Lucy Charles-Barclay: Loss, turning points and the pleasure of pain

Lucy Charles-Barclay has a competitive edge which is hard and steely – it is one formed by pain, loss and a burning desire to win.

The 27-year-old British ace is one of triathlon’s shining stars, multi-talented and a terrific ambassador for the sport. An athlete who is always looking for the next challenge – this time it is likely to be the Collins Cup in Samorin in August.

Charles-Barclay looks set to be one of the key components in a power-packed Team Europe which will start hot favourite for the inaugural staging of this showpiece event.

She featured in opening episode of the PTO’s ‘Battle For Glory’ documentary series, and opened up on some of the trials which have brought her here today. The footage was as raw and moving as it was gripping.

One of the turning points in Lucy’s life came with her decision to give up on her Olympic swimming dream, and the death of her grandmother. The two events merged into one on the same night, and the emotion was clear as she tearfully recounted it.

She said: “I remember being seven or eight years old tuning in to watch the Olympic Games and thinking: I want to be there, I want to do that. I want to be Olympic champion, I want to be the best athlete in the world.

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“My past career was in swimming. It’s a scary world to go in. You swim five ‘o’clock in the morning, maybe you go to school and study or do your job, [and then] back again in the evening. Another two hours, head down, facing the water. You’re just in that world day in, day out, doing this.

“I narrowly missed out on the Olympics and tried to go for another four years. [I] pushed myself harder than I ever had, dedicated myself, and then I went and had one of my best ever performances. And I just felt nothing. Then I knew, in that moment, I’m done with this.”

Lucy Charles-Barclay on loss

“My Nan was my biggest fan. So when I was swimming, it didn’t matter if I had a terrible race, [it] didn’t matter if I won, she just thought I was the best.

“She would tell all her friends I was the best, anyone that I was the best, [that] there was no one that was better than me. Every time I was in the newspaper she’d cut it out and put it in her little scrapbook. She just followed every single thing that I did, [she] wanted to come to every race.

“It’s a strange story because the night I said ‘I’m done with swimming’ and had a real tantrum and quit the sport and was done – that really was the moment I stopped – she actually passed away that evening.

“So, it was very strange, she just had a heart attack that was it. [She was] super-young, [it was a] shock for everyone.

“I don’t always talk about it but I know how much it does mean. I think maybe as I’ve grown up I’ve carried more of her personality.”

Turning points

While Lucy was always competitive growing up, she still lacked something. There was another moment which shaped her into the winning machine she is today.

“So, when I was young I was very reserved. I didn’t speak out, I was very quiet,” she explained.

“And I think [it was] a combination of, probably, being shot down so many times, being told you’re not going to do this, it’s not possible what you’re doing, who are you to think you can do that?

“I remember as a kid doing a school running race, there was a parent of the girl I was running with – I think she was coming up behind me – and the parent said something like ‘you can catch her, she’s not a runner’. I’d had enough of being told ‘you won’t do something, you won’t achieve something’.

“You get to the point in life where you’re just like ‘I’m just going to speak out, I’m just going to tell you I’m going to do it.’

“I feel like I’m doing it for my younger self. I haven’t given up on that dream. And that’s what I’m chasing. Just digging, just dig in with everything you’ve got.”

Now Charles-Barclay is a very different animal to that reserved youngster – her mental strength is now a fearsome weapon as she explained.


Mental strength

“I can almost tell before the race that I might’ve broken an athlete, before we’re even on the start line.

“I can see that, I can sense it. I’m a very hard athlete for someone to break mentally, I don’t think you could [break me].

“It definitely makes me a strong athlete, hopefully a solid athlete to have on the team at the Collins Cup because I’m willing to fight to the death.”

The dedication and ability to fight through adversity every day is something which is mandatory for all top-level triathletes. Lucy is no different, and it makes athletes like her a unique breed.

“That pleasure from the pain that you put in, it can be a bit sadistic. We’re wired differently as athletes to want to feel that pain. I need to push myself. I’m hurting but I can hurt a bit more than this. Finding where you limit is – I don’t feel like I found it yet. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near finding it yet.”

Mum’s the word

One person who has been present to see every step in Lucy’s journey to the top is mum Elaine, and she too recounted how the loss of Lucy’s Nan fuelled a desire to chart a new path.

“I remember the evening Lucy came in from swimming and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you: I just want to quit swimming’. I felt really sad, because it had been such a big part of our lives and such a big part of her life.

“Lucy’s gran was like her biggest fan, and all I was thinking is I’m so dreading telling my mum that she’s going to quit because she’ll be so disappointed, so upset.

“I think because her gran was her number one fan, I think maybe in some ways it fired Lucy into thinking ‘right I’m going to do something’.

“I’m so happy, fingers crossed, that Lucy will be representing Team Europe. If Lucy’s gran was alive now she would be so proud.”

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