As Britain’s finest prepares to defend her Ironman World Championship in Kona next weekend, she talked to Triathlon Plus South Africa’s Glen Gore about her career and hopes for the future.

Chrissie Wellington InterviewChrissie Wellington is seriously hard core and puts some professional men to shame when she races. The perfect ambassador for the sport, we interview her as she prepares to defend her title in Kona.

If I could think up any name to describe you, Chrissie, it would be “phenom”…what do you think of that as a description of you?

I would laugh and then refuse to accept the label – I think the best word used to describe me is ‘muppet’. I am only following on what Paula [Newby-Fraser], Natascha [Badmann], Michellie [Jones] and others started through their achievements. I hope that I am continuing to show that women are a force to be reckoned with in endurance sports. We are narrowing the gap between men and women, and showing that anything is possible.

I hope that my performances – and most importantly, the manner in which I win races – inspires and encourages people to take up triathlon, to set higher goals for themselves and to reach for the stars. Ultimately my records will be broken, and I will be overtaken by up and coming athletes – that is the nature of sport. But I do hope that I will be remembered for my passion, my love of what I do, and for giving people the inspiration to succeed in triathlon and life. But I don’t think that makes me a ‘phenom’.

For such a petite young lady, you pack some serious power in those ‘pins’ and ‘guns’ of yours! Where does that come from?

I am not sure I am that petite – have you seen the size of my calves? They’re like a cow’s! But yes, I guess I do have quite a bit of horsepower in this body of mine. I don’t think my success is down to one single quality, but rather a whole package of traits: determination, consistency, self-belief, a great support structure, good genes (or failing that, an ability to look good in jeans!), endurance, positivity, an ability to rest your mind as well as your body, a competitive fire, small boobs and yes…big calves.

Seriously, I think anyone can do an Ironman if they put their mind and heart into it. We have seen double-leg amputees, blind people, those suffering from cancer, 80-year-olds and more. If they can do it, anyone can. I think mental preparation is the key to success. All the physical strength in the world won’t help if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training – the part that people don’t put in their log books; the part that all the monitors, gizmos and gadgets in the world can’t influence. It also helps to have slight masochistic tendencies and a desire to suffer.

Give us a short history on how you got into the sport.

I have taken a very unique path to triathlon and professional sport. I was always a sporty kid, but doing well academically was the most important thing to me. I swam competitively for a local swim team and played hockey and netball at school – but I never excelled and was always more interested in the social side. I went to university at 18, then travelled the world for 2 years – this included Africa, and of course I made sure I spent time in the awesome country that is South Africa.

Chrissie Wellington InterviewTravelling opened my eyes to the many problems that exist, but I also saw the opportunity that there was for positive change. I knew then that I wanted to work in international development. I did an MA and got a job working for the UK Government on International Development Policy for three years. While I was doing my MA I decided to take up running – starting with 20 minutes until I could run about 90 minutes.

I decided to do the London Marathon in 2002, and ran 3:08. After that, I joined a running club in London and began to train more seriously, and in 2003 also started swimming again. A friend persuaded me to do a few triathlons in 2004 – all on an old, borrowed bike and in a very big wetsuit that didn’t fit me. I really enjoyed it – but I also wanted to work overseas, and so in September that year I left the UK to work in Nepal for 16 months.

Here I bought a mountain bike and cycled every single day before work. It was an amazing opportunity to explore the countryside, meet people and keep fit. I didn’t do any structured training – just grinding up and down the hills was enough to make me super strong!

I returned to the UK in 2006, and entered a few triathlons – managing to amaze myself by qualifying for the World Age Group Championships in Lausanne. I got a coach, trained really hard for 10 weeks and somehow managed to win the world age group title. I seriously couldn’t believe what I had achieved! Then I had to decide whether or not to take the risk, and give up my job to have a go at professional triathlon. I didn’t want to look back and think ‘What if’? You only get one chance at life, and the most important thing was for me to know that I had given it everything and been the best that I could be.

I didn’t know where that would take me in terms of triathlon, but unless I gave it a shot at going pro I would never have known. In February 2007 I gave up my job and became a professional triathlete – but was only thinking of Olympic distance. I didn’t know anything about Ironman, just that I thought you had to be crazy to do it! It was only after the Alpe D’Huez Long Course in 2007 that my coach Brett Sutton asked me whether I wanted to do an Ironman. Within a month I was on the start line at Ironman Korea…and the rest is history.

You beat the ladies field by about 30 minutes at almost every race, and if you’re not that far ahead, often end up in the top five to ten positions overall. What exactly drives you before the start of the race? Are you trying to kick some PRO men butt or are you just doing your own thing?

I am always 100% focused on my goals – and those are to try and win, to win with a smile, and to win in the fastest time possible. I want to be the best athlete I can be, and that means giving all I have to each and every training session and each and every race.

Chrissie Wellington InterviewBut I am motivated by so much more, and not just the thought of beating the boys! Not long after I started as a professional in February 2007, I remember saying to Brett (Sutton), “I feel so selfish. All I do is swim, bike and run – and it’s all for me. I am not helping to make the world a better place.” And he replied, “Chrissie, just you wait. Before long you will be able to effect change in a way you never thought possible.”

His wise words have come true – I have the platform that I always dreamed of to achieve my mission and bring about positive change. That’s partially why winning is so important to me. Of course I am a fierce competitor, and I love to work hard, smash myself and fight for every victory – but each victory also opens up more opportunity. Winning allows me to speak about things I am passionate about, to inspire and encourage others, to lead by example, to be a role model for change, to raise the bar and to raise awareness about important issues.

I wish I could do more, but at the moment my time is limited to being an ambassador to various charities, including Jon Blais’ Blazeman Foundation for ALS (www.waronals.com), Jane Tomlinson’s Jane’s Appeal (wwwjanesappeal.com) and GOTRIbal, an organisation aimed at empowering women and girls through sport (www.gotribalnow.com). Champions come and go, but the real judge of my success will be whether I do something positive with the opportunities I have been given.

I hope that as a World Champion, I can be a role model and ambassador that everyone can be proud of. I never take for granted the opportunities I have to encourage others, increase participation in triathlon and other sports and generate interest and support in the media and business, in the UK and around the world. That’s what motivates me – and when I train and when I race these opportunities are at the forefront of my mind.

If I were a pro man racing an event and had you in the field, I would be worried, big time. Would you laugh at that, or does it inspire you to go out there and destroy 50% of the male pro field?

Chrissie Wellington InterviewThat makes me smile! I love the fact that us women are breaking down gender barriers and challenging previous misconceptions of what women are capable of. As I’ve said before, to know that I have given it everything is the most important thing, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy ‘chicking’ a few blokes along the way.

To come within one minute and thirty seconds of winning the Alpe D’Huez Long Course in 2008 was hugely satisfying, and makes me think that maybe one day a woman will top the overall podium in a major Ironman event. More broadly though, I hope it does show that women are a force to be reckoned with. Paula, Natascha, Mirinda [Carfrae], Julie [Dibens] and many more have raised the bar and given the men a swim, bike and run for their money. Go girls!

You were recently presented with an award from the Queen – what does this mean to you?

In June this year I was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. MBE stands for ‘Member of the British Empire’ and it is an honour that is given to those who the government, and monarchy, feel have contributed to British society. To be honest it came as a complete shock, but I am so incredibly thrilled and delighted. It is not only important for me personally, but it is wonderful that triathlon is being recognised and hopefully, in receiving the MBE, I can continue to help put triathlon in the spotlight, in the UK and around the world.

The ceremony is at Buckingham Palace in December and my parents and brother get to come too, which is simply great! After all the support that they have given me, my victories are also theirs. Now all I need to do is go shopping for a new, non-Lycra outfit – I don’t think Her Majesty would approve of my TYR race kit!

What are your short-term goals?

To improve – there are always areas for improvement, both mentally and physically – and I will never stop trying to be a better athlete and person. I think it’s impossible to have the perfect race. An Ironman or half Ironman are just too long and you get your ups and downs, good and bad – it’s about coping with the darker times and coming through the other side. So yes, perfection is still a long way off!

As for goals, I don’t have ‘x’ number of races I want to win or times I want to achieve, I just want to push my body as far and as fast as it will possibly go as I really enjoy that challenge. I want to get stronger and faster across all three disciplines, work on my bike handling skills, to do my best in every race and to race with a smile!

Ten years from now, will you still be racing or will you be doing something completely different?

In ten years time I will be 43, and I don’t think I will still be competing at this level. I want to do more adventure racing and take part in some bonkers, multi-day, multi-week, Ranulph Fiennes-style endurance challenges. Not really ‘sporting events’ in the conventional sense, but definitely something I dream about doing more of one day.

I also want to get much more involved in sports development work and set up my own non-profit organization, which uses sport as a vehicle to empower young people and particularly young girls.

This interview first appeared in Triathlon Plus South Africa