A curling wave crashes over me from behind, pushing me forward and down below the surface of the sea. Through my swimming-goggles I catch a green, silent moment in the wave and I remind myself to relax and pace my breathing. I kick my legs, push my elbow back, folding it high and reaching forward for the catch, then pushing through and out into sunlight to catch my breath then surge forwards again.
The white crest of the wave throws sparkling droplets into the air, catching with the sunlight and there it is, I’m swimming through rainbows. The rough sea is challenging and fierce and I couldn’t be happier. Glancing through the swell I notice the spire of Saint Colman’s Cathedral on my right and the smaller Christchurch Church of Ireland on my left. These are my guides and there is a spiritual connection in my mind as I imagine an invisible tow-line attaching me to both and leading me back to shore. I am judging the current and the tide; the way the water is pulling me, along my trajectory to those fine points on the landline ahead. We are a perfect triangle, a power source, and the sea cannot defeat me. I am alive.
I have been fascinated by the open water sea swim between Spike Island and Cobh ever since I was a young radio reporter, writing stories about the island’s prison population and the infamous prison riot, which is now part of the exhibition about the island’s history. I always imagined what it might be like to swim it, but I never imagined that I would be the swimmer. So it is with the world, that strange coincidences turn dreams to reality. How appropriate that now I was swimming this infamous stretch – Ireland’s own ‘escape from Alcatraz’ – as part of an even bigger project of completing ten triathlons in a year.
The Cobh Tri was my tenth triathlon of 2016, and the swim from Spike to Cobh was without a shadow of a doubt the most exciting. It was also my first ever attempt at a full ‘Olympic distance’ tri and I really had no idea if I could do it.
Back in February with a lot of borrowed gear and last minute choices, I dipped my toe into the indoor pool in Carrick-On-Shannon for the Lough Key ‘Try a Tri’ – my first introduction to the world of triathlon. I was nervous, but the people of Carrick won the day, their encouragement hurtling me through to complete the course. It was a trend that was to continue, as I headed to Galway for the Castle Series and the Lough Cutra Castle Triathlon with its beautiful parkland and lake. From there I headed to Kildare for my first sprint distance triathlon during an Irish heatwave. Running along the river in Athy I thought I would melt but every elite athlete that zipped past used their precious breath to call encouragement to me as I jogged along.
‘By Hook or By Crook’ I finished my 4th triathlon in Wexford and swam back across the bay afterwards! Hells Angels were born for number five, when I buddied up and took my place in an all-girl team to finish the swim as part of a relay at Hell Of The West. My favourite run came next in the lovely Dromineer with Nenagh Tri Club, followed by the Lakeside Tri in Donegal, King of Greystones in Wicklow and triathlon number nine, the Salthill Tri in Galway.
Throughout the year I felt my confidence grow, but I also felt such admiration for the organisers and the athletes taking part. Safety and organisation was paramount, and whether racing across a lake or a big sea swim like Hell of the West, there was always a safety kayak within sight and the briefings before each race left me very clear and very safe about the race and my place in it. I very quickly found reassurance that I did have a place here. Even though this is a hugely competitive sport with amazing elites battling hard for home and country, I never felt out of place. That’s down to Triathlon Ireland, all the organising clubs, stewards, officials, safety crews, and the athletes and spectators who never stopped encouraging me along the way.
At the start of the year, overweight and unable to run very far, I felt a bit of a fraud turning up for my first ‘try-a’tri’ – but nobody else saw me that way. I soon realised that even if I never won a race, I could win each time by performing better than the last. My race wasn’t just on triathlon day, it was all the work I put in between the events, jogging on the road, swimming in the sea, cycling to work and going to the gym; it all counted. Turning up to race wasn’t a judgement on how slow or bad I was, it was a celebration of how far I had come; and everybody there encouraged me to realise that.
Back here at Cobh – my tenth triathlon of the Summer – and my first full Olympic distance. I accept the outstretched hands that balance me as I climb from the water after completing my epic battle ‘escaping’ from Spike. I head off on the bike against a gale force wind, because Cobh wasn’t making this easy! Nearly 40k later I swing back in on the bike and face my nemesis – the 10k run. Or in my case, the walk and jog. I didn’t have to look far for inspiration, I knew that this was also a ‘first ever full distance Olympic triathlon’ for the legendary Sonia O’Sullivan.
Of course she’d long finished the course, but as I finished my first loop and got the first of three wristbands before starting on the next, I thought about Sonia and the effort it must take to compete in an entirely new sport when everyone is watching. The loveliness of the lady and the kindness she has shown me whenever we have met was another reason to keep me going for the second band, which was green. I knew with a white and a green band on my wrist there was no way I was stopping. To my delight, other ladies, stewards and even some of my friends, joined me on the last loop, walking and jogging it with me and encouraging me all the way.
I finished my tenth triathlon on the seafront in Cobh, grabbing my last wristband to form the perfect green, white and gold. As I heard my timing chip beep as I passed over the pressure mat, I knew that I’d just completed my own personal Olympic moment. Thank you Triathlon Ireland, thank you Sonia, thank you friends, spectators and fellow competitors for all your support and inspiration along the way. Thanks also to the kind donors who allowed me raise €1,000 for The Irish Wheelchair Association and the Gavin Glynn Foundation, and to everyone who donated to the TRI10 iDonate page throughout the year. It’s been an amazing adventure and I have a sneaky feeling that I’ll be back next year….
*First published in Sept 2016 by Triathlon Ireland