By Andy Lewis, 30th May 2016
I keep asking myself, “Do I feel ready?” and the answer is, “Not really!” – but it’s one of those things and it’s too late to worry about it now.
The last week or so has been difficult. First there were some issues at home, then I received some news from the coaches about the European Championships that I didn’t want to hear. Worrying about this has taken a toll on me. I wanted to go into this race really focused, instead I feel more nervous than ever. I’m not 100% motivated but at the same time I am angry which actually can make me perform at my best.
After meeting with my coach, psychologist and team manager, I now understand that I have to learn to only worry about the things I can control. Worrying about those I can’t reduces my energy and causes fatigue.
I pack my bags and arrive at Heathrow. After a short flight we arrive in Lisbon, Portugal, the city where my fate will be decided. Will I continue on the road to Rio? Will I have a place on the 2016 GB Paralympic team?
We go to the hotel and once we’ve unpacked, we make our way to dinner. This is the moment where the team always come together, no one really discusses Triathlon but instead the food on offer! We have to be careful what we eat, the balance needs to be right, enough veg but also enough carbohydrates to get you fuelled ready to race.
After dinner it’s a team meeting to discuss the training venue and identify which member of staff is responsible for what during our stay.
The following morning we make our way to the pool for an hour session which is quite short compared to our normal sessions. The swim lanes were allocated quite early at 7am which when you are preparing for a race and have nothing else to do all day seems a waste.
In the afternoon I decide to meet with my coach and look at my race plan. Once again, we discuss what is expected of me. The pressure is mounting. I’m struggling to sleep, sweating and starting to feel sick the closer the day gets. This is going to be the biggest race of my short career!
The next day is fairly busy: race briefing, swim recce, bike recce all within a few hours of each other. The race briefing takes about an hour which is where we as disabled athletes get to ask questions about the event, location and any changes that may help our safety.
The swim recce went well I always practice my sighting and make sure my equipment – wetsuit and goggles for example – fit perfectly and that there are no issues. It’s the same with the bike recce making sure you are happy with the course and that the bike performs as it should.
After all the recces are complete, I make my way back to the hotel to chill out for a bit before dinner. With only one more day to go before it all kicks off I know I need to get an early night, however once again, I can’t sleep. My race is at 4pm the following day so I must try to sleep but it’s so hard. I suffer with ADHD and normally I’m so hyper leading into a race but this was different! The closer it was the more quiet and scared I became.
Race day finally arrives!
This is it – a good hearty breakfast followed by a sports massage, coaches meeting, bike check, bags packed, lunch and on to the race venue. It’s busy, we wait to get into transition. I always wear my headphones and don’t really like to be disturbed during warm up. Also, it’s important that transition is set up the way I want it so I know where everything is. When we come out of the water onto the land, we feel a bit dazed and we need to know everything’s ready and where it should be.
We line up on the pontoon with the introductions going on above us. At 4:32pm we’re asked to get in the water, this is where the nerves start to build even more, it feels like my heart is going to jump out of my chest. I look across the line of elite athletes to find the world champion staring at me. Over the tannoy the music stops and they start to play the sounds of a heart-beat! Here we go. ‘On your marks!’ and we’re off!
For the first 30m I’m getting battered by someone so I decide to kick on and get out from there as I add some pace and cadence to my swim. I’m moving away and cannot see anyone alongside me. I keep applying the power as I reach the first buoy. I am using some new clear-lens goggles which are really helping my sighting skills. As I approach the last buoy and 400m down I’m swimming at around 90% of my threshold so as I see the exit ramp I increase my power to 95% then add some last minute sprint power and give it everything to get out up the ramp. As I hop from the water I quickly grab hold of my prosthetic leg and make my way into transition on my blade.
When reaching transition I notice that I’m first out of the water, I’m happy feeling strong as I catch my breath, quickly changing my swim gear for bike. It takes me about 1 minute and I’m off on the bike. First lap feels horrible, my legs feel weak but my heart is strong. As the laps increase I start to lose focus a little until I hear the familiar voice of my coach shouting at me. I refocus and at that point the world champion comes past me. I decide that I’m not going to let him get too far away and want to keep him in my sights – however one thing I have been practicing is to focus on me and not other people so at this point I revisit my race processes and carry out my own race.
As we come to the end of the bike, only two people have overtaken me, the number 1 & 2 in the world but I’m not that far behind. My coach is telling me how far behind them I am, which helps massively. It also helps that he’s there for me, giving me the guidance I need.
Once we arrive into transition I quickly change from my bike to my blade, it takes precisely 45 seconds. I get into my stride pretty quickly and start to track down the competition. As I reach the first hill about 1km out I can see the world champion, that’s it! My sights are readjusted to take this guy out. I work hard to get within feet of him and then use his body as a guard from the wind until I have recovered a little; I catch my breath before passing him.
I don’t know at that point if I am the race leader or not but then I see someone else in front, a guy called Stephane Bahier, an ex-para cyclist, someone who I had watched for months while deciding if I should take up triathlon. I’m now within striking distance of being the European Champion and I’m not going to let the opportunity slip away. I move ever closer to the race leader, getting more and more excited, not so nervous anymore just thinking of winning. I pass Stephane shouting: “Come on, stay with me!” Really, I want him to push me even more but also I’d like him to finish ahead of the world champ. Leading into Rio any negative thoughts I can put into the world champ’s head the better! Today he’s not as good as I am, so I keep going, moving away from the pack.
As I approach the finishing line I can see the tape! I’m so excited I nearly stop to take a bow! My dream of one day becoming a European Champion has come true! It feels like a huge weight has been lifted. I had to finish ahead of my German competition and I was ahead by four minutes! I’d smashed it!
After finishing and giving my coach a hug and realising what I’ve just done it’s time to chill out and get some food and fluids on board.
I literally lay on the floor speechless; people are saying to me, “You are European Champion!” it just wouldn’t sink in. A few hours later it becomes a reality when I collect my medal. The Great Britain national anthem is playing and I’m nearly crying with relief.
Overall it’s been a very tough few months and my life has been a huge roller coaster ride. I never knew if after this race my career would be over or if I would make the team for Rio. My future is not brighter, nothing yet has been confirmed and realistically until you get that call or letter from Paralympics GB nothing is guaranteed.
Watch this space!