British triathlete Chrissie Wellington wasn’t born to Olympian parents, nor was she particularly competitive growing up. But don’t let her lackluster sporting pedigree fool you—Wellington is in a class all her own. Consider her meteoric rise: In 2004 at the age of 27, not long after riding a road bike for the first time, Wellington entered her first triathlon and placed third. Three years later she turned pro and won the Ironman World Championship in her first bid, finishing 5 minutes ahead of the field and outperforming many men. She’s since repeated that win three times—including in 2011, two weeks after a training crash left her with bruises, road rash, and multiple torn muscles in her chest. She remains undefeated—and holds all three world records—at the Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run).
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Wellington won’t be on the starting line of this year’s Ironman World Championship—she’s taking a year off to promote her new book, A Life Without Limits, and to reflect on everything she’s achieved—but we recently caught up with her. In this edited version of our interview with the record-setting star, find out more about her past as well as what she thinks the future holds.
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You’re taking the year off from Ironman competitions. Are you taking a break from training, too?
I’m still training, just not with the same structure. I love challenging myself. I love feeling free. I love the endorphins. I love the camaraderie. So I will still train even though I haven’t got that specific goal of an Ironman. I’m going to enter some other endurance races, I just haven’t decided which ones yet. But I’m definitely not going to be sitting on the couch eating pies.
Do you ever think about how you’ll spend your time when you’re done competing?
That’s partly why I took this break. Being a professional triathlete is a 24/7 job. It’s not just about the training program, which is about 30 hours a week. It’s rest, recovery, massage, nutrition, hydration—it’s everything. Over the past year I’ve started to crave variety and new challenges.
What will people learn about you in the book that they might not already know?
A lot of people have this conception of me as some kind of robotic superhuman. I kind of shatter that illusion with this book. For instance, they’ll learn that throughout my childhood I suffered from body image concerns, which manifested into eating disorders at various stages of my late teens and early 20s. It was through sport that I managed to develop a respect and appreciation for my body that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
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They may also be surprised to learn that you didn’t have the smoothest entry into the sport.
Yes! In 2006, I thought, “I’m gonna take triathlon a little more seriously.” So I borrowed a bike and I borrowed a wetsuit. (Search: How to buy a wetsuit) I put it on just before the race. It was a freezing cold day. I got in the water and the wetsuit flooded. The gun went off. I kind of flailed around trying to lift my arms out the water. The other swimmers just went off into the distance and I got rescued by a kayaker and pulled to the side. That was the end of the race.
How did you get the courage to go from that to professional triathlete?
When I first started racing, I trained hard but never with the intention of becoming a professional athlete. Then I won the world amateur championship. It was only then that I realized that I had a choice. I never want to look back and say, “what if?” I knew if I didn’t seize the opportunity to take myself one step further I would never know.
Is that the advice you’d give to someone who wants to compete in triathlons but is intimidated?
Absolutely! My advice would be to go for it because imagine if I hadn’t. Sometimes you just never know what the future holds and you have to take that chance. In 2005 I said to someone, “You’ve got to be absolutely crazy to do an Ironman. I’d never do one.” For me, Ironman was this unachievable kind of dream, but then slowly as I progressed toward it, I realized it wasn’t as big a hurdle as I thought it would be.