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HELEN JENKINS
a triathlete’s tale

My dad was in the RAF, so we were moving around a lot. I was born up in Elgin, in Scotland. We stayed there for about a year and a half, moved on to Germany where my sister was born, and then to St Athan, near Llantwit Major. So, I’ve been in Wales pretty much since I was about four. I did all my schooling and education in Wales, then moved to Bridgend, a couple of years after.

My mum and dad are English but I’ve been in Wales for so long I feel Welsh. I mean I’ve only ever competed for Wales, Welsh Schools, County, Wales at the Commonwealth Games. It’s always an issue; if you want to compete for Wales they say, “Well, were you born here?”, and you think, I’ve lived here longer than a lot of the athletes who actually compete for Wales, so, yeah it’s where you live, isn’t it? It’s what you feel, as well. I mean I could never say that my sister was German.

my introduction
My mum and dad were keen on me swimming, so they took me for lessons from a baby, and I loved it. One of the teachers that had actually won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, in the breaststroke, saw that I had a bit of potential and advised me to join the swimming club.

I did a few triathlons when I was really young, eleven or twelve or so. My dad was doing them, so I did a few. I wasn’t really that interested. Then, at sixteen, I knew this girl, her father was the Welsh coach in triathlon, and they didn’t have any youth athletes at the time. They had Marc [Jenkins] competing on an international level, and Sian Brice, Anneliese Heard, but they just didn’t have the youth coming through. They had an event in Ireland and they needed some people to go, so Chris Gouldon from the swimming club, said: “Anyone want to do triathlon?”. He took us down to Bridgend industrial estate and we ran off there, and I think it was the fastest three girls and the fastest three boys went on the trip. I actually won the event in Ireland. There were only about six people in it, but that was my introduction.

I won that first race and, then, there was one at the end of the year, in France. My dad took me out on the bike and I was hopeless, because you have to use cleat pedals rather than just ride in your trainers which I had done for my other race. I couldn’t drink while I was riding; I had to stop at the top of hills. I went to France – they have a really professional triathlon circuit there – and all these kids were fantastic. They were my age and they were racing pros. I was just amazed and I thought, “Right, I want to be as good as these guys.”. I think that kind of turned it for me. Then, the following year, I won all the British races, and got a little bit of funding from Elite Cymru which greatly helped towards getting a new bike, because I was riding a pretty old clanky frame.

high points
I was always okay as a junior; I did alright in the UK and my best result was fifth at the Junior World Championships. I’d left school and didn’t really fancy going to university straight away. I was fed up of studying and training, so I just trained for a while, and I thought, “I’ll give it a few years”. 2004 wasn’t anything much and I thought, “2005. Just see what happens”, and I put in a really good winter’s training. Then, at my first World Cup in Manchester, I got on the podium, came third. That really motivated me. Getting some prize money, as well, was a massive thing because me and Marc had just bought our first house. The highest point of 2008 would have been winning the World Championships. I think that was in June and, three weeks before that I’d qualified for the Olympics, which I was really not expected to do. I had spent all of 2007 injured, hadn’t raced, and my Federation pretty much thought, “She’s not going to qualify”, and I’d put everything into that race and I finished second. The aim was top five and being the first Brit to cross that finishing line was one of the most satisfying moments. I was proving everyone wrong.

The Worlds still seems like a blur. I hadn’t really planned on going after qualifying for the Olympics; it was a last minute decision. A lot of people were psyched out before the start of the race and I can’t say that I really enjoyed the cold conditions, but, growing up in the UK and training in Wales, in rain and cold, you just get used to it, you build up a tolerance … but the water was very cold. There were two of us got away on the bike, continued to work hard, and we came off and actually ran side by side for about 9.8 kilometres of the ten. It was only in the last two hundred metres that I broke away from Sarah Haskins from the US and, yeah, it was incredible. We knew there were some fast runners behind us and we got to about eight kilometres and someone shouted, “Two kilometres to go and you’re a minute thirty up”, and I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m first or second at the World Champs.”. And I was thinking, “Well, second’s great. That’s fantastic.”. We got to about 600 metres to go and Sarah pushed on a little bit, and I just dropped off slightly. Then I thought, “Marc’s going to be watching this at home, and he will kill me if I get dropped now.”. Then I came into the final straight and I just put my head down and went for it. In the running sessions we do with our local running coach, Steve Brace, a multiple Olympian and marathon runner, we do a last 200 metre sprint at the end of every session. You’re really tired and he’s, like, “200 metre sprint”, and you’re, like, “We’re endurance runners. What are we doing 200 for?”, and he’s, like, “You never know when you might need that final 200!”. I was thinking of Steve coming down that last bit, the final 200. I’m not a very good sprinter and a lot of other girls I wouldn’t have beaten, but it was enough to get Sarah that day … a great feeling.

lows
The lowest point was, probably, my first injury in 2006. It was pretty shocking for me. I had never been injured and you just think you are invincible. I had an Achilles problem. It took a long time but I got over it, and I was back into training and, then, I did a couple of races at the start of 2007 and my foot was hurting, and I was, like, “I’m not injured, I’m not injured.”. It was like a kind of mental block: “This isn’t happening again.”. It turned out it was another Achilles problem. At that time, it was probably the best thing that could have happened because it made me, you know, two in a row, it made me wake up and I really had to do all the rehab work perfectly. You can’t go through the motions with that stuff. I really focused on my swimming and cycling just because I couldn’t do anything else. I was actually getting into really good shape at the end of 2007, and then the British Triathlon Federation said that they wouldn’t support me anymore, as I’d been injured, I hadn’t competed. It was pretty shocking at the time because I was actually coming back into some good form and to have that knock, I was, like, “I don’t know how I’m going to support myself. How am I going to travel to races?”, and it was just before 2008 when we had Olympic selection. It was a pretty hard thing to take.

Looking back, it really focused me so much more, not just to prove them wrong but to prove to myself that I could do it. I believed that I could go to the Olympics. I was so grateful for the support I had in the Welsh Institute of Sport in Cardiff at that time. I was using the physios there, the strength and conditioning coaches, sports psychologists, sports scientists. They believed I was going to qualify for the Olympics and the British Triathlon staff probably didn’t, so it was nice to have that kind of back-up around me. That’s when Marc started coaching me. We didn’t really have any other choice. My relationship had broken down with my previous coach; Marc had been around the sport – I mean, he will say himself he’s not a coach, he hasn’t done a degree in it, and he hasn’t got all the coaching awards – but I think you can learn so much from doing the sport and being around good elite performing athletes and training with them.

2012
Everyone’s asking at the moment, “2012? Gold in 2012? Is that your main aim?”, and it’s always in the back of your mind. I want to see how fast I can go. The best triathlete in the world – she’s actually been out this year with injury – it’s the Olympic champion, Emma Snowsill, and her run time in Beijing was 33 minutes and 18 seconds which is fast, and, I mean, I’m not near that at the moment. I’m a good minute and a half, minute forty-five off that, so I want to see if I can do that. I’ve just got to train, I’ve got to get the consistent training in, to see how far I can go.

It’s so hard to say in triathlon; you never know what’s around the corner. I mean, this year there’s been some athletes come through who have done really well. I’ve got to do my training. I’m not injured at the moment which is great and I haven’t had any major injuries since my big one in 2007, and I’ve just got to keep all that under control and, hopefully, that will result in a gold medal performance in 2012.

a smaller nation
I love racing for Great Britain; it’s great to feel part of an actual team when we go out to those races. It’s always a lot easier to qualify for Wales. To make it for an Olympic team is more of an achievement, but there’s so much more passion about a Welsh team than a British team. I think if you’re from a smaller nation, you’re almost fighting against everyone else. One of my best experiences was the Commonwealth Games in 2006 – I actually crashed in the race which wasn’t much fun – but I went to the Opening Ceremony and we were all dressed up the same, walking out into the crowd. We all had Welsh flags and everyone was singing. It was just fantastic. With a British Olympic team, it’s just way too big to have that kind of sense of togetherness.

I went to the Closing Ceremony in Beijing. It was good but one of the best things about the whole 2008 Olympics experience was having the reception when we came back to Cardiff. We went out on the opentop bus and ended up at the National Assembly building.

We didn’t think there was going to be anyone there; we were thinking, “We’re going to look like right idiots.”. When we got there, there was a huge crowd, one of the best things about the whole experience.

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