As triathlete Lucy Charles-Barclay crossed the finish line in Slovakia last weekend, she could scarcely believe what she had just done.
The 28-year-old became 2022 World Triathlon Long Distance Champion but the circumstances behind her victory made it all the more impressive. The Brit hadn’t raced for 11 months after suffering a hip stress fracture - an injury that could be ‘career ending’ if you’re unlucky or you don’t manage it properly - and her outing in Slovakia was her first competition back.
As comeback races go, you’d be hard pushed to find a better result than that. While 2022 has proved to be an incredibly challenging period so far for Charles-Barclay, all the hard work and determination certainly seems worth it now.
“The year itself has been really tough but I felt like I was getting back to a good shape and good fitness and there was this race opportunity, which was a world championship and a world title on the line,” the Red Bull athlete told Mirror Sport .
“I felt like it was the way I wanted to come back. It was a big ask to go there and think that I could win the world title and, although that was kind of the ultimate goal, I didn’t really want to dream that big because I wasn’t sure where I would be.
“Actually to go there and win the race was a dream come true and the best comeback I could have ever dreamed of after the injury. It’s probably starting to sink in but now I’ve got more goals and more races that I’m looking towards.”
Even before the race got underway, Charles-Barclay allowed herself to take in the emotion of the occasion. After all, when it’s been almost a year without doing what you love - racing - it’s bound to hit home as you prepare to line up on the startline.
“Racing was always why I did sport because I loved it so much,” she added. “Even before the race - in the transition area where I had my bike and all my gear - I almost felt a little bit emotional then because it was like, ‘wow I’m actually back from this injury’.
“It’s an injury that can be career ending if you’re not sensible with it or if you’re unlucky. For me I just wanted to enjoy every moment of actually being back racing because, at the time I was diagnosed with the injury, you didn’t actually know if it was going to be possible or how far away it was going to be until I was racing again.
“All the specialists that I spoke to said, ‘Lucy, you need to write this year off and maybe look to 2023’. I had goosebumps before the race even started and just felt so happy to be back on the startline again.”
"To have all of that taken away is like having the rug pulled from underneath you"
Before injury struck, Charles-Barclay had started to enjoy remarkable success after she secured her first ever world title last year - the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. As a result she was ready to tackle the following season with renewed enthusiasm, with the Ironman World Championships, coming up in October this year, one of the tournaments she was really targeting.
For context, Charles-Barclay had finished runner-up at that championship three times in a row, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Once that first 2021 world title was secured no doubt the confidence was high that more titles - rather than runner-up spots - would be coming her way this year.
But then the injury struck. Charles-Barclay had started to feel pain in her hip while training but didn’t think it was too significant. After getting it scanned she was left stunned by the extent of the injury, which could easily have developed into a major fracture had it been left untreated or if she had continued to race.
“It was difficult in the beginning because my identity is an athlete, I train every single day and I get enjoyment from training and get that real buzz when I do a great session,” she said.
“That’s the kind of thing that keeps me very positive in my mindset. To have all of that taken away is like having the rug pulled from underneath you, it’s really tough.
“It was tough and then I was starting to make progress, which was great, and then all the racing started and that made it hard again. I knew I should have been on that startline and at the end of last year I was doing the best I’d ever done, winning world titles and then to just be sat on the sideline watching was really difficult.”
Many people could easily have become disheartened and frustrated facing up to that type of injury adversity after riding the high of that first world title. But Charles-Barclay is one determined individual and fighting back to become stronger was always at the forefront of her mind.
“Looking at this injury is just another challenge that I need to overcome,” she explained. “Yes, it’s a pretty big challenge but we’re going to overcome it and we’re going to come out the other side better.
“I think it definitely sums up my personality that we’re going to overcome things and whatever life throws at me I feel like, with the people around me and the team that I have, we’re always going to come out the other side better.”
"If you can see it you can believe it"
Charles-Barclay’s latest title, and her aims for even more when she competes at the Ironman World Championships in October out in Hawaii, are just another example of the growing wave that is women’s sport.
There have been countless examples this summer including the Lionesses’ historic achievements, as well as some brilliant performances at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, from the likes of the England women’s hockey team and their victory to Eilish McColgan securing 10,000m gold.
“I definitely feel like female sport is in a very positive place at the moment,” said Charles-Barclay. “I feel like there’s always room for growth and we’re still trying to catch up with the coverage of men’s sport. But with the likes of the Lionesses and people like Eilish [McColgan] - who I really do look up to - it’s just incredible to have those female role models.
“As a young female or young girl to see those role models - if you can see it you can believe it and it makes you think you can do it. To actually be able to see that, and the more coverage we can get, it’s just incredibly positive for our sport and the future looks bright for female sport at the moment.
“Within my sport of triathlon, I don’t really notice it until I go to races and I meet all the people that are watching. Obviously with the racing at the weekend there were lots of young girls watching, which was incredible to actually meet them and have photos with them, and almost just to hear that they’re being inspired by me is really incredible to hear.
“I hope I can continue to be that role model for them and help them to aspire to get into sport even if it isn’t triathlon. Sport is an incredible pathway for life and for any career.”
To find out more about Lucy Charles-Barclay, head to her Red Bull athlete profile page: https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/athlete/lucy-charles-barclay