SA Champs – My Cinderella Story

My husband and I have always chuckled at the way I turn into an auditor after every triathlon I do. Part of the fun of racing Triathlon is that you compete within your Age Group. As a result of this, I pour over the splits after every race, looking at the times of everyone in my Age Group, trying to see where I can improve. “See John, if I had only been 5 minutes faster on the bike and 10 minutes faster on the run then I could have finished in the top ten!” Obsessive, I know, but here’s the thing: about a year ago, I started to notice that although 1st and 2nd in my Age Group were quite a lot faster than I was, I was getting closer and closer to 3rd place! I realised, that if I could improve on my times, I would stand a chance of making the Western Province Team for SA Champs. I felt so shy of having such a lofty goal, that I thought it best to keep my goal to myself, and didn’t share it with my husband or my coach.

I knuckled down last year, realising that the fastest way to improve my times, would be to shed some load – my biggest challenge in this department would be avoiding alcohol. Slowly, the weight shifted and my times started to improve. At Durban IronMan 70,3 I finished 6th in Western Province, and this spurred me on. I lost a little focus after the race (as we all do) and had to pull myself back onto the straight and narrow, but by November I was back on track and training for East London IronMan 70,3. Then, disaster struck. The light of my life, my whole world, my awesome husband John Gilchrist, had a massive, life-threatening accident on his bicycle. He spent 12 days in ICU, and we are so grateful and fortunate to have him with us, alive and recovering well. His doctors told us that it is only because he was so fit and healthy that he survived the accident. While he was still in hospital, the trauma councillor we were seeing encouraged me to continue training, as she said this would help me to deal with the trauma.

So I arrived at Silvermine Dam, wetsuit in hand, to a welcoming and supportive team of MTD athletes, all of whom were very concerned and offering well-wishes for John’s recovery. I put my wetsuit on, picked my way through the rocks, and dropped into the dark and quiet waters. The water enveloped and welcomed me. For the first time in weeks, I had complete stillness. The darkness of the water, which in the past I had sometimes found unnerving, blocked out the noise of the outside world. As I pulled my way through the water, the headache I had been fighting for two weeks subsided, and I felt suddenly calm and invigorated at the same time. “Yes”, I thought, “This is what I should be doing. This will help me.” And so I continued to train.

When John was finally home from hospital and recovering well, he encouraged me to go ahead with my plans to do East London 70,3, and so I went along to the race, undertrained, but keen to have an awesome day out. This seems to be the best attitude to have for a race, because I finished 3rd in my Western Province Age Group! I was beside myself with excitement! Next, Discovery ITU came along and I was excited to see I came 4th in my Western Province Age Group. With a 3rd and a 4th place I felt emboldened and I submitted my application for the Western Province (CTTA) team for SA Champs. I was bowled over when they sent me an email letting me know that I had made the team! Was this really happening? Did I really make the team? On to the next hurdle – you don’t get to tell people you were on the team unless you do the race! I was going to race SA Champs!!!

To my horror, I soon realised that the swim (in the infamous waters which saw pro athletes being rescued at Durban IronMan70,3 in 2016) would be non-wetsuit! I have always been nervous of sea swimming, and this one was going to be in skins! I have never ventured beyond the breakers without a wetsuit. I packed my wetsuit in hope-against-hope that the swim would be wetsuit legal. Along with my fear of a skins swim in the open ocean, I spent many a sleepless night stressing over the possibility of my doing something stupid on the bike, and knocking a bunch of provincial athletes off their bikes! The weekend of the race arrived and I went down to the Familiarization Bike (easy enough), and then the daunting Familiarization Swim (in skins). Even though the waves were extremely powerful, I coped well, and found myself encouraging other team mates who were struggling! I hoped that I would be comfortable in the water without a wetsuit at the race the next day.

When we arrived at the Friday night team dinner, I met the other three ladies from my Western Province Age Group. I felt extremely out of my league. I am not your traditional looking triathlete (being all business on the bottom and all party on the top - if you get my drift) and I am not unused to the looks I get at races as if to say: “What on earth is she doing here?” I might have received one or two of these looks at dinner, but I must admit, I was thinking the same thing. Clearly of the four ladies, I was by far the least athletic looking, and obviously “number 4”. Still, this was my long-dreamt-of goal - I was determined to race, finish, and enjoy the day, even if I was going to be the last one over the line.

At the start of the race, we were shepherded down the beach to the start of the 1 500m swim. The beach we arrived at had an ominous “No Swimming” sign. We ladies lined up behind the men and caught our breaths as we saw them fight their way through the waves, getting washed back and bowled over time and again. Then it was our turn. The first wave that hit me nearly knocked me off my feet, and the second wave did knock me off my feet! We battled our way beyond the breakers, and finally we were able to start swimming. At this point I started to feel very exposed, with nothing but thin lycra between me and the big blue ocean. “Pina Colada” suddenly popped into my head. Swimming Guru Clare Rainey has helped me through numerous sea swims with this mantra. I stand corrected, but loosely translated, it means: “We are fine. You are fine. This is a great place to be. You belong here. Relax and enjoy the moment.” Pina Colada. “I am out here” I thought, “I have to finish this swim to finish the race – there is only one way.” I calmed down and settled into a rhythm and before I knew it, I was half way.

Suddenly, a monster wave hit us out of nowhere. I saw it coming so was prepared for it, but some others weren’t so lucky. Watching the waves, I saw another one coming and ducked under the wave. The rubber duck that we were told to swim to as the last marker (the buoys were not visible in the swells) moved off to rescue someone as I approached it. I found the buoy and turned towards the beach. It was time to employ my inferior body-surfing skills. The wave hit me and mauled me so badly that my cap and goggles popped off! Grabbing them, I took a more cautious approach to exiting the swim.

I was elated when I heard the names of my team mates being announced coming out of the water behind me when I was in transition. I was determined to hold them off on the bike. I rode the bike as hard as I could and only had one team mate pass me. I did not know at the time that sadly, she had struggled with the swim and had pulled out, and was only doing the ride and the run as training. Moving on to the run I knew that most ladies would be faster runners than me. On my third lap I saw one of my other team mates just ahead. She must have slipped past me, but I was gaining on her. I chased her down and on the last lap she saw me at the turn-around point and sped up a little. I thought I could possibly catch her, so I gave it everything I had. We approached the finish line and to my utter amazement, she went past it! She was only on her third lap! I could not believe it! I had finished a whole lap ahead of her! I thought I had finished third out of our province, and I only discovered after the race that I was actually second, as one of our team did not start due to the rough sea. And just like that, I had a real Cinderella moment. That Friday night, I thought I would clearly finish 4th out of the four of us, but here I was and I had finished 2nd in my Western Province Age Group! Overall I placed 14th in my Age Group and I am very proud of that. This is why I fell in love with the sport of Triathlon. I am not the fastest swimmer, biker, or runner, but when you put them all together, suddenly I am Cinderella and I am at the Ball. Cue magic tinkling bell music.


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