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September 2, 2000

The Life and Times of Sharon Donnelly - Part Three

This is the third of a three-part feature on Olympic triathlete Sharon Donnelly.

Training Down Under

In September 1998, two weeks after a World Cup race, Sharon and Dave got married. It was an intimate, winsome ceremony for their closest friends and family at the Naval Officer's Mess in downtown Ottawa. No sooner had they settled into married life in their Orleans home than Sharon was off to Australia for four months of training. That made all the difference.

"Dave and I decided since we were two years out from the Olympics, I should go to Australia and train with other World Cup athletes. We thought about San Diego but decided Australia was where I'd find the best groups to train with. We looked on the separation as no different than a UN Tour. "

Sharon signed up with Cole Stewart's group. Stewart had been known as somewhat of a demagogue in triathlon circles: a tough, exacting coach who has produced a number of world champions, including son Miles.

"I learned a lot from Cole," says Sharon. "One of the biggest lessons that stuck was to look on the triathlon as a quadrathalon. We spent as much time training the individual events as we did the transitions. Cole was a firm believer."

Cole's program worked: Sharon had her best year ever in l999. She started the season with her first-ever podium finish at a World Cup race in Monaco. The field was stacked with the powerhouse Aussies yet Sharon pulled through with a second, beating world champ Michellie Jones among others.

Sharon at Monte Carlo - 2nd!

Sharon Placing 2nd at Monaco World Cup - 1999

Sharon WIns Pan American Games 1999
Winner Donnelly, S (CAN)
ITU Pan America Games Triathlon
Winnipeg, Canada
© David Leah
Later that summer, Sharon won gold at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, again, beating a top field including Canada's Carol Montgomery. "The win at Pan Ams was great because it was held in Canada in front of a Canadian audience. It got a lot of media play. More than anything, finishing second in Monte Carlo was a relief. I had known I was capable of finishing in the top three but kept missing the front pack in every race. Monte Carlo proved to me that I could to it. A podium finish gives you so much confidence."

Sharon went back to the Gold Coast in January 2000. The Olympics were nine months away…

Back to Oz Again

She moved in with Canadian Ironman triathlete Lisa Bentley who was down under training for the New Zealand Ironman. Canadian coach Lance Watson was there working with a group of triathletes and duathletes and had been building up a strong reputation. Sharon and Lisa joined his group. "I decided not to go back with Cole because there weren't any women training with his group this year and I didn't want to train with just guys."

"We really clicked as a group under Lance. He emphasized the technical component which is an area I had to work on." Sharon also found living in training with Lisa gave her a mutually supportive environment. "Lisa is such an upbeat person. She was great to be around."

After setting personal bests in running and a top-5 performance at the World Cup in Kona, Hawaii, Sharon returned to Canada (to Kingston. Dave had been posted to RMC) with renewed confidence.

Not soon after, she went to Toronto and met up with Olympic swim coaches Byron MacDonald and Dave Johnson. Since this was her first Olympics, she asked them for their advice on pre-race preparation. Among their recommendations, they suggested that there was an optimal time to get to the host country. Too early and she would get stale from all the pre-Olympic hype and pressure. She'd also be homesick. Too late and she'd face jet-lag. Two to three weeks were optimal, they said.

Sharon had been reading Canadian Olympic swimming medallist Mark Tewksbury's book which spoke of the need to stay at home and "get grounded" a few months before the Olympics. She had been thinking about going to Victoria to train with the national team for a couple of months but decided to stay in Kingston.

Power of Positive Thinking

Sharon found June 2000 was one of the most difficult months of her life. It was an unseasonably bad summer in Ontario. The weather was awful for training - it rained almost everyday and it was always cold and windy. In Australia, she'd had training partners every time she turned around and here she was having to do many of her key workouts alone. She started questioning herself: Had she made the right decision? "Dave had to keep reminding me that I was doing the right thing. I tried to look at the positive but I was finding it harder and harder to." The Olympics were less than four months away…

At one of her lowest points, she decided to start implementing some of the mental training she had been working on to get her over an aversion to swimming in the wetsuit. "I started to apply that positive thinking to everything I did and things started to turn around," she said.

Breakthrough in TO

A month later, Sharon raced in the Toronto World Cup triathlon. Organizers had hyped the race as part of t he Toronto Olympic bid and the media had jumped on the bandwagon. Several potential Olympic medallists were there - Michellie Jones and Carol Montgomery as well as top Americans Sheila Taormina and Jennifer Guttierrez.

Sharon went into the race without any pre-conceived ideas about how she'd place. "I just wanted to have a smart, positive race. My goal was really just to stay with Sheila in the swim." A gold medallist swimmer from the Atlanta Games, Sheila Taormina is the undisputed top swimmer in the triathlons. Sharon knew if she could keep contact with her, it would put her in a good position.

"You know, that swim was so different than any I've had before. I didn't have a single negative thought. Not about the wetsuit. Not about my breathing. Not about getting clobbered. " A couple of minutes into the swim, Sharon looked up and saw that Taromina was about 15m ahead. "Not bad," Sharon thought and put her head down, focussing on keeping a smooth, efficient stroke. She looked up again and she'd cut that distance in half. "Strong and smooth," was her mantra. "Strong and smooth." A minute later, she saw Sheila's feet and hung onto her to the end of the swim. They came into transition together.

"It was a huge boost. The rest of the race didn't matter. I had met my goal. It showed me that I'm able to stay with the best in the sport in the swim leg." Sharon floated through the rest of the race.

During the cycling leg, the two Americans - Taormina and Jennifer Guttierrez along with Sharon formed the lead pack, working like a metronome. Lap after lap, they put time on the chase pack, hitting speeds of 43-44 kilometres per hour. Coming into T2 (bike-run transition) Jennifer yelled: "OK, girls, we've done an awesome job, let's all have a great run."

Sharon moved into the lead early on the run, holding it until the last 2 kms when a fast-moving Montgomery passed her. "I saw Carol at the turnaround. She looked incredible. I thought, Uh-oh."

Montgomery went on to win but the fact that Sharon led the race up until the final 2 kms put her on a huge high. Once again, she'd proven to herself that if she can get out with the lead pack off the swim, she can hold her own on the bike and run. She had also just beaten Michellie Jones, considered top medal hopeful for Sydney.

Sharon's last triathlon before the Olympics was a World Cup in Cornerbrook, Nfld. She came off the bike with the leaders but a chronic hamstring problem slowed her to sixth place on the run. Characteristically, she made no excuses after the race in fact, only her coach and trainer (and Dave, of course) knew why she wasn't having one of her better days on the run.


Olympics Triathlon Swim Course

At the time of this writing, Sharon is enroute to Sydney. The most important day of her life is less than two weeks away. The mother who spent years getting up early to drive a young Sharon Donnelly to swim practice will be there at Sydney Harbour probably more nervous than her daughter. The husband who has shared Sharon's Olympic triathlon dream since day one will be there as will her original coach and sponsor, Ken Parker, who was been with Sharon from the beginning.

Back here in Canada, the race will have special meaning for the many whose lives have been touched by Sharon Donnelly. Whether she comes first or thirty-first, it doesn't matter. We understand that just making it to the summit they call the Olympics is something onto itself. The Olympics are the compete unknown - the very best in the world will be there, peaking for that day.

What is certain is that Sharon will give that race everything she has.

That she's a remarkable triathlete is one thing. That she's a remarkable person is even better.

Visit Sharon's web site at:

Contact Lynne via email @

For more on Lynne's background read this interview with Wayne Scanlan which appeared originally in the Ottawa Citizen.

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