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From distance swimmer to second at Kona: Lucy Charles’ secrets to success

Learning more about the 24-year-old British athlete who has been taking the Ironman world by storm.

Charles leading the women’s race in Kona with Lauren Brandon close behind her. The two women were first out of the water and nearly shattered the existing swim course record.

Before Kona this year, Lucy Charles was recognized as a woman to watch, but few predicted she’d lead the race most of the way, give Daniela Ryf a run for her money and land in second place in her Ironman World Championship pro debut.

Through she’s easily the youngest woman in the pro field at 24, Charles has a longer career in competitive endurance sports behind her than many of her Ironman competitors. A competitive swimmer since the age of eight, Charles raced on various national teams in the rigorous Great Britain system throughout her youth. She focused the latter years of her career in open water swimming and became a top-ranked distance swimmer, but narrowly missed out on qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics. She turned to Ironman racing to switch things up after London, and saw almost immediate success as an age-grouper competing in the 18 to 24 category. Now racing as a pro in both the half and full distance, Charles has become one of the most talked about pros on the Ironman circuit and leaves no doubt that she’s one to keep a closer eye on in years to come.

“I was a little surprised about the amount of attention I was getting on race week in Kona, ” she admits. “But I didn’t feel the pressure at all. I just knew [on race day] I would go out there and give it everything I had.”

What’s the key to her success? Charles believes it’s two things. One is her swimming history — getting up to 100,000 meters in the pool some weeks helped her build an incredible aerobic capacity but also instilled the discipline and mental fortitude to get through gruelling distance sessions in triathlon’s other two sports.

Lucy Charles in the middle of a 5,000m swim set at the Kona Aquatic Centre ahead of the 2017 Ironman World Championship. PHOTO: Talbot Cox

“I believe my engine and mentality from being a swimmer has allowed me to be successful in triathlon,” she explains.

The other factor is her support system. Helping her navigate the road from age-grouper to pro and now Kona podium finisher is her immediate family and fiancé, Reece Barclay, who she is quick to credit for her rise in triathlon.

“[My family] keeps me very grounded,” says Charles.

Barclay is more than just her biggest supporter — he’s her coach and main training partner.

“I hope to have a long career in the sport and having Reece as my coach, I believe we will go from strength to strength. Reece will also be racing professionally next year so that will be really exciting.”

With wins at Challenge’s The Championship, Ironman Lanzarote and second place at Ironman Europeans Championships and Kona in 2017, Charles has started building up a strong results resume for herself. While she has her sights set much higher, she knows that she needs to be patient and manage the risk of injury, specifically from running.

June 2017: Lucy Charles taking the Championship win in a time of 4:13:59.

“I would 100% agree that most swimmers struggle on the run, possibly due to the body not being used to the high impact of running,” she says. “After struggling with a stress fracture last year it was a real struggle to covert my swimmer biomechanics into becoming a strong runner. I am hopeful that my body is now adapting and becoming more resilient to running. If I can stay strong and injury free then I know my run still has a lot of improvement to come.”

Now settled back into daily life in the UK after the madness of Kona, Charles has had time to reflect on her year and her podium finish.

“After finishing 2nd in Frankfurt I felt a little more confident leading into Kona but I never thought I would be a podium contender,” she admits. “It wasn’t even until after winning Ironman Lanzarote in May that I decided to try and qualify for Kona — before then I hadn’t even considered Kona a possibility in 2017.”

There’s still a bit left on the calendar for Charles in 2017: “I will be racing at local events in the UK until 2018, for example cross country running leagues and swimming meets. I have not yet confirmed my 2018 race schedule,” she says.

We can also expect to see her back at some familiar races next year.

“I enjoyed quite a few of the events I did this year so I will try and get some of those in my 2018 season.”

You can follow Lucy’s blog and Instagram for updates on her triathlon training.