When Chrissie Wellington was four years old, she dreamed of driving a combine harvester. Instead, she spent Monday evening speaking to more than 850 people at the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol about her experience as a four-time Ironman World Champion.
For those of us who don’t know, Ironman is a 140.6 mile race comprised of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run. Yes, not for the faint-hearted, it’s a triathlon of extremes.
How Wellington went from the heady ambitions of tractor driving to becoming a professional athlete representing Great Britain on the world stage makes for a good story. And it’s one that has lessons for us all – even those mere mortals who haven’t cycled 1,400 km at 16,000 feet from Kathmandu to Tibet and back again… for fun!
Wellington wasn’t always this way. There was a time when she thought running was embarrassing because it made her face go red. And a red face would never do – especially not for an adolescent girl. Wellington did do a bit of swimming when studying at the University of Birmingham. But she’s the first to admit she was more likely to show up for the Wednesday night club socials than the competitions. And at the age of 20 she stopped sport altogether.
After university she thought she’d be sensible and signed with a law firm in London to become a solicitor. Wellington was doing what she thought she ought to do – get a sensible job, a vocation, and a recognised label. But before settling down to a life of law, she embarked on a round the world trip which would change her life.
“Look deep inside yourself and work out what your passion is.”
This was the advice from Wellington’s friend whilst on her travels and it struck a nerve. Wellington knew she wasn’t passionate about the law. What she was passionate about was international development. So she ditched her plans with the London law firm and embarked on an MA in Economic Development at Manchester. It was here Wellington discovered that running with a red face is worth any embarrassment. And so her second passion was born.
However, it was only by following her first passion (international development) to Nepal to manage water and sanitation projects in conflict zones that her second passion was honed and widened to include cycling. Wellington bought a mountain bike and named it Prem which means boyfriend in Nepalese. And when she wasn’t working, she was riding her “boyfriend”.
In addition to doing her best for the people of Nepal, Wellington’s life opened up on the cycling trail to Tibet as she discovered her true love of sport. Here she was exposed to sport’s rawness. And she also learnt about her mental strength – a lesson she’d never forget.
So back in the UK, 2006 was the year of her first triathlon. It was in this race that Wellington discovered something more embarrassing than a red face… namely, being rescued by a canoeist when your (borrowed) over-sized wetsuit swells into a large balloon in the water.
Not one to be put off easily, later that same year she went on to win the Shropshire triathlon and in September 2006 Wellington represented Great Britain in Switzerland as she was crowned at the World Age-Group Championship.
So far, both passions had run alongside each other. But now the time had come to make a choice. Safe, respectable, interesting job that you love. Or the unknown – making a go of it as a professional athlete. At this point in time, Wellington didn’t even own a triathlon bike!
And here’s the lesson for us all – it’s often repeated but perhaps not often enough heeded: face your fears. And that’s what Wellington did. She didn’t want her fear to stop her from taking the plunge. She never ever wanted to wonder what could have been.
So at the age of 30 she gave up one career to take up a new path as a professional athlete. And very quickly it proved itself a good decision, winning the 2007 Ironman competition in Korea and 3 months later the Ironman World Championship in Kona.
“Ad Astra Per Aspera”
Apparently this is a quote from Star Trek and means “To the stars, with difficulty” (or so Wellington was told by her Trekkie father). And this is what Wellington now imparts to us. To be a champion you need to embrace challenges, train for pain, and face your fears. But you can get there.
Wellington made it very clear that mental strength is more important than the physical. And it was this that got her through in 2011 when just a few weeks before her fourth Ironman World Championship she had a bad fall off of her bike, suffering third degree burns and other injuries. Operating on the day at just 80% Wellington managed to reclaim her world championship title because she retained her most powerful weapon – her mind.
Winning under these conditions made Wellington feel like a true champion for the first time. She said, “I overcame imperfections absolutely perfectly.” She classes the 2011 championship as her best race ever, even though it was far from being her best time. And this is why Wellington can say with authority that we’re all capable of so much more than we think. You’re capable of achieving and surpassing any limit you’ve set for yourself, if you’re willing to try.
As a resident of Bristol, Wellington now offers a fantastic role model to girls and women in the South West. And she’s well aware of the platform she has. Wellington is doing all she can to promote sport to women and girls, whether that be speaking at free events like this, one-on-one with fans in the street or working with government to achieve political change.
When asked what we can do to encourage more women and girls into sport Wellington reminds us that we all have a voice – each of us can #showup to support and encourage our daughters, nieces, sisters, mothers, and friends in sport. And we hope everyone in Bristol will continue to do just that.