Triathlon promises to be one of the most popular Olympic sports at its Sydney debut. At the recent Goodwill Games, it drew huge crowds fascinated (and appalled) by athletes swimming 1500m, cycling 40km, then running 10km without stopping. Great for spectators, maybe, but what makes its participants want to punish their bodies so? And what makes an attractive 17-year-old, with excellent academic results, dump it all for the doubtful pleasures of triagony?
Melanie Sears has not yet learnt those trite phrases about personal satisfaction, mental challenge and higher targets that most athletes trot out when asked similar questions. 'You swim for a mile, then run out of the water and jump on your bike, still wet. Of course, then you freeze. When the 40km cycle ride is over, you have to run 6.3 miles, which is a long way when you're feeling shattered. But it's great fun, and all worth it in the end.'
It is proving so pleasurable that the schoolgirl from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, has taken a year out to improve her performances. If November's World Championships in New Zealand goes well, she has long-term dreams of an Olympic place. If not, she will go back to school and get her A-levels. (Actually, her real ambition is to train and race greyhounds but Mum and Dad probably would not approve).
Britain has a terrific record in a sport that only started here a decade ago. Nowhere are our prospects brighter than in the women's junior (20 and under) section. We have four teenagers, all about the same standard, who are proving that women can handle endurance events just as well as men. The quartet have another three years in this category, but they have already won a European team bronze. Triathlon, approved as an Olympic sport earlier this month, could bring medals for team and individual, come Sydney in 2000. And Melanie is perhaps our brightest prospect.
It all started at the local pony club. Aged seven, she got involved in gymkhanas, and then into tetrathlons - cross-country horse-riding, running, shooting and swimming. Though running is her least favoured of the three triathlon disciplines, she has a particular talent for it. (In 1992 she was county cross-
country champion, and she was rated 17th in the country at 1500m). Membership of a running club led her to meet other distance runners, and it was just a short hop, step and jump to triathlon.
Melanie entered her first triathlon at 14. 'I won the junior section - but then I was the only junior taking part. It seemed so easy that I was waving to my team-mates as I went round.' Full of confidence, she entered the National Championships, and although she had the second fastest swim and the fastest run, she came nowhere. 'I was following this man and suddenly we came to the sea. We realised then that we had gone wrong. I ended up cycling 14 miles too far. I cried all the way through the running.'
But she did not give up and is determined that she never will. 'Sometimes I wish I could stop, because then the pain would be over, but I think that if I stopped once I would do it again.' Such doggedness draws admiration from Steve Trew, the sport's director of coaching. 'Twice this year, she has been on an IV drip after a race,' he said. 'I've just been testing her fitness, and she worked so hard that the
machine finally threw her off and into a wall. She had given it everything, but whereas most people step off when they realise they can't go any further, she just kept on.'
Melanie was top junior in this year's European Triathlon Championships in Barcelona, finishing 13th 'I was almost as good as the top three in running and swimming, but much slower at cycling. That's why I'm working very hard at it.' She is trying to talk her long-
suffering parents, who will carry the pounds 1,300 cost of her New Zealand trip, into buying a pounds 2,000 bike ('It's a special deal, with pounds 1,000 off') so she can try national 25km and 100km time trials later this year.
But there is another price to pay. Her punishing training sessions have made her a bit of a recluse. 'I don't have a social life,' she said. 'I'm not a party animal anyway. After two hours hard swimming on Friday nights, I just want to go to sleep. But I phone and write to the other girls in the team.' What do you talk about? Boys? Clothes? 'No, what sort of times they are doing.'
Where will this single- mindedness end? Melanie has tried pentathlon, but thought it was hard work (as if triathlon isn't). She wants to enter one of the iron man events, such as the Hawaiian competition (swim 2.4 miles in the sea, cycle 112 miles and then run a marathon).
She has had a go at the triathlon 'sprint' where you only have to swim 750m, cycle 20km and run 5km. 'The big trouble is, I have no one my age to train with,' she says. Funny, that.
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