For fans jaded by overt professionalism in sport, decisions made without a business motive, or, at least, one that will not pay instant dividends, are not merely refreshing, but strike at the heart of what makes it so captivating.
In the summer of 2012, Michelle Dillon was at a crossroads in her career. The former Commonwealth Games 10,000m runner and sixth-place finisher in the Athens’ Olympic triathlon had been coaching an elite group of London 2012 hopefuls including Will Clarke, Jodie Stimpson and her own husband, Stuart Hayes.
Once the chase for selection and the crescendo of Hyde Park had petered out, it was time for all to take new directions and for Dillon to consider her options. The truth for multisport coaches is that financial rewards lie with schooling large groups of trusting amateurs. Most professionals don’t earn all that much, meaning coach earns a percentage of not a lot for a role that can demand undivided attention – particularly if the athlete in question has never attempted the sport before.
So when Emma Pallant came knocking, a successful junior runner, plagued with injuries and not sure where to turn having hobbled away from a 5,000m trials race and her quest for the London Games, the most cost-effective decision would have been a polite ‘No’.
That it wasn’t says a few things: Dillon has strength of character; a hunger to still be involved with elite sport; and, most pertinently, that in this runner from Farnham, who could be a little firebrand at times, she saw an image of her younger self and a kinship could blossom. Project Pallant was underway and it wasn’t to be the smoothest ride.
“After London, I made the decision I wouldn’t go for a big group of elite triathletes, having done four years of it,” Dillon says. “I receive quite a lot of emails from up and coming athletes, but not many put the light on like Emma’s. I come from the same high-level running background having competed in the world cross-country as a junior and 1994 Commonwealth Games at 21, and I could appreciate where she was with the injuries.
“Something said: ‘Let’s do this’”
“It was why I switched to triathlon. I thought she probably couldn’t swim, wouldn’t have a clue how to ride a bike and would be starting from scratch. But something said: ‘Let’s do this’.
“Stu’s mum told me to give her a call. We got on really well. It was a ‘your journey will be my journey’ approach and in two years we’ve developed a good relationship. I’m so glad I made that decision.”
“What struck me was how passionate she was,” Pallant recalls. “Most people I told I wanted to be a world-class triathlete would laugh, but Michelle took it seriously. I’d only known her two months and she was lending me her bike, Speedo wetsuit and trisuit.”
Born in Surrey, the successful Aldershot, Farnham & District athletics club, where veteran coach Mick Woods presides, would capture a large chunk of Pallant’s youth. “I’ve never really known life without sport,” she says. “I was hyperactive as a kid and have an amazing mum who would take me to every sports club. Mick said if I wanted to be the best at one sport I would have to focus my attention and I’ve always liked the idea of being the best.
“Success breeds success and if you a have couple of strong runners forming good friendships, like myself and Steph Twell, the social life integrates with the running. It was fun growing up in the club.”
Pallant was rarely headed at Under-11 and Under-13 level, even clashing with 2013 triathlon world champion Non Stanford on occasion. “I think we were pretty level paced,” she recalls. “Although as she’s Welsh, I’d have the advantage of a stronger backing team for the relays.”
Under Kelly’s wing
When stress fractures and knee injuries began chipping away at that competitive edge, the invitation to join up with Athens’ double-gold medallist Kelly Holmes instilled fresh confidence and opportunities to gain experience shadowing more senior athletes.
“We went to Berlin for the World Championship in 2009 and Delhi for the Commonwealth Games the following year,” she says of the same On Camp with Kelly initiative that mentored Stanford and world 1,500m silver medallist Hannah England. “I achieved the qualifying time for Delhi but then got injured. We still went to the athletes’ village, ate with them and saw how the Games operated, so when we did make a championships we could concentrate on the racing.”
Sadly, it didn’t come to fruition. Pallant had stepped up to the 5,000m by 2012 figuring she could cut back on the gym weights, race with a lighter frame and not put so much impact through her knees. The plan was to achieve an Olympic slot through the European Championships, but when she dropped out of the trials race, the knee flaring up once more, the dream was over.
“I was devastated,” Pallant says. “Kelly found me and told me that mentally I needed a fresh goal there and then. The London Triathlon was in two months and it gave me a focus for swim and bike training.”
Running her own physiotherapy clinic, Pallant had treated and become friendly with Katie Hewison (who recently retired from international triathlon), and knuckled down to some tri training. Swims with Hewison were mixed with spin bike work and sessions with the running club, but Pallant felt if she was to make a serious stab at multisport a more concrete strategy was required. Cue spotting a Team Dillon hoodie on a club night.
“One of my mum’s friends does triathlon and told me that Michelle Dillon had done what I wanted to do – gone from a runner to a triathlete,” Pallant explains. “If I was serious, no one would know more about the transition than Michelle.”
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