Kona’s Youngest Competitor is a Triathlete for Life
19 year-old Rachel Welsford followed her father's footsteps into triathlon, but now she's blazing her own path - one that takes her to this year's Ironman World Championship.
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Ask Rachel Welsford when she became a triathlete, and she’ll tell you she was simply born that way. Some of her earliest memories are of watching her father, Robert, race, then following in his footsteps by racing in the Tri Kids Series in Ontario with her sisters.
“As I was growing up and started to enjoy the sport more and more, I moved up from the kids’ races to give-it-a-try, sprint, and Olympic distances,” Welsford says. “My dad invited me to train more and more with him, and I really enjoyed it. The time spent with my father is truly the reason I loved triathlon.”
During adolescence, a time when fathers and daughters typically grow apart, Welsford and her dad built a close relationship during trainer sessions in their “pain cave” or on snowy runs. “During a time in high school where my mental health was not the greatest, I would sit in my room and feel down about myself, but watching my dad training for Ironman helped me turn that around. I enjoyed hearing about how tough it was but somehow, he would finish the race and would put some sort of comical spin on the story, which made it that much more appealing to me.”
Inspired to conquer some challenges of her own, Welsford signed up for a half-Ironman. Shortly after, her father qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kona via the Legacy program, which awards athletes a spot in the race after completing 12 or more full-distance Ironman-branded races. Watching her father race in Hawaii fueled her motivation to tri even more.
“My father’s best friend said, ‘Rachel, you do know that if you want to come back here, you’re going to have to qualify,’” Welsford says. “’You can take the long route like your father did and go Legacy, or you can qualify while you’re still young and your father will still pay for it.’”
Welsford, only 16 at the time, wasn’t even old enough to race an Ironman, which requires participants to be 18 or over. But the seed was planted, and it grew until 2020, when during a training session her dad floated the idea of doing Ironman Mont-Tremblant the following year, after she turned 18. “At that point, it was official – it became the goal,” Welsford says.
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But the young triathlete’s Ironman debut would have to wait. The COVID pandemic delayed the race for a year, and Welsford filled the time with fun adventures with her dad, like shorter-distance events and obstacle-course racing. Finally, in 2022, she toed the line at Ironman Mont-Tremblant. “The experience was more than I could have ever imagined possible,” says Welsford of her first Ironman. “It was a rollercoaster of emotions.”
The memory that stands out the most from that day is on the run course, where she crossed paths with her father (who was also doing the race): “I saw my dad and he said, “Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re in third place right now and I will see you at the finish line.’”
Could she actually be within striking distance of a Kona spot? Welsford dug deep and ran hard to the finish line, where her dad had already crossed and was waiting with a big hug. “That was it, the crying began,” Welsford says. “For nearly two years, we had trained for this event. I couldn’t have been happier than I was in that moment.”
The next morning, at the awards ceremony and Kona slot allocation rolldown, the Welsfords waited with bated breath as announcer Mike Reilly announced who was going to Hawaii. Welsford’s name was on that list. “I thought I couldn’t get more excited than I was with finishing Ironman, but as Mike Reilly was calling my name for the slot allocation, it was just incredible. My support crew went ballistic even before my name was finished being called.”
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Most 19 year-olds aren’t spending hours training for an Ironman, much less the World Championships, but Welsford couldn’t see her life any other way. Her passion for the sport is what makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning for a run before going to her job at McDonald’s or to class at Centennial College, where she is a sophomore majoring in Health and Fitness Promotion.
“There were times we do a 6-8 hour training day, then I would need to go and work a 6-hour shift or sometimes even an overnight shift,” Welsford says. “Those days were really difficult, with achy tired legs and eyes that did not want to stay open. But that helps build the mental toughness required for Ironman.”
The long days and hard training will all be worth it when Welsford hears the start cannon fire at the 2022 Ironman World Championship, where she will be the youngest competitor in the field. “I’m excited about racing in such a beautiful place, and I’m excited to get out there and make my family and myself proud,” says Welford. “Training has been a lot of hard work, and it’s paying off. I can’t imagine my life without being a triathlete.”
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