Standing on the starting line up of the 2016 International Triathlon Union junior Championships in Mexico on September 23, young Gabby de Chassart was well aware winning the race ahead of a pool of 65 experienced athletes was beyond her reach, all she had in mind was to gain a good competitive experience.
The 17-year-old Hellenic schoolgirl is an amazing athlete. Most triathlon followers in the country believe she has the potential of rise into Zimbabwe’s elite athlete. The experience in Mexico was a rude awakening, not only to her but also to Triathlon Zimbabwe, particularly on the huge negative impact of the lack of latest training facilities in the sport.
Gabby is well aware that bad races are common, even to the most experienced athletes training with latest facilities and she is ready to move on. Grace Chirumanzu (GC) interviewed her about her experience.
Grace Chirumhanzu (GC): The Junior ITU Championships are definitely a big thing, what were your expectations as you were about to start?
Gabby de Chassart (GdC): Standing on the start line I never expected an amazing result however my main aim was to be able to compete with the other girls in the race. I was excited to just get out there and give it my all. Unfortunately being a contender in the race was reliant on having a solid swim, which statistically did not happen as I swam an 11 minute 27 for the 750m and was expecting a time somewhere in the region of 30- 45 seconds faster. This time deficit may have been due to the strong currents in the water, which certainly had an impact on the elite splits and in which case, affected everyone.
GC: At what point did you realise you were far behind and what went through your mind?
GdC: When I realised I had missed the bike packs I just told myself to remain calm and do what I could to catch the group in front of me. I’d had hopes of working with other girls, pushing each-other on and trying to latch onto the group ahead whilst keeping away from groups hot on our heels. However, the reality was a very lonely 20kms. In a way this was the most disappointing aspect of the race for me. Even more so than being unable to finish. I’ve been so hungry to compete and to feel the true heat of a big race for a long time and so in a way I’m also just upset that I didn’t give myself that opportunity.
GC: Obviously you are not a bad athlete, what can you say were the advantages of the other athletes who completed the race?
GdC: The reality of how advanced the rest of the world is certainly hit me hard even in the days leading up to the race itself. I know within myself that I couldn’t have put in any more hours of training into this event as, time-wise, I absolutely gave it my all. However, one big difference between my race preparations and those of the other girls in my race is the level of exposure I’ve had. Athletes in the rest of the world are competing the whole time against larger and more advanced fields than what we have access to in Zimbabwe. I’ve been lucky enough to compete at several races down south this year but the harsh reality is that, if I wanted to have a chance at being able to really compete at world’s level, I would’ve needed to race in Europe or the States in order to really glean the experience I needed. For example; experience in getting a competitive open water start or mentally dealing with an event of this caliber, before throwing myself into the complete unknown.
To sum up my answer I would say more exposure to races of a higher caliber( although I couldn’t have done this as I’ve been at school as well as due to financial factors) and in terms of training itself, I’ve had some really beneficial individual sessions with specialists in individual disciplines of the sport but I think having other athletes to train with who are stronger than you and who push you to your limits when necessary is vital. I’ve had to get through many of my sessions alone and in retrospect, I probably did not benefit as much as I should have .
GC: How did you get to know you were lapped and how did you feel?
GdC: When I got onto the fourth lap of the ride. I was silently relieved as I thought athletes could only be lapped out by other riders. So I began preparing myself mentally for the run still hoping I could pick up a few places in the last lag of the race whilst still pushing hard for the last few kilometres of the bike. About fifty meters from transition, one of the officials walked out onto the course shouting at me to stop before telling me I had been lapped out.
At first I literally couldn’t believe it; I couldn’t believe I had come all the way to Mexico and not be able to finish the race. I felt instantaneously crushed and deflated as the many of hours upon hours of hard work had resulted in a DNF (Did Not Finish). However, many of the other athletes were beyond encouraging as I think most triathletes have faced disappointments or have had a bad race at some stage in their career. Even now I feel pretty emotional thinking about it but I know that it’s times like these that build us, not only as athletes but as characters too!
GC: Being lapped is certainly something you would want to forget about Mexico, but what were the lessons you took with you?
GdC: Wow, I have taken away so much from the week in Cozumel and just feel beyond grateful to have been there and experienced the prestige of such a high profile event. By complete chance we were fortunate enough to be staying at the exact same hotel as the elite junior and senior British triathlon team among which were the two Brownlee brothers (Gold and Silver medalists at Rio) as well as Non-Stanford and Vicky Holland (3rd and 4th in Rio) It was incredible just to watch how they prepared for their events as well as to chat to them and their coach throughout the course of the week.
From a racing perspective I can definitely see with absolute clarity where my weaknesses lie as well as the kind of exposure and level I need to be racing at if I choose to take my triathlon to the next level.
GC: Being the only Zimbabwean racing far away from home, what kept you motivated?
GdC: I am constantly amazed by the sheer level of genuine support I have received from back home both before and after the race, which has meant the absolute world to me. I think it is a reminder too that no matter what you do and how busy you are, it is so important to have time for the people who care about you. This is because one day you realise how much you need them and appreciate them in your life.
All images are of Gabby de Chassart. Images provided by Grace Chirumanzu