The ITU racing season kicks off in Abu Dhabi this weekend, and I took the opportunity to sit down in Stellenbosch with Jodie Stimpson ahead of Olympic qualification, for a glimpse of the headspace that this outstanding athlete finds herself in as she contends Great Britain’s elusive, last Olympic spot.

Text by Jodie Swallow | Images by Witsup

 

At 27, Stimpson is fighting for her Olympic selection. She is possibly the most decorated international athlete to have no assurance of Olympic selection; the current prowess of GBR’s women is unequaled worldwide, and it looks like she has a ‘Kenyan’ type problem where it might be harder to make the national team than it is to win a Championship medal.

With two qualification spots already sewn up by Non Stanford and Vicky Holland, Stimpson, the 2014 Commonwealth Champion, has one more bite at the cherry. She must prove her undeniable pedigree in the Olympic team over another champion with undeniable pedigree; Helen Jenkins – one of Stimpson’s triathlon heroes.

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Jodie finished a credible sixth at Chicago WTS Final and Helen 11th. Both raced above form – form undeniably hampered by injury.

My first memory of Jodie Stimpson was on a British Triathlon winter training camp in 2007. The squad assimilated in Aguilas for a few mileage heavy bike weeks in the Spanish sun. The management had taken the direction of a single sex groups. It was a pretty intense atmosphere.  There were ‘issues.’

Only eighteen, Stimpson was the nominal baby of the group. In situations beyond her experience, and amongst better athletes suffering a multitude of personal problems, the young Jodie Stimpson kept training and kept her head.

Of what I know of Miss Stimpson now, after watching her mature into the consistent, brave, tough professional she is, those same effervescent qualities shine through the pressures and the knocks that elite athlete life can bring. She keeps training and she keeps her head.

 

“She keeps training and she keeps her head.”

Jodie Swallow

 

Stimpson’s career has shown brilliant linear progress. As an aspiring youth racer she was initiated into a competitive triathlon career by local coach Steve Lumley. She was then nurtured into a leading international junior racer under the wing of Michelle Dillon, but, it wasn’t until the 2013 season when she joined forces with Darren Smith, that she emerged as a wholly World Class contender.

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There has, of course, been challenges en route. Removal of BTF funding in 2008 prompted her move to Dillon. Failure of Olympic selection in 2012; her move to Smith’s prolific D-Squad …  Adversity seems to accelerate Stimpson’s learning and adapt her resolve for improvement. A hypothesis which will be further tested following the lull of injury woes and emotional difficulties that she was dealt in 2015.

“I’ve never been injured before and I haven’t had to miss races due to that ever.” Stimpson says. “It was the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with as an athlete.

“I was in Kenya just before Challenge Bahrain – my first half iron-distance. I was kind of running on things that were too stiff and too tight. Also, just before going to Kenya, Zak [Stimpson’s nephew] was born and was given a 25 per cent chance of living,” she explains. “To be honest I had no business being in Kenya, I should have stayed at home. Then over that Christmas period I was really running through stuff that was too painful.”

The pressure to secure early Olympic selection, coupled with intense worry and distress for Zak, pushed Stimpson into continuing to run on a sore achillies (later diagnosed as a FHL issue). She even travelled to camp that January, and would not return and fully address the injury until April – well into the season and underprepared in miles and competition. She looks back at this series of mistakes as the cause of a lacklustre 2015 which extrapolated into the selection pressure she now faces in 2016.

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“It was the stress of everything. Everything was blurred and I wasn’t focused on doing things ideally,” she explains. “I remember the time and I was constantly ringing home asking ‘Is he off oxygen?’ ’Is he on oxygen?’ There were so many things going on as well as trying to qualify for an Olympic team.”

For Stimpson, whom credits the major lesson of Smith to be ‘small things make huge differences’ and who thrives on rhythm and routine, such confusion must have been chaotic. She is practised in preparation, taught in consistency and very much ‘a student of detail.’ She lacked the experience in managing injury and the emotional frustrations it’s unpredictability can induce.

She learnt quickly. Stimpson returned to racing in July and although she fought for top ten finishes as opposed to her normal podiums, the tenacity that she demonstrated was highly impressive.

“Small things make huge differences.”

Jodie Stimpson

Helen Jenkins is more experienced in the injury management side of triathlon yet has pieced together an astounding career despite the challenges she has faced. Stimpson clearly respects such achievements.

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“Helen is an absolutely fantastic athlete. She’s one of those athletes I really look up to because a real triathlete should be a swim, bike, runner and that’s what Helen is,” Stimpson explains. “She swims lead pack, she’s one of the strongest cyclists out there and she can run! But I’m not just going up against her – I’m going up against the 60 odd other women on the start line. I would never begrudge Helen if she crosses the line before me, because that’s wrong. If she crosses before me, she performed better on the day.”

It seems that selection is most likely to be decided on which woman crosses the line first on the Gold Coast. Given the skills of the current team members, Stimpson doubts the prospect of an internal domestique selection. The fundamental requirement for selection is not exactly specified, which bestows an unspoken uncertainty for Stimpson and Jenkins as to exactly how they need to perform in all three spring World Series races.

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“The race they [selectors] are looking at is Gold Coast and there’s only me and Helen racing there. It is quite a grey area yet again. I wish it wasn’t. They have said it’s the Gold Coast race, but on the other hand, I could go and win the Gold Coast race but not be selected. It isn’t black and white. I’d like them to say it’s between me and Helen but … Who knows?” she says.

It’s a difficult situation to be in for both British athletes, akin to chasing a qualifying time that isn’t stipulated or shooting for a goal that may or may not move when the ball is kicked. It is, however, a challenge Stimpson has to tackle to secure a spot in the Games and thus Smith has prepared her accordingly and got her into prime shape very early in the year.

 

“… Akin to chasing a qualifying time that isn’t stipulated or shooting for a goal that may or may not move when the ball is kicked.”

Jodie Swallow

In December Stimpson was putting in 120km run weeks pre-camp and then commenced team camp from early January – nine months before the Olympic Games. The smaller ‘D Squad’ of 2016 is an all female, all Olympic focused, all yet to qualify outfit and it is a very intense place to be.

“Every day under Darren you learn things that you may not necessarily want to learn. Through the experiences of his athletes and him you never ‘get satisfied.’ I think that’s the key thing – you can have one good day but it’s not about a day anymore, you have to consistently have good days,” she explains.

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Stimpson has thrived in this competitive environment for over two years. All the women in the team were entered in a local 10km run last week (they race one another regularly). Stimpson ran a 34min flat on a hot evening, running away from the field. She looked to be back to her best.

It must be difficult to sustain such competitiveness, such excellence, even the extensive travel for prolonged periods though. There are some athletes that travel to race but Stimpson travels to train and then races from camp. She is away from home and family for long periods of time, surrounded only by teammates who are in fact her competitors.

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One senses that the nomadic lifestyle is particularly difficult on Stimpson who has such close relationships with her nuclear family. Twice daily calls and emails are the norm for her and the family and their support is a complete necessity for her well being in triathlon. She puts a time limit on the current situation as ‘the end of 2016’, after which Smith will change coaching focus and she will begin to try and integrate more balance and stability into her life – which means more time spent in the ‘Black country’ or wherever her family choose to be.

“The hardest thing about what I do is not being with them,” she says.

The 2016 season will have to be a two-peak attack with an enforced rest period following qualification to sustain health and dynamism. It must be difficult to rest in April in an Olympic year, but Smith’s athletes are notoriously dangerous in the early season World Series races and equally formidable come the Championships.

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“I’ve had to peak for Gold Coast, so we had to plan in this break straight after Cape Town, so it does fit in well and I’m not worried about then building up for Rio. Everyone knows you can’t peak too many times in a year but I think twice would actually work quite well. I’ve had a nice build up and I’ll just build again but from a step above.”

When planning the season it’s obvious that Stimpson expects to qualify. She is a confident champion. After all, you have to be in it to win it. Stimpson not only intends to be in Rio but she intends to race for gold there.

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An interesting statistic – Stimpson is the last person to beat Gwen Jorgenson in a World Series race. Well, technically Jenkins is, seeing as she finished second to Jorgensen’s third in Cape Town 2014, but Jodie topped the podium.

Not many people take on Jorgenson, and I am beginning to question whether medals are being prematurely allocated before the race is run. “I do think I could beat Gwen on the run if I had my best day,” Stimpson says. “Lots of things would have to go right for that to happen. Gwen is one of those who is extraordinary, to say the least, but there’s not only Gwen to focus on.”

 

“I do think I could beat Gwen on the run if I had my best day.”

Jodie Stimpson

 

Indeed it is not Miss Stimpson, indeed it is not. And I am beginning to believe it is not just Holland and Stanford either.

Good luck to all ITU athletes trying to secure Olympic spots in the next months. The race for Rio is most definitely rolling and though one Champion will surely miss out on the opportunity in 2016, all four of the British women can be proud of what they have suffered, overcome and achieved in this and previous Olympic cycles. You inspire me as much as the next British triathlon hopefuls.

I am glad I am not a selector.

 

Thank you to Jodie for the time and to Stef for the commission.

J.

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About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP Serious about what I do, but don't take myself too seriously

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