Triathlete Aileen Morrison Dreams of Gold

The London 2012 Games represent the pinnacle of her sport, and the Northern Irish athlete is up to the challenge

Aileen Morrison’s life-long liking for swimming, cycling and athletics has led to a natural conclusion – joining them together. It was a good decision for the 29 year old Lisburn-based triathlete, who guaranteed her chance to compete at the London 2012 Olympic Games at a World Cup triathlon event in Korea in October 2011.

'When we were growing up in Derry, we used to spend our holidays in Donegal and I would do a lot of swimming in the sea. I loved it,' says Morrison, who is ranked 15th in the world. 'I was a competitive swimmer at school, where I also did cross country and athletics and tried out some triathlons, which were great fun.'

After a period of travelling, Morrison got back into the sport at a more serious level with the North West Triathlon Club. An invitation followed to join a development camp with Triathlon Ireland, where she came under the guidance of her coach, Chris Jones.

Since then Morrison’s performances in European and World Championship competition have steadily improved. There have been gold medal finishes in Hong Kong and Antalya in Turkey, a silver medal in Korea and a bronze in Hamburg. Top ten finishes elsewhere have included Athlone, where Morrison got the chance to be among those she knows and love.

'For me that was really special because I was competing on home soil. My parents and family and many of my friends were able to make it along. They were able to witness what all the hard work I’ve been doing has been about.'

Olympic triathlon is a hard sport. A 1,500 metre swim in open water is followed immediately by a 40 kilometre bike ride and ends with a ten kilometre road run. In her first European event of 2012, Morrison felt the full force of an opponent five minutes into the swim at Quarteria in Portugal.

'I got a fist full of knuckles in the face from a girl who was swimming beside me. And then she pulled my hat off. I shouldn’t have retaliated, but I did. I wasn’t going to let her get away with that and I gave her a shove. It didn’t do either of us any good and we went our different ways.

'Women’s racing can be really bitchy. You know to expect it and you do have to get on with it. I didn’t know who she was because in the water we are all wearing pink hats and black wet suits. I panicked for a moment and became distracted when I should have been focused on the race. At this level I should be at the top end of the scale.'

However, Morrison’s recovery from that incident is, perhaps, an indication of how durable an athlete she has become and how, in the face of adversity, she is able to cope.

'All of that nonsense allowed the lead group to get away and I had to pull out the stops to make up the time. I was able to do a fast transition from the water on to the bike and keep in touch. In the 10K race I really put on a spurt and managed to finish second. That punch to the face possibly cost me first place, but I’ll learn from it.'

Morrison’s coach, Chris Jones, who is Triathlon Ireland’s high performance director, had reasons to be cheerful with that second place. 'I’m really pleased with how Aileen turned it around. The swim was very physical and she got a little bit beaten up. To bike hard in the chase pack and pull out a 35 minute 10k at the end of it all is very impressive.'

Between now and the women’s Olympic triathlon on Saturday August 4, Morrison’s road to Hyde Park, London is taking her to Australia and Japan as she aims to peak at the right time.

'August is when it counts and these first events of the season give an indication of who is going well. There will be some triathletes who are recovering from injuries and little niggles and they will be ironing out those problems.'

Triathletes have to give total dedication to the demands placed on them. Their days are divided between gym work, road racing, endurance cycling and hours spent in the pool.

'I do exactly what my coach and all my advisors tell me,' says Morrison. 'I follow every thing that is prepared for me on my training schedule. The way I look at it is this: if I were doing my own schedule, I might be too hard or too easy on myself and not see the bigger picture. It’s all about trust. They are looking after my best interests and it’s up to me to put the work and get the best result I can both for myself and for them.'

And when it comes to thinking about who may have been the sporting role models that Morrison has looked up to, we might all be surprised with her choices.

'I could say it was Sonia O’Sullivan, Kelly Holmes or Paula Radcliffe, but that would be wrong. I think about my older sister Ruth, who was an international swimmer for Ireland. I’ve always looked up to her. And when I was with the Irish junior cross country team, there were the girls who ran in the Ireland senior team. They were the ones who inspired me.'