She’s had her highs and lows over the past year, illness interrupting her training for lengthy spells, but along the way triathlete Aileen Reid secured her place in her second successive Olympic Games.
Six top 10 finishes at major events in 2015 helped seal her qualification for Rio, and her place was officially confirmed after the final selection event in Yokohama a fortnight ago, where Irish team-mate Bryan Keane also booked his spot in Brazil.
The 33-year-old Derry woman is now just 11 weeks away from taking her place on the starting line at Copacabana Beach. The prospect is thrilling, she says, but scary too. No one knows better how misfortune on the biggest day can have the potential to define a whole career.
First lap crash
She was ranked seventh in the world going into the London Games, but a crash on the first lap of the bike course all but ended her challenge, finishing in 43rd place, more than eight minutes behind the winner.
“And that is not how I want to remember my Olympic experience,” she says. “And that’s what makes it all very scary, it’s just a once-every-four-years thing. In the world series races you can have a bad one, but you can make up for it next time. At the Olympics, you get one chance. So, yeah, it’s a mixture of excitement and nerves as we get closer. But so long as I can say I got everything out of myself on the day, I will be proud of whatever position I finish in.”
Having been ranked in triathlon’s world top 10 at the end of the past three years, Reid’s level of consistency might well have had her eyeing a medal in Rio, but a recurring chest infection has her playing catch-up on her training, her Rio prospects dependent on whether she can make up for lost time. As part of that process, she’s currently training in Font-Romeu in the south of France, where she will remain for up to four weeks.
“It cost me two weeks of training ahead of the test event in Rio last summer, then it came back in January and February, so that put me back a step in terms of training, just when I was ready to step up the intensity. I finally got it sorted out and come March I felt healthy again. But I was a wee bit behind in terms of where I’d like to have been, so I’m really only getting my winter training block in now.”
“My first three races of the year weren’t fabulous and maybe people on the outside might have looked at them and said, ‘that’s terrible, she’s crap’ – but I don’t really care. I’m reluctant to go and smash myself now, every time I pushed a wee bit I was getting sick again.
“While I really do like to train hard there’s a limit to it and I’ve probably learnt that lesson at this stage. I have a few weeks now at Font-Romeu at altitude, then I have another few races, so they’ll be good indicators of how I’m going. Fingers crossed, I’ll be in a good place.”
Changing coaches last year was another momentous development in Reid's career, the decision to part company with Australian Darren Smith and return to her former coaching team of Tommy Evans and Chris Jones "not one I took lightly", not least because she was part of a world class international group of triathletes working with Smith.
“And I miss them, they were my friends, and it was really good to be pushed every day by world class athletes. But Tommy and Chris know me, they have a plan individualised for me, and I can talk to them, be part of the process.
“That’s important for me. I’m 33, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what works and what doesn’t work. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t have that conversation with my previous coach. He’s a great coach, I learnt so much from him, but there comes a time in every athlete’s career when they know they have to move on to get better.”
‘Taking a chance’
“I thought I could stay there, still be top 10 in the world, and everything would be rosy in the garden – but guess what, I want to be better than that. If that means taking a chance, I’m going to take it. At 33, I don’t have too many years left in this and I just thought, ‘why am I settling for something that is good, but isn’t the best I can be?’”
And no one is more supportive of Reid than her husband David. They met when they both worked for Athletics Northern Ireland, where he was a high performance manager.
“I had just won the National Championships and I told Davy I wanted to take it a bit more seriously, and to him that was becoming a high performance athlete. I didn’t really know what one of those was. I was just enjoying sport, it was fun. Back then, I was doing a day’s work, that’s what I had been used to, and I don’t think that’s normal for most triathletes I know.
“They were always athletes, I came from the real world. Being a full-time athlete was never really on my spectrum. So that’s what Davy introduced me to and pushed me towards, and I thank him for that obviously – that makes him a great husband.”
In the past year, Reid’s travels have taken her to the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Portugal, the United States, South Africa and Japan, to name but a few of the stopovers, so time at home in Lisburn with David has been fleeting enough.
“He’s very supportive, he’s the person I call all the time, maybe that’s more than some marriages have – we do talk! You can’t sit at the end of a phone and not talk,” she says.
“By the time I came back from my first year’s coaching with Darren, Davy and myself had been married for 11 months and I had been away for nine. But no one knows more than him that this is what it takes. He’s great, completely supportive.”
“I couldn’t sit behind a desk and do a nine-to-five, this is what I do and I’m not going to do it half-heartedly. I want to do it properly. I want to be able to look back in 10 years and tell my kids that that was my job and it was amazing.
"If you're a world class athlete, people are putting their time and their money and their effort into you, the Irish Sports Council has granted me funding to a pretty high level, so I'm not going to say, 'ah, this is a great wee holiday'. I want the best out of myself, maybe I'm a bit OCD about that, but that's the way an athlete looks at it."
Just 11 weeks to go, then.
“I need to get training, I’m not ready yet!”
And with that she’s off to do a two and a half hour ride in the mountains, hoping she can be the best she can be, come Rio.