With world titles, marriage and Olympic trips, plus career-threatening injuries, illness and amazing comebacks, it’s been a real rollercoaster ride for British elites Marc and Helen Jenkins. Mark Robinson went to meet them…
Power couples are common in the worlds of sport and entertainment, but a life under the glare of the public eye and in the heat of intense competition can often take its toll. Conflicting schedules and burning individual ambition are hardly the traditional bedrocks of domestic stability. But elite British triathletes Marc and Helen Jenkins are one of the exceptions that prove the rule.
As Triathlon Plus talks marriage, injuries and career ups and downs with them, they look a picture of health and happiness: lean, tanned, closer than ever and eager to talk about an eventful few years that have seen their careers take very different paths.
Helen has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the sport since an injury-ravaged season in 2007, winning the 2008 ITU World Championships and scooping race victories all over the globe. At the time of the interview she was in the middle of a mid-season training break, having clinched back-to back third place finishes in Madrid and Des Moines that left her in a very handy sixth position in the 2010 World Championship Series (WCS) standings.
For Marc, the story of the last few years is a very different one. While his wife’s career has taken off, his has stalled due to an illness that could have killed him, and injuries and operations that left him unable to walk properly. The 33-year-old’s demeanour is remarkably cheerful, probably aided by a series of good comeback performances this season that, at the time of writing, had been capped by a second-place finish at Windsor.
“I was really happy with my performance at Windsor but I’d have been happier with the win,” he says – proving at once that the steely competitiveness that has helped him in the past to become one of the world’s best triathletes hasn’t been numbed by the frustrating years of enforced inactivity.
Back in the early part of the last decade, Marc was rated as one of the most talented elites in the UK. Victories on the pro circuit earned him a place on the 2004 Great Britain Olympic team, where he entered the national consciousness by completing the course in Athens, despite suffering a crash and having to carry his bike on his back for the last two kilometres of the cycling leg. But less than a year later his career ground to a halt thanks to a deep-vein thrombosis that landed him in hospital and could have proved fatal. After a series of scans and tests it turned out that he had been suffering from them for years, undetected.
“Throughout most of my career I’d had periods when I’d raced really well and periods in between when I couldn’t,” he says. “I’d show form that suggested that I was one of the best athletes in the world, and then within a few weeks I couldn’t do anything. I started to get a few chest pains and in 2005, a year after the Olympics, I’d done some races and long-haul traveling and the pains began to get worse. I looked ill and couldn’t breathe properly.
Unable to walk
“Eventually I woke up one morning with a calf so swollen that you can only describe it as being like a balloon. At the hospital they scanned my lungs and told me I had recent damage and also older scarring from embolisms, meaning that I’d been suffering for a while. They put me on a long-term course of heparin to thin my blood, and I hoped that I would be sorted within a few months.”
But much worse was to follow. In 2006, within a few weeks of resuming proper training, both of Marc’s Achilles tendons broke down. Studies have since emerged indicating a potential link between heparin and tendon degeneration, meaning that the cure for one ailment could have been responsible for the development of another – one that would require years of rehabilitation and three operations.
“After my tendons went there was a long time where Helen and I didn’t think that I’d be able to walk again without pain, let alone train or compete,” he says. “I’m still in pain now, but it’s manageable and I can live with it. It was a lot worse back then, and I couldn’t walk very far at all for over 18 months. The most frustrating thing was the uncertainty. Nobody could tell me how long I’d be out for. If someone had said ‘you’ll be out for two years’ it would have been easier to accept – but nobody told me if or when I’d get better. I had to take things day-by-day.
“There didn’t seem to be an end in sight. Helen would go off training and I’d be sat on the sofa watching TV. When she came home I’d be doing the same. I thought about getting a job and even started looking, but I felt I’d have been useless to anyone, as I couldn’t even walk.”
It has been a long road back, but finally Marc appears to be approaching the fitness and form that he was showing before the illness and injury took control of his career away from him. The performance in Windsor was a positive step, and he was due to depart for Japan the day after our interview to get back in the swing of international competition.
“I finally feel like I have my career back now,” he says with a palpable sense of relief. “I’ve missed not being able to make my own decisions: when to race, where to race, when to train. All this was taken away from me. I didn’t choose to stop racing – it was forced on me. Now I can make my own decisions again and enjoy the feeling of racing and the satisfaction you get afterwards.
One Step At A Time
“My goals are race by race – no more ambitious than that. I have no ranking points and am essentially starting again. I’m a former Olympian and have won lots of races, but I’m back at the bottom of the ladder. I hoped it wouldn’t get to this, but every year has slipped away since 2005. It’s now 2010 and I’ve lost five years. It’s almost like I’m a junior again and have to build my reputation and gain entry to better races. But I’m so happy to finally have a second chance.”
As he gradually got stronger, Marc devoted lots of his time to his wife’s career, acting as her coach as well as her husband. And the results have been spectacular, with 26-year-old Helen now firmly established as Britain’s finest female standard-distance triathlete, and one of the best in the world.
After some early successes confirmed her promise – such as winning the British Junior Championships in 2003, the British Championships in 2006 and a host of podium finishes in top international races in between – Helen was derailed by an Achilles injury of her own in 2007, when she missed almost the entire season.
With the support of her husband she bounced back in style in 2008, the highlight of a fantastic year being victory in the 2008 World Championships in Vancouver. By the time the 2008 Olympics came round in Beijing, her long absence the previous year had taken its toll and she had little left in the tank. She came home in 21st place, but wasn’t too despondent, as she was thrilled to have even made the team after her injury problems. It is, however, something she is eager to put right on home soil in 2012.
“In 2008 I’d had virtually all of the previous year off and so I just wanted to qualify,” she says. “I wasn’t really thinking too much about the Games that year. I went to the ITU Grand Final in Vancouver not expecting to win but did so, which was a really proud moment for me – the best of my career to date. But by the time of the Olympics I’d run out of steam. I learned a lot there though and will be better prepared in 2012, provided I make the team and am lucky with injuries.
“Qualification has started now for 2012 and all the girls are fighting for those three spots on the team. We’re all friendly but are very focused: everyone knows only three of us can make it and that some of us will be left disappointed. We’re all chasing the same goal but we don’t really talk about it much between ourselves.
“However, I won’t be doing anything different in the run-up to the Olympics. You need to focus on all three disciplines and be consistent across all of them. I don’t want to spend the next 18 months improving my run and neglecting the others.”
So far, 2010 has gone well for Helen, with her performances improving as the year has gone on. Her podium places in Des Moines and Madrid leave her prominent in the ITU WCS standings and in a good position from which to aim herself at her big end-of-season target: the ITU Grand Final in Budapest in September. And despite all the experience she has accrued in her career to date, one of the most refreshing things about her is her eagerness to carry on learning.
“Triathlon is very unpredictable and one of the key things is learning from the races – it’s not just about training,” she says. “Tactics and pace are becoming more and more important, especially this season. This year the running legs have seen more tightly grouped packs than usual, so it’s about learning to win from different positions.
“This year the women’s circuit has seen a change similar to the one that happened with the men a few years ago – we are all emerging from the swim closer together, whereas in the past it’s been more staggered. So tactics are increasingly important. But Marc and I don’t pay too much attention to the tables at this stage of the season, it’s more about taking one race at a time.”
“It’s true – as far as the WCS goes, we’re not obsessed by the standings,” says Marc, as he switches to coaching mode. “Finishing high up isn’t an overall goal. We don’t look at it as wanting to finish third or fifth in the table. It’s about Helen qualifying for the Grand Final, being there at the start line at her peak and ready to do herself justice. Early-season races are about improvement, building up to Budapest. Whether she’s first or 20th in the table doesn’t matter – it’s about how she does on the day.”
And right there is a glimpse of what makes them work, both as individuals and as a partnership: they are a team. Marc has guided Helen’s career and is a big factor in her rise to the top, and his wife has been his main supporter and cushion throughout all the bad times of the last few years. They’re an endearing couple and despite their shared occupations they find it easy to switch off from the potentially all-consuming world of triathlon.
“The best way to describe our relationship is that it doesn’t revolve around triathlon,” Marc says. “If you came to our house you wouldn’t even know we do sport. There’s no memorabilia in our home – it’s all in our gym. And once our training’s done we rarely talk about the sport. It’s a job first and foremost. None of our close friends are triathletes. They are all fit and active people, but don’t do triathlons.”
“We’ve been together for nine years now,” says Helen. “I was 17 when we met and I had just started doing triathlons. We were members of the same swimming club and I knew Marc was a triathlete, but I wasn’t really that interested in the sport. We talk about food a lot – a triathlete’s life is mainly about food, sleep and training! And we love walking our dog Barney – he’s the baby of the house.
“At the start of 2008 Marc had just had surgery and I’d been out with my own injury. So we decided that we were going to get married towards the end of the year – no matter what happened we’d have something to look forward to. “We got married In Florida in October 2008 with around 30 of our family and closest friends. They joined us on our honeymoon too! Unlike most couples, who go off to do separate jobs and spend lots of time apart because of it, we didn’t feel the need to get away together as we’re always with each other. When you’re in hard training it’s difficult to find time for your friends so it was great.”
And with that, our time was up. They make such a great pair that with each other’s support more success is surely just round the corner. For both of them.