Triathlon comes in many forms and British triathletes seem to excel in most of them. No more so than GB’s long-course women, who have been taking on – and beating – the best of the rest of the world for decades.
However, it’s not only results that set these women apart, it’s also been the way they’ve blazed unique trails to entertain, inspire and raise the possibilities of what other triathletes – and soon-to-be triathletes – believe can be achieved.
Sarah Springman, Bella Bayliss, Chrissie Wellington, Lucy Gossage and Lucy Charles-Barclay are those we’ve talked to for this piece. All world-beaters to be celebrated, but there are also many others who could be profiled who have equally stomped pedals to stamp their own indelible mark on the sport.
So here’s what the fab five had to tell us about their respective careers, their thoughts on the current crop of talent, and how they hope to see the sport evolve.
220: What was your introduction to the sport?
Sarah Springman: I did my first triathlon – the first triathlon in Britain – at Kirton’s Farm in Reading in 1983. I passed my exams to become a chartered engineer and this was my celebration. I’d never swum in a lake before and borrowed a bike that was stuck in top gear.
Bella Bayliss: I grew up in Aberdeenshire and enjoyed taking part in tetrathlon: swimming, running, shooting and riding. I saw a local triathlon advertised when I was about 17 and went along on a borrowed bike, met some encouraging people and it all went from there. I left the horses behind, started racing in Scotland, then England, then internationally.
Chrissie Wellington: I cut my teeth in endurance sport at the London marathon in 2002. I wasn’t overtaken by a rhino, which was a win, and it made me realise I might be able to set sub-3 as a goal.
A bike crash while cycle commuting in London meant I missed the marathon the following year and to regain fitness I started swimming, where I was spotted by Paul Robertshaw of BRAT club in Birmingham who was super enthusiastic and suggested I do tri.
My first race was an Eton sprint on a third-hand bike costing £200 – I’ve still got it. I remember running through the finish chute thinking I’d completed 5km but I still had another 2.5km to go.
Lucy Gossage: I was a junior doctor who was working hard and playing hard and entered the London Triathlon as a challenge. Having never done anything like it, I finished in the middle of the pack. A week later, some medical students told me about Ironman.
I went to David Lloyd and stood on the treadmill, telling myself that if I could run a half-marathon, I’d sign-up. Many hours later I fell off, went home and entered Ironman UK. I was so naive I ran the marathon in cycling shorts – a bad idea – but absolutely loved it.
It was 11:32hrs, which on reflection was a bloody good performance! I was back at work at 9am the next day.
Lucy Charles-Barclay: My parents were both active, so my sister and I got stuck into exercise, going to the local pool as a family at weekends and riding mountain bikes along the canal to stop for a picnic.
When I was around eight years old, I decided I wanted to join a swimming club, and it became my passion. Even at that age, the Olympics was my goal.
Fast forward to 2012, a home Games where I narrowly missed out on selection for the 10km marathon swim and in the next couple of years I transitioned from swimmer to wannabe Ironman athlete.
My now husband Reece and I completed our first Ironman in Bolton in 2014 and we were hooked.
220: How much and what kind of training did you do?
SS: Back then I’d do full training for each sport, one after the other. In 1988, I was sponsored by Le Coq Sportif and coached by French half-marathon champion Bernard Faure. That was the year I won the European title and ran a 17min 5km.
Otherwise, I mainly coached myself and would always respond best to anaerobic threshold sessions – although they remain painful!
BB: I believed in hard work and never considered there was an easier way. We swam six days a week, alternated biking and running days and would do a brick session as well. Not masses of hours but a lot of intensity and every session had its purpose.
We used hills for the bike and run and a lot of paddle work in the swim. I didn’t look good when I was training but if I got my system fit enough, it didn’t matter.
CW: I had no concept of a physical limit and was masochistic in that sense. I’d annihilate myself because it was exploratory and it became my norm. In 2006, I thought nothing of cycling from London to Brighton and back, not really eating, and completing 6km in the pool. I didn’t think, I just did.
LG: I wasn’t part of a club and had no sporting background, but I also think that was partly why I did so well. Initially, I’d just swim lengths and do crazy bike rides. All my long runs were hungover on a Sunday morning – I remember vomiting halfway round. Completely unscientific, but because I had no concept of what was normal, I pushed through boundaries you’d never do with a coach.
As I progressed, I sought advice and had some method to my madness in that I made sure I did key sessions, but I’d try to make them fun. So, if I was doing intervals I’d do a fartlek between the village signs, or ask the boys to drag me around on the bike while I clung to their wheels.
LC-B: My training varies quite a bit. I’ve always been an excellent responder to higher-intensity training thanks to my background in swimming, but my overall volume is also pretty high so that I have the endurance needed to race over the Ironman distance.
My favourite sessions are always the ones I get a little nervous about beforehand, and these are usually track workouts or hard bike intervals.
220: What was your biggest achievement in the sport?
SS: I was unbeaten for five years in the UK which was quite fun, but also stressful as I was also finishing my engineering PhD. My administerial roles started after being collared by ITU president Les McDonald on Ali’i Drive the day after I’d raced in Hawaii. I discovered I had a bit of talent for it and was quite good at lobbying.
Les wanted me to co-chair the women’s commission, then run for vice-president in 1992 because we were going to be straight about the idea that women are equal in this sport. I prepared the document for why the mixed relay should be included in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
It was the best event, and another example of how the sport speaks for itself, but you’ve got to have someone else speaking for it first.
CW: Remaining unbeaten – 13-0 – in long-distance events; winning Ironman Arizona in 2010 after the disappointment of not racing Kona; and then my final Ironman World Championship. It was a defiance of possibility.
I remain flabbergasted that I managed to achieve what I did, and I don’t say that arrogantly. Sincerely it was the most empowering, uplifting, liberating experience of my life.
LC-B: Overcoming a significant injury last year has been an enormous achievement. When I found out I had a hip stress fracture, the specialists told me to focus on 2023. I knew deep down that I wanted to be back in time for the big races at the end of the year, even if that looked almost impossible.
This injury has allowed me to improve every aspect of myself as an athlete, making me stronger and more well-rounded. Winning the 2022 World Triathlon Long Distance Championship in my comeback race is something I’m incredibly proud of.
220: What’s your fondest triathlon memory?
BB: In 2008, Stephen and I both won Ironman South Africa and Ironman UK. By then we were travelling the world, training and racing together, and it was really special. Previously, I’d travel to Florida, win the race, go back to my hotel room and think: what do I do now?
I remember training in the Philippines with Stephen before heading to South Africa. We’d no money in our bank account and I recall thinking if we don’t pick up any money in South Africa, we’re kind of done. We managed to turn it around completely.
CW: When we won Challenge Roth in 2011. I say ‘we’ deliberately because it was an incredible team effort. I was surrounded by family and friends and it made that race so special. It epitomises a perfect day in sport.
LG: The first one! Not much beats ‘Achieving The Impossible’. And, on the same kind of level, finishing ninth in Kona, eight weeks after breaking my collarbone, was pretty special too.
I have amazing memories of winning Ironman Wales and UK, but I’m more proud of the bad days, and I never DNF’d. I always stuck it out.
LC-B: Winning the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. It was the first race that felt like everything came together perfectly. Being the fastest athlete in every discipline and winning my first-ever world title by such a large margin was incredible. It was a very emotional finish line, and a moment I will never forget.
220: Who did you look up to in the sport?
CW: I have a huge amount of respect for Sarah [Spingman] and got to know her personally as a friend. She’s a driving force and used her sporting prowess as an opportunity to do so much more.
Bella [Bayliss] was one of the first triathletes I met, a training partner and someone I respected who epitomised hard work and dedication. To see Bella in full flow and focus is inspirational, and she certainly elevated my performance.
LG: I used to call myself the ‘Everyday Pro’ and I always admired Bella because I drew parallels. We maybe didn’t have the most natural talent but we just worked hard and made the best of what we have. Obviously Chrissie is an inspiration, but she was almost like a different league.
LC-B: I’ve always looked up to Lucy Gossage. I love her fun approach to the sport, her relentless ability to keep going and always give absolutely everything.
I was lucky to meet Lucy early in my triathlon journey, so she’s always been a positive role model, giving me invaluable advice and showing me exactly how a finish-line celebration is done. Hers are still the best I’ve seen!
220: What was your view of technology in the sport?
SS: I was quite innovative. I did the 1985 Hawaii Ironman with one of the first Polar heart rate monitors – a chunky square thing with a chest strap. I put it on after the swim and printed out the results afterwards.
In 1988, I got the Boone Lennon tri-bars and in 1989 had a bike designed for me with 21in wheels, but unfortunately the frame was too heavy.
BB: I had no gadgets at all – it was all done on perceived effort. My coach, Brett Sutton, taught me to listen to my body as the most reliable gadget there is. I didn’t need to look at a watch to tell me I was going too hard.
CW: I might struggle with the level of technology and innovation available today. My love is for the purity of sport and generally there’s a tension between wanting to go as fast as possible by exploring those technologies and wanting it simply to be about me.
It’s analogous to the choice of riding a Cervélo P2 or P3. I chose the P2 – supposedly slower, less tech-advanced – but it was what I knew and it became almost a statement. I felt as if I was representing the athlete that couldn’t afford all the bells and whistles.
LG: I had a power meter that was nice to look at from time to time, but I really wasn’t that technological: I made the hard stuff hard and the easy stuff easy. But I’d have definitely got the new running shoes and would have probably done wind-tunnel testing, although I was glad I didn’t have to.
I was probably the last era you could do it on a wing and a prayer and I probably extended that by picking the hilly races where aerodynamics was less significant anyway.
220: How would you like to see the sport progress over the next decade?
CW: I’d love to see Ironman change its name. It’s inexcusable that in this day and age, a race of such prominence is gendered. I’d love to see prize purses increase across the board and would dearly like to see the sport be made more inclusive across every demographic, not just gender, but ethnicity, economic status, all of those things.
Steps are being made but barriers, whether institutional, financial, or physiological still exist. Some of those can be removed or minimised.
I’d also like to see my world record broken [fastest long-distance time of 8:18:13 set at Roth in 2011] – every year I think it’ll go.
LG: I just want people to have as much fun as I did. I’ve got so many amazing memories. When you retire, it’s great if you make loads of money, but it shouldn’t be everything. I’d love to see more crazy stuff as well, challenges rather than just how quickly people can go.
LC-B: The sport of triathlon is entering a new and very positive era with the PTO funding. The challenge will be to make sure this flows down to the grassroots and that it’s sustainable.
220: Why do you think British women in particular have excelled over the years?
SS: Age-group opportunities let people come into triathlon in a way that’s not so high profile and stressful. The women then find out they’re very good at long-distance stuff.
Chrissie [Wellington] had a background of bike trekking in Nepal, but the endurance ability of a lot of other women has been under explored and there’s talent out there. It’s then just a question of who’s gutsy enough to have a go.
LG: Success breeds success. If you can see examples of people who have had jobs doing it, it makes it more achievable and helps you understand that you don’t need to be doing the sport since the age of six.
LC-B: There’s no shortage of amazing female athlete role models for us to look up to. I quickly learnt about the likes of Chrissie when I came into triathlon, and was instantly inspired to see how fast I could go over the Ironman distance.
Seeing other females achieve great things is inspiring to me but seeing them doing it while having fun and loving it is even more inspiring.
220: Finally, how would you like to be remembered in the sport?
SS: When I became chair and president of the British Triathlon Federation, I didn’t talk a lot about what I’d achieved and I don’t think I’ll have a big legacy, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the performers people remember. The facilitators are there in support of others.
The issues those performers will have is how they cope with retiring. I had my academic life that gave me plenty of things to aim at.
BB: That I loved the sport, was passionate and did it clean. I was brought up in Aberdeenshire and would never have dreamed I could come top 10 in Hawaii, but it shows with hard work, top fitness and being race smart, you can be competitive.
CW: With fondness. I just want to be remembered as someone who inspired people, not just through what I achieved but by the manner I achieved it. How we conduct ourselves as athletes determines our ability to drive change.
LG: The crazy doctor who danced on the start and finish line and did triathlon her way. The dancing kind of became a thing but I never had to force it, I just milked it!
I randomly made the Channel 4 footage of my first-ever Ironman, and I wasn’t running up and down having won, but I still had the finish-line joy. Clearly it was an in-built Lucy thing!
LC-B: As someone who always gave it 100%. I tend to be out of the water first, and then I’m generally in for a long, hard solo day, but this has never been something that I’ve shied away from.
I’m happy to dedicate myself to the task at hand, and as my Dad always taught me: “Death before DNF”. Obviously you always need to be safe, but if things don’t go my way, I’ll still be giving everything I have until the very end.
Top image credit: Getty Images & Marathon-photos.com