Heather Jackson sealed her fate as America’s triathlon sweetheart with a remarkable third place finish at the 2016 Ironman World Championship—the first Kona podium finish for an American female since 2006 and an important progression from her 2015 fifth place. Now, just two weeks after her powerful performance on the Big Island, Jackson has touched down in another tropical paradise, Aruba, where she’ll compete in the inaugural Challenge Aruba Half (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run) on Sunday. Here’s what the ever-humble star had to say on arrival in Aruba.
Triathlete.com: We’re two weeks post-Kona. Has what you accomplished sunk in?
Heather Jackson: No! It still has not sunk in. On the flight over here Wattie [Sean Watkins, Jackson’s husband] asked me to try to jot down some thoughts, but I’m still just…yeah, I don’t know quite how to digest it.
Triathlete.com: On a related note, are you generally a confident person? Because you really kicked butt in Kona. Did you have that confidence in yourself?
Jackson: I’m working on it. That’s one of the things I’m trying to work on, between Wattie and then my coach, Joe Gambles. All year, every time I said, “But I won’t be up there with them [the top women],” Joe was like, “Well why won’t you be? Why can’t you be up there?” He’s helped me try to get my head around the fact that I can if I do certain things in training and then believe it myself. This whole year helped, and I also feel more confident after this Kona that last year wasn’t just a fluke fifth or a lucky chance. I know some people were saying that. But I went in knowing the race from fifth and I placed higher. This year I worked to improve that position and I was able to, so that gave me a little boost. But I’m still working on my confidence.
Triathlete.com: Let’s talk about teamwork. As a former hockey and soccer player, I assume you thrive in a team dynamic. Obviously you and Wattie are a tight team, and you seem to be working really well with Joe. Tell us a little about what those support roles mean to you.
Jackson: The team part of it is huge for me. I think that was part of my progression the first few years of the sport, not really having that and kind of feeling—not exactly lost, but I mean I would do the training and go to races and I didn’t have that hockey team where you’re sharing in a win or loss with 30 other people. Wattie’s been by my side since day one, which is huge, and what he always says to me is that at the end of the day, we still have each other. So whether I win or lose, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day—and that always takes the pressure off. And it’s been helpful as I’ve been able to add the key people in my team, like Joe for this entire year. I’m so thankful to Cliff [English], who had been my coach for three years, but I needed something new and I needed new training. It was just a progression for me; I was kind of bored and uninspired. With Joe, it couldn’t have gone better. It’s always risky, changing coaches, but he’s brought all that and more. He’s brought not only new workouts, which I love, but also the confidence side, and then just being there as a friend supporting me, as well as a coach. And my family—it’s not that they’re taking more of a role, but they’ve been able to come to 90 percent of my races this year, which is huge. I have that whole crowd and it helps me. I’ve figured that out.
Triathlete.com: Did your family make the trip to Aruba?
Jackson: Yeah, my parents are both racing and my sister and her husband will be on the side with drinks!
Triathlete.com: You worked hard on improving your swim this year and you went 58:56 in Kona. Since we’re here in Aruba—another non-wetsuit swim—do you have any tips to share with anyone racing in warm water?
Jackson: Technique-wise, my legs sink, so the biggest tip I can give is that you have to really focus on keeping your chest down. Push the chest down and keep your body as buoyant as you can, because you don’t have that wetsuit. And also, try not to fear the open water, which has been one of my issues. Just embrace it. Go with the waves, if that makes sense. You have to obviously make your way through them and make your way through the course, but don’t fight it. Just try to go with it as you’re swimming.
Triathlete.com: What inspired you to race Challenge Aruba? Why not just hang it up on a high note after Kona?
Jackson: Challenge Aruba was actually one of the first races that was on my schedule this year. They announced it early on and Bob Babbitt was the one that told us about it originally. He had gone down earlier in the year and just raved about it. And as an east coaster, it was always one of the spring break trips that people would take. I always heard about it but never went to those destination spots—I was always working all summer and over spring breaks, but I would always hear about Aruba. I was just hoping that Kona would go well this year to make it extra enjoyable!
Follow Sunday’s Challenge Aruba action here.