The 40th anniversary of the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon was this weekend with THEMAGIC5 athlete Ben Kanute racing for his 4th consecutive win- but he wasn’t the only Kanute on the start line. Racing together for the first time since Ben was a kid, both Ben and his father, Mike Kanute, competed in the iconic swim, bike, run event.
Triathlon is a big part of the Kanute family. The whole family was always involved in sport and Ben remembers watching his dad race triathlons and then joining the youth team himself. “At one point, my entire family was doing triathlon,” Ben says, “we talk about it a lot.” It’s no wonder that the conversation has continued from childhood with Ben racing into the professional ranks, becoming a multiple US National Champion, an Olympian, and finishing second at Ironman 70.3 World Championships. No matter the distance, Ben can, and has, done it all in triathlon.
Ben points to his upbringing as crucial to his success. “Early on, I learned how to work hard from my dad and from being on the kids triathlon team. I learned how to push myself there. We kept it fun but really learned what it was like to push ourselves and be the best we could be. On top of that, finding that discipline and motivation to keep that drive—you have to really enjoy it. I think there’s an aspect to really learning and being taught how to be mentally tough.”
Growing up a golfer, Ben’s father has great insight into the mental side of sport, something Ben says has been a great benefit to his performance and career. From mental toughness and racing strategy to perspective and, now, parenting advice, “he has a great perspective on things,” Ben says. “It’s a lot of things people have a handle on, but he’s had a handle on it for a long time.”
“At this point, I can recite my dad’s speech,” Ben jokes, explaining how his dad points his hand and throws out a golf metaphor. “‘Sometimes you have to lay it up instead of going right for the green,’ or ‘focus on one shot at a time,’” Ben recites. But Ben says it was those speeches that helped mould his mindset.
“[My dad] was really big on ‘there’s always another race’ and it still carries true to this day. Each race you do feels like the biggest thing. It’s a good example to use junior races, like the junior national championships or junior worlds, all feel like they could be make or break, and the biggest races ever, and then you get a few years down the line and you look back and everybody has moved on from it.”
“There’s always something bigger, something more important. It’s just racing and results are great—and I hate losing—but at the end of the day it’s sport and we’re pretty lucky to be able to compete. I try not to make it life or death and I feel like that’s been part of the whole learning process starting with my dad.”
It was Ben’s fourth time racing Alcatraz and, although a seasoned triathlete himself, it was the first time for his father. Ben says he still goes to his dad for advice but with so much professional racing experience, especially with four Alcatraz wins to his name, Ben says the mentorship role is a little more shared. “It’s a role we kind of share; we give each other advice on what we’ve learned. It’s been nice to have that for triathlon but also just for life in general.”
While the roles might have changed just a little, one thing hasn’t changed since Ben was a kid and never will: the whistle. At all the races since he was a kid, Ben has heard his dad’s support from the sidelines in a unique way. “He has a pretty distinctive high-pitch whistle that’s super loud and he used to do that as we would step up on the blocks for swim races, be on the start line for cross country meets or triathlon, or as we are coming by. You could always hear three high-pitched whistles and even if you couldn’t see him you’d know that he was right there.”
“He definitely still does it now,” Ben laughs.
Before the weekend, Ben said it will be “super special” to race Alcatraz with his dad and he was most looking forward to the boat ride out together before the start. All the athletes take a ferry boat out to Alcatraz Island where they jump from the boat to swim the 1.5 miles back to the shoreline of San Francisco. While they were on the boat together, the professionals began a few minutes ahead of the age group racers and, you bet, moments before the start, there was a whistle.