Helen Jenkins battled injury and won – now the double world champion is set on returning to the top of the triathlon world
After the agony of London 2012, Helen Jenkins faced an even tougher ordeal – spending a whole season sidelined. Now she’s back, singing in her run sessions and getting ready to race again
Ask anyone who’s met Helen Jenkins to describe her, and the first thing you’ll hear is that she’s a lovely person. Smiling, soft-spoken, always polite and ready to chat – it’s hard to imagine a less likely person to go out and crush the competition, yet that’s exactly what this two-time world champion has done.
Now, following the hardest year of her career, the smile is still intact – but the steel-willed athlete underneath is harder than ever. “This year has made me a bit tougher,” she says. “I’m pretty easygoing, I can be pretty soft with certain things, but I think this year has made me realise why I do what I do.”
That’s a generous assessment of what must have been a hellish year for Jenkins. She’s been in this position before: an Achilles injury in 2007 took her out for most of that season, but she was able to return to qualify for the Beijing Olympics and win the 2008 ITU Triathlon World Championships. But this time it was different. The stakes were higher.
Two years ago, at the end of 2011, Jenkins was world champion again – this time having won the title over the course of a series instead of in a one-day event, proving her form was down to consistent strength and training. Moving into the 2012, pre-Olympic season, she was the unquestionable favourite; like her male counterparts the Brownlees, she looked determined to push every race right from the start. “I don’t try to put on a game face,” she says. “I get frustrated. It’s three sports – you should be swimming, biking, and running hard, and I always want it to be a tough race. People maybe get nervous of that fact.”
Pushing through the pain
It was Jenkins’ dominant performance at the ITU San Diego race in May that set her apart as the woman to beat in London. “I got more confident leading up to the Games that I was strong enough to push through all three [sports],” she says. “I don’t know if I’m a tough athlete or not – I just want to race!”
It was that hunger to race that saw Jenkins, unbeknown to all but those closest to her, push through incredible pain to keep training towards London 2012. The first signs of a serious injury started to show not long after San Diego, compromising her run training, and she went into the biggest race of her life determined to give her best but knowing she had a painful fight on her hands. It wasn’t until the final kilometre of the Olympic race that the public finally knew something was wrong, as Jenkins just couldn’t stay with the leaders for the decisive sprint to the line.
The experience has clearly had a huge impact, and she says that getting over London 2012 was hard for everyone – even the winners. “It’s such an emotional drain. It’s four years of working towards one thing. There’s a massive comedown after that for the people who do well and medal, the teams surrounding us, the coaches and support staff. You need time just to breathe.”
For Jenkins, it was the start of a long process of recovery, and the worst was yet to come. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to race the whole season, she planned to return to competition at this year’s PruHealth World Triathlon Grand Final, held over the Olympic course in Hyde Park. But it wasn’t to be.
“I was still in quite a bit of pain and it was only midway through the year that we figured out it was coming from my back,” she says. “By then, I was so emotionally drained by the fight to get fit, continually training through pain, that we said, ‘right, we’ll just go away for two weeks and not do anything’. It’s really hard to do that – harder than trying to keep training – because you’re resigning yourself to the fact that you do need a rest, that what you’re doing isn’t working. It’s like a reset point – saying, ‘that’s it for this year, let’s focus on getting back for next year’.”
After a minor operation to fix the problem – a bulging disc in her spine – Jenkins has finally been able to turn a corner and build up her training. She says the support she’s received from British Triathlon and the Welsh Institute of Sport – not to mention her husband and coach, 2004 Olympian Marc Jenkins – has been a massive help.
Working towards Rio
Jenkins is understandably cautious about looking ahead, and says it’s difficult to be philosophical about her time off. “I know that in the long term it’ll benefit me, as it did when I had a year out in 2007. That led to me being the world champion in 2008, because I was able to focus on my weaker areas, like cycling. It’s hard to look at it like that when you’re not racing, though. All the hard work I’ve done, the strengthening, will kick in over the next few years. I still really want to do Rio.”
Her first big aim will be joining the Welsh team for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, alongside new ITU world champion Non Stanford. Though Jenkins says it’s been hard to watch this year’s WTS from the sidelines, she’s pleased by the British success. “It’s exciting to see that, as a country, everything’s moving on a little bit. The post-Olympic year is always a strange one; 2012 took it out of a lot of people and they’ve gone to do different things, so it’ll be interesting to see when the Olympic build-up starts again, how everything changes.”
As far as the much-talked-about Olympic legacy goes, Jenkins says her role is just to do what she does best. “I sense the legacy, but there’s not much you can do as an athlete. You only have a certain amount of energy and have to focus on performing to the highest level. I don’t feel a huge responsibility – it’s more of a nice side effect.”
At a grassroots level, though, this champion is thrilled that she’s helping to inspire people and happy to offer advice – as she was when Triathlon Plus met her, doing a Q&A at Asics’ flagship store in London. “So many people have messaged me on Twitter, asking how I’m getting on and saying, ‘I’m doing my first triathlon, I was inspired by the Olympics’ – that’s just amazing. I find it hard to believe that I’ve inspired people to take up the sport, but it’s brilliant.”
Jenkins hopes to put in another inspiring performance next year. Though her progress is being carefully monitored and she’s still doing two gym sessions a week focused on her rehab, she’s back up to 80 per cent of her training volume and starting to enjoy it again. “Since my back procedure it’s been amazing training without pain. I’ll be running and think, ‘my knee hasn’t hurt, my back hasn’t hurt – nothing hurts!’ I run with music a lot of the time and I’m always singing – it’s so embarrassing, I hope I don’t get caught!”
Britain’s triathlon fans will be hoping that her progress continues – and they can be certain that Jenkins’ will to succeed remains as strong as ever. “So many times this year I’ve thought, ‘this is just so hard, what’s the point?’ But there’s just something inside, I don’t know what, that won’t let me stop.”
Helen Jenkins is a running ambassador for Asics