We caught up with GB triathlete Sophie Coldwell ahead of the Commonwealth games to find out more about how she trains and what her Olympic plans are – spoiler alert, we're hoping to see her in Paris!
“The first time I ever really respected a performance was Dame Kelly Holmes with the double Olympic. It was the first time that I was like, holy shit, that is impressive. I appreciated how amazing it was, and the story that she had, and the things that she had gone through – that was inspiring.”
Triathlete Sophie Coldwell was only nine years old when Dame Kelly won two gold medals at Athens Olympics in 2004 (for the 800m and 1500m). Although her role models have become more tri-specific over the years, Kelly is the one who ignited the spark in this young female athlete – and many more besides!
During her formative years in the senior team, Sophie spent her time with the likes of triathletes Vicki Holland and Non Stanford. They really paved the way for her generation of female triathlon competitors. She loved seeing how they raced and performed, and also how they dealt with the pressure of big competitions like Rio Olympics in 2016.
Sophie, now 27, has gone on to become a very successful triathlete herself, competing in the women’s event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and winning medals in International Triathlon Union (ITU) and European Triathlon Union (ETU) Championships. And, of course, last week she won gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games as part of the GB mixed triathlon team.
When we caught up with her last month, coming back with a medal with this year’s games was top of her agenda. “2018 was a learning year for me. This year, I’ve done the prep and I really want to win a medal.” We’re thrilled for you, Sophie!
Through the rest of our conversation, we wanted learn more about how she came to be a triathlete, what her training looks like, and her upcoming goals. Read on to hear what she had to say, or if you prefer to listen, check out episode 101 of the Women’s Running podcast to hear Esther and Holly’s chat with Sophie.
How Sophie Coldwell became a triathlete
Sophie is what is called a purebred triathlete. This means she’s always done triathlon, rather than coming at it later from one of the three disciplines.
And she’s been doing it since she was eight! “I was always active as a kid, running around doing sports days and stuff like that,” she explains. “My mum saw a local triathlon club advertised at one of the local leisure centres.”
Back in the early 2000s, that was quite a niche hobby for a young kid to have, and Sophie was one of very few girls to compete.
“At the time, I couldn’t even swim 50 metres front crawl, so I did one length front crawl and one length backstroke instead. My mum took the toggles off some old jumpers and put them on my trainers so I wouldn’t have to do the laces up and it took off from there.”
Over the years, she went from county level to regional to national and then, at the age of 15, Sophie did her first international competition as a junior for the triathlon team. It was an inspiring and formative experience. “I went to Portugal for the youth relays as a travelling reserve and it’s the first time I remember seeing the GB kit and really wanting it for myself.” The following year she got on the team proper and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sophie has always loved the team feel of triathlon. She’s been incredibly happy there. “We’re really lucky in the British triathlon team. Whether I look back on my junior career or think about it now as a senior, it’s always felt like an inclusive thing to be a part of. I’ve never gone away and felt like I’ve been on my own or not looked forward to going and that’s a massive bonus. A lot of nations have commented on how tight-knit we are.”
How Sophie Coldwell trains
It’s not an overstatement to say that a triathlete’s training schedule is bonkers. Here’s a glimpse at Sophie’s mind-boggling training week: 12 hours of cycling, two gym bike sessions (intensity workouts), five swimming sessions, and five runs. Those runs include one track run, one tempo session, one long run (80 minutes) and a couple of other 50-minute runs.
“We never have a day off,” she says. “You chat to people within athletics or swimming, and they say that Sunday is a rest day. With triathlon, there’s just not enough hours in the week to be having a day off. Even through the winter, you usually do a three-week block and then have two or three easier days, but you’re still doing stuff on the easy days and then you’re back in for another three weeks.”
And this punishing schedule is not even as brutal as it could be. Sophie, having been plagued with niggles for a few years, had a bit of a mental and physical reset during Covid. She made a brave decision, in a sport where the culture is to train more. She told her coach she wanted and needed to train less, to cut some hours from her weekly training plan in a bid to reduce wear and tear on her body.
“It’s a bit weird for an athlete to say they’re going to train less but since doing that, I’ve been the most injury-free that I’ve been for probably my whole career. By doing small things and changing where things go in my training plan, I’ve had a bit more recovery time and stopped picking up niggles all the time.”
The challenges of being a triathlete
Triathlon is a sport with many moving parts, which means so much potential for things to go wrong. When you speak to triathletes, it’s common to hear frustration about the complex and technical nature of the sport.
Sophie is no different on that score. “There are so many unpredictable things in triathlon racing. It can very easily become just a two-hour slog. One small mistake in the swim can mean you’re not in the front pack, and then it becomes a real race of attrition to get through.”
Despite the frustrations, Sophie has quite a philosophical view on the challenges her sport presents. Maybe it’s something to do with how long she’s been doing it and the huge variety of ways she’s seen things go wrong.
“Whatever your level, there are always those races you just want to forget. I always think, though, they’re probably the races you learn the most from. It’s really easy when you have a good race to be all ‘That was amazing, I’m really good, I’m really fit, everything was great’ but you don’t learn anything from that. You have the shit ones and that’s when you pick them apart and take two or three things that you know you can work with and move on from. They’re the ones that make you a better athlete, even though they absolutely suck at the time.”
What’s next for Sophie Coldwell
Looking back on her career so far, Sophie is most proud of getting on a World Series podium, but it was a long and gnarly journey to get there. Despite never quitting anything, she nearly threw in the towel.
“I just didn’t want to try for a World Series podium place anymore because it was absolutely draining me. I even ended up having a conversation with my coach and asking to pull out of the World Series because it was demoralising and I just felt like I was never ever going to do it.”
“When it finally happened last year in Leeds, it was a cross between a sense of achievement and a sense of relief that I’d done it. It was great to finally know that I was good enough and it gave me the belief that I could do it again in the future too. It was also very special because all my friends and family were there – it was definitely a day that I’ll remember for the rest of my career.”
For now though, Paris Olympics 2024 is the main thing on Sophie’s mind. Despite the team doing well in Canada, the performance only secured the GB triathlon team a place in the Olympics, not Sophie herself. “They won’t select the athletes until next year,” she explains. “So that’s my main aim in life – to qualify for the Paris Olympics. I said at the back end of last year that, for me, the next couple of years is about making Paris.” You can certainly count on our support, Sophie.