Triathlete Colette Hopkins writes about overcoming fear and finding her “why.”

By Colette Hopkins

It was 5 days before the 2017 Age Group Sprint Triathlon World Championships in Rotterdam, Holland. I had been training with this goal in mind for two years, yet there I was in the final stretch, sitting in my hotel bathtub halfway around the world, alternating between crying and panicking. I was seriously doubting whether I’d be able to pull myself together in time to hit the start line. 

I kept asking myself the same question over and over again—WHY? Why am I doing this?

My anxiety leading up to the World Championships in Rotterdam was almost unmanageable. I had been plagued by a hip flexor issue in the early part of the year which led to three months off running. Once that settled down, I strained my left shoulder. Injuries can play with an athlete’s confidence and I was struggling to stay optimistic. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident when two weeks before the race, my hip flexor flared up again and I had to hang up my running shoes until race day.

So there I was…crying my eyes out and having a panic attack in my hotel bathtub wondering why the hell I was there.

The panic was rising. All I could think about was the hours and sacrifices it took to get to this place; not just my sacrifices, but the sacrifices made by my husband and children as well. I thought of all those winter bike rides in the freezing cold and runs in the pissing rain. I recalled hitting the gym when I would have rather drunk coffee and sat on the couch, but instead dragged my sorry ass to the rec centre because I had this Big Goal in mind. I used to joke that I was training scared, but this time the fears were very real. I was legitimately scared I was going to finish dead last. Or maybe I wouldn’t finish at all. What if I embarrassed myself? My team?  WHAT IF I FAILED?

The weather leading up to race weekend in Holland was terrible. The rain was coming down in buckets, and the wind was howling. Our first Team Canada ride of the bike course was cancelled as it was too dangerous to ride along the riverside course in 75km/hr winds with 100km/hr+ gusts. Instead, the team embarked on a short ride to check out T1 and T2. My gut screamed that this was a bad idea. I tried to ignore it and partake in the team activity because I had promised myself that I would take it all in during race week; it was all part of the team experience.

As we were riding in a large group over the Masse River on a big suspension bridge, one of my teammates went down on his bike in a gust of wind. I tried to dodge him but had nowhere to go. Down I went. Physically I wasn’t in terrible shape (just a few small scrapes and bruises and a sore wrist from the fall), but my confidence was badly shaken. I dropped out of the ride, turned around and cried behind my glasses on the way back to the hotel. After dismissing my husband’s heartfelt attempt at a pep talk, I locked myself in the bathroom and ran a hot bath in hopes of relaxing.

So there I was…crying my eyes out and having a panic attack in my hotel bathtub wondering why the hell I was there. Welcome to my pity party. 

I wanted desperately to skip past the race and get on to the second half of our European vacation – eating German sausage,  drinking Bavarian beer and reliving my favourite moments from the Sound of Music.

The following morning, the winds calmed down and we were able to test out the highly technical bike course. We were greeted by narrow bike paths, cobbled sections, tunnels, a parking garage (weird), numerous bridges, a restaurant patio (!?!?), a homemade wooden ramp up a flight of stairs (WTF?!) and 40 plus turns. Technical indeed. During the last few kilometres of the ride, the wind accompanied by sideways rain and hail pelted down on us. Shivering cold, cursing the land of f’g windmills and feeling like a drowned rat, I changed out of my cycling gear and hurried along to take in the last bit of the swim course familiarization. I tried to put the ride out of my mind as I hopped off the pontoon into the water. The water was unexpectedly take-your-breath-away cold and choppy unlike I’ve ever encountered. It took everything in me not to cry into my goggles.

By the end of the day, I was tired, cold, pissed off, and anxious. I was in total meltdown mode. My attitude matched the weather. In the midst of all this, my coach texted me to wish me well: ”You must be getting so excited to race this weekend!!!” I replied, “I can’t wait!!!”. LIAR!!! The truth was, I wasn’t excited at all. I felt done. I wanted desperately to skip past the race and get on to the second half of our European vacation – eating German sausage,  drinking Bavarian beer and reliving my favourite moments from the Sound of Music. 

I needed to get the hell out of there. 

The following day, I cancelled all training plans. No triathlon training, team activities, or race talk allowed. I took a step away from it all and had a sightseeing day. My husband and I cycled out of the city to see the windmills at the Kinderdijk in the morning. The rhythmic turning of the windmills calmed my breathing. We headed back to shower at our hotel in Rotterdam prior to hopping on the train to visit Den Haag in the afternoon.

As we approached our hotel, the paratriathletes were mid-race. I watched in awe as a competitor with one arm (and no prosthesis) demonstrated impeccable bike skills. Imagine taking a hairpin turn using only one arm to steer. He made it look easy. (I tried it when I got home – it wasn’t pretty.) I was blown away. I then witnessed another athlete on a bike charge up the Erasmus bridge (the suspension bridge I crashed on) at full speed…with one leg. I loathe 90 second one-legged drills on a bike trainer let alone one-legged cycling in a race environment while going uphill! I couldn’t get over it. ONE LEG. Hell ya!! These athletes were taking the cards they were dealt in life and rising to the challenge. And here I was, an able-bodied athlete cowering away from it. Seriously.

That was exactly the kick in the ass I needed. I looked at my husband and said, “I’m sucking it up now”. And that was that.  

The next morning, I skipped my usual race prep and instead did another lap of the bike course in hopes of feeling better prepared. We spent the afternoon at the race site watching the pros charge around the bike course in the pouring rain like it was nothing. I may not be an elite triathlete, but I could adopt the elite triathlete attitude. The conditions don’t matter; it’s how you react to them. As luck would have it, the forecast changed for the age group race day. Sun. 16C. Slight breeze. BOOM! 

I love the sport because I enjoy a good challenge. Triathlon allows me to leap outside of my comfort zone, and it challenges my limits, proving time and again that these limits are self-imposed

On race morning, I was unusually calm. No butterflies. Nothing. I had a dance party for one in our hotel room before heading to the start line. While waiting in the corral before our race, I chit-chatted with my fellow competitors as if we were about to go out for coffee. I had let go of all pressure and expectations and focused instead on enjoying the experience of racing at the World Championships.

My swim was very cold, calm, and pretty slow but I could have cared less. I laughed my way through the mix of hay and mud pit and that was T1. I had the time of my life on that crazy bike course, whipping around corners and partaking in the tactics involved in draft legal racing. The grin on my face in all of my race pictures says it all. I saw my husband near the end of the bike, flashed him a big smile and some aloha. I was so distracted by emotion that I almost missed getting off my bike before the dismount line.

After not running for a few weeks, I was concerned about my ability to run off the bike. It was only 5km, but I didn’t want to return home after the race more injured than when I left. I was pleasantly surprised to feel pretty good out of the gate, but the twinges in my hip flexor after 2k of running reminded me not to push too hard. For the last 3k, I started to think about how grateful I was for this experience. I could hear my husband’s frequent encouraging words because he often believes in me more than I believe in myself. I could hear my coach reminding me—No Fears, No Doubts, No Limits. And I thought about the last thing my daughter said to me via email before my race: “all of us will be cheering whether it’s your best race or not. Just BELIEVE.”

Was it my best or fastest race? Nope. But it was my happiest race. I was so proud to wear the Team Canada uniform. Hearing spectators cheer “Go Canada” as I rode and ran past brought out a deep sense of pride I will never, ever forget. 

Racing at the World Championships reminded me why I participate in triathlons in the first place. I participate in triathlon for FUN. I love the sport because I enjoy a good challenge. Triathlon allows me to leap outside of my comfort zone, and it challenges my limits, proving time and again that these limits are self-imposed (and also temporary). I refuse to miss out on amazing things in life because of fear- fear of the unknown, fear of new things or fear of failure. Triathlon forces me to be brave.

So that’s what it’s really all about…standing up to that negative, anxious voice in my head that tries to convince me that I can’t. Why am I doing this? The answer is quite simple. Because I can.

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