Having recently returned from a first European tour to race on the international triathlon circuit, 25-year-old Boksburg-based elite Lauren Dance sat down to answer a few questions on her love of the tri life. – BY SEAN FALCONER
MA: You took up triathlon at 18, with a background in swimming, athletics, lifesaving and biathlon. Was triathlon just the logical next step?
Lauren: I had always been active, so my parents got me involved in as many sports as possible to keep me busy and motivated. I was generally athletic and found I was pretty good at most sports, I loved being outdoors, and I was ultra competitive. When I was 17 going on 18 a family friend, Herman Steyn, who is involved in cycling, said I should give triathlon a try and organised me my first racing bicycle. I did my first tri with no training at all, and by luck met my current coach, Mike Moriarty, that day, but it was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I thought I will never do that to myself again. A few months later Mike contacted me and asked if I would like to give it a go, as he saw potential. I decided to try and turns out it was the best decision of my life… I found out what hard work and perseverance are, and what it’s like to have someone believe in you and test your limits every day. Triathlon is now my sole focus. It has grabbed my heart like nothing before.
MA: You won the junior category of your next race, at the old Energade Series. Did that light the fire in your belly to really give tri a go?
Lauren: That was the first proper tri I did after five months of coaching with Mike, and that lit a huge bonfire in my belly, as I started to see rewards for my hard work. I also realised how much more work I needed to do to be good, which was really motivating, because I was used to sport coming pretty easy for me, but this was hard. Mike was always very positive, so every training session and race he was always leading me to believe in my ability. Having a coach that is so passionate about what he does and believes in my big dreams is a real blessing, and makes the hard graft possible.
MA: What do you rate as the highlight of your tri career thus far? You were SA u23 Champ in 2011, and brought home a win in the junior section of the European Cup in Turkey, but what about more recent results?
Lauren: Wow, those results seem like a lifetime ago, but they are definitely highlights. When things get tough, I often think about those races to get me going again. Last year I came second in the African Championships in Zimbabwe, which is another highlight, and at the beginning of this year I had a really good race in Cape Town at the Africa Cup, coming second again, but I had made a few personal mini-breakthroughs that stand out for me.
MA: You’ve just returned from racing on the European Circuit. Tell us about the experience.
Lauren: I did a couple of ITU races and then a 5150 race. After my breakthrough race in February, I was in the best form of my life, mentally, physically and emotionally, and was planning a big season ahead. However, the day before SA Champs I went for a warm-up activation run and tripped over the pavement, twisted my ankle and tore a ligament in the process. The next few months proved the most testing, battling to stay fit, and I also struggled with bad bouts of flu and bronchitis. So this European tour was my first racing in five months and served as a big test for me. I was just super excited to be racing again, knowing that I was there for four weeks and would be able to work on my race fitness and training intensity.
The first race was a massive shock to the system, however, because the level of European racing is out of this world, but that motivated me to get back to decent training so that I would be at a competitive level by the time I got to race the Tiszauvjaros World Cup event. I was feeling ready for that, but the race turned out to be bitter-sweet. I had a decent swim to get me into a bike pack, then I worked hard on the bike and bridged the gap to the second pack and then also the lead pack, and for the first time in my tri career I was in the lead pack of an international race. However, a lack of experience cost me, because working much too hard on the bike in 36-degree heat proved fatal for my run. I watched the lead bunch of girls run away from me with no comeback in my body, and I ended the race unconscious in the medical tent with heat exhaustion. It was the best-worst race of my life, marking significant improvements and confirming belief in me, but inexperience ruining any chance of a lifetime best performance against some of the best athletes in the world.
MA: You’ve already represented SA at World Champs, African Champs, the All Africa Games and World Cup events. What does wearing national colours mean to you?
Lauren: Representing your country never loses its magic, and racing at the big events is both special and the most terrifying thing at the same time. I love that and crave that feeling.
MA: You studied sport psychology at the University of Johannesburg and are now busy with your Honours in sport science, but you’re also racing full-time. How do you fit it all in?
Lauren: I am extremely lucky that UJ supports me so much and has allowed me to finish my degree part-time, giving me enough time for training and racing while still passing, so I will still be finishing my studies next year. After that I will need to look at ways in which to pay for my tri dreams. At the moment I am fortunate to have some solid people and brands that are supporting me, allowing me to pursue my goals: M.A.D. Multisport, Schaldor Plastics, ASG Sport Solutions – Pinarello and Rudy Project, Irwin Wheelsets, and XTERRA Wetsuits.
MA: What about hopes and dreams – I would imagine the Olympics feature high on your bucket list?
Lauren: My aim is to be able to fulfil my potential, which will hopefully be good enough for an Olympic Games or two, as well as Commonwealth Games. I do, however, look forward to racing the longer distances, like 70.3, when I am ready to make the move up.