago, it would be an absolute no from me. There was just too much going on and it wasn’t about building but surviving and Anne not only helped the sport survive but once again flourish – and that’s her legacy.
Anne of course worked closely with then President Peter Hedge who helped stop the bleeding and made the tough decisions. He is a brilliant bloke who the sport desperately needed at the time. He didn’t necessarily need the sport but the sport needed him. Without him we may have been in a fair amount of trouble.
Those five years saw an amazing, amazing turnaround and Peter, Anne and also David Ferrier helped. That board went through absolute hell but their results has now got us in a position to grow.
My job now is to take this to the next level and get us more self sufficient and work on the commercialization. And yes there is work around the high performance program.
MM: Is that a priority?
MS:Yes an absolute priority! I feel the high performance guys cop a hard time.
We could have great age group races, really happy competitors, a good pro program and safe races. But if the elite guys are not racing well, the perception is the sport is suffering. Which is a pretty heavy task. We could have our biggest membership base ever but if the guys aren’t winning races then everyone thinks the sport in Australia is in trouble.
I can tell you now most aspects of our sport are doing very well and in good shape.
MM: Let’s turn our attention to the business of the sport. How can TA stay relevant and guide the sport in the future now that big business has come in and running the majority of the sport? Where can TA fit in?
MS:We are one of the only sports that run their events with external race providers. That in itself makes us rather unique. Even with the Commonwealth Games, we are one of the only sports that has an outside provider delivering the event. So that dynamic is an interesting one.
I certainly don’t feel we should be race directors. That should be left for the experts and I certainly feel we don’t need to be experts in that area. We would rather work with the race directors hand-in-hand than pretend to do it ourselves.
But how do we stay relevant? I think our relevance is in governance, strategy, looking after the age group membership side of the business, technical officials and safety.
We have probably had some fractured relationships in the past (with event organisers) but they are, to me, one of our biggest providers, they are some of our biggest clients and we need to make sure those relationships are strong.
Since I have been here I have set about to make sure I have touched based with everyone and have an open dialogue with these guys and talk about how we can help one another. I feel like that is going really well. The race directors may have felt like they haven’t been communicated to in the past but one of my biggest mandates when I came into head office has been very simple; we are either looking after a member or helping someone who does.
I look at race directors and they help our members. They put on races and provide opportunities for them to compete and we absolutely need to have a partnership there.
We must deliver great services which they currently pay for via sanctioning, technical officials, volunteers and make sure they feel like they get value from what we provide. From the race directors’ point of view we need to get better at sharing information, making sure we can quantify what is going on in the sport and provide meaningful data to them around trends of what the athletes want and do.
MM: Last one mate, what can we expect to see from the leadership of Miles Stewart over the next few years?
MM:What I would like to leave is high performance results swinging back up again and a robust program around that. I think we have the bones to do that and with a bit of tweaking and time we should see that ship rise. Having athletes on the top podium in Hawaii is always a fantastic thing for us.
But what I would really like to see is some revenue coming back into the sport that we currently don’t have today. I would really like to build a commercial platform that makes us less reliant on government funding moving into the future.
I also want to see an increase in technical officials across all levels – level one, two and three and help finish off the unification of the states that Ann (Gripper) has put a lot of good work into.
Can you explain the unification?
At the moment we work under a federated model which means we have a national body (TA) and a state body (e.g. Triathlon Queensland). Each state has its own board and works independently. There is a lot of value in that as they can manage state base relationships, funding and they do a lot of great work in their communities.
But this is quite clunky and cumbersome and we are not using the strengths we have in each state and we need to be streamlined and efficient. Right now for example we have nine websites to maintain and nine sets of accounts that need auditing each year but in a unified model there would be one governing body and state advisory committees, but all the finances and decisions would be made from one body.
One of the problems we have is we currently have 42 staff and 75 board members. With unification we would have 42 staff and 7 board members which would make decision-making quicker and more streamlined but the state advisory committees would still provide that connection at state level to make sure all the services are being provided.
MM: Thanks for your time Miles and all the best with your new role, we look forward to seeing what the future holds.