Claire Michel: The Steeplechase Trackstar Turned Olympic Triathlete

Super League Triathlon (SLT) takes the best athletes on the planet, reaches deep down inside of them and draws out the single greatest performance they are capable of on that day. SLT will expose all of your weaknesses leaving your reason for being there, and your desire to succeed, visible for all to see. So, your “why” better be a good one.

Belgian triathlete Claire Michel is a uniquely driven person, who, although a relative latecomer to multisport, is seeing rapid improvement year on year. She is keen to take her assault on the SLT Championship series, but before the racing takes hold we wanted to spend some time with her to get a deeper understanding of what it is that drives her, and what it takes to be successful in this competition.

How are you feeling; how was your season?

“Overall solid season, with a couple good highlights and some progress that was made across all disciplines, with a little bit of consistency, but I’m kind of one of those athletes that’s maybe on the cusp. In the sense that the performances are improving but the results do not always reflect that improvement. So, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and every once in a while, I’ll have a breakthrough, like my 5th place in Yokohama and a couple podiums at World Cups. I’m trying to find a balance and link it all together. It’s encouraging but like I say I’m on the cusp.”

You have mentioned before that your decision to get into triathlon was rooted in your mum and her Olympic success, could you tell us a bit more about that?

“When I was 11 or 12 I found a newspaper clip and asked my mum where it was from and she said it was from the Olympic Games in 1976 and I was like whoa why didn’t you tell me? Her response was well you never asked. For me that was a moment of realisation, as when I was growing up watching the Olympic Games these was super heroes you’d see on TV not somebody that was sitting next to me on the couch, helped raise us, drove us to all of our activities, helped cook and clean, you know like a normal person. That was kind of what drove the idea that I wanted to go to the Olympics – but the biggest gift she gave me was that sports were never something that was pushed onto me and it was a drive that came from within, with the realisation of how far can I push myself. So then I started swimming when I was young then moved onto track and field in college – had an attempt to qualify for the London 2012 Olympic Games in the 3000m Steeplechase, that didn’t work out due to injury so then I found triathlon about a year later. I had started working full time but when I found triathlon I thought maybe this is my niche with the combination of the swim and the run, but learning the bike was the biggest hurdle.”

What age were you when this all happened?

“So I was 23 or 24, hmmm 24, so I guess I never really had the opportunity to race the developmental categories. I joined a local club in Belgium with no intention of racing at a high level and I felt a little bit burnt out as I had given running my best shot to qualify and my body had said nope we’re done. I’d ended up with a double stress fracture and decided I needed a break. I joined the triathlon club mostly because it was a very social club and a great way for me to meet more people. I still enjoyed exercise but had no intention to do it professionally again. I did a few local races, did pretty well and drew the attention of the Belgian Triathlon Federation and they asked if I was interested in attempting to do this as an elite. So the Olympic dream that was still in the back of my head started shouting DO IT DO IT DO IT!!”

Did it surprise you when that opportunity came along, had you mentally written off the Olympics in a way?

“I think the frustration was there as the dream of the Olympics had not gone away on my own terms. I’d initially thought I’m going to go to the Olympics as a swimmer just like my mum but it had turned out I had more talent as a runner and I was sort of close. I was about ten seconds off the qualification time but the fact it didn’t pan out was more from an injury perspective. So the hunger was still there. Obviously having done elite level sport in the past I knew the choice I was making in terms of discipline, in terms of time requirement, in terms of lifestyle, in terms of energy required and the learning curve was going to be steep as it was the end of 2012 beginning on 2013. So from 2013 to 2016 they were trying to take somebody who’d done one triathlon in her life and trying to qualify for the Olympics in three years, there was a lot of work to be done in those three years. Let’s be honest you’re constantly learning and it takes humility and a little bit of grace with yourself to understand it’s never easy, as it’s a combination of these three sports, a careful balance and diligent work to combine the three both in training and in racing.”

So it sounds like you draw inspiration from yourself but as a 12-year-old your mum activated your ability to look inside yourself and think you could achieve these things.

“I mean even now my mum is a master’s swimmer and you can tell she has a passion for the sport that drives her and that’s the sort of example she set for us, she’s just a hard worker. That’s the example I drew from as a kid growing up in sports, never the pushy parent but always supportive and my dad was the same way. They’d always be there watching and supporting. The sense of empowerment was on me rather than coming from an external factor, I put the pressure on myself rather than it coming from the outside.”

What other areas of your life do you draw from now being that you’re racing week in week out?

“The experience I ended up having in Rio went far below my expectations and far below what I think I’m capable of, so the experience there, of being lapped out, was on the one hand extremely disappointing in the moment, but also probably one of the catalysts that really motivates me going forward. I learnt a lot from the whole experience. I have this distinct memory from the moment I’m being lapped out and the official pulled me off to the side and tells me to wait until someone comes to get me, and I’m sitting on Copacabana Beach, and I just immediately start crying thinking why here of all places. At that same moment everyone that was there along the fence just started clapping and cheering me on, it was the biggest paradox of emotion I have ever felt in a sporting event. It was the recognition of the work and at that very moment I knew I had to be back in four years.”

So once you had made it and were racing year in year out as a pro – what is it you enjoy about triathlon, and conversely is there anything you don’t particularly enjoy about the sport / lifestyle?

“Hmmm, I think it’s kind of a two sided coin. As you get to know the other athletes a bit more and get to know their stories a bit more, which for me are a source of inspiration, watching how other athletes develop you kind of learn from that community. Also, having been in an international squad since 2016 and sharing the daily grind with them is really rewarding because you’re certainly not alone even though you’re a little bit in your own bubble. You’re surrounded by people who have the same type of ambitions, the same drive to really improve themselves day in day out, so when someone is tired at like 9pm and wants to go to sleep no one worries or looks at you weirdly. So from a social perspective it really gives a community you can share your lifestyle with, definitely very motivating and makes the key work you need to do even easier. The flip side of that though is the life on the road – the feeling of always living out of a suitcase with no real home base. That can be sometimes a little bit hard but it is a trade off as you have to appreciate visiting so many nice places and spending more time with that community. You’re not alone in doing it either. They’re business trips, and I think of them as such, but my office is an open body of water in some city centre so it’s not so bad. It’s a mindset thing – it’s a business trip but that’s alright, just appreciate as much as you can where you are, otherwise you build this frustration about moving. There are worse things in the world.”

So when you’re away from the triathlon bubble how do you spend your time, what is your wind down?

“There is not too much down time, when we are in the off season we like to get away as soon as possible. We’re quite outdoorsy people so we just pick a vacation spot on google maps with a green area and go hike.”

So when the going gets tough in a race what do you use in your mind to get you through?

“I think as a race gets harder and harder I break it down into smaller and smaller pieces. It can be really easy in a triathlon, where you have three different disciplines, to pre-judge a situation by thinking too far ahead. I try to keep my mind as focused in the present moment as possible, sometimes one lap at a time or now kilometre at a time, and sometimes it can just be lamppost to lamppost or stroke by stroke.”

So we’ve had the first Championship Weekend of the series, how did you find Jersey?

“I think Jersey was another step up from last year, what I thought after the first day was man it takes a year to forget how much it hurts! It was intense and the level was really high, the community was incredible and you could tell the team and organisation had got even bigger. They put on another incredible and spectacular event.”

So you had fun?

“Yea it’s a fun, painful extravaganza.”

How did you find recovery between the two events?

“I think the women going first, it was a little bit easier to get a little cool down in and wind down before the next day. It’s difficult when you’re coming off intense racing and trying to recover whilst prepping for the next day. All you can do is get some food in, recover and get some sleep.”

How do you think the race went for you?

“I was personally a little bit disappointed with my run, it was the first time in the season that my run let me down. The level was so high; so, if you were even a little bit fatigued that could be it. As people get eliminated you can all of a sudden be on the chopping block, it goes really fast and for me it was a little bit disappointing not to be a little bit more in the action. It’s small details that make the difference.”

So following Jersey we’re heading over to Malta – you mentioned in the past this was the place you were most looking forward to on the calendar. What draws you there?

“Malta was a place I went on vacation a few years ago, I really enjoyed it as such a unique island that I didn’t know much about with such a rich history. It has changed hands so many times over the years and was such a surprising island. I also remember enjoying the swimming in all the different lagoons, I was there in October and one day it would be rain and then the next day sun so it’ll be interesting to see what we get.”

Are there any changes you’re going to make going into Malta?

“Well I see an opportunity to focus a bit more on my swimming with the Swim TT. So, I’m including some fast 50s in the pool and some short sprints on the bike. SLT is basically a series of consecutive multiple accelerations and being able to act on those in the race situation.”

What do you think SLT has brought to the sport and do you think it is lifting the awareness of triathlon?

“Yea I think there are a couple different aspects that are unique about SLT that are positive for the sport. The first is from a media perspective they are really helping the public get to know more about the athletes and who we are, I think in terms of visibility for us and the sport that’s a very positive thing. The second aspect is that the race formats are really designed for complete triathletes and you know that kind of physical test is triathlon, maybe not in its classical form, but with no place to hide any weaknesses. This makes it really really accessible for the public to see and that will be a great hook for the sport and much more palatable for the audience. That accessibility is important to help the sport grow. Johan came back from watching the first day of the Triple Mix, he’s a triathlete himself and he’s seen plenty of races, and he comes back, sits down on the bed and says “Claire I need a beer that was the most exciting triathlon I’ve ever seen in my life”. I was surprised to hear that from someone who follows the sport so closely. The way the courses are designed you can see everything from one point, you don’t need to move around and you’re right there by the action.”

Claire is a shining example to us all on how to turn external influences into internal motivation and desire. She never gave up on her dreams and although she has had to refocus multiple times to cope with a moving landscape, she is now seeing the fruits of her hard work.

Malta will now pose a different kind of challenge, that will require all of the athletes to be able to shift their approach to deal with a different course, a different environment, and a series of new formats. When it comes to the crunch Claire has laid the foundations of belief in herself to be able to adapt and overcome. Will we see Claire troubling the podium over the course of our European back to back weekends? SLT will find the answer and it’s well worth joining us to find out!

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