Meet elite British female Ironman Rachel Joyce

As Rachel Joyce targets one final push for Ironman World Championship glory in Kona, we meet the British lawyer-turned-elite racer gunning for gender equality and pro rights in triathlon…

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The afternoon sun is relentless on the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway in Kona, Hawaii. It’s 10 October 2015 and two of the greatest long-course athletes never to have tasted Ironman world championship-winning glory are experiencing a case of Kona déja-vu. Germany’s Andreas Raelert is on his way to posting a 2:50hr marathon to give eventual winner Jan Frodeno a scare, and finish second for the third time in Hawaii. Further back along the hallowed tarmac, Britain’s Rachel Joyce has overcome a “tri-suit malfunction” to fight her way into second for her third consecutive Kona podium.

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While Raelert has his fastest Iron (7:41:33) of all time title from Challenge Roth in 2011, Joyce’s stellar career (including wins at Ironman Lanzarote and Challenge Roth) has come to be defined by her consistency and heartbreaking near misses at the ultimate long-course showdown in Kona. A record that’s seen her finish 6th, 5th, 4th, 11th (with tonsillitis), 2nd, 3rd and 2nd as records have tumbled during a golden age for women’s long-course triathlon.

Cut from the light of Hawaii to a grim Willesden Junction trading estate in December and the 37-year-old Joyce, on her annual UK visit, has just dropped the news that this season marks her final tilt at Ironman world champs glory. “2016 will be my last shot at Hawaii,” says the Boulder-based Brit between studio cover shots. “After this year I’ll be ready not to make Kona the pure focus of my year. I’m not getting any younger. There are other things I want to do with my life.”

Those other things include encouraging female equality and participation in triathlon, the rights of pro athletes and empowering developing nation uptake. With her years at the top of tri and background as a successful construction lawyer, there are few better people to change the face of the sport as we know it for the better.

Rachel in training 

KONA SPRINGBOARD

Following her cover shoot for 220, the next time we talk to Joyce is after January’s second-place finish at Chile’s Ironman 70.3 Pucon, one of the world’s most beautiful races. A snowy Christmas in Boulder, Colorado, with Brit boyfriend Brett and their labrador hasn’t changed that stance on Kona and this season marking her final assault on the top step of Hawaii. So how will Joyce – one of the strongest all-round swim, bike, runners in the sport – target Hawaii success come the 40th edition on Saturday 8 October?

“Every year in Hawaii is different, so I’d be bored if I replicated last year completely, so we (with Brit coach Julie Dibens) have changed my race schedule for 2016. I’m not racing an Ironman until Lake Placid in July. This means I can do more 70.3s and race more in the early part of the season, and then build more slowly to Ironman fitness. From there, I’ll use it as a springboard to prepare for Kona.

“I want to be doing races that I don’t normally do,” adds Joyce. “Placid is one of the tougher courses. There’s a danger on the Ironman circuit that they’re getting a bit watered down but this is an honest course. That’s part of the appeal to me.”

Even if she came back after her initial zipper issues in Hawaii, Joyce still finished 13mins adrift of Ironman’s formidable new superstar, Daniela Ryf, in October. So will 2016 be spent on Ryf-watch, analysing every swim stroke, pedal rotation and run stride of the award-gobbling Swiss athlete? Joyce’s response is something we all can apply to our own age-group rivalries…

“It’s part of my job to see what my competition are doing each year, but I’m not going to be looking at how she races and adjust my training. The way to get the best out of yourself is to train in the best way for you. Following and training like other people is a fast track to disaster. I always focus on me but keeping an eye out for what my competition is doing, and that’s not just Daniela. I know she was so dominant last year and definitely the one with the big target on her back, but there are lots of other people coming through.”

As the crew of art editors, snappers and uni students 220 took to our cover shoot observed, Joyce is, simply, one of the nicest pro athletes you can meet. And this in a sport of likeable, articulate and generous pro racers. The chilly photo shoot is handled with aplomb and she isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself or share an empanada or pão de queijo (Brazilian cheesy balls) with assorted new friends. But, viewing from the outside, has this affability come at a cost to Hawaii glory? Daniela Ryf’s ‘Angry Bird’ moniker is an apt description of her race-day persona while, behind the smiles, Chrissie Wellington’s utter ruthlessness maintained that unbeaten Ironman streak.

“I think anyone who trains with me knows that, when it’s race time, I’m extremely competitive. I don’t need to make myself angry. In fact, I race best when I’m in a happy place, and so when it comes to race time there’s a switch and it’s all about me going as fast as I can. I don’t have to start beating my chest. There’s a competitive switch that

 just comes on when it’s race time.”

Former pro star Julie Dibens has been in charge of overseeing Joyce’s training programme since late 2014, following the end of Rachel’s coaching relationship with Hawaii legend Dave Scott, which had run its course afteran unhappy third place at Hawaii in 2014 for Joyce (“the only Hawaii I didn’t enjoy,” she adds). Dibens has seemingly put the fun back into tri for Joyce.

“I got to a point in my career where I got on well with Dave but I was ready for a switch to someone with slightly more communication like Julie. She has a squad that makes a big difference to training. Previously, I did a lot of training on my own and I certainly felt I was ready to move away from that. Now I have a lot more squad swims; we do indoor rides together, we do outdoor rides together; we do group runs together. It brings a new element of fun into things.”

Part of that squad is Brit veteran Tim Don who, at six months older than Joyce, is also gearing up for arguably his terminal try at Hawaii glory. “Tim’s a big help for motivation, especially when we plan training camps with the same goal of Kona. He’s been in this sport so long and he’s so good at creating camaraderie, especially when we’re tired when the training gets tough.”

TEAM BRAVO

Don, the former ITU world champ who finished 15th on debut in Hawaii last year, is also a partner of Joyce in Team Bravo, the Coca-Cola sponsored Brazilian-based tri team launched in early 2015. Being high profile members of Team Bravo has witnessed Joyce and, especially, Don adopt a Latin American-heavy race schedule. So what is the modus operandi of the outfit?

“The big aim is to grow triathlon in Brazil,” states Joyce. “There are five Brazilian athletes and the idea is, by supporting them, they can race more and have more Brazilians racing in Kona. Culturally Brazil is very different to the US and the UK, just in terms of eating and what time we go to bed. Myself and Tim were able to impart very simple information like that on various training camps, as it’s all about training and recovering. We want to have a good presence at the Brazilian races and connect more to grassroot athletes and to more children. Via Team Bravo, Coca-Cola has helped by saying having an active lifestyle is really important to long-term health, so they want us to communicate that message to the Brazilian market.”

For all its clever PR, Coca-Cola is still a brand famous for the sky high sugar in its drinks, and its union-fighting controversies in Columbia are a dark chapter in the brand’s Latin history. So did Joyce, who was born in Mexico City due to her father’s work (before growing up in Woodbridge, Suffolk), have misgivings about signing up to the Coke-backed Team Bravo?

“You know, I really had to think about Coca-Cola. But there are different ways of looking at it. I know soft drinks are unhealthy, but when we met with Coca-Cola, they were aware that the mood is changing and that’s why they wanted to invest in an active lifestyle. When you see that a company is creating initiatives to help the health of that nation and educate, that’s surely a good thing, right? Drinking Coca-Cola has to be part of an active lifestyle, and having a non-endemic brand of that size coming into the sport is a massive thing for tri. In magazines, you see bike and wetsuit companies… but having Coca-Cola sponsor a team will lead to other big non-core sponsors coming in.”

SPORT EQUALITY

A year ago, Joyce co-founded TriEqual and propelled the #50WomentoKona campaign into the tri consciousness. While triathlon often leads the way in gender equality – unlike tennis, men and women complete the same event format; in comparison to golf, the prize money is evenly split – both the Ironman and 70.3 World Champs only offer 35 pro female slots, instead of the 50 given to men. It’s a fact previously overlooked or unreported on by many (including us), but is now a burning topic of tri. So will Joyce’s final Kona dance be alongside 49 other professional female athletes?

“Progress hasn’t been as quick as I’d have liked,” admits Joyce. “I’d like there to be equal numbers in 2016 but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. It’d be easy to say that TriEqual has failed but we’re very much working together and still want 50 women in Kona. [Ironman CEO] Andrew Messick said he’s not giving equal numbers because he’s protecting the women’s race; he believes that if there were equal numbers, it’d be detrimental to the quality of the race and representation in Kona. Which is patronising because we’re all grown women. I don’t think 

that’s a valid argument but I see it’s inevitable that equal numbers will have to come.”

TriEqual isn’t just about Kona parity, so what else is the movement trying to establish? And why should UK age-groupers care? “We’re running other initiatives that contribute to our wider mission to get more women into tri. So we had Equally Inspiring, where 50 coaches donated three months of their training, which women could apply for. In terms of caring, if you’ve got kids watching you race and they see this disparity at the top of the sport, it sends out a mixed signal that men are better at this sport; that it’s men’s territory. 

“I also think the elites in sport can lead by example. I know it’s too simplistic to say if you have equal numbers at the top, it’ll encourage more women to take up the sport, but I do believe that it’s symbolic what’s happening at the top of the sport. It’s visual; when it’s televised it’s obvious. It could be used as a tool to encourage more women into the sport through the age-group ranks.”

PRO TRIATHLON  UNION

Since Joyce made the difficult leap from her lucrative lawyer job to the unknown waters of the pro triathlon world in 2008, she’s experienced first-hand the gamut of emotions and financial vulnerability that comes with carving out a living as an independent long-course athlete. A world of withheld race winnings, travel and accommodation fees and not knowing whether your next injury could end your career.

Fully launched last summer, the Pro Triathlon Union was established to create power for elite racers, but its birth was marred by criticisms over the $200-600 joining fee (since reduced to a flat fee of $149), with Luxembourgian athlete Dirk Bockel’s well-intentioned, if ill-advised, request for Lance Armstrong’s help whipping up a social media storm. Elsewhere, Andrew Messick baulked at the athletes paying a fee on top of what they already pay to Ironman each season, and the anti-union Jan Frodeno was a high profile opponent. So, seven months on, what has the PTU achieved?

“Looking at the Pro Tri Union, I think there were mistakes made by us, by the people launching it in the way it was launched. I can see how that would create some resistance but I think we’ve done a better job as time’s gone on of making it more inclusive and trying to get people to make a more informed decision as to whether they want to join the union. Maybe union is a misleading word. It’s an organisation… Jan’s in a position of massive power and it’s probably not that important to him because he’s calling the shots with sponsors. But for every Jan, there are hundreds of triathletes who don’t have that power. That’s why I believe so passionately that we need an organisation to represent those people.”

Much of the criticism stemmed from the self-appointed board, which included some of the most successful names of tri, such as Mirinda Carfrae, Seb Kienle and Pete Jacobs. Can Joyce see why the project – despite its laudable aims – was met with scepticism?

“Because there were so many high-profile athletes at the beginning, people who were new to the sport thought ‘What do they know about what I need?’ But that’s why we encouraged them onto our forum so they could tell us their concerns. Ultimately, there’ll be new board members coming up, and that’s when we’ll know that we’re starting to have some success. By the time it’s effective, I’ll be at the end of my career. We [the board] are doing it because we have an interest in the longevity of individuals in the sport. There’s a real danger that the professional sport of tri will shrink rather than grow.”

Come October, how will Joyce look back on her racing career? A journey that’s taken this competitive swimmer from a win at the 2006 Scottish Middle Distance Champs to Ironman victories in Lanzarote, Cozumel and Texas, and a 2012 win at triathlon’s most supported race in Roth. As well as becoming the sixth-fastest Iron female of all time with a 8:42:25 overall split at Roth in 2014. And what advice would she have for a young Rachel Joyce (and any other budding pros out there)?

“I wouldn’t change anything. That’s not to say I couldn’t have done things better. I really enjoyed the journey to get here. Part of it is enjoying the process and I did enjoy the process. The main advice would be to stop worrying so much as there’s not a smooth road to anything. There’ll always be ups and downs. That’s one thing I’ve learnt now and hopefully I’m now better at rolling with the punches than I was in 2008. You just have to roll with it.”

From battling equality to tackling the powers of triathlon, roll with it Rachel Joyce will. And it wouldn’t surprise us to see this tenacious performer pushing Daniela Ryf to the wire come the Ali’i Drive finish line in the autumn. The history of sport is punctuated with athletes emerging victorious from the last chance saloon. Sometimes there are no second chances, after all. Sometimes it’s now or never. 

THE MAKING OF RACHEL JOYCE

ITU World Championships, 2011

Four weeks after finishing fourth in Hawaii, Joyce edges her British rival Leanda Cave at a chilly ITU Worlds in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas. The day’s second-fastest bike and run splits secure the world title.

Challenge Roth, 2012

Joyce scoops the Roth title in front of 200,000 spectators, taking the ETU long-course European championship title in the process. Her 8:45hr time still stands as the 16th fastest women’s Iron finish of all time.

Ironman World Championships, 2013

Joyce posts one of the fastest Hawaii times in history of 8:57:28, but it’s still not enough to hold off Mirinda Carfrae on the run, who breaks the course record with a 8:52:14 finish after a record-breaking 2:50hr marathon.

JOYCE’S THREE KEY CAUSES

Team Bravo

Co-launched by three-time Kona champ Craig Alexander in 2015, Team Bravo formed to promote healthy living while raising the profile of long-course triathlon in Brazil. Backed by drinks giant Coca-Cola, the small outfit features Brits Joyce and Tim Don, Aussie pro Paul Matthews and a quartet of Brazilian athletes aiming for Ironman success (teambravo.com.br).

Professional Triathlon Union

The PTU was officially launched in July 2015, with its initial pro board including Ironman stars Joyce, Mirinda Carfrae, Jodie Swallow and Sebastian Kienle. The aim is to represent and support professional non-drafting triathletes across long-distance, Olympic and off-road triathlon, with race organiser Challenge Family an early supporter (www.protriunion.com).

TriEqual

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TriEqual is a group of female and male athletes dedicated to fairness, progress and equality in the sport of triathlon. A key, headline-grabbing campaign of the outfit is the 50WomenToKona initiative, which is aiming to increase the female pro field from 35 to a male-equalling 50 race spots at the full Ironman and 70.3 World Championships (triequal.org).