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Lucy Charles-Barclay is Rewriting the Rules of Ironman Racing

The dent she puts into her competitors in the water is often insurmountable. She is, quite literally, rewriting how long-course tris are won. Meet Lucy Charles-Barclay.

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It’s a windy and warm April morning in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Lucy Charles-Barclay is standing on a beach a few feet from the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. Beside her are 11 other professional triathletes, all of whom want the title she’s there to defend. She waits with her hands on her hips, restlessly stretching and tweaking various portions of her powerful back muscles to make sure they’re primed to go. She’s a portrait of confidence, ready to do the one thing she naturally does best.

Almost every land-dwelling mammal can swim somehow. If you throw your dog in a lake, it will make its way back to shore no problem. If you toss your cat in a lake, it will eventually make it to shore but will hate you forever. Even the shiftless sloth can keep itself from drowning. Humans are one of the few exceptions. We have to learn how to swim, or at least the overwhelming majority of us do. There are a small percentage of people who appear to be truly natural swimmers, ingrained with some sixth sense that allows them to be as comfortable in water as they are on dry land. There’s no way to quantify how many humans have this innate aquatic ability, but Charles-Barclay is most definitely one of them.

Back when Michael Phelps was the most dominant athlete on the planet, journalists and broadcasters spoke at length about the physical attributes that made him the perfect swimmer: A massive wingspan, long torso, short legs, and large hands and feet. The things that have made Charles-Barclay among one of the top 0.01 percent of swimmers in the world appear less anatomical and more instinctive. She’s built much more proportionally than Phelps, and actually has pretty long legs for a swimmer of her ability. She stands 5 foot 7 inches tall and her wingspan is only slightly longer. She does have broad shoulders that sit atop imposing back muscles, and that’s the part of her anatomy that propels her through the water faster than all of her competitors. Gone are the days when the swim was simply the prelude to a bike-run battle; now the race truly starts at the cannon, thanks to Charles-Barclay.

As she waits for the signal on the beach in South Africa, she tugs at the arms and shoulders of her wetsuit to make sure it won’t get in the way of the stroke she’s spent her lifetime refining. For a fleeting moment, she’s reminded that there are creatures in the water bigger, faster, and hungrier than her. That momentary fear is thanks to her dad rewatching Jaws dozens of times while she was growing up, and it’s why you’ll never see her in the ocean before race day. “My imagination likes to play games,” she says. “Once the cannon goes off, I get into race mode, and it all goes away.”

She won’t be able to take full advantage of her signature discipline on this day because race organizers have made the difficult decision to cut the swim down to just one mile due to rough seas. Not that it matters, because Charles-Barclay has evolved into much more than just the greatest swimmer the sport has ever seen. She took the lead the moment she plunged into the Indian Ocean and didn’t relinquish it for the rest of the day.

Lucy Charles-Barclay
Photo: Graeme Murray/ Red Bull Content Pool

Born This Way

Born just north of London to parents Mark and Elaine, Charles-Barclay’s first memory involving water is from a family vacation to Mallorca when she was barely four: “I remember jumping into the deep end of the pool at our hotel and swimming the length of it—maybe 15 meters—to my mum and dad who were at the shallow end. My parents always told me about the look of terror and disapproval on the other guests’ faces as this little kid repeatedly launched herself into the deep end and then swam across. I was a bit of a terror as a child but I always had a natural knack for the water.”

It takes the right mix of nature and nurture to create a world-class athlete, and Charles-Barclay had the good fortune of growing up in Hoddesdon, which was home to one of England’s premier swimming clubs. She began swimming regularly and competing at age 8, but she was stubborn when it came to instruction. She wanted to swim her way—the way that naturally felt right for her to move through the water—and that meant swinging her arms at an extremely high rate and using her legs as little as possible. By age 9 she was beating kids three and four years older in events like the 200-meter butterfly, which she insisted her coaches sign her up for because it was the hardest event there was.

It turns out there’s a harder event out there—the 10K open-water swim—which is basically the swimming equivalent of a marathon. The event was making its second appearance at the London Olympic Games in 2012, which just so happened to be in Charles-Barclay’s backyard. In the pool, women could only race up to 800 meters at the Olympics, while the men raced the 1,650 (that will change for the first time at Tokyo 2020). In the open water, women have been competing in the same distance as the men since it made its Olympic debut in 2008. That was good news for Charles-Barclay, who is remarkably efficient and gets stronger as races wear on thanks to an innate aversion to kicking.

Throughout her development as a swimmer—from a 9-year-old beating the boys in butterly to an 18-year-old gunning to race the 10K in the Olympics—kicking has never really been her thing. While that might not be ideal for a sprinter, Charles-Barclay’s steadfast focus on the front quadrant of her stroke is what’s made her one of the most efficient swimmers on the planet. It’s efficiency that doesn’t go unnoticed; by age-group triathletes or world-class swimmers.

Keri-anne Payne was one of Charles-Barclay’s biggest rivals in the buildup to the 2012 Olympics and is one of Britain’s most decorated open-water swimmers. She took the silver medal at the Olympic open-water debut in 2008, and went on to finish fourth at the 2012 London Games. Now she’s a coach working with everyone from open-water elites to age-group triathletes learning to swim. She’s studied hundreds of the best open-water swimmers in the world—Charles-Barclay included—to help teach her students the most efficient methods of moving through the water.

“It’s interesting to see how she’s exploited her swimming background to race Ironman so well,” Payne says. “You want to get on the bike using as little energy as possible, but she also knows she has to use the swim as her weapon. So any effort she is putting out in the water, it’s all done while saving her legs for the rest of the race.”

Before Payne was a coach studying Charles-Barclay’s technique, the two were fierce rivals vying for something in very short supply. Making the Olympics in the 10K swim might be harder than qualifying for any event in any sport. In the pool, swimmers compete in 16 different events with many having upwards of 50 international qualifiers. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, 899 swimmers from 174 countries competed in the pool. Just 51 swimmers (26 women and 25 men) from 30 countries competed in the 10K. The open-water arm of the sport has lobbied the International Olympic Committee to expand the field for the 10K, but as it stands, athletes from highly-competitive nations like the U.S. and UK basically need to finish top 10 at the world championships to have a chance of fulfilling their Olympic dreams. It’s extremely rare for a country to have more than one athlete on the start line.

Lucy was just 17 at the test event for the London Olympics in August of 2011, where she finished as the top Brit in a time of 2:08:52, which put her 16th out of 20 finishers. She was more than six minutes behind the winner, but considering it was her first 10K, she was immediately pegged as Britain’s next open-water prodigy. She was a pretty good distance swimmer in the pool, but she had Olympic-medal potential once you got rid of the walls and made the race a whole lot longer.

“I was a kid racing against the fastest women in the world on the same course that would be used for the Olympics,” Charles-Barclay remembers. “It was like a mini-Olympics for me and it’s still one of my most memorable races.”

She continued to improve in the open water, and managed to beat Payne at the Great North Swim—the largest open-water race in Britain—in the buildup to the 2012 Games. But when it came time for the Olympic selection, Britain had just one slot, and that went to Payne, who was the defending silver medalist and had proven sub-two-hour speed. For elite swimmers, it’s Olympics-or-bust, and Charles-Barclay—still a teenager—was devastated. She continued to compete professionally as a swimmer in 2013 with her long-term sights on the 2016 Olympics, but her heart was no longer in the water.

“Swimming had been my whole life since I was 8; it was really hard to walk away,” she says. “But I didn’t feel like myself without having a goal to work towards. That day-to-day commitment to training is all I’ve ever known.”

Lucy Charles-Barclay
Photo: Jesper Gronnemark/ Red Bull Content Pool

The Ironman Cure

After retiring from professional swimming, Charles-Barclay lasted all of four months before the itch to compete became too much. She and her then-boyfriend, Reece, decided an Ironman was the proper cure—even though she’d never run and didn’t even know how to pump up the tires of her bicycle. The two former swimmers would sign up and figure it out together. They’d met in the pool (of course), where he began a long courtship that eventually led to a winter wedding this past December.

“I had a lot of winning over to do,” says Reece, who now shares the last name Charles-Barclay with Lucy. “She was this badass and beautiful pro swimmer, and I was an average swimmer with teenage spots (acne) living off my student loans.”

Two years older, Reece was swimming and studying sports science at the University of Hertfordshire, where Charles-Barclay had come to do her preparation [she hoped] for the 2012 Olympics with the world-class Hatfield Swimming Club. While Reece lacked Charles-Barclay’s talents in the water, he was a true student of the sport, and there was no one better to study than the new big fish in Hatfield’s pond. Shortly after he became her boyfriend, he also became her coach, and it’s been that way ever since. Team Charles-Barclay did take on a cycling coach briefly, but for the last year of her swimming career and her six-year rise through the triathlon ranks, the supremely-talented athlete and the sports scientist have been figuring things out together, and always doing it their way.

You could say they’re quick learners. They finished their first Ironman in Bolton, England, in 2014 (Reece in 11:45 and Charles-Barclay in 12:16) and one year later they returned to Ironman UK and both qualified for Kona (Reece in 10:28 and Charles-Barclay in 10:45). Charles-Barclay went on to win her age-group in Hawaii in 10:20 and decided to turn professional in 2016. For his part, Reece finished in 9:50 in his Big Island debut and waited a year before joining Charles-Barclay in the professional tri ranks.

Photo: James Mitchell

What’s working so well for them is something that’s rare in sports: They’re always together. They hammer out monster sessions in their pain cave at their home in London, and then fly to their favorite training destination in Lanzarote to put in the big blocks. They don’t swim nearly as often as they used to—maybe five hours a week these days—but it helps that Charles-Barclay’s husband is one of the few people in the world who can keep up with her in the water. Throughout every session, Reece is there to study, learn, tweak, and advise. There’s no way to hide how she’s feeling—physically or mentally—which gives Reece the ability to make daily adjustments to her program.

“I’ve grown to understand Lucy—the athlete—sometimes more than she knows herself,” Reece says. “And we’re learning from each other’s mistakes as we go, but thankfully those mistakes have been few and far between. We’ve both been highly competitive athletes since we were kids, so we’ve had a lot of time to learn what works and doesn’t work in sport.”

It’s a unique athlete-coach relationship that seldom goes swimmingly in other cases, but Team Charles-Barclay is firing on all cylinders and continues to get stronger. It took Charles-Barclay just 38 months to go from finishing her first triathlon to finishing second at the Ironman World Championship—a title she’s now earned two years in a row. Her time of 8:36:24 from last year is the second-fastest in race history, and she and her coach are only just starting to figure this triathlon thing out.

Photo: Jesper Gronnemark/ Red Bull Content Pool

Lucy Charles-Barclay’s Rival

Charles-Barclay’s circumstances couldn’t contrast more from those of the woman who stands between her and an Ironman world title. Daniela Ryf is a finely-tuned triathlon veteran, trained by the most successful coach in the sport’s relatively brief history. She’s far from a fish in the water, but she’s an absolute thoroughbred on dry land. The combination of Ryf and coach Brett Sutton have produced eight world titles to date (four in Kona and four at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship). At only 32-years-old, she’s not going away anytime soon, and that might be a blessing for Charles-Barclay.

“It’s good to have in the back of your mind that there’s someone out there faster; someone working just as hard as you,” she says. “It helps me not to take an easy session when I should be working hard.”

It also helps to have a coach who can prescribe an easy session when it’s necessary. The biggest problem for most athletes of Charles-Barclay’s caliber is pushing through when they should be pulling back. That was most certainly true of Chrissie Wellington, the woman who currently lays claim to the title of greatest British triathlete of all-time. It’s a title Charles-Barclay certainly wouldn’t mind assuming, but she’s not really motivated by history. Wellington progressed the sport to the point that an athlete as dominant as Ryf could come along, and Charles-Barclay hopes her current rival can push her to redefine what a woman can do in Ironman.

But first she simply needs to run faster. Her rapid development as a cyclist has been extraordinary. Sure she lost 12 minutes to Ryf on the bike in Kona last year, but the Swiss superstar has been an elite cyclist for nearly 15 years. Only five years after buying her first real bike, Charles-Barclay has already separated herself from the rest of the pack on two wheels. Her bike split of 4:38:10 from last year is the second-fastest in race history and is as fast as the men were riding up until a few years ago. And she’s only getting faster. Couple that with the swim advantage she’s sure to have over Ryf for the rest of their respective careers, and we might finally see a race on the marathon before Ryf retires.

“It can be quite disheartening to be overtaken. In the beginning, that was the biggest drawback of being a swimmer,” Charles-Barclay says. “But the benefit of coming from an elite swimming background is that the endurance engine is already there. As my bike and run legs get stronger, triathlon is becoming a lot more fun. It means I get to be in the driver’s seat from the gun, and that’s how I like to race.”

Leading on Land

Back in South Africa, the story on this day has nothing to do with Charles-Barclay’s aquatic aptitude. The narrow lead she enjoys out of the Indian Ocean, particularly after the swim is shortened to one mile due to rough conditions, is trivial in the bigger picture. This race is all about the run. There’s something different about the way she’s moving; there’s a flow to her gait that wasn’t there before. It’s rhythmic—like watching a good swimmer slice through water. She finishes the marathon in less than three hours for the first time ever, en route to her second consecutive Ironman African Championship. With more than a decade of prime racing years ahead of her, it appears the swimming wunderkind is just beginning to scratch the surface of what she’s capable of on dry land.

It’s enough to make even the greatest swimmers in the world take notice. “She has a rare talent,” Payne says of her former rival. “There aren’t many people in the world with that kind of natural ability in the water and on land.”