Tuesday 24 April 2018

'What was I so scared of?' - Eurovision winner Eimear Quinn on her new passion

Growing numbers of women are signing up to the challenge of triathlon and its unique combination of running, cycling and swimming. Fans of the discipline tell Kathy Donaghy why it's a great way to make friends and stay in shape - at any age

Eimear Quinn. Photo; Gerry Mooney
Eimear Quinn. Photo; Gerry Mooney
Eimear Quinn in the Eurovision Song Contest (1996)
Triathlon competitor Eimear Quinn
Berenice Maher (right) and her daughter Maeve
Eurovison Winner and keen Triathlete Eimear Quinn at her home in Carrickmacross. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Eimear Quinn

The sport of triathlon first came on singer Eimear Quinn's radar about a decade ago when she was working with a group of musicians who were involved in it. The Eurovision winner, who now lives in rural Co Monaghan with her family, says she thought no more about it. But the memory of it came back to her during a conversation with her daughters, Joelene, aged eight and Marlene, age five, one day as the girls talked about what they wanted to do and be when they grew up.

"They were saying they wanted to be singers and to be mammies. Your heart swells with pride when you realise they want to be just like you. It's such a big responsibility and I felt I better be sending the right message to them," says Eimear (45).

While she'd always cycled as a child growing up in Dublin and loved swimming too, running was not something she'd ever really considered as Eimear had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis nearly 25 years ago.

But when medical advice began moving in a different direction - telling people it was good to run if you didn't have inflammation of the joints - Eimear tentatively began to run and started doing spin classes, which rekindled her love of cycling.

Berenice Maher (right) and her daughter Maeve
Berenice Maher (right) and her daughter Maeve

She mentioned to her friend Geraldine McNally that she'd always been interested in doing a triathlon. "Geraldine is the kind of person who, once she gets an idea, she'll just go for it. Once I mentioned a triathlon and she said 'just do it'."

Last spring, on a borrowed bike, Eimear and Geraldine did a 40k bike challenge and realised she loved being on the road. She began going to the pool more regularly. The biggest challenge was building up her running, but she preserved.

On a windswept day last June, Eimear and Geraldine strode out to take on the challenge of a sprint distance triathlon in Blackrock, Co Louth. A sprint distance involves a 750m swim, a 20k bike ride followed by a 5k run.

"We were walking down the slipway into the water and we didn't have a clue what we were doing. It was comical. But we said 'let's just give it a go - what's the worst that can happen?' We wanted to start and finish together. It wasn't a race for us. It was an experience," says Eimear.

As the rain lashed and the wind whipped the sea, they battled through rough conditions on the swim. Eimear says they laughed their way around the cycle course when it came to the run, they took their time by running a bit, walking a bit, all the while singing Abba songs along the 5k route.

"Coming over the finishing line my husband Noel was there with the girls and it was very emotional. I was so happy for me. I wanted to normalise this for the girls so they see events like this as fun," says Eimear.

Eurovison Winner and keen Triathlete Eimear Quinn at her home in Carrickmacross. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Eurovison Winner and keen Triathlete Eimear Quinn at her home in Carrickmacross. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"I was so proud and amazed that I'd done it. It's a completely do-able activity particularly if you go for a 'try-a-tri' first. When I look back I ask myself what was I so scared of? That's not to take away from the achievement but everybody can do this," she says.

"For women of any age, for women who have kids and who are trying to find their way back to exercise, a triathlon is amazing. I feel stronger and fitter and more resilient now after triathlon then I ever have at any other stage of my life," says Eimear.

Berenice Maher (66), originally from Clonee, Co Meath may be new to triathlon but she's become a regular on the podium at events picking up awards in her age group.

For Berenice whose parents both died at the age of 65, turning 64 was a pivotal moment in her life and she wanted to do something "significant". Her daughter Maeve (31), had been involved in triathlon for a few years and Berenice felt it might be something she could do herself.

While she'd only learned to swim at the age of 50, Berenice's early life as a teacher in Dublin saw her cycle everywhere. Having lived on a farm on the Donegal-Derry border for the last 38 years she began to run in a field beside her house. She also joined the local triathlon club in nearby Derry City.

In 2014 she did her first sprint distance triathlon and describes the feeling as "incredible". A year later she signed up for the Firmus City of Derry Triathlon, but had a setback afterwards when she broke her arm. She got back in the saddle and has since done numerous triathlons.

For Berenice what keeps her going is the camaraderie between people on the same journey. "People could not be more encouraging of me. I'm competitive with myself but the friendships keep me coming back," says Berenice.

On August this year just a few months before her 67th birthday, Berenice will take on a half Ironman event in Dublin which involves a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride and a 13 mile run.

"It's been a huge learning curve. I've some experience but I'm still pretty new. The main thing is I'm loving it. I'd love people to realise that it doesn't matter what age you are - you can start anytime. My body is working well for me. I'm fit and able and I'll keep doing this for as long as I can do it," says Berenice.

In the future Berenice would love to represent Ireland in her age group at world triathlon events. "To put on the Irish bib - that would be my goal," she says.

Her daughter Maeve Maher-McWilliams (31), an ecologist, who lives in Dublin's Blackrock, is rightly proud of her mother's achievements. Having been involved in triathlon since 2011, Maeve, who recently moved to Dublin says one of the first things she did was find a triathlon club.

"I did the same thing when I moved to Glasgow a few years-ago. It's just a great way to integrate yourself. The social aspect is great," says Maeve. "It's time out from work too. By the time you come home from training you've forgotten all about the stresses of your day. You get to meet up with your training buddies and take time out," she says.

And she says her self-confidence has grown since she started triathlon. "It gives you body confidence. You are getting into a swimming suit all the time. I'd like to think I've become more confident," she adds.

When Liz Havlin-Wilson (51) from Inishowen in Co Donegal signed up for a 'try-a-tri' event in Derry a few years ago, she couldn't put her face in water, never mind swim hundreds of metres. Today, countless triathlons later, she's a dedicated open water swimmer and took part in a 3k swim in the River Foyle in Derry City last year.

In 2007 Liz, an adviser with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS), had begun to get ill. "I felt nauseous all the time and toxic ­- that's the way I was because my liver had stopped functioning properly," she says.

Liz, who's a mum to three grown up children, was diagnosed with auto-immune hepatitis with a biopsy in early 2008. She found herself in hospital being told her health situation was chronic.

Raising a family, the break-up of her marriage and the death of her parents had all taken their toll and Liz says while she'd always tried to be healthy, she was always last on the list of people to be taken care of.

She went for counselling, changed her diet and became serious about exercising signing up for a couch to 5k in 2014 with Inishowen Athletics Club. While she describes her first 5k run as torturous, she loved the sense of achievement and says she never looked back.

In 2015 her cousin Martina Callaghan told her about the 'try-a-tri' event being organised in Derry City by local triathlete Carmel Lynch-Bradley - she encouraged Liz to give it a go.

The programme gave newbie triathletes a chance to get coached in swim, bike and run sessions. At the end of the six week training programme the women took part in a special triathlon event, a shorter version of the sprint triathlon.

The hardest part for Liz was the swim. "I couldn't really swim. I signed up for it and I thought 'what am I at?'. I could only do a bit of breast stroke with a doggy paddle. At the first training session, I remember sitting by the side of the pool and watching how everyone was doing. The self-doubt was horrendous. I had to get out of the main pool and go into the baby pool. I couldn't even put my face in the water. On the second session I thought I was having a panic attack, but the coach was so kind and encouraged me every step of the way," she says.

Liz took extra lessons in the pool and while she was terrified she was determined she was going to go for it. In November 2015 she completed the 'try-a-tri' and immediately signed up for the Liam Ball Triathlon Sprint Triathlon in Derry. This involved a pool swim of 750m, the equivalent of 30 lengths, a 20m bike ride and 5k run.

Her journey to being an accomplished open water swimmer has not been smooth - she has battled choppy seas, heart-stoppingly cold water and swathes of jelly fish - but she's not been deterred. Now she has her heart set on a 5.5k swim in Lough Swilly from Rathmullan to Buncrana in Co Donegal this summer.

"The sense of achievement you have when you cross the line knowing you've swam 750k, cycled for 20k and then done a 5k run all in one day is great. I would never have thought of myself as athletic but I do have determination and if I can do it, anyone can. You'll never regret it."

'Triathlon is a lot more  achievable than people think  

* Women make up 35pc of the membership of Triathlon Ireland and it's hoped that this figure will reach 50pc in the near future. For an endurance sport like triathlon, a 35pc women's participation rate is seen as excellent. However, Triathlon Ireland is running a campaign to encourage more women to give triathlon a tri, either by joining a club or signing up to a 'try-a-tri' event in their local area.

"We have a whole strategy based on encouraging women into the sport. We have races where there are starting waves with only women and want to encourage women into more leadership positions at club level," says Triathlon Ireland spokesman Kevin Keane.

He adds they are keen to dispel the myth of triathlon being focused on elite male athletes and says there's a challenge for everyone no matter what level you're at.

* "Triathlon is a lot more achievable than people think. It gives everyone the opportunity to be extraordinary no matter what age or gender they are. By taking part in a triathlon, you've done something extraordinary. It's all about taking part, about being fit, about pushing yourself and surprising yourself," says Keane.

* For more information check out triathlonireland.com

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