The 2014 season has probably been the most testing triathlon season I have had yet. Whilst preparing for a review meeting the other day the best way I could sum it up was: “It’s been very hard but I got the job done in the end”.
2013 ended with the announcement from the ITU that from 2014 athletes would need to qualify for future World Championships by competing at ITU World Paratriathlon International Events (WPIEs) where we would earn points based on finishing position and ranked in each category according to the total points from the best three events. Each category was allocated a quota of the number of athletes that could qualify this way with 10 places being reserved for wildcards which would be awarded at the discretion of the ITU. This in itself was not a problem for me and one I welcomed as it encouraged more international racing and would hopefully help to raise standards in paratriathlon. However, there was also the rule that only two athletes per country per category could qualify for World Championships. Having just finished third in the 2013 World Championships to complete a British podium with my team-mates Faye McClelland and Lauren Steadman, I had a lot of work to do to secure one of the two British spots in my category.
I came through the winter in great shape having trained consistently and had been able to train in Lanzarote for a week pre-Christmas with Sarah and Barney Storey and their race team and then again in January for two weeks with the British Paratriathlon Squad. I was excited and looking forward to race season.
As a result of the new point system and all athletes starting on zero points, the British team decided to race in Yokohama in May so athletes could secure points to rank them for the European Championships in Kitzbuhel and avoid what would otherwise have been an entry lottery. With European Championships worth double the points earned in the ITU WPIEs, it was important to at least be on the start list to race in Kitzbuhel.
Then, in April, everything seemed to fall apart. Within 24 hours I received confirmation of a stress response in my foot which required me to wear a boot for two weeks and so preventing me from running and then news from BTF which looked like I would have to return to work full-time and hence affect my ability to train as effectively as I had been. Five days later the start lists for Yokohama were released and I was not on it. The athlete quota for my category was full and as the third Brit I was on the waiting list. Having these three things thrown at me in quick succession was simply too much and I seriously questioned why I was putting myself through this. I have a Paralympic gold medal, I have nothing to prove to anyone and, at 36, surely it was time to move on with my life outside of sport. However, I don’t do triathlon just because there is an opportunity to go to the Paralympic Games in 2016. I do it because I love the sport. I love the process of training, pushing myself to become a better athlete and ultimately I want to see how good I can be. I am also fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly supportive people who believe in me. David is top of the list and he found a solution which has enabled me to continue working part-time during the race season. I would not have got through these few days without him.
A week later my foot was healing very quickly, so I was able to start rehab sooner than had been anticipated, my name appeared on the Yokohama start list and I was enjoying two weeks of training with my coach’s T2Coaching squad in Mallorca – things were looking up again.
Race season started promising with a third place in Yokohama behind Faye and Lauren but with only just over a minute separating the three of us and the injury in the preceding month, I was happy that I was closing the gap and making real progress. The following week I travelled to France to race in a second WPIE. I was the only Brit to back up racing after Yokohama, but saw this as a real opportunity to win a race and stake my claim on a wildcard should it be required. I recovered well from the race and travel to and from Yokohama and was delighted to win my first ITU race since the 2009 World Championships.
Having raced two weeks in a row I elected to miss the London round of the WPIE but was thrilled to be asked to assist with the on-site commentary in Hyde Park and witnessed Lauren win the PT4 category, the first athlete to beat Faye in an ITU race. Racing just got exciting and I couldn’t wait to be back in the mix at the next race; European Championships, two weeks later.
During this time I had to decide which, if any other WPIE races I wanted to do. Having raced two already and qualified for Europeans I had three races and, barring disaster in Kitzbuhel, I would comfortably be ranked in the top eight in my category. However, the results of Europeans would basically decide which two Brits would qualify for Worlds. If I finished third Brit in the Europeans I would need a wildcard to race Worlds. Given UKSport podium level funding is based solely on performance and results at World Championships it was imperative that I was at least on the start line and able to influence my own destiny. With this in mind, my coach, Tom, and I decided to race the Chicago WPIE, the week after the Europeans. The plan was simple; go for the win in Chicago so that if I was ranked third Brit, with two WPIE wins I had at least done everything in my power to ensure neither BTF nor ITU could ignore me for a wildcard place at Worlds.
As it turned out Kitzbuhel was not the race I had hoped for. I finished fourth. The first time I had not finished on the podium in a paratriathlon race. I was devastated. I don’t feel I had a particularly bad race and gave it everything I had on the day. I was simply not good enough on that day. It has since been suggested I was suffering fatigue from the travel and racing in May. The large amount of travel and racing had certainly prevented me being able to push on with training. The five weeks leading up to Europeans had been all about recovering from one race and resting for the next. It was a case of damage limitation, staying healthy and maintaining my fitness.
My challenge now was to bounce back and race well in Chicago the following week. I was the only British athlete racing in Chicago but I had the support of Tom and my best friend who lives in the US and came to Chicago for the race. I managed to get my head straight in the week and thoroughly enjoyed the whole trip. Winning the race by four minutes was the icing on the cake and a timely reminder that I am still capable of winning.
It was now a case of waiting and hoping that firstly BTF would select and put me forward for a wildcard to race at Worlds and then secondly that the ITU would offer me the opportunity. I had met the BTF selection criteria with my race results and was put forward for a wildcard spot. However, I would not know my fate until three weeks before the race. In the meantime I had no choice but to train as if I was definitely going. Fortunately all the racing and travelling paid off and my name finally appeared on the start list for World Championships. Combined with the announcement in early July that my category, PT4, would definitely be one of the six medal events in the Rio Paralympic Games, I was very motivated.
A few days in Kelowna, British Colombia, before travelling to Edmonton gave us the opportunity to recover from the journey and adjust our body clocks in a relaxed environment away from the event. Come race day the weather conditions were perfect and I was ready to race. Throughout the season I have worked hard on my psychology with BTF sports psychologist Yvie Ryan. The key to my success in this race would be remaining 100% focussed on me and executing the processes I knew worked to produce my best. As I entered T2 I had absolutely no idea where anyone else was on the course but I was told I was in third position. The run was painful. I exited T2 just ahead of the two British female PT5 pairs and was conscious of them just behind me for the first half lap before they went ahead. I then just hung with them best I could to the finish.
I crossed the line, was saved from collapsing on the floor by a couple of officials and finally heard it confirmed over the PA that I had finished third. I had got on the podium. My initial response was relief. In fact that is still how I feel about the result. I don’t believe I produced the race that I’m really capable of but I had done what I needed to do to help secure my future on the British squad. It was great to share the podium with Lauren and Faye again, having missed out in Kitzbuhel.
My initial plan was to continue my season and race a WPIE in Madrid in September. However, after returning from Canada my body finally succumbed and I was ill. Given the amount of travel, racing and general stress I have gone through this season, my body did well to keep going without illness up to now. Mentally I was exhausted so I withdrew from Madrid and ended my season. They say you learn more from testing times than easy ones and that is certainly the case. I have no doubt that I am mentally a stronger athlete after this year and I now look forward to restarting training and attacking 2015.
Big thank you to my sponsors for your continued support – Deloitte UK, PACE Rehabilitation, Dassi, Zone3, PowerBar and ZeroD