Taking up triathlon at the age of eighteen, Levi Maxwell laughs as he looks back on his early days. Maxwell turned up to his first swim session in football shorts, crashed during his first group cycling ride, and had no idea he shared a name with an Australian triathlon great.
Armed with the approach “You get out what you put in”, and a passion for health and fitness, Maxwell has proved that you don’t need to be a natural at the sport to experience progression.
Like many kids growing up in Australia, Maxwell’s sporting background was dominated by team sports. As he grew older and the social side of these team sports started to become more evident, he found himself becoming less and less attracted to the sports and the culture surrounding them.
At the end of high school, he made the switch to golf. While it was a slightly better lifestyle, looking back, Maxwell admits it was an unconventional progression for someone who would go on to compete at the highest level in endurance sports.
“While golf isn’t the most intense endurance sport, I had a huge passion for health and fitness. I would basically do anything active, even spin classes at the gym or running on a treadmill.”
This passion for health and fitness was guiding his professional career, with Maxwell studying Health and Physical Education while working part-time. During his time working at the local supermarket, Maxwell was convinced by a bread delivery man to give triathlon a go.
With his cycling experience limited to spin classes and commuting to work on a BMX, Maxwell decided to take the plunge and dive straight in. Purchasing a bike and some riding apparel, he embraced all that Melbourne’s winter had to offer. Entering the sport with no expectations around performance, triathlon became Maxwell’s summer hobby as he competed in the local triathlon series in Melbourne.
“I didn’t really have any goals or career aspirations in the sport when I started. But I quickly realised that nine times out of ten, if you put in the hard work, you’ll be rewarded. That’s what sucked me into the sport.”
Maxwell had a natural progression in the sport – from initial sprint distance building up to the Half Ironman distance in around 18 months and the full long course distance of an Ironman coming a few years later. It was safe to say he had the triathlon bug, and he was interested to see what his best was in the sport.
In 2012, Maxwell made his Ironman debut at Busselton in Western Australia, finishing second in his age group. Not qualifying for Kona, Maxwell remembers the initial frustration post-race. However, in hindsight he sees it as a blessing, serving him a valuable lesson in patience.
Two years on at Ironman Melbourne, Maxwell set out to qualify for Kona, and did. He was off to Hawaii and the Ironman World Championships, and the victory set-off thoughts of turning professional.
Sharing a house in the small city of Geelong, Victoria, with two fellow triathletes who had previously experienced the perils of the Big Island, Maxwell absorbed as much as you could in terms of advice and insights into the race. Despite this, Maxwell kept a level-head and remained aware that no matter how much you take in, nothing prepares you for the heat you feel when you step off that plane.
Like many sports or challenges, triathlon can bring high levels of anxiety. The lead up to race day and the constant battle of thoughts in your head is something that newcomers, age groupers and pro athletes all experience. With an Ironman distance race lasting anywhere from eight to seventeen hours, there is plenty of time for negative thoughts and doubts to come into play.
“Kona is, well Kona. Even at age-group level the mind games are evident. It’s a World Champs after all, with bigger fields and uncertainty throughout the whole race of where you stand.”
At Kona, Maxwell won his age group, and was the second age-grouper overall. He was the fastest Australian both amateur and professional overall on the day. However, he wasn’t about to get carried away with his debut in Hawaii. Racing at age-group level versus professionally presents vastly different dynamics. In age-group racing, specific strengths are evident but there are wider gaps in weaknesses. At the professional level, those gaps become smaller and smaller. Maxwell knew he had a lot of work to do before he contemplated taking the jump.
Cairns Ironman in 2015, Maxwell came fourth overall. Although a very different race to Melbourne the previous year, it gave him a little more confidence. After defending his age group title again in Kona, Maxwell made the call to apply for his professional license, ensuring he had a support network around him that not only backed him but gave him a reality check on the hard road ahead – the professional triathlete apprenticeship.
The initial transition to becoming a professional athlete was hard. Like many, it’s not like sponsors were automatically there and Maxwell had to work to supplement his training and racing. This apprenticeship is something that Maxwell feels is still happening. Four years after turning pro, he is only just starting to see consistent results at the highest level.
“Like any sport, Triathlon is a great leveller. It helps you Identify your strengths and weaknesses, back yourself and be much more self-aware. Put the ego in check, you aren’t going to be the best of the best immediately.”
His first race as a pro was at Ironman 70.3 Geelong. Missing vital packs in the swim, Maxwell realised this leg was well below where it needed to be. These lessons, as he puts it, enabled him to take a much more patient view with his own progression. Rather than setting goals well beyond his capabilities, he began breaking them down, ticking-off smaller goals along the way to get where he needed to be.
The last twelve months has seen a big progression for Maxwell. Staying injury free, understanding his own development further has allowed him to build consistency across the Half Ironman distance and with that consistency comes some new finish lines for 2020.
First up, defending his Challenge Shepperton title, as well as a return to racing the full distance at Ironman Cairns, which as a Regional Championship has become one of the go-to races for those wishing to qualify for the World Championships.
“My main goal for 2020 is to keep racing and stay injury free. I want to build on this consistency, and if that means bigger goals like Kona then that’s a bonus. Most of all, I want to keep enjoying the sport and stay passionate about health and fitness.”
Combining his passion for the sport and the transformational effects it had on him, Maxwell has naturally progressed to coaching. Identifying athletes who enter the sport of triathlon later in life for health reasons, he wanted to get involved.
“Sport has given me purpose. It’s such a great vehicle for life, whether this be in a team environment, chasing a personal best or trying to turn your life around.”
His coaching approach is all about managing the person rather than the program. Maxwell focuses on managing their expectations and keeping them engaged in the process, in turn keeping himself on track. This approach also extends to knowing his athletes on a more personal level, approaching their program holistically. Through open communication, he ensures they get the best out of themselves while enjoying the positives the sport has to offer.
“At the end of the day, you can only do the best you can do. I went into my early races with no expectations – I just set out to do my best. This remains my philosophy today.”
Managing adversity and facing different challenges is a valuable lesson Maxwell has taken from the sport. Things go wrong often, however Maxwell likens it to a giant jigsaw puzzle – adapt, apply, learn and adapt again. Referring to his progression in the sport, Maxwell sees it as a smart approach – take time to go up in distances, rather than dive in the deep end. Train your mind to set big goals but be patient with the journey. It’s all about progression, no matter how big or small.