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Leah Sherriff: What does it mean to be a professional triathlete?

Leah West Sherriff chatting with three-time Ironman World Champion, Mirinda Carfrae at Ironman 70.3 Monterrey.

“So you’re a professional triathlete now? What exactly does that mean?”

This is the question that’s confronted me countless times over the past month, from friends, colleagues and family, most of whom know very little about our sport. “It means I can win money now.” That’s my typical answer. It satisfies some people.

Yes, I am now a professional triathlete. But no, I’ve never won a dime for my efforts. I don’t have a website, or a 1000 Twitter followers. I don’t even have any sponsors. I still put on clothing that isn’t made of spandex and go to work in an office tower every day. So what gives me the right to call myself a professional athlete?

Yes, I’ve met the standards set by Triathlon Canada and have an Ironman Professional membership. Technically that is what distinguishes me today from the Age Grouper who lined up at Ironman 70.3 Monterrey last month. Yet, that just seems so artificial. As if the only thing different about you after going through four years of university is the fact that you have piece of paper.

For me being a professional isn’t about a piece of paper, it’s a way of life.

The day I chose to go pro there was a seismic shift in my universe. One that I imagine is felt by anyone who chooses to pursue a sport, art or vocation in such a defining way. Almost instantaneously everything changed. I no longer had the luxury of letting myself off the hook. I could no longer justify staying in bed instead of getting to the pool for 6 a.m. practice, or staying at an event when I had planned to go for a run. I use to think: this is what I do for fun; I’m not really hurting anyone but myself if I don’t train today; why would I let my hobby stress me out?

The choice to go pro quite literally liberated me from all of those excuses. All the deliberating and rationalizing about weather to do those last few kms, stay for one more drink, or watch one more episode of Netflix before bed just stopped. This is my job now.

Sure, everyone has days where they don’t want to get out of bed and go to work. Where we might not want to stay late and prep for the big meeting the next day. But if you’re passionate and committed to your career you do it anyway. It’s not really a choice. You just do it.

This is how I approach triathlon training. Every day I get up and go to work. I do what my boss (coach) tells me to do. I don’t double book myself during work hours, or miss deadlines. I invest in my equipment and continuing education. I take care of my body with rest, nutrition and treatment, because without it I can’t do my job, and I’ll never meet my goals. Those goals don’t extend simply to the next race, or the end of the season, this is my career.

So no, nobody pays me to be a triathlete, not yet anyway. But make no mistake, triathlon is my profession.

Now that we’ve cleared up that question, my first race as a professional is Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant on June 26. I’m excited to have the opportunity to share my preparation for the big day with TMC readers and I would love to hear from those with experiences on the course. I’m also happy to chat with anyone else who is thinking of making the choice to go pro, please feel free to reach out via Facebook or instagram @leahwestsherriff.

Happy training!

Leah West Sherriff