Triathlon: Leanda on a winding road to identity

One woman's Commonwealth game: born in England, brought up in Australia, competing for Wales
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The Independent Online

Born in England, brought up in a caravan in Australia, competing for Wales, Leanda Cave is thrown into understandable confusion by the question. "Where is home? I'm always debating that," she laughs. "I've been so nomadic. I had 13 different primary schools back in Australia because we were travelling around so much. The first permanent home we had was in Cairns, and the longest I lived anywhere was three years in Brisbane, so I've never really thought about living anywhere."

Born in England, brought up in a caravan in Australia, competing for Wales, Leanda Cave is thrown into understandable confusion by the question. "Where is home? I'm always debating that," she laughs. "I've been so nomadic. I had 13 different primary schools back in Australia because we were travelling around so much. The first permanent home we had was in Cairns, and the longest I lived anywhere was three years in Brisbane, so I've never really thought about living anywhere."

Home now for the multinational triathlete is a flat in Bath, a place at least to do her washing and rest her head at nights. When we meet she has already completed an hour's run and a 90-minute session in the swimming pool. The afternoon, fortified by a lunch of a banana and grapes, will mean a three-hour bike ride. It is a bit of a shock when a ring on the mobile phone reveals a friend demanding her presence on a shopping expedition. Normality, the detail of every day, has its place, even in the life of a girl used to big skies and sweeping horizons.

Cave is 24, tall and waif-like, with a self-conscious smile and a delicacy which belies her inner resolve. The Australian in her accent is discernible, but not overwhelming, like the scar just below her chin, the legacy of a recent crash. She has thought about her unusual past and harnessed it to the future, which makes her a dangerously rational and intense competitor. But not until the European Championships in Hungary earlier this month did Cave produce the result which has transformed her into a realistic challenger for a medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Coming into the race after crashing out of the British national championships and falling ill with a chest infection at a training camp in Italy, Cave was far from optimistic about her prospects. "I was just wanting to go out and do what I could," she says. "I wasn't really expecting much. As it was, I felt awesome. I was 12th after the swim and there was a long transition stage and I really pushed through that, so I was in the front group on the bike. I was still with the leading group for the run and they were looking round and saying, 'Who's this?' because I'm used to being dropped then. I felt so easy. I wished afterwards I'd pushed a bit harder." Cave won silver, but reflects now that with a little more experience, a touch more bravado, she could have won gold. But the result has forced a radical rethink of her final preparations before competition.

Cave can remember the application form to compete for Britain. It lay on her desk for a year, unsigned. As a member of the Australian junior squad, she had always been proud of her dark-red British passport. It made her different. But several Antipodean triathletes had switched allegiance recently, and Cave had never been much of a follower.

"I never felt wholly Australian," she explains. "But I got a lot of support when I was a junior, so I suppose I felt a bit guilty and I didn't want to be just another Anglo-Aussie. But I turned up to race in Brighton one time and found I couldn't race unless I was British. So I said, 'I am British, I've got a British passport'. So I ran for Britain." And, in another twist, at the Commonwealth Games, she will run for Wales in honour of her mother, who was born in Rhyl.

She feels comfortable in a Welsh vest; not quite a Pom, but almost. The journey towards a true identity has already been a remarkable adventure. The life of a gypsy breeds independence, self-sufficiency, valuable qualities in tough competition, but at the time, hopping from school to school, living out of a 19-foot caravan day after day, sometimes driving for two days without seeing another car, Cave yearned for a more conventional existence.

"Dad was a carpenter and when we left England 20 years ago, there was no work, but there was a housing boom in Australia," she says. "We just followed him. Back then, I hated it, I had no self-esteem, I was very quiet and sport was the only thing that gave me self-confidence. I was always desperate to go and stay with a friend in a proper house and they always envied me because they thought living out of a caravan was cool. But all that travelling also made me what I am now and I'm thankful for that. If I'd been brought up in England, I wouldn't be doing this now."

As a junior, Cave received strong support from the Australian system. When she graduated to senior level, the funding dried up. "The moment you finish being a junior, that's it. You've got to work your way back to receive more support. Only three women triathletes were getting funding and all three were world champions." So, at the age of 19, Cave left her studies in fashion design at Brisbane and returned to England to live with an uncle in Nottingham. At her first triathlon, she earned £750 for finishing sixth. But it was the supportive attitude of coaches and rivals which made the greatest impact.

"When I got my first good result, I got an email from Chris [Jones, now her coach] saying 'Well done' and several other messages and I thought that was really good. There's such a good support system here. In Australia, no one would talk to me. No one talks to me at races even now. They're all in their own little world."

Australians, inevitably, will provide the major competition in Manchester, but Cave does not see the Games as a national identity parade. "It's another race, another challenge," she says. "People will finally see me as I want people to see me. I have a quiet confidence about me, but I've had a pretty bad year trying to justify that confidence. Now I'll be on the start line at the Commonwealth Games as a possible medallist."

Then it will be on to Athens for the Olympic Games and the distant ambition of completing the Iron Man triathlon in 2005 – a 4km swim, 180km on the bike and a marathon. The hard miles, it seems, have only just begun.

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