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Posted: May 24, 2005

Triathlon: Twenty Questions with Sharon Donnelly

Sharon winning the 1999 Pan American Games Triathlon


Triathlete Sharon Donnelly is a three-time Canadian Champion, 1999 Pan American Games champion and a Sydney Olympian. She retired from the professional ranks of the sport of triathlon last December.
Former professional Ironman triathlete Lynne Bermel interviewed Sharon recently.

1. Lynne Bermel (LB): How do you plan to deal psychologically with the transition from seven years of traveling the world focused on qualifying for the Olympics and spending time training in exotic places like Australia, Colorado, San Luis Obispo, etc. to being a "Semi-normal person" staying home?

Sharon Donnelly (SD): Now that I am about 5-6 months into this transition period I can tell you a little bit more about how it has been going which is much better than if I had tried to tell you in October what my plan was - because I didn't have one! I hadn't given myself the opportunity to plan past the 2004 race season, because I didn't want to have any regrets and look back saying that I had not put 100% into my preparation because I was making future plans. I always made long term goal plans through the years as an athlete, but I knew that it would take a lot of psychological energy that I didn't want to use during my 2004 race season. Also, I had plans to continue racing into 2005 if my body was willing to, but after my surgery in February to re-attach my subscapularis tendon, I was not motivated to push myself anymore. I had worked so hard the last year to get back to race shape, that my body had nothing left at the end of the year. I knew it was time for me to call it a day then.

So I don't miss the pain of training and competing. I was finding more difficult with each year to stay away from injuries. I knew that I didn't have much more in me to compete at that level. So that made my transition much easier. But what was difficult was not knowing what I wanted to do or focus on. I am very goal oriented and for the first time in my life, I had no goals put down. That was very hard and I had a few months Oct-Dec where I really struggled and I knew that I didn't have to jump at anything and should take the advice of many who said just relax and take your time. But that is not in my nature. So I accepted a number of offers that came my way, most of them commencing in January of 2005 and I quickly realized that I had taken too much on. But I am happier than I was when I had nothing. I think I needed to take on a multitude of tasks to both make myself busy and to give myself an opportunity to try different things to see what I might want to focus on. So I have begun to re-set new goals and I am doing much better.

With respect to traveling - in some ways I will miss it, in other ways, I won't miss it all! It was always exhausting, traveling to races in and out in a 4 day period and the training venues in nice areas were great, but I always focused on the training and any sightseeing I did was on my bike! Plus it was time away from home and my husband and family. We did some math recently and we figured that I was away from home an average 150 days per year! Almost of all that without Dave!

But what I will miss about the traveling and racing on the World Cup Circuit will be the people I have met. That will be the most difficult as that is my favorite part about sport - the people.

So now I plan to deal with this transition period by continuing the jobs that I have taken on and trying to maintain contact with my friends across the world. Also, being the Athlete Representative for Triathlon Canada keeps me connected to the sport as well and so I am not totally cut off from a way of life that I had for 9 years.

2 (LB): From a logistical perspective, what will you do with your time now? Will you work full-time?

SD: As I mentioned above, I have taken a number of jobs/contracts to fill my time, earn some money and see what I want to focus on. Currently I am teaching physical fitness to two programs at St Lawrence College (4hrs per week for the Police Foundation program and 3hrs per week for General Education). It is challenging as it is the first time teaching and as any teacher can attest, preparation for the first year is very time consuming. I am also the Race Director for a new triathlon in Kingston on May 29th 2005, hosted by the CFB Kingston. This is a new event and I have a mandate to create a file for CFB Kingston other bases across Canada to use for a similar format race. So the work required is tremendous. The position of Athlete Rep is volunteer, but demands quite a bit of time. I also lead a 2hr indoor bike training group every Saturday morning from Jan to April. In addition, I continue to give motivational speeches to varied audiences on Leadership, Sport, Goal Setting, and the One Tonne Challenge. I volunteer as assistant swim coach 1 night a week at Kingston Blue Marlins Swim Club and have begun to take on athletes for coaching. I still promote my sponsors through the many activities that I am doing as I feel that they supported me so much over my career and that they can benefit from even more coverage now.

Will I work full-time? I am not sure. I really don't know if I could have an office type job or work for a big organization after working for myself for so many years. Sometimes it is tougher to manage one's time and various commitments, but it is always changing and I like that. So I do plan on cutting back once some of my current commitments come to an end, and I plan on focusing more on being what I call a "Sports Consultant" ( coaching, motivational speaking, media commentating and race organization)

I also want to start a family, which will take up a large chunk of time when that happens!
(Editor's Note: Sharon and husband Dave Rudnicki are expecting their first child in October.)

3. (LB): Will you still compete recreationally? At what level? Where?

SD: I will never stop doing sports. I am sure my competitive fire will return and I will want to be the best at what I want to do, but the sacrifices to compete at an international level are too great. I am interested in focusing on other races and sports that I haven't had time to do. And do some destination racing (choose a race that is in a place that I want to visit). But other sports that I really want to do are:
- trail running (I am part of a group of women who are planning to be a team at the 2006 Death Race)
- compete in a few marathons
- cyclo-cross bike racing (I am not very good at mountain biking so cyclo-cross appeals to me me because athletes are forced to get off their bikes to get over a barrier!)

But I also want to be able to support my husband in his racing now. He enjoys cycle racing and he has supported me for the past 10years more than anyone can imagine, and I want to be able to support him now.

4. (LB): You're still young enough to take up the Ironman with a vengeance and make a good living racing the longer distances. Why haven't you considered that?

SD: I have no desire to compete at Ironman. I spent so much time away from family and friends for the past 10 years, I just couldn't do it again. Because to do well at Ironman, takes a huge time commitment and sacrifice. I have no desire at all for myself, but I want to coach and help others who do have that goal.

5. (LB): . What were the 3 highlights of your career?

SD:Olympics - My race there was memorable of course, but just being part of the biggest event on earth was a highlight. I had dreamed of Olympics since the age of 9 (when I moved a few months ago, I found a childrens' bible and I almost threw it out - but I looked into it and found a note on the front page written by me when I was 10 years old it said:" I want to go the Olympics when I grow up. I have the will, confidence and strength to go from the Ontarios' to Division II then to Nationals and then to my hopes and dreams." )

Pan Am Games - winning it in Canada was huge! I don't remember much of the race, as it just flew by, but the medal is a constant reminder

My first race on the World Cup Circuit - Ishigaki Japan 1996. I had taken my release from the Army in Fall of 1995 with an aim of trying to make Olympics. That first World Cup was more than 8 months away, and I had no idea of how to train for a triathlon. When I finished 7th, I knew that I had made the right decisions and was on the right path.

6. (LB): . Other than the Olympics, which obviously was your biggest disappointment, can you tell us about some of your other disappointing races or "down" moments you experienced?

SD: There are many disappointing races, but you always take away something positive, or else, you find it pretty tough to go on. Some tough races were:

Japan Spring 2003 - 6km into the run portion of the race, I felt a pop in my upper calf and I couldn't take another step. I came home in a wheelchair and missed the entire summer race season due to a torn tendon (also missing opportunity to defend my Pan Am title)

World Champs 2003 - major asthma attacks reduced me to stopping the cycle portion and walking in the run. (this happened in a few races over my career)

February - July 2004 - had major shoulder surgery to replace a subscapularis tendon back to my shoulder. I could not swim for two months, and was slow progress when I did return. It was also difficult to run and cycle - but fought so hard to get back to compete at Edmonton July 2004 World Cup. It was the most pain and work I have had to overcome in my career.

7. (LB): You've said had the margin been more than 22 seconds between you and Samantha, you would have been better able to handle the disappointment. Can you tell us about how it felt?

SD: In a way that is true, but I also know that I look back and I couldn't have done anything more - whether the gap was 1 minute or 22 seconds. It doesn't matter. I had the swim of my life considering how far I had come from February on the operating table. But then the bike was beyond my control. With a large front pack unwilling to do the work required to increase the gap over the chase, I had my hands tied. I tried a few breaks with another athlete or two to try to get the pace going, but we would be chased down and then the pace would slow. Samantha was able to make a break from her pack and was able to stay away - that was the decisive move. In the run, I was running as fast as I could and I know that she is a quick runner - so I knew it would be very close. I look back and know that I couldn't have done any more.

8. (LB): . Was it hard to watch the Olympics from Canada?

SD: At first I was not going to watch it, but the local Kingston TV and radio station wanted me to comment on the races and other Olympic coverage so I had to watch them! It wasn't as hard as I thought, but it was frustrating as I knew that our team was not the best it could be

9. (LB): . How do you feel about the performance of our Canadian team?

SD: I don't think they performed to their potential. If you talk individually, then they performed the best they could on the day - the same as the rest of the whole Canadian Olympic Team. But that is not good enough. They all made mistakes and speaking to Simon after the race, he admitted that - he missed a decisive move by Bennett mid-way in the bike. In the women's race if you take individually I learned that injuries were partly to blame and poor race tactics was another. I believe that Jill could have done much better and possibly had a podium if the Canadian team and organization had planned to work as a team. I I had been training with Susan Williams from USA (she won bronze) and I knew what the Canadians needed to make it, but I also felt that Jill needed a teammate to work with her on the bike. But she had no one, because our other athletes were in other packs further down in the field. But Canada had not yet entertained the idea of having the athletes work together. The Europeans and some Americans are doing it with great success and I believe that it will happen more.

10. (LB): Which coaches helped you the most during your career?

SD: Ken Parker! - I still use some of the same training philosophies and sessions. But he was the one that finally got me onto the track to train (I hated it before and refused to run on it) He also was big proponent of long warm-ups. Tough to get used to, but we were never injured. He had an easy going, supportive attitude and I really loved running because of him. He also began my first and longest sponsor with his company Sirius Consulting Inc. He and his family came to watch me win Pan Am Games and suffer at Sydney. He has been and continues to be a great friend.
Col Stewart (Australian Coach) - tough guy! Biggest thing I learned was that you train as a triathlete and train for 4 disciplines: swim, bike, run & transition. Also, quickly learned to be prepared at all times as an athlete (eg. He tells us that the next day will be a swim and ride immediately after the swim - nothing more! That ride could be 1 hour or 4 hours. So I was always prepared with map, pockets of food, money and lots of spare tires!)
Lance Watson - importance of Tempo runs and big gear riding
Chris Jones (British National Coach) - easy going attitude produces results and he is open to ideas and changing programs to suit his athletes. We sat down prior to World Champs 2002 with Leanda Cave. I showed him the program I had prepared for myself and he brought out the one he made for Leanda and we both tweaked each others to accommodate our preparation together. She won the race and I came 8th. I joined him a few months later for winter training camp.
Siri Lindley (USA) - great motivator. She was always positive and perfect for me during such a hard time in my career, (dealing with career threatening injuries). She helped me to keep my mind focused and positive.
(I must clarify: neither of my two major injuries occurred during her coaching - the calf was before I joined up with her, I started with her as I was recovering from it. The shoulder injury was from a fall at the end of a cross-country ski session where I was standing still and just fell over!)
Myself - In a way, I am always self-coached. I have had a variety of coaches over the years and I get great things from all of them. I set up a my overall plan and then follow it through with what works best for me (that means doing some of it or not doing other parts)

11. (LB): How did you get started in triathlons?

SD: I was a competitive swimmer as a kid and competed at the National level for 5 years ranked in top 10 in country in fly and freestyle. But I went to Military College(RMC) instead of following a swimming scholarship as I didn't have the confidence that I could maintain my swimming for 4yrs without burnout. RMC had no swim team and the cross country team put me on their team (I hated it for that year) But slowly in my later years I began to like it, mainly because I liked the racing. During summer of 1987 (after third year university) I was on summer training at CFB Borden and a friend asked me to go with him to a triathlon. So I borrowed a bike and entered. I placed second in my age group and found myself hooked on a new sport. I went back for my fourth year of university and bought my first race bike with some other students on a group buy for $350 (I still have the bike!). Then I continued to compete in the age group categories whenever I had free time away from my job after graduating.

12. (LB): What do you think of the state of triathlons now?

SD: I think triathlons are doing great. Ironmans are always full and when new ones come on the calendar they quickly fill up. People often complain about the entry fee, but while people still line up to pay it a year in advance, there is really nothing more can be argued! Olympic Distance races of non-drafting variety are going strong and there are ever increasing numbers of other distances aimed at attracting newcomers. The ITU World Cup Circuit is very good with excellent prize money and a variety of races around the world (this must be looked at in comparison with other sports like mountain biking whose world cup schedule was decreased to 5 or 6 with minimal prize money). There are also ITU International races throughout the world with minimum prize money purses. All ITU races are equal prize money for men and women which is very important. With the addition of Off Road Triathlons (X-Terra) the exposure is only increasing for triathlon. There is also increasing participation in winter triathlon (sking, running and cycling). So all of these bode well for continued growth across all areas of triathlon

13. (LB): What are your thoughts on Nina Kraft's positive EPO admission at the Hawaii Ironman. Why do you think she did it?

SD: This question is a bit dated - so sorry! But I am disappointed obviously like everyone because it hurts the whole sport. I have no idea why she did it. I could never entertain the idea of performing enhancing drugs for two reasons 1) it is morally wrong (let alone illegal) 2) it is harmful to the body. I can' t even think why she did it, because I would never do it.

14. (LB): Has it darkened the sport? Can it recover from the negative press?

SD: It certainly put a damper on the triathlon and highlighted Ironman which hadn't been in the drug spotlight before (usually Olympic sports only). I think it will recover, but there are many still suffering and hopefully this means better testing for non-Olympic athletes as well.

15. (LB): Do you think drug use, even in the Olympic distance, is more prevalent than we care to think?

SD:It is so hard to say. I race and prepare thinking I am on a level playing field , to do otherwise, you would get too discouraged. That is why I admire Becky Scott. Her sport is rampant with drugs. But I think WADA is doing a good job. So in triathlon, it is probably there, but not as prevalent as other sports I think. You can also look are results. Everyone's times are doable. If one person was completely dominating with performances that would match singular discipline times (like doing a top 10km run time in a triathlon) then I would question. But everyone is pretty predictable

16. (LB): Did any of your competitors take performance-enhancing substances?

SD: I have no idea! A good sign I believe is that never in my 10 years of racing or training around the world was I ever approached by anyone offering to improve my performance by any other means that hard training.

17. (LB): What about the old stalwarts on the Canadian Team. After 2 disappointing Olympics, do you think Carol Montgomery will continue to race? Jill Savege?

SD: I believe that Carol will still continue to race. She enjoys racing and if she can make a living from it (with AAP at $1500/month, prize money and sponsor $ this is possible) then she will continue.

Jill I believe will try for another Olympics, so far, she is still the strongest triathlete in Canada) Also, she is making a good living from the sport, so she can continue without stresses of money.

18. (LB): Do you really think draft legal biking been good for the sport? Why?

SD: There was no option if they wanted to be in Olympics. You could say it has been good, because without it, there would be no Olympics. No Olympics would have meant minimal growth in the sport - it would continue to be age group based with an Ironman focus. There has been no decrease in the number of non-drafting races, in fact they have increased. Drafting basicly is another version of triathlon. One thing I like is that there is no cheating in non-drafting which I see a lot of in non-drafting racing. They just cannot properly officiate drafting on such a large course with so many participants.

19. (LB): You talked at one point about moving back to Ottawa after your professional triathlon career was over. Why are you staying in Kingston?

SD: Of course these decisions are family ones and my husband, Dave Rudnicki, is in the Canadian Forces which dictates where we live!. He spent one year on tour in Bosnia (Aug 2003-Aug 2004) and when he returned he learned that he would be posted to Kingston for 3-4 years. So we recently moved out of our military rental housing (the rents were getting way too high for the quality!) and bought a house just off our cycling route and close to the water. We may end up in Ottawa some day - but with a spouse who works in the Canadian Forces, one can never predict where one will live. But I do love it in Kingston for both the area and the wonderful community

20. (LB): Finally, your sponsors were obviously a key part of your success. What would you like to say to them now?

SD: My sponsors were a huge part of my success. And I have had a core group that have stuck with me throughout my career and others who were present for smaller periods of time, but so crucial for those times. I could not have achieved all of my successes and experiences without all of them. It takes the efforts of many to achieve success for one and that is how I look at it. I only hope that I was able to help them meet their expectations. I will continue to support my sponsors as I embark on my new path towards being a sports consultant.


About Lynne Bermel
Lynne Bermel was a world ranked Ironman Triathlete for 3 years with her best performances coming at the Australian Ironman where she finished second in a time of 9 hours and 21 minutes. She has 15 Ironmans to her credit, including top 5 finishes at the Japan Ironman, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Canada. She was also one of the most consistent Ironman performers on the circuit, finishing the majority under 10 hours.
Her progression to the Ironman from a track 800M and 1500M runner was a long one. Lynne ran her first 10K road race only because she wanted to go to an Avon 10K race in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and her coach told her she had to qualify by running a 10K in Ottawa if she wanted to go.
Lynne currently works as a consultant in Ottawa. She was an original member of the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team, having joined the club in 1981.

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