It was a successful 2019 70.3 World Championships for Sam Appleton and Chelsea Sodaro, but both of their stories hold lessons for us mere mortals. Both Sam and Chelsea’s journey toward the peak of world-class performance have not been without hurdles this year and it is worth a reminder of the obstacles and journeys both had to take for their success.
Chelsea Sodaro: At the end of 2018, Chelsea finished the IRONMAN Indian Wells 70.3 as Champion with just her second attempt at the distance. Despite the result, all was not well. She had completed very little running going into the race and a pesky niggle in the knee only became more inflamed as a result of the race. In the subsequent months, we went on a journey of injury and management that ultimately led to a requirement of a radical rethink of approach and training. Chelsea had foundational musculoskeletal issues that needed to be addressed and we had to navigate longer-term rebuilding of strength and recovery in order to make longer-term gains.
Over the initial months of 2019, Chelsea began to lose the opportunity to train the run, then soon enough we were forced to remove the bike. The only options were strength and swimming. The frustration was evident across the team, but the option was to execute in everything we could do, and then be patient in the recovery process.
At the end of March, I sensed Chelsea was beginning to get desperate. A new signing to Team BMC/V-Fit, yet unable to even race, she felt the internal and external pressure begin to build. Was her season going to turn to ashes? It was a natural worry to have and when you find yourself in the eye of the hurricane, performance can feel a long way off.
The key to ultimate success was a simple set of things:
- Patience: Not easy, but she had to let the process take its course. Chelsea could not risk regression due to impatience.
- Control the controllable: An absolute dedication to maximizing what she could do. Swim her heart out and a complete commitment to strength.
- Remain positive: It is so easy to despair, to give in, to lose confidence. A champion remains positive and committed to the path.
It was how she approached these dark months that made the emergence all the more powerful. She came past the injury as a more resilient athlete, strengthened in all areas that would reduce the risk of both this injury returning, but also other injuries popping up, and the development of her weakness area - the swim.
Finally healthy at the beginning of May, Chelsea entered the back end of the season with a stunning win at IRONMAN 70.3 Santa Rosa, and as 4th placed female pro at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. Some dark and long months can be a part of the journey, but how one manages the adversity is the surest sign of how bright the other side of the injury is. Well done so far, but lots of work to do Chelsea!
Note: It is all about TEAM. I cannot write this piece without special acknowledge to Michael Lord — who happens to be Sarah Piampiano’s husband. Mike was a key part of thee team for Chelsea and helped guide us through the injuries and helped navigate the progression back to the ability to charge! Thanks for being a huge part of this journey. Your quiet dedication is not unnoticed.
Sam Appleton: In 2018, Sam went through July and August with some accumulated fatigue. Through accidentally underfeeding and a little bug, Sam had to head to South Africa at last year’s World Championships in about as poor of a set up as one could imagine. Through great bravery and self-belief, Sam gave it his all and somehow secured 6th place. While not the result we truly chased, what he did relative to preparation was wonderful. We were both dedicated to a better 2019 and all seemed great until an unfortunate bike crash at Oceanside 70.3. Leading the race sometimes comes with peril, and some poorly placed duct tape on the road marking the route, mixing with the morning coastal fog, created a rather slippery patch of road. Sam didn’t stand a chance and ended up in hospital with a broken collarbone.
April and May were spent on recumbent bikes, walking on a treadmill, single-arm swimming and light spinning - hardly the recipe for world-class performance. In the meat of Sam’s year, traditionally his prime racing block, he sat and watched others excel. You can imagine the frustration and annoyance.
The hidden part of this is the blow to confidence upon return to real training. While an incremental ramp, once Sam (or any athlete) is set free to train, the dial of thriving performance doesn’t return to top-notch form straight away. The bike was pretty good, but anchored with a haunting of the crash. The run was awkward and he could barely place real force on the shoulder while swimming. It was a long and tough journey back. Just like Chelsea, Sam’s performance level began to take shape just at the right time, and he was impressive in victory at Santa Rosa 70.3. He still needed to build up levels before Nice 70.3 Worlds, and he knew that the course was going to include a descent that would stretch him to his limit of ability and nerve to keep up with the front runners.
In a highly unpredictable race that took the toll of many of the sports best competitors, both stepped up and delivered wonderful performances. Improvements to be had on both, but the best personal performances so far. Sam had his best 20, 30 and 60-minute power - ever. What more can we ask? Both applied their specific descending training into the race. Both never gave up fighting.
These results were achieved through adversity and an ongoing commitment to the process. Sam and Chelsea had normal training stripped away from them and had to navigate frustration, but instead of losing confidence and going to the dark mindset, they simply controlled what they could and got on with moving forward. It is what makes them champions.
Kevin Collington: I cannot leave without a note about our final pro-Kevin Collington. Kevin has had a torrid time on the bike in the last few months, leading to a few rather varied results. It has been frustrating and confusing for both of us. Rather than wallow, we decided to make some changes in approach over the last 6-weeks and then go and race Worlds seeking a much better riding performance. It is not easy going into a race with biking confidence at rock bottom while facing the very best in the world on a course that demands great riding to even be mildly competitive.
Our commitment was a personal dedication to nailing the climb — and then being what happened. Following the swim, Kevin ramped in carefully, then launched into the climb. By far his most impressive output of the season, he charged on the hill. A courageous effort and one that made me happy to track. He committed to the charge despite entering with doubts. A success, but unfortunately followed by a crash on the hectic descent. Ramming into a guardrail, his bike remained but he continued tumbling down the hill and into a nice thorny bush. The good news? Despite a broken brake and inability to continue, Kevin was relatively unharmed and got to enjoy a nice espresso with a local farmer who felt sympathy for his plight. While not the ending we chased, it was a positive addition to the bank account and one I am proud of Kevin for achieving.
Troops: In the journey of sport — and life — we all must sometimes face phases of darkness. The true test of resilience and the pathway to success is on holding out for the positives, controlling what you can control, and keep moving forward in any area possible. The darkness ends and it will get better. Sam and Chelsea’s story highlights just how good it can get. Well done to both.