Triathlon World Cup: Blatchford exchanges exotic past for exacting quest on streets of Salford

The resolve of an adopted Briton will be tested at the Triathlon World Cup on Sunday. Mike Rowbottom talked to her
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The Independent Online

Given that Salford Lock is neither tidal nor shark-infested, Liz Blatchford will be operating at something of a disadvantage when she takes the plunge in Sunday's International Triathlon Union World Cup event.

This 25-year-old was born in the city where she will swim, cycle and then run this weekend, and has established herself as national champion. But a glimpse of her stated interests - surfing, scuba diving and saving whales - offers a large clue that she has spent most of her life in locations more exotic than Manchester.

Blatchford was brought up in Australia, where she now has a home in the gorgeously named Gold Coast resort of Mermaid Waters, and she learnt to swim off the beaches of Perth. Sharks are an accepted hazard in both environments.

"Ever since I went down to the beach as a toddler I knew that sharks were a part of the scene," she recalled. "But there are only a couple of attacks each year, and if you think about the amount of people who swim off the beaches the odds are so tiny. You get sharks all the time, but I wouldn't say I am afraid of them. There's more chance of getting run off the road by a car while you are on your bike."

Having switched nationality in February last year following her failure to gain a place in the Australian Olympic team, she has grown accustomed to a different natural hazard in her new environment: the cold. Blatchford finished third in Salford last July, and you can almost sense her shivering at the recollection.

"It was so rainy and windy last year," she said. "This year I'm going to be prepared for the temperatures. I'm bringing some extra clothing to put on before I get on the bike. Wetsuits are allowed when the water is below 20C - which is pretty much always in this country."

Blatchford will need to be operating at top form, given that this Sunday's event, on the course which proved such a success in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, will double as the British trials for this September's World Championships in Japan. A top 10 place should be sufficient to ensure her trip - but that is not something she is unduly worried about. "Not to sound arrogant, but I think I'll get a top 10 place easily," she said from her high altitude training base in the Swiss Alpine resort of Leysin. "I'm going to try and win, or get on to the podium for sure."

Despite Blatchford's confidence, that task will be far from straightforward given the presence of the Australians Maxine Seear, Pip Taylor (the Salford winner in 2003), and the former world junior champion Felicity Abram. The world champion, Sheila Taormina of the United States, is also in the field.

The domestic challenge will be headed by the defending champion, Michelle Dillon, who preceded Blatchford on the route from Australia to Britain. Also in the mix is Leanda Cave, another former Australian athlete who won the 2002 world title, and the former British athlete Andrea Whitcombe.

Dillon was the highest-placed Briton in last year's Olympics, where she finished sixth. But she now finds herself under pressure from the latest arrival from Down Under.

It is a situation which you might expect to generate some tension among Britain's élite women - but if that is the case, Blatchford has yet to hear any evidence. "I sort of expected it, but I didn't experience any problems," she said. "Maybe people kept it to themselves, but I never heard anything." Like Dillon, she spends half her year at home on the Gold Coast, travelling the rest of the time and establishing a temporary base in this country, where she is coached at Loughborough by Ben Bright.

Blatchford had to spend a period as an unattached runner while her citizenship was transferred - ironically, given her failure to make the Australian Olympic team, she won the race incorporating the US Olympic trials. But her arrival as a British competitor was flagged up immediately as she won last year's national championships in Liverpool.

"It was a good way to get on to the scene," she said, "a good way of telling everybody that I meant business." That has been her approach since she entered her first triathlon at the age of 15. She won, and she was hooked on the event. "I've got my competitive edge from my father," she said. "When he was younger he played every sport under the sun and he was competitive in everything he did. Even when he was playing Monopoly with us he would try and kick our butts."

The struggle to gain a place in Australia's Olympic team proved too much for her, however, given that she carried an injury into the trials. "It was very frustrating to have to watch the Games on television," she said.

Now, however, Blatchford is settling into a new routine that she hopes will offer tangible rewards at the Beijing Olympics - a perhaps even the London Games of 2012.

"Getting the Olympics will do a lot of good for sport in this country," she said. "In Australia before the Sydney Games sport got a huge boost."

Earlier this year, triathlon was one of a number of British sports that accepted reducing funding under the Lottery's World Class Performance Programme, with numbers of athletes supported dropping from 16 to 12. By October, that figure was due to fall further to eight.

Now, however, there are high hopes that the total will rise again. Even more importantly for the sport's long-term future, triathlon now stands to gain access to a new centre of excellence within Stratford's Olympic Park.

As the domestic sport looks forward to its Olympic showing in London seven years from now, events such as Sunday's take on an enhanced importance.

The organisers trust it will go smoothly. Blatchford trusts it will go swiftly.

Showdown in Salford: Triathlon's World Cup big guns

Michelle Dillon

The defending champion in Salford. Britain's best-placed finisher at the Athens Games, where she was sixth. Preceded Blatchford in switch from Australia to Britain, having been born in Wembley. Ran for Australia in 1994 Commonwealth Games 10,000m final.

Tim Don

The son of the football referee Philip Don, Tim is a double Olympian who has already won three World Cup events this year and offers a realistic hope that the Salford title can be won by a home triathlete. Won the world duathlon championship in 2002.

Sheila Taormina

The American won the world title last year at the age of 35 after outsprinting the Australian Olympic selection, Loretta Harup, over the final lap. Won an Olympic place in Athens eight years after winning gold in the pool at Atlanta with the US 4x200m relay team.

Matthew Reed

The United States national champion stands third in the world rankings, one place behind Don. Is seeking a "breakthrough season" which he hopes will culminate in a podium place at this year's World Championships, which take place in Gamagori, Japan, in September.

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