Emma Carney8 June 1997
Though she has been the world's best triathlete for the past two years, it took a series of high-profile TV ads to elevate Emma Carney's name in the public consciousness.
Emma Carney was deep in Baywatch territory filming an advertisement when she was asked to dash into the surf and catch a wave. Carney scanned the flat Santa Monica surf and laughed. The only thing she was likely to catch in that was a cold. But the bronzed Aussie gritted her teeth. She sprinted into the freezing water, caught "this pathetic wave" and rode it to the shore. The director was rapt. So was one of Santa Monica's famed lifeguards. He had to find out who was this new star with her own trailer, crew and catering. Had she ever been a lifesaver too? He'd never seen a "girl" catch a wave like that before.
Carney has been shocking people with her sporting prowess all her life. At her first international triathlon in 1994 she won the world championship. No-one knew who she was. They do now. The 25-year-old from Eltham, north-east of Melbourne, is ranked the world number one by the International Triathlon Union, a lofty position she has held since 1995. "From day one I started at the top," Carney said. And she plans to stay there.
From day one Carney has also made a lucrative living from triathlon. She owns three properties in Noosa, her winter training base. In addition to the adidas advertisement, she features in a National Australia Bank commercial that's running concurrently on national television. The ads have not only given Carney a public profile but brought the new Olympic sport of triathlon into the nation's lounge rooms and made people aware of her struggle to reach the top. Carney, however, pleads ignorance when asked how much her profile is worth. The person who does know is her father and manager, David Carney, who knows a thing or two about promotion. He used to work for adidas, was managing director of Nike Australia and is now setting up Fila's Australian operations. "Some people would say I was well off but I don't know how much I earn," Carney said. "I will probably care when I finish competing but I don't get involved in the money side. Dad does that. He is brilliant. All I do is train, compete, eat and sleep. Dad does everything else."
Carney confesses she would hate anyone outside the family knowing what she earns. She likes to keep everything inside the Carney clan. Everything. Her father is the manager, mum is the cook and little sister Clare is her training partner and an elite triathlete in her own right. "We don't like outsiders being involved," she said. "The Carneys do things their way."
When Carney is not in Noosa training she lives at home in Eltham in a house constructed out of over 4,500 mud bricks made by the family. It is set on about 1.5 hectares of quiet, secluded bushland perfect for training. "The house is special to us," Carney said. "We made the bricks when I was about 10. It was kinda fun. We stood in mud every weekend for a year." But if life is lucrative at the top of triathlon, it's also isolated. Like many endurance athletes Carney is a loner. She was still at school when she decided she hated team sport. She'd get angry when less dedicated teammates dropped the ball. "I couldn't understand how you could play sport and not pay attention. I would much rather rely on myself."
Now 25 and in the prime of her life, Carney doesn't socialise much. She has little to do with other triathletes. A weekly regime of 35km swimming, 200km cycling and 80km running dominates her life. She wouldn't mind going skiing occasionally but is scared of breaking her leg and ruining her career. She's in bed most nights by 9 o'clock. She has no boyfriend. "I haven't got time," she said. "There will be time for all that other stuff later." There was a report she was going out with world top-10 tennis player Thomas Muster, who also has a house in Noosa. When Carney and Muster attended the same dinner party held by mutual friends in Noosa one of Carney's mates rang a newspaper and said they were an item. "It was a prank," Carney said. "It was stupid. I still get asked about it."
There is one skeleton in Carney's otherwise Spartan closet. She calls it her dark secret. She's English-born. Her parents are English too. "I'm not a full-on Aussie," she confessed. "The family came out here in the 1970s but we were all born over there." That's it. That's her secret.
Carney doesn't have any regrets she's exercising only her physical potential. Love can wait. Her life is her sport and she's driven by an unshakeable faith in her own ability. "I sincerely believe I am the best triathlete in the world," she said. "At a race I don't expect to come second. If I get to the line in good shape, no-one can come near me. I look around and think I am the best here. That is the way I look at everything."
Carney began her sporting life as runner. She remembers being in grade four and being the only girl to win a medal in the school cross-country mixed race. As a teenager Carney remembers jogging after school every day. "From that time on there has hardly been a day when I haven't trained," she said. At 13 she set a Victorian record in her 3,000m debut. At 18 she was winning national school titles and later she was making finals in the under-20 national championships in the 1,500m and 3,000m. Carney wanted to run all the way to the Olympics but realised she wasn't going to hit her peak as a middle-distance athlete until her late 20s. "I thought running for another 10 years was boring so I decided to do some cross-training and triathlons."
She won the first triathlon she entered despite being the last out of the water. She was a poor swimmer. Her father worked out the swim-bike-run splits and told his talented daughter that if she learned to swim, she could be the best. So Carney learned to swim. Of the 17 international triathlons she has contested since 1994 she has lost just two. But those two have been the world championships, the race that matters the most. On both occasions Carney finished behind her major rival and Australia's reigning world champion, Jackie Gallagher. At the 1995 Mexico world championships Carney caught a virus. "I stuffed up," she said. Last year in Cleveland she overtrained and got a virus. "I tried too hard and totally stuffed up. I said to Dad, "get me out of here'. We caught the first plane out. In hindsight that was bad sportsmanship, but when I lose I just want to get home and learn from my mistakes."
Losing and Carney became enemies when she was just six. She remembers being taken to squash lessons with her older sister Jane and being made to run around the block to warm-up. Her sister would beat her easily. She hated that. Then she would get flogged by her sister on the squash court. "I was hopeless. I hated to lose. It's a bad memory." Losing two consecutive world championships was devastating for an athlete obsessed with being the best. "I hate to think that anyone could say they beat me. To tell sponsors I got beaten is embarrassing."
Carney hopes to get it right at this year's Perth world championships in November but she is loath to describe it as a race between herself and Gallagher. She seems reluctant to discuss Gallagher and talks instead of challengers from Europe where the sport is booming. But there is no mistaking that she wants the world title badly, almost as much as she wants an Olympic medal. Carney is deeply envious of athletes who have won that ultimate prize. Noosa real estate and television advertisements be damned. What Carney wants to come home to is an Olympic medal on the mantel. "It is the most prestigious thing you can have," she said. "To go home and pick up an Olympic gold medal. That would be amazing." If she becomes rich and famous on the way to the Olympics through endorsements and advertisements, so be it. Carney said fame would not change her, especially her training. "What's the point of winning everything if no-one knows about it," she said.