‘Experience and youth’, that was my big-picture take on today’s announcement from Team England on the athletes set to race in the paratriathlon at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
The experience of Dave Ellis (guided by Luke Pollard) and Melissa Reid will be joined by the youth of Oscar Kelly (guided by Charlie Harding) and Katie Crowhurst.
I got the chance to speak to all of them this morning.
British fans are amazing – Dave Ellis
A multiple World and European champion, Dave Ellis reflected on his ‘father figure’ status in the team: “I was trying to work out earlier; I think my first international race as a swimmer was in 2006, and some of these guys were only two! I’ve been doing it a while now, and it’s still amazing to be a part of the team and have some sort of impact.”
While he extended his C.V. with World and European gold in 2021, the Paralympic Games did not go as planned. A clear race favourite in my eyes, a mechanical issue on the bike put him, and guide Luke, out of the race.
“It was a pretty tough one to take – I think luckily we did have the Europeans and World Champs quickly following on behind it, so it kind of shifted the focus a little bit, so we didn’t dwell on what we had missed out on too much. Also, then we had this to look forward to this year, and even though it was difficult to get over that, we tried to keep moving forward.”
Ellis is particularly excited about racing with the backing of a home crowd:
“I mean Leeds last year was fantastic, probably the best support we’ve had for a while, as obviously COVID has interrupted that. British fans are amazing, they really get behind sport, they love sport, and so having family and friends so close, they are definitely going to come and watch. They probably don’t understand it that much, because they don’t have the chance to watch most of our big races, so to come along and see what we do, hopefully that will make them very proud.”
Having been a stalwart of the British squad for almost a decade now, I asked Dave about the progress of paratriathlon that he has witnessed over that period.
“From when I first got involved, it’s really rocketed up. We have world series races now, people on better equipment, people doing a lot more training so it is competitive in every category now. The sport is really progressing and hopefully will continue. I think the event in Swansea later this year will have a big impact on that.”
A better athlete because of Dave – Luke Pollard
While triathlon, typically, is an individual sport, for the visually impaired paratriathletes, their guide is essential. Luke Pollard – a fine athlete in his own right – has been a key part of Dave’s journey for three years now.
“I started in 2019 [Ed. as a guide]. I remember getting there the first day and Dave was a lot better swimmer than me, so I had to spend about six months just hammering myself into the ground to keep up with him! If you are going to do it whole-heartedly, you throw yourself into it but then the rewards are worth it. I’m not really crying about my own [individual] career to be fair, because my career is here with Dave.”
While the Tokyo mechanical was a huge blow, Luke had to overcome his own issues just months before. Racing at the PTO-supported Dorney Triathlon on a scorching hot day, Pollard suffered sever heat stroke in the very late stages of the run, having battled for the win with Tom Davis all day. It was a scary time.
“That was probably one of the toughest weeks, both physically and mentally, for me. I haven’t raced individually since, though I will be racing in a few weeks. Having Dave’s support all the way through it, and still wanting to race with me in Tokyo – despite what happened in Dorney – just shows what a strong partnership we have got.”
Having had the opportunity to commentate on many paratriathlon events over the last decade, I don’t think many people realise just how fast the best paratriathletes are. Luke agreed:
“I think it doesn’t get appreciated that much – if you stick the [Para] boys and girls into Elite races, they would be able to hold their own quite comfortably. It would shock people, even myself to an extent, Dave is an incredible athlete and to get onto this squad to guide Dave, you realise how big the task is.
“It’s hard work and it requires full-time commitment. The sport has moved on in the years I’ve been involved, and I’ve seen Dave’s progress – and myself too. I’m a better athlete now than I was in 2018. That’s just through training with Dave really.”
Melissa Reid: World Champion surfer…
After more than a decade in the sport, with World and European Championship wins and a Paralympic bronze medal from Rio, like Dave Ellis, Melissa Reid has ‘been there, seen it, done it’ in the sport. Birmingham will complete a set:
“It is such an honour to qualify for the Commonwealth Games, it means the world. By qualifying, it means I will have competed at the British, European, Worlds, Paralympics and now Commonwealths.”
As if one sport wasn’t enough, Melissa is also a three-time Para Surfing World Champion. Pretty good for a ‘hobby’…
“Yes, I mean the surfing really helps with the swimming and triathlon helps with the surfing. It’s still very much a hobby and one of things that I enjoy doing. I think any career that you have, you have to have a hobby outside of it. Triathlon has been ten years up until now, and so it is just good to have a hobby on the side.”
Having been part of the development of the sport of paratriathlon over the past decade – including inclusion into the Paralympic Games – Melissa sees some parallels with where her ‘hobby’ is now.
“I think I got into the surfing at about the same point [Ed. in development terms] that I got into triathlon, where there were a few good contests around, but people were just starting to go from an amateur sport to a professional sport. It’s interesting giving points of view about how you can get the sport to grow so quickly, which if surfing does get to the point that triathlon is now, would be amazing to see. It’s always good to be able to say that triathlon was there a few years ago, but look at it now.”
Seeing the youthful side of today’s announcement, was a positive sign for Melissa of how well paratriathlon is progressing:
“When I first started, I think you would almost count it as an amateur sport. People were taking part, but you weren’t there to make it a career and now it’s great to see young people like Katie and Oscar coming through, and it’s only really in the last three or four years that we’ve really had that jump of younger participants coming through. It’s just amazing to have the youngsters go, ‘triathlon is the sport, triathlon is a career’, and make something out of it.”
After that bronze medal in Rio, Tokyo 2020 didn’t deliver the result Reid wanted, but she doesn’t look back on it with regret. Quite the opposite:
“For me it was kind of a question of whether I would compete or not. I had a back injury four weeks out and I’m not stupid, I know that age isn’t on my side, and so I chose to compete and take what I could from it, knowing it could be the last Games that I did. Seventh was a slight disappointment, but I’d rather have come seventh than not giving it a go.”
Hopefully in full health for this summer, Reid will have another opportunity to challenge for the podium.
A rapid rise for Katie Crowhurst
In a year that she turns 18, Katie Crowhurst will have gone from triathlon novice to Commonwealth Games selection. It’s been quite a rise.
“I got into triathlon from the lockdown – it was something new to try and I really wanted to get into it, and so Dorney Lake [Ed. British Paratriathlon Championships] was my first one. I’d only been on a tandem I think once or twice to train, so to get up there and have Laura [Siddall] help me through that race was really fun and I really enjoyed it. It was something I wanted to continue doing and so I was able to continue it on with the support network around me and do different races.”
On what she’s looking forward to in Birmingham, Katie told me:
“To be able to have a home crowd and to have this great team spirit, it will be great to be Part of the Pride.”
‘Honoured’ – Oscar Kelly
Similar to Katie, Oscar Kelly – 21 this year – is new the international paratriathlon scene.
“I’ve been around for a few years now really, but it’s been quite a short journey in terms of classification. I did my first international races last year and two of those were Champs, so to have that experience and then come out and compete here at a Commonwealth Games will be amazing. We’ll try and keep on pushing, and get as high up as we can.
Referencing back on the progress of the development of paratriathlon outlined by Dave and Melissa, Oscar has benefitted from the structures and support that are now available to talented paratriathletes:
“I did a lot of recreational sports, like fun mountain-biking, a bit of white water sport, but nothing serious – but triathlon seems to be the one. I was very lucky to get picked up quite early on by the talent squad and so I’ve had support for probably 95% of my journey so it’s been great and I hope it will continue.
“I’m honoured that Charlie and I have been selected to represent Team England at this year’s Commonwealth Games, it has definitely been a life goal. Being staged in England also means that the people who have helped us along the way, our friends and family, will be able to share the occasion with us and cheer us on. It’s great that the hard work we have put in over the past couple of years has been recognised, we just hope that we can put out a performance to make England proud.”
Charlie Harding on a great partnership
While the formal announcement was ‘Charles’, Oscar’s guide, Charlie Harding says that their partnership should continue to thrive thanks to a recent move.
“Me and Oscar have known each other for a few years, but he got in contact with me last year and we did a few training sessions together and thought, actually this could work. We sort of progressed through last year and did well in a few races, and so I was really happy to by guiding Oscar.
“Last year I was based in the Lake District, which made it a long four hour trip [Ed. to Loughborough], but I’ve just gone to Nottingham Uni, so I’m only 20/30 minutes from Oscar now so it’s quite easy.
“I’ve been doing triathlon since I was like seven, it was really my first sport. I’m still doing individual stuff at the minute, and obviously Oscar is at a really high standard and so it is great for me to push myself individually and it helps get the most out of Oscar as well.”