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The Lauren Steadman Story: A triathlon love affair, and why she is ALL IN again for Paris 2024

"Getting the gold actually then made everything very hard afterwards." Lauren Steadman on the ups and downs of Paralympic Games success

Chief Correspondent
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Paralympic Games gold medallist at Tokyo 2020, Lauren Steadman is one of the most successful British paratriathletes of all time. As well as her many athletic successes – Paris 2024 will be her fifth Summer Paralympic Games – her public profile was massively boosted in recent years by appearances on hit British television shows, Strictly Come Dancing and SAS: Who Dares Wins.

Racing in the PTS5 category, Steadman will renew rivalries with Rio 2016 champion, Grace Norman (USA), and fellow Brit, Claire Cashmore. That trio filled the podium positions both in Tokyo three years ago, and last September at the World Championships in Pontevedra.

The three years since that success at Odaiba Marine Park have been far from easy however, and that’s where we started our in-depth interview with Lauren this week.

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Tokyo gold… but what next?

Back in 2022, I worked alongside Lauren as the on-site commentary pairing at the Commonwealth Games in Sutton Park, Birmingham. At the time, she was talking to me about possibly taking a break from triathlon – something she ultimately did, with almost two years out of competitive action – and so I wanted to find out what led to that decision.

“I think that I was so tunnel vision-focused on bringing home that gold medal for us, that I hadn’t contemplated what was next.

“I felt as though I’d worked for 17 years, finally achieved the highest pinnacle and accolade that I could, got home and had a BBQ with Mum and Dad to then thinking…. well, what’s next? I have my degrees, I have numerous avenues I could take… did I still want to be an athlete, or not? I had never thought about these questions.

“I had fallen out of love with triathlon, but what I’ve learned since is that I’d fallen out of love with training – structured training – towards a goal. When I spoke to sponsors and with British Triathlon, they said if anyone has earned the right to take six months away, figure out what you want to do and see if the love comes back, then it’s you.”

Lauren Steadman Paralympic Games Great Britain
Lauren Steadman pictured after winning gold at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2021 (Photo – World Triathlon).
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Hitting the pause button

That saying, ‘a change is as good as a rest’, is probably applicable – especially as Steadman is not really a personality who is good at sitting still and resting for too long. With the pressure off, things changed for the better.

“I actually found myself doing nearly the same amount of training – but it was for different reasons. It was because I woke up and wanted to go cycling because the sun was out. Or to go swimming with friends, so I sort of learned to love swim / bike / run again. It made me realise that I do love the training, the blue carpet, wearing the British trisuit. But, it helped me work out that I couldn’t come back and be as structured and tunnel-vision as before.

“Looking back – and this [Paris] will be my fifth Games – the athlete that has turned up to each Games has been so different. I go into this feeling that this is part of who I am, not all that I am. Now, I will literally work as hard as I possibly can until the event, and on the day deliver the best performance that I can, but I will go into it relaxed. I feel like there is a less of a weight upon my shoulders.

“I’ve got a big task to close the gap; the girls moved it on in the two years that I was away and I relish the idea that I need to up my game to match them. I guess I have a lot more excitement, rather than thinking what a big task or anxiety. It’s hard to explain – freedom, energetic, a kind of who knows what will happen.”

Grace Norman, Claire Cashmore, Lauren Steadman - podium at World Triathlon Para Series Swansea 2023
The podium at the 2023 WTPS event in Swansea
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“The hardest time of my whole career”

Lauren gives a great perspective on the impacts that success can have. Silver at Rio 2016, where a navigational error made in the swim may cost her the chance of taking the gold as the clear pre-race favourite, there was a different drive and motivation for Tokyo. However, achieving that ultimate goal provided more questions than answers.

It has been probably the hardest time of my whole career, post-Tokyo. Getting the gold actually then made everything very hard afterwards.

“Before that, you are still on that ‘I need to get there, I’ve got to get there, marginal gains everything.’ But then post-Games, I’d lost that sense of what am I doing, where am I going, I turned 30 and what does the second career look like?

“With the help of coaches, doing the PhD and my university, my management team, I’ve been able to sit down and write down what other qualities do I have, or what athletic qualities are transferable. So while Paris is the biggest thing this year, I’m also looking at what’s the next career the stage after that. What am I prepping for?

Lauren Steadman on the run at World Triathlon Para Series Swansea 2023
Photo Credit: Ben Lumley / World Triathlon

“All I know is that when I do something, I know my personality and I’m very black or white – I’m either ‘in’ or I’m ‘out’ – and for the past two years I’ve been out. I went away, did different things, I tried to find the love for sport again and I’ve committed to being on that start line.

“Pressure is a privilege and I feel as though I’ve been bestowed the honour and my country feels that I’m good enough to represent them and try and bring home a gold medal. I see it as a chance that I’ve got 20 weeks to go to the depths and the darkness and when I step on that start line, I don’t know what to expect because I haven’t raced the girls. I’d put money on myself… but at the same time, I can only do my best.

It’s a very nice place to be… but I’ll tell you that I’m definitely going for that gold!”

Back to basics

Having found that spark for competition again, Steadman returned for her first race since Tokyo in Besançon last year at a World Triathlon Para Cup event, but the road back had actually started at more humble beginnings. I asked Lauren what she’d learned during those comeback races in 2023.

“Last year I learned a lot about myself as an athlete. I joined my first ever triathlon club in the UK, Thames Turbo. I did one evening swim a week, I did about two runs a week and I joined in on their Sunday long rides. That was the maximum amount of training I did for triathlon and I started doing CrossFit, which I did every day just to get strong. This was all with the understanding of British Triathlon, knowing that once Pontevedra came, from then on it was D-Day towards Paris. So I maximised my ‘freedom’.”

That all meant that the usual pre-race sensations were very different…

“Normally you draw in on your training mentally to provide confidence… but I had no idea what was going to come out! That swim in Pontevedra hurt me. Interestingly on the bike, I had to slow down a few times because we had those draft devices [Ed. RaceRanger], but I knew I didn’t have the depth of aerobic ability to go around and stay round. I went into it with this sense of fun, but I knew that my criteria was that a podium was automatic selection for Paris. It was essentially transactional: put yourself in a position to go and defend your title.

“It was a wild year, but what I learned last year though was once a triathlete, always a triathlete, and in a race I could dig deep and bring out those honed skills.”

Lauren Steadman World Paratriathlon Championships Pontevedra 2023 bike
On the bike in Pontevedra

A COVID Curveball

Injuries are never too far away from elite athletes treading the fine line of optimising athletic performance, but sometimes health matters can arise out of the blue too.

“Physically, as we talk right now I don’t have any injuries and post-Pontevedra and working with an S&C coach, we put in a plan so that they rehabbed perfectly. So I’m running well [Ed. in reference to some lower leg issues during 2023].

“But Abu Dhabi was a bit of a nightmare for me. I went out there – no race – and I caught COVID on the way home. I had a lot of heart tests done, which it didn’t impact, but it has affected my lungs. I’m not breathing properly now, and we are dealing with that right now and so that’s a curveball. As an athlete you regularly deal with physical injuries and you can often deal with things by say backing off running but then swimming. But with this, I’m being told not to swim, bike or run.

“We have a plan now, and it’s going to take four weeks to hopefully get back up and running. Not what I wanted, but you can’t help these things. British Triathlon are going above and beyond, I’m being tested left, right and centre and so I will be back.”

When friends are rivals

An interesting dynamic in the PTS5 division is Lauren’s friendship with, right now, the favourite for gold in Paris, Grace Norman. As well as rivals on course for the past decade, Lauren was also a bridesmaid at Grace’s wedding and they spent an extended period training together in Florida over the winter.

It’s a ‘Best of Frenemies’ situation – but how does that work come race day? Do you just have to go in different directions and meet up at the finish line?

“It’s pretty much that! At the end of the day, we do the same things – with different disabilities – but I would never want to get to the start line and win because somebody has not brought the best version of themselves. There’s a genuine rivalry, but then away from that we spend time together and are baking and cooking.

Lauren Steadman and Grace Norman - Besancon 2023
Lauren and Grace

“I did write a note to her, and said thank you for a great time, that I hope the next six months are the best you can have and I want you to be in your best shape. I will come for you, I will give my best, I will not hand it to you, and I cannot wait to race for you.

“Come Paris, will will have our own space and when we race we will do it with integrity and respect and friendship and whichever way it goes, that’s the way it will fall. But I won’t go easy!”

Race plans

A combination of circumstances mean that we are unlikely to get too many opportunities to gauge fitness in races ahead of the big show in Paris. It’ll be mostly training, and Lauren is clear where the big gains will need to be found over the next four months.

“I was planning on racing around now, but having had four weeks with no training it’s made us think that what we really need is a training block.

“I thought about Swansea as it’s local – but I’m actually going to be a bridesmaid for my best mate on the same day, so can’t do that one! I’m going to do Montreal [29th June] and that, combined with my races last year, should move me up the rankings. Then there will Paris, followed by the European Champs [Vichy] and then the World Champs. So I’ll toe the line four times this year. I’d like to have done another one, but my coach needs to get a good 10-week block to build me up.

“Out here in Lanzarote there are a couple of open water races, and a couple of Canary Island races if I want to practice transitions etc and so that’s probably how I’ll approach it. My run is what I need to work on – we both know that Grace is a gazelle, and I think her PB might be at the 17:15 mark for the 5km, phenomenal.”

John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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