When British triathlete Lucy Charles-Barclay failed to make the Olympic swimming squad aged 17, she gave up the sport and took a job at a zoo.
Now, the 26-year-old from Essex is Britain’s best hope of becoming the next Ironman world champion.
To take that leap from the pool to Ironman’s 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling and running might leave some people scratching their heads.
But, as seasoned triathletes know, the sport has a habit of hooking people in – evidenced by the Ironman brand’s growth to 230 global events, all from one iconic moment in Hawaii during the 1970s.
On that day – 18 February 1978 – just 15 people took to the jellyfish-infested sea in basic swimwear to swim 2.4 miles, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run in Hawaii’s sweltering temperatures. It was meant as a competition between friends to decide which athletes were the fittest: swimmers, bikers or runners.
At this weekend’s Ironman World Championships, more than 2,000 competitors will be taking part.
Among them, Charles-Barclay, the rejected swimmer and one-time zoo staff.
“After missing selection for the London 2012 games I had to make a decision on whether I could carry on doing another four years in the sport to try and get to the next Olympics,” she told BBC Sport.
“I gave it a really good go, I got my best ever times in the pool and good results in open water, but I lost the love of the sport. So I pretty much gave it up all together.”
It was while working in the marketing department for Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire that the triathlon bug started to bite.
“I knew I missed the love of racing so I wanted something new to do. It spiralled out of control from being a fun hobby to actually thinking ‘I’m pretty good at this’.”
It’s not without its challenges, though.
“When you race that long you’re always going to have dark points, and points when your mind wanders a little bit,” Charles-Barclay explained.
“Normally I get quite hungry towards the end of the run. I just dream about the food I’m going to eat afterwards. It’s normally a pizza.
“But after the race I’ll order all of that food and then I feel sick so I can’t eat it anyway. Reece usually ends up eating it.”
Reece is Reece Barclay – her husband, coach, training partner, and professional athlete in his own right. The pair were itching for a new challenge. Together, they signed up for an Ironman in 2014.
Two years later Charles-Barclay won the women’s 20-24 age-group at the World Championships and applied for her professional licence.
“Reece and I were hooked on the training and found out how big a challenge it was for what we had signed up for. Then it went from a challenge to being our professional careers. We didn’t expect that.”
It’s not straightforward to get a professional licence in triathlon. In the UK, the requirement is to be within 8% of the professional winner’s time – which means making the step up from age-group racing to professional is difficult. Charles-Barclay’s application was rejected on the first attempt.
“The races I was using to try and get my pro licence were the World Championships,” she said. “The professional winner was such a high standard that a lot of the pro women weren’t within 8% either, so I basically got the licence on a trial basis.”
But the trial basis allowed Charles-Barclay to challenge – and immediately. She was narrowly beaten by Switzerland’s four-time world champion Daniela Ryf on her Ironman World Championships debut in Hawaii in 2017.
Could she mirror another British triathlete’s unexpected and explosive arrival on the scene?
Chrissie Wellington was an unknown force who came out of nowhere to win the World Championship in 2007. She went on to dominate the sport and collect three more titles.
In 2017 – her inaugural year as a pro – Charles-Barclay joined her rival Ryf in Red Bull’s squad of top professional athletes. As her profile grew – she currently has more than 250,000 Instagram followers – so did the rivalry with Ryf.
At the World Championships that year, Charles-Barclay finished a mere nine minutes behind the favourite – which isn’t long when the race among professionals takes about nine hours.
But it was the following year when the pair turned up the heat. They took off from the start line and began breaking 19-year-old records.
They both broke the course record, Charles-Barclay broke the women’s swim course record, and Ryf took the bike course record.
It was Ryf who was to collect the title despite almost retiring from the race because of a jellyfish sting under her arm – she became the fastest woman in an official Ironman event, by 17 minutes.
“Definitely my biggest rival is Daniela Ryf,” Charles-Barclay said. “Every year I think I’m edging that bit closer and people are enjoying the rivalry because they’re seeing the gaps get smaller and smaller.
“I hope this year that we have an even closer battle and hopefully I’ll come out on top.”
This year, Charles-Barclay was unbeaten across four races until a five-minute drafting penalty at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in September saw her slip from first to fifth.
Her highlight was winning Challenge Roth, the world’s biggest long-distance triathlon event which takes place in the German city of Roth each summer.
“Last year I came second by nine seconds so it was such a big goal of mine to get that win,” she said.
She also became a two-time winner of the Ironman African Championships, winner of Challenge Samorin, and her first home race at Ironman 70.3 Stafford.
The ‘Big Island’ and equal racing
As far as rich sporting history goes, triathlon is young but not without prestige.
For many, racing on the ‘Big Island’ in Hawaii is the ultimate achievement in the triple-disciplined sport as competitors must qualify for a slot in their category at an Ironman-branded event in order to race there, at the birthplace of triathlon.
It’s where a Honolulu-based Navy couple, Judy and John Collins, first proposed combining three tough endurance races into one event.
The challenge turned some heads and the idea caught on around the world. The event grew year on year, and Hawaii soon became the host of the gruelling World Championships with its sweltering conditions and unforgivable winds.
The race has always had female participants – the most successful is Paula Newby-Fraser, who has eight world titles, two more than triathlon legends Mark Allen and Dave Scott.
And as the gaps between Ryf and Charles-Barclay reduce, so do the gaps between men’s and women’s finishing times, which now stand at about 30 minutes.
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Charles-Barclay said: “I’ve been in this sport for about five years now and in those years the standard of women’s racing has just massively improved.
“The times that women are winning races in now is completely different to what it was say five to 10 years ago, and there’s a lot more women doing this sport now then there was before, which is so cool to see.”
The sponsorship opportunities remain equal.
Charles-Barclay said: “The prize money is exactly the same for men and women in this sport, which is great and I’d say there’s more opportunities – you don’t feel like just because you’re a woman you’re going to be paid less or you’re going to have less sponsor opportunities.
“I’ve definitely never felt any kind of inequality in the sport, which is great. There used to be more spots for men at the World Championships but it is almost even now. It’s good to see that, and it’s such an inclusive sport.”
The Ironman World Championships begin at 17:25 BST on Saturday, 12 October, in Kona, Hawaii.
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