Thanks so much to IMPACT magazine for writing such a nice article and putting me on their cover this month!
The stunning arrival of triathlete wunderkind Paula Findlay
By Chris Welner
One of these days, Paula Findlay is going to have to stop being awestruck about her status as one of the world’s great triathletes.
A red-headed pixie who you could mistake for being a member of a high school glee club, Findlay has won three of the last four ITU World Championship Series triathlons, including this season’s opening race. Every time, she looks and sounds surprised crossing the finish line:
“The whole season was a big surprise.”
“I was in total shock.”
“I can’t believe it.”
Believe it Paula. Believe it big time, because you are the one being chased. You have London’s Olympic Rings figuratively tattooed on your backside in full view of all the competition that you have been running into the ground from Austria to Australia.
In less than a year, the Edmonton native has risen to the top of a sport that taxes the body and mind in so many ways as athletes swim, bike and run to superhuman limits. Findlay, who turns 22 on May 25, has soared from a world ranking of 53 to No. 3 in less than a year. She’s ranked No. 1 for the 2012 Olympic Games. And while you won’t find her on the statistical leaderboard for the swim or cycle, Findlay is proving herself to be triathlon’s best runner.
“The whole season was a big surprise. I wasn’t expecting to be able to compete with those girls after racing under-23 in 2009,” says Findlay. “I was just building up Olympic distance experience and hoping for top-20 finishes. I don’t know how it happened; just a lot of hard work, I guess.”
“I’ve never actually met an athlete as determined, focused and organized as Paula,” says her coach, Patrick Kelly. “With Paula, we don’t have the best swimmer or biker, but she runs very well, very fluid and she has very big aerobic capacity. It’s something physiological — like Lance Armstrong.
“Some people just want to be competitive, but Paula loves to race and loves to win.”
Findlay made headlines last July, when, in a 68-racer field competing on the Olympic course in London, the woman with No. 53 taped onto her limbs won in her first elite World Championship Series race.
“I was in total shock. I don’t think I understood the significance of the race,” she says.
Three weeks later, Findlay was back in Europe, a little under the weather and jet-lagged from another transatlantic crossing. This time she was racing in the ski resort town of Kitzbuhel, Austria. Again she won the $18,000 first prize, despite being struck in the head in the crush of the swim and losing a contact lens.
“Kitzbuhel was a lot more difficult and I wasn’t feeling well — London was almost effortless — but I was just as excited and just as surprised,” Findlay says.
The latest trophy she hauled home came from Sydney, Australia in April when she edged out Barbara Riveros Diaz of Chile by two seconds in the season opening World Championship Series race. That race featured another swim crash, another lost contact lens.
“Going into Sydney I was kind of nervous with new sponsors, more people knew my name. And I had no idea where I’d be. I just wanted to run with the leaders. It turned out well,” she says. “There was a little less shock factor this time. I was more happy to know I hadn’t lost it over the winter, that I was still at the top of my game.”
In four career WCS races, Findlay has won three and placed fifth in the other, last year’s Grand Final in Budapest. Austalian Emma Snowsill scorched the field when she ran a 33 minute, 8 second 10K — Findlay had the second best run at 35:02 — to win that race by one minute, 43 seconds.
“I envy Paula, at 22 just starting her career. I think, ‘Oh that’d be fun. I could do that again,’” says Simon Whitfield, Canada’s most decorated triathlete, with more than 25 international wins, including Olympic gold and silver medals. At 36, a father of two, Whitfield’s triathlon career is waning, but he intends to be wearing Canadian colours at the Olympics in London.
As he watches the nation’s rising star take care of business on the race courses and at their training home in Victoria, B.C., Whitfield marvels at her results.
“We knew Paula was going to be good, that she was going to win races; but I don’t know if anyone knew it would happen that quickly. She got to races in really good shape — but with no expectations. Fifth would have been great, 10th would have great. And she goes off and wins those races! With no pressure, that was a perfect scenario to perform,” say Whitfield. “It’s been really fun to watch as she does her thing and I get to sit in the peanut gallery. She’s very impressive — the epitome of quietly getting the work done. It’s very impressive and it’s working.”
But expectations are rising, particularly returning to London for the 2012 Games. This year’s WCS race in London in August will follow the Olympic course, a tweaked route that crosses through the grounds of Buckingham Palace. And Findlay is racing this year with the benefit, and added weight, of new corporate sponsors. Whitfield cautions about taking on too much sponsorship, noting that corporate obligations can distract from training.
“Now the pressure begins,” says Whitfield. “It’s one thing to make it to the top; it’s another thing to stay there. I’m confident she has the ability to rise to the challenge. She’s very intelligent. The fear I have is that people smother her. You have to let her make mistakes and learn from them.”
Findlay certainly has the pedigree for success. Her father Max Findlay is one of the country’s premier neurosurgeons and a sub-three hour marathon runner with a bulldog personality that Paula inherited.
Her mom Sheila, a respiratory therapist, ran track at the University of Toronto and rowed single skulls for Canada at the world championships, while brother Colin, 18, is an Alberta indoor rowing champion. Paula is part way through a sciences degree at the University of Alberta and hopes to follow her parents into the health care field one day.
“If I sense she’s overburdened, I tell her coach. My role is just to be her mom and listen to the things that bug her,” says Sheila Findlay.
“She can’t tell other people if her coach is bugging her, if her roommate’s bugging her. You don’t get to where she is by being easy to get along with — she’s tough, she’s smart. She knows what she wants.” Findlay’s coach is well aware the temperature around her is creeping into global warming territory and he’s taking steps to cool things down.
“It’s not easy to repeat. Paula understands there’s more pressure, more distractions and greater expectations from everyone,” says Kelly. “We have to help her reduce that external noise.”
A competitive swimmer since age 11, Paula took up track at St. Francis Xavier High School in Edmonton and competed in triathlon. She swam on the varsity team at the U of A. She stepped onto the world triathlon stage at the 2006 World Junior Championships in 2006 and finished 13th in a race won by her Canadian teammate Kirsten Sweetland. Findlay has had a series of victories over several age-group classes and categories before last season’s leap onto the big stage, including a victory at home in Edmonton at the 2007 Pan American junior championships.
She’ll be back racing in her hometown on July 10 in the Edmonton ITU Triathlon World Cup, looking to step back on that podium. That means training 25-plus hours a week: six days in the pool, six days on the bike and five runs along the way. She’s in bed early every night and rarely steps out to socialize. She keeps her gaze firmly affixed on training and triathlon, albeit with stakes raised because of her breakthrough world-class performances.
“I’ve learned to keep things in perspective, stay grounded and not let those results get to my head,” says Findlay. “After every race I won, I still felt inferior to those girls. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m better and faster than everyone else and I’m going to win every race.’ It’s still amazing and I can’t believe what’s happening.”
A year ago, Findlay had no idea she was even in this league.
“The expectations are making me very nervous,” she admits. “Even after winning in Kitzbuhel, I was new to the whole thing. Now I’m going into these races expecting to be a podium contender every time.
“I’m really confident in my running and if I get out of the swim in the lead pack and stay with leaders in the bike, I know I’m having a good day.
“I’m excited, but I’m scared. I was a huge underdog. No one knew my name.”