There’s more to life than winning every race, as I found out recently.
Making bucket lists, annual goal charts and creating mountains to climb are all very well, but what no-one warns you is that these attempted feats can push you to your limits, and challenge you in ways you hadn’t even considered – and there’s no guarantee you will achieve them.
During a recent trip to Chicago where I competed for Australia in my age group in the world triathlon sprint championships, I was confronted with failure, and came so close to not achieving my goal, it has taken me weeks to be able to write about it. After over 3 years of training, no social life, thousands of dollars in equipment, training, airfares and 5.00am starts, I almost didn’t make it.
Three and a half years ago I had never swum in the ocean, and never ridden a road bike with clip-in shoes, so a triathlon was the furthest thing from my mind when a friend took me to run club to lose a few kilos. Turns out it was a triathlon club, and before long I’d taken the challenge to complete my first triathlon in Byron Bay within 6 months – and that was only the first mountain I would climb.
The goals over the years came thick and fast – faster, longer, shorter distances, a week cycling the French Alps, and when I heard triathlon was the only amateur sport where you could represent your country at world level, I had to take the challenge.
Anyone who is close to me knows the past 12 months have been tough. I had to qualify in the top 20 finishers in 3 races to compete, one in Adelaide, Canberra and finally Sydney. I set myself the personal goal of qualifying in the top 10 for every race. Last year Christmas parties went by the wayside as did friend’s birthdays, work events and so on, as there is only so much time in a week.
With twin 7 year olds, and being a single mum, life consisted of training, work and children, for months on end.
I knew I had qualified after the third race, but refused to accept it or celebrate the feat until it was official, but by that time there was no time to party, as the real hard work was yet to be done. Training through a dark, cold winter, battling the flu four times, a leg injury, slow bike times – the challenges just went on and on.
In Chicago on the day of the race, I was completely overwhelmed. We racked our bikes the night before, and I felt like an inexperienced child with my amateurish rental bike in a sea of thousands of professional, expensive bikes most athletes had flown in for the event.
Jet-lag had set-in, and the freakish warm weather meant Lake Michigan where we swam was ice cold in comparison. Hardly ideal conditions.
When the moment arrived, and I waited in the water for the gun to go off in my wet suit, I didn’t anticipate the aggression of the Mexican girls who – all 20 or more of them – chanted a Haka-like song, creating a wave of fear amongst all of us in the icy waters.
As soon as the swim started, I knew I was in trouble. My mistake was going right up front to try and get a head start. These girls were aggressive – and angry. One went over me, one ripped at my goggles. It was absolutely brutal. When I felt two on my back at once, I knew I was gone, and the next thing I knew a rotund Indian American plucked me out of the water, and threw me on the back of her electric boat, unzipped my wet suit and shouted “breath girl, just breath”.
And breath I did.
It was a true life moment as the world tumbled before me, and I gasped for breath and tried to comprehend what was happening. The American woman was shouting into a walk talkie: ”I don’t know if she’s going back in, give the girl a minute”, as the crowds on the banks of the lake grumbled, and the next round of competitors waited to see when their gun as going to go off.
In that moment, I thought of those who had gone before me, and those who were still to come. I thought of how few people would ever actually make it this far in this sport, and my hundreds of early morning wake-ups flashed before me.
Then I saw my twin’s faces, and I knew I couldn’t let myself down – or them. I had to make that phone call back to Australia and tell them mum crossed the finish line, no matter what it took.
I turned to the American woman and said “throw me back in”, she picked up the walkie talkie and yelled “she’s going back in, I said the girl’s going back in” in full American style, and she indeed threw me back in – wet suit wide open slapping me with “you go get them”.
Nothing could have prepared me for the people on the shore – who stood up, and applauded, shouted and kept clapping as I did a virtual solo swim along the shore, my wet suit filling with water weighing me down at every stroke.
I rode my rickety old rental bike, and I ran like the wind in the searing Chicago heat. I think I came last in my age group, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was the finishers medal around my neck, the green and gold I was wearing, and that I had achieved my dream.
In the phone call to the twins several hours later, there was much excitement as I recounted the details of the medal, and the race. I told them the most important thing in life is to believe in yourself, and believe in your dreams. Sometimes you never know where the life lessons and real achievements come from. It’s not always about winning.
Later that night in Chicago, sitting in the team hotel, I received the news from Triathlon Australia that my times in my 3 qualifying races pre-Chicago meant I was part of the President’s Team. I had qualified first in my age group out of the Australians who made it to Chicago.
It made my thoughts turn to the 2016 world championships in Mexico for a day or two, until I received an e-mail invitation for a close friend’s birthday I missed last year and realised life is short, and we only have so much time to balance so many things and enjoy the moments.
I’ve never been a person to frame a medal or a photo of myself playing sport, but maybe it’s time.