We’ve always known she was competitive. As a child she tormented her younger sister – everything had to be a competition in the Charles’s household, her parents and sister Holly are quick to point out. As an eight-year-old swimmer all she wanted to do in her life was go to the Olympics and, as an 18-year-old she came oh-so-close to achieving that dream, vying for a spot in the 10 km open-water swim at the 2012 Games in London. After missing that spot (it went to the 2008 silver medalist Keri-Ann Payne) the teen struggled to stay motivated as a swimmer and drifted away from the sport.
Lucy Charles-Barclay would make her triathlon debut a couple of years after the 2012 Olympic disappointment. Within a year she won her age group at the Ironman World Championship. A couple of years after that, 2016, she finished third in her first pro race, Ironman Lanzarote. The following year she won in Lanzarote and would take the first of three-straight runner-up finishes in Kona.
All that success has made Charles-Barclay one of the biggest names in the sport. It doesn’t feel like that many years ago that her husband, Reece Barclay, pulled me aside and asked if I had any contacts in the bike industry – they were trying to find a bike sponsor. Those days are long over – Charles-Barclay has become one of the most sought-after athletes in the industry, with a hugely popular Instagram feed and Youtube channel. Bike sponsorship? In January we learned that she was leaving Specialized and had signed with Cube Bicycles, making her the marquee triathlete using the German company’s bikes.
The success hasn’t tempered the competitive fire one bit, though. If anything, the 27-year-old has set the bar even higher on that front. In 2018, after taking second to Daniela Ryf for the second straight year in Kona, I asked Charles-Barclay about beating the Swiss star. “She’s only five years older than you, so she’s not going anywhere for a while,” I pointed out. For Charles-Barclay, though, it wasn’t just a matter of waiting her turn for a Kona title.
“I want to win Kona when Daniela is in the race,” she said. “She is obviously the greatest athlete of our time and if I were to go away from Kona and then she retires and I came back to win, then there would always be that question mark of was I better than Daniela Ryf.”
OK, so we’ve got Kona to deal with. Getting that title, beating one of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen. That’s a decent challenge. But there’s still that Olympic dream to deal with. Last year British Triathlon reached out to Charles-Barclay and asked if she had any interest in trying her hand at short-course racing. The timing was just right to tweak her interest. “2020 threw everything up in the air, so at the moment I am taking any opportunity I can get, wherever that would be,” she said in an interview a couple of weeks after she’d made an impressive short-course racing debut at the Super League Triathlon Arena Games London, where she’d finished a close second to Beth Potter, and a few days before she would finish second at the British Swimming Trials in the 1,500 m. All that happened just weeks after she’d taken second at Challenge Miami, where a penalty for passing a lapped rider on the inside likely cost her the win. She truly was taking on every opportunity she could. And doing well, too. While her swim time was well short of British Swimming’s Olympic qualifying time, after nine years out of the competitive swim world she still proved to be among the best in the country. Even she admits she shouldn’t have done as well as she did at the Arena Games in London.
“Sometimes I go into a race as not the best prepared athlete, but I’m willing to turn myself inside out to win a race or have my best performance,” she said. “At Super League I probably shouldn’t have gone there and had such a good performance – I’m not a short-course athlete – but I’m just willing to go there and go all in. I had nothing to lose, as well … I just get stuck in.”
Even though she’s “not a short-course athlete,” she loved the racing.
“I think what I enjoyed the most is that it is the polar opposite of what I normally do,” she said. “I am definitely an athlete who likes to be thrown out of my comfort zone, I think that’s why I came into the sport and straightaway did long distance because it did just that.”
Charles-Barclay would have continued on that short-course track, taking British Triathlon up on their offer to compete in some draft-legal races, but found herself struggling to get entered into any World Triathlon events. With athletes clamouring to get valuable Olympic qualifying points, entries to events were a scarce commodity. So after the swim trials Charles-Barclay packed up the team and headed to Lanzarote for a five-week training camp at Club La Santa. The goal was to get back to long-distance triathlon shape.
Then, with just 11 days notice, British Triathlon let her know that she could race at the World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) Leeds event. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. She would blast through the swim in front, be part of a breakaway on the bike and eventually take fifth in what was an impressive draft-legal debut.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be done with the Olympic dream,” she said. “When you grow up as a child and everything that you’ve ever wanted is to make it to an Olympics – as an eight-year-old that was what I wanted. I’m now nearly 28 and I still want that, so I think with the Olympics there might be more of a time limit for what’s possible and qualifying and doing a good race at that distance, whereas I think with Kona my window for doing well and winning that race is a lot bigger. If I wanted to do anything with the Olympics it would have to be more in the short term, in the next three years probably. It’s a shorter cycle to Paris – I’m not ruling it out, I’m going to explore that avenue.”
While other athletes might have struggled to stay motivated over the last year and a half, Lucy Charles-Barclay has managed to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to recharge her love of the sport, creating even more options and goals to keep her working hard.
“I’m super happy with how my career has gone so far,” she said. “Obviously would love to win the Ironman World Championship. If I don’t try to make an Olympic Games, that would always hang over me. Even winning Kona might not be enough for me – that’s the kind of lofty goals I set for myself.”
This story appears in the July/ August issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.
Stay tuned for more on Lucy Charles-Barclay:
Friday: The Sub8 Challenge
Saturday: The Cube Partnership