Paula is a bit of a famous name within our sport. After dancing and swimming for most of her childhood, Paula started running at university and quickly rose to stardom as a young triathlete. She won five ITU World Championship Series races in a row and was poised for an Olympic medal in 2012 before suffering a career threatening injury in her build to the London Games.
She is generous with her knowledge and willing to share any and all advice.
Perhaps this rise to the top of the sport, and the subsequent injuries and adversities she's faced since then, enable her to have empathy for the elite athlete, the struggling athlete, and every kind of triathlete in between. Paula’s talent, drive, and competitiveness are world class — I was initially surprised by her humility. Some women are threatened by other women in their sport. Not Paula. She’s laid back and encouraging to those in her circle. She is generous with her knowledge and willing to share any and all advice.
I had the opportunity to train with Paula for several months earlier this year. While it can sometimes be tricky to mesh well in training with a competitor, Paula and I clicked well from the beginning. We complemented each other, and a mutual respect formed over many hours of swimming, biking, and running. And rather than taking each other to the well in practice, I believe that we lifted each other for the sake of improvement and excellence. As any endurance athlete can attest: suffering is better when done with a buddy.
...she laughs easily and is self-deprecating despite her impressive resume.
While we occasionally check in, Paula and I don’t train together on a daily basis anymore. I knew that I wanted to get Paula’s raw reflections on this past season — as her friend and for Transition Four. Even with the disappointment of a DNF at her last race of the year still lingering, Paula was honest and gracious — she laughs easily and is self-deprecating despite her impressive resume.
I initially planned to write a short article about Paula’s 2018 season and her goals for next year. But during a recent conversation we dug into her calling for the 70.3 distance, the changes that she wants to make to improve her health, and her journey with Eric as they pursue triathlon as a couple. I think that this long-form interview will be a great read for any triathlete with big goals both personally and professionally. Paula is articulate and candid — we had a great chat that should probably be published as a Transition Four podcast. Maybe one day!
T4: How are you feeling about your 2018 season?
Paula: Looking back on it I’m pretty disappointed. I was injured for a lot of the year and I had one good race that stands out in my mind in St. George. The rest was kind of average or building back from an injury or racing with an injury. I don’t feel like I managed my season totally properly.
After winning St. George I targeted 70.3 Worlds as a race that I could do well at...
At the start of the year I was still a bit confused about whether I wanted to do 70.3 completely or still focus on trying to make the Tokyo team for Triathlon Canada. So that muddled the season a little bit because I didn’t have one clear direction and one clear goal. I tried to race ITU Nationals for Canada which got cancelled because of the air quality. So there were a bunch of little things that disrupted the season. After winning St. George I targeted 70.3 Worlds as a race that I could do well at, but then I got injured.
T4: How did you structure your training as you planned to race the 70.3 distance and on the ITU circuit?
Paula: It’s hard to have a direction when you don’t know which way you want to go. So it was kind of a transition year. I’ve been an ITU athlete all my life, and had big goals of going to the Olympics. So to switch my mindset of the beginning of the season, when I didn’t know if I was any good at long course, was too hard to commit to. I trusted that the training wasn’t that different. My training plan was the “get fit plan” and “get faster at swimming plan” which is important in both.
T4: Did your win at St. George change how you see yourself as an athlete and what you’re capable of?
Paula: It changed how I view my current self. Five or six years ago I was confident that I could
win any race I lined up at. But over the past five years through injuries and different setbacks I’ve lost that confidence. And that’s why I haven’t had that confidence. But having that result did change that confidence a little bit. And that’s why I immediately thought that I could podium 70.3 Worlds.
If I didn’t have that race at St. George I’d feel like that season was a disaster. But because of that one race it showed that I like that distance and I’m good at that distance. If I can stay healthy I think it’s a good path for me to take this season. It definitely boosted my confidence at that distance and in triathlon. And for staying in the sport. That has kept me motivated this off season to be excited for next season.
T4: Are you committed to 70.3 or do you think you’ll continue pursuing the Tokyo
Olympics in 2020?
Paula: It’s hard to give up on Tokyo completely because I think that there is a possibility for me
to make the team. It’s not a guarantee and it’s not going to be easy. And I think it would be difficult to try and do both because of the travel and dedication involved in the ITU circuit. And the politics of the federation and funding myself to get to races just to get points doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve been there and done that for so many years in the past.
I think my chance of making the Olympic Team are less than fifty percent. So I think I’m more committed to long course at this point, but I’m not completely closing the door on Tokyo. It’s still a year and a half or two years away. You never know what can happen.
T4: What’s exciting you most for next season? What does success look like?
Paula: My biggest goal is 70.3 Worlds. I’d love to podium there. It’s a crazy task, and I don’t even know if it’s possible, but that would be amazing. I’m not even qualified yet though. So I still need to qualify and win a 70.3 to get there.
T4: You’re now pursuing triathlon with Eric. How do you support each in training
Paula: That is a huge thing that’s been different this year than any other year that I’ve done this sport — which has been for twelve years. This year it wasn’t really all about me. I wasn’t waking up every morning just thinking about how to be the best athlete that I could be. Eric was there too. Overall I think that it was a super positive change. And it brings out more in me, and makes me happier. Having someone there to support me and train with me every day is a really good thing.
We have different personalities and attitudes going into races.
But it is an additional stress, especially surrounding racing and specifically going to races together. We have different personalities and attitudes going into races. He tends to get super quiet and I need and want attention. So it’s been kind of a learning curve, and has progressed pretty quickly.
We’ve been living and training together for the last seven months, and we’ve had to learn pretty quickly. In my life before this it was all about getting up, and doing the training that I needed to do for myself. But now there are two of us to think about. Overall I wouldn’t want to go back, but it’s certainly a change. And I think that it helps both of us in a lot of ways because we bring different things to the relationship.
T4: Has this collaborative pursuit relieved pressure?
Paula: Yes. Until this year I’ve never really thought of triathlon as a job. I was always focused on making the Olympics. Winning races and prize money and sponsors were the result of doing well. But Eric pursues that as being part of the sport. I’ve recognized that if you want to be doing the sport when you’re thirty years old and making a living, things like forming relationships with
sponsors, and lasting communication with the people that I’m working with [are
important]. He’s helped me take this more seriously as a career. There’s a lot of
potential for making money at this, and making it like a job. But that’s been a transition.
T4: You dealt with several injuries in 2018. Are you making any changes to stay
Paula: I had two stress fractures last year, and that can’t happen again. That’s ridiculous. If that happens again I think that I have to retire. So that’s why I’m at home right now seeing doctors and making sure that my health is the best that it can be this year. My body can’t handle as many miles as other people, so recognizing that and not being freaked out by missing a few days of running. I’d be willing to sacrifice less in the week to stay healthy all year.
T4: What advice would you give to younger athletes?
Paula: If I could go back in time and re-do the last six or seven years it would be to let injuries heal before you start training again. That would make the process a lot quicker. And still I do this. I push through things that hurt — thinking that you need to stay fit so you can race well as soon as you’re healthy. I just spent two months doing that and it was a complete fail. Just pausing more often, and taking rest, and treating your body nicely. Eight years later I’m still getting stress fractures and breaking down, I think, because of the way I trained and treated myself back when I was twenty.
Ultimately you have to love [the sport] and have fun doing it. We all want to win and train as hard as we can, but try not to cross the line between injury and being the best you can be. At the end of the day you want to be able to walk when you’re thirty or forty