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'I was watching these girls on TV this time last year. Suddenly, you're up on the podium beside them'

It’s been a remarkable rise to the top for leading Irish triathlete Carolyn Hayes, whose Olympic dream is well and truly alive.

“I DIDN’T EVEN know what triathlon was until the London Olympics in 2012.

“When I had that World Cup podium, I remember looking around; I was watching these girls on TV this time last year thinking they were great. Suddenly, you’re up beside them thinking, ‘Oh my God, maybe I’m okay too!’”

carolyn Leading Irish triathlete Carolyn Hayes.

Leading Irish triathlete Carolyn Hayes’ rise to the top has been a rather remarkable one.

A late-comer to the scene, the Limerick native first took up triathlon at the age of 25 in her second year of medical school. That was 2014. Now a full-time professional athlete and fully-qualified doctor, Hayes is within touching distance of Tokyo 2020.

A brilliant silver medal and her first International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup podium in mid-June following on from sixth at European Championships saw her receive confirmation last week that she qualified and has been selected for the Tokyo 2019 Olympic test event next month.

What a journey it’s been. With much more to come. 

***

“This is all so strange,” Hayes giggles when she picks up the phone. She’s launching the 2019 Vodafone Dublin City Triathlon so a morning of interviews, photographs and various other media duties are on the cards.

A far cry from her mornings this time last year.

Life is pretty good at the minute amidst the absolute whirlwind she’s been living and trail she’s been blazing.

“Ah, stop. Everything has just taken off in the last year,” she begins.

“Since I came to Wicklow last July, everything has just rocketed. That’s definitely down to the guys, Gavin Noble and Éanna McGrath at HupHup coaching me. Since I joined them, I’ve just seen massive progression.

“This time last year I was training for a Dublin 70.3. I was selected for the Europeans based on the performance at the national championships in Harbourman. Then I decided, ‘Right, ITU is what we need to focus on.’

190718_NCP1_120 Hayes launching the 2019 Vodafone Dublin City Triathlon. Source: Naoise Culhane

“I started racing internationally in October; started off in Hong Kong, headed to Korea, went down and did a blitz of Africa. I’ve been to Senegal, Morocco, Cape Town, Zimbabwe. It sounds very glamorous seeing the world but you obviously you just see your hotel room and the racecourse.”

A roller coaster ride since going professional with that Olympic dream, but this summer saw the ante upped even more as Hayes well and truly announced her arrival on the biggest stages in the world.

“The Europeans on 3 June were a breakthrough for me because I had never been to a major games,” she explains. “The level was the highest I had raced at so I was quite apprehensive.”

Of course, she took it all in her stride and excelled.

“I came sixth there so that was huge. It also meant that by coming sixth, I get carded by Sport Ireland so I’d be eligible for funding to help support this.

“Then I had Kazakhstan checked in to try and get a top 10 performance. I mean I was blown away, a silver medal, wow. It was amazing. A great day, so hopefully more to come.”

The coveted World Cup podium, proudly donning the green singlet with a silver medal around her neck; it really was a dream come true for Hayes.

She’s almost lost for words thinking about it.

“It’s just… it kind of… particularly that silver medal, it just made me realise, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’

“When you tell people that you want to go to the Olympics, they go, ‘Ah sure, we’d all love to go to the Olympics’. Now, it’s definite. I am going to be going to the Olympics. This is a reality. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing with everything.

“[Last] Monday I got my email confirming that I’m on the Tokyo Olympic stimulation test event. If you told me I’d be on the list outright and not waiting for an invitation place or hoping someone drops out, I’d have been like, ‘Ah yeah, sure, that will happen…’

“Now, actually, I know I deserve to be on that list based on the performances we’re knocking out.”

***

hayes With her recent World Cup silver medal. Source: Stephen Delaney/Twitter.

To realise just how meteoric Hayes’ rise has been, one must take a trip through time to the very beginning. Long before 2014 when she first discovered the sport of triathlon.

As a kid, her main one was swimming and she competed nationally. 

“Never a superstar,” she stresses, her modesty shining through. “I’d win my events; the 100m butterfly or 50m butterfly.

“I always just swam for fun. Nowadays kids are doing 5am sessions in the gym, I don’t think I’d have been cut out for that!”

In secondary school then, she took up the only sport available to her: hockey.

“I was like, ‘Right, if I play hockey then I’ll get more days off school and I’ll get to go away to matches,’” she grins. “I have a twin sister and she was playing hockey as well so that was pretty good.”

She enjoyed both sports through her teenage years. Well, until she was 17, and a shoulder injury which required surgery forced her to quit swimming. To fill the void, she took up running. Not with a club, but just 30-minute runs here and there for herself more than anything.

“Then, I had a mad idea that I’d do the Dublin Marathon to have a goal. I did the Dublin Marathon in 3:13 on my first attempt. I thought it would be four, four and-a-half hours. That was phenomenal. I didn’t think too much into it though.”

Around the same time, she was studying physiology in Trinity College and she met a few people she recognised from swimming through the years. They invited her down to play water polo and of course, Hayes obliged — and succeeded.

“I hadn’t a clue what water polo was, being from county Limerick,” she laughs looking back. “I really enjoyed it and it was great to get back in the pool. Then I qualified for the Irish water polo team, that was fantastic.”

As her studies progressed, so did her ever-blossoming sporting career. The Trinity swimming and water polo captain headed for the University of Limerick to start a graduate medicine programme, and everything propelled from there shortly after. 

Carolyn Hayes after winning the BMW National Series race at Dublin City Triathlon After defending her Dublin City Triathlon crown last year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Hayes joined Limerick Triathlon Club — her home club — in her second year.

“I say right place, right time because they had a 50-metre pool, a club there with people to go cycling with — I had never cycled in my life — people who’d be going out for runs… I joined them, and the local race down in Limerick was Hell of the West. In 2014, Hell of the West was the national standard for championships.

“I just rocked up. I always did sport for fun. You’d go in and you’d do your best, whatever happened, happened. I did the national championships and I won. I was like, ‘This is awesome’ but again, I didn’t really think too much of it.

Others definitely did, though. The Aquathon Championships in Galway, the National Series and her first Dublin City Triathlon were among the prestigious titles she won in 2014. Decent: “I suppose I was like, ‘I’m not too bad at the triathlon!’”

From there, everything really took off. Her focus was definitely on medicine though, so she happily tipped away at national level while getting her studies done. 

“It was hard,” she conceded. “But I always felt better having the sport.

“I used to get up at four in the morning, do two hours’ studying before I went to the pool for an hour, arrive in at what feels like lunchtime for your nine o’clock lecture, get out for a run on my break… There was no pressure. It was just you know, tipping away.”

“When I started being a junior doctor — I was in James’ and Kilkenny — I didn’t have any time to be swimming, really. I know everyone says that. I was just keeping fit, swimming when I could but I wasn’t competing in triathlon that year.

“I just couldn’t fit it in with work. Then I finished being a junior doctor in July last year. I moved to Wicklow to train with HupHup which is run by Gavin and Eanna. I’m now in there full-time and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

***

All in. And everything is going to plan one year on. 

“It’s been brilliant,” she smiles, “but look, every day isn’t a great day. Training doesn’t always go right. It’s a massive commitment.”

Vodafone Dublin City Triathlon-3 Hayes with Vodafone employees launching the Dublin City Triathlon. Source: Naoise Culhane

Particularly so, given the fact that her medical career is on hold. But Hayes is thriving. After all, every athlete dreams of the professional lifestyle, doing what that love day in, day out.

Her training hours are generally 18-30 in the week, depending on whether she’s racing or not; 25-plus if she isn’t, but on race week everything tapers down. She swims four to five times a week; 90-minute sessions anywhere from 3.5 to 5km.

Three outdoor bike sessions then, one horrific indoor power one — her hardest of the week — and four runs. 

“Cycling used to be my weakness,” she concedes. “Just from being in Wicklow and having access to the hills and that, it’s definitely come on.

“Swimming was something that I was always comfortable with but when you’re racing at junior level, everyone’s a great swimmer. Now my strength is definitely my run, it’s just come on so much.”

Looking forward, Hayes heads to Russia tomorrow for the European Sprint Championships, and then it’s Tokyo for the Olympic test event on 15 August.

It’s all go, and while there’s plenty of running, swimming and cycling to do between now and next summer, her sights are firmly set on Japan.

2020 vision and all that, but no matter what, Carolyn Hayes’ rise has been pretty special.

***

Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary and employees Donnacha McCarthy, Maya Uwakwe Kelly and Karim Kajani will take part in the 2019 Vodafone Dublin City Triathlon, taking place on August 17th in the heart of the capital along with another 150 Vodafone colleagues.

Vodafone is helping their employees to prepare for race day through training and race day advice from international triathlete, Carolyn Hayes, and a bespoke triathlon training programmes. For more information on the Vodafone Dublin City Triathlon visit dublincitytriathlon.com

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Emma Duffy

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