World Triathlon Champion 2017

Michelle overcomes illness in her rise to the top and become World Triathlon Champion.

Sport has always been part of my life: I ran track at school, cross-country for my county, and was a club swimmer. Coming from a small town called Biddulph in the Staffordshire moorlands and now living in Nottinghamshire with my triathlete partner ChrisI have always enjoyed the escapism that running, cycling and outdoor swimming provides, along with the social aspect and wide circle of friends I have made through triathlon and running club.

Whilst completing my dietetic and nutrition degree at Nottingham university in 2006-2009 I became involved with the university cross country and athletic team and continued to run and compete. I later joined the triathlon club in my final year but only competed in my first triathlon just before my final exams. My Dad had caught the triathlon bug a year earlier and after going to watch him race I caught the bug immediately.

It was during my third year of university I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis after noticing increasing urgency, frequency and passing blood in my bowel movements. Soon after came intermittent flare ups of the disease where inflammation consumed my large bowel and I required hospitalisation for IV fluids and steroids to fight the inflammation. In between these flare ups I continued to pursue my triathlon training and joined both Mansfield Triathlon club and Sutton in Ashfield Harriers & AC running club both which I am still a member of today.  By this point I had successfully qualified as a dietitian and began to work at the local hospital in Nottinghamshire which allowed me the work life balance I longed for to continue with my triathlon training. During Christmas 2010 I was admitted to hospital and was told that my large bowel was disintegrating inside me, meaning surgery was the only option left.

After spending New Year’s Eve in a hospital bed I underwent major surgery in January 2011 and had my whole large bowel removed. I woke up six hours later with a stoma bag and a large vertical scar down the centre of my abdomen. Monday 10th January was the first day of my big challenge to get my fitness back. My dad brought me a pile of triathlon magazines into hospital and I sat in my bed writing a list of races I wanted to do – starting with a sprint triathlon in the summer. I also wrote a list of all the things I wanted to do after surgery which I hadn’t been able to do whilst I was ill – training for a triathlon and going for a bike ride were 2 earlier goals I wanted to achieve, competing for GB in age group triathlon was a goal I would focus on achieving in the distant future, getting on the podium was not even considered possible in my eyes at this stage – as two stone weight loss meant I could barely walk two metres to the bathroom!

Since my surgery I spent the earlier months rebuilding my fitness, strength and endurance whilst adjusting to life with a stoma and learning to accept undesirable body changes, physical adaptations and core strength limitations of having a stoma and bag attached to the abdomen which collects faecal waste. Over the years I have juggled mixed emotions towards the stoma which has opened the door to a successful amateur triathlon career due to a much improved quality of life and symptom management of ulcerative colitis. Prior to my surgery the ulcerative colitis caused severe inflammation in my bowel causing 20+ toilet trips each day, blood loss, severe dehydration, anaemia, fatigue, abdominal pain and most excruciating of all – the inability to go for a run without having to dash into a bush with sudden urgency and the most embarrassing of all – regular ‘accidents’ – not a desirable lifestyle for a young 20 something female trying to enjoy my sports and launch my dietitian career.

Working as a full time dietitian in the NHS I have dedicated life outside of work to triathlon training. Since having my surgery, triathlon has become a lifestyle as well as a true passion, bringing with it a wide social circle of like minded friends and it is Triathlon and my running club (Sutton in Ashfield Harriers & AC) I owe to finding my triathlon mad partner and best friend – Chris.

Each of my training sessions and every race is tackled with a humble appreciation for the ability to work my body harder than I ever thought possible. Over the years I have adapted and pushed the physical and mental pain barrier and seen my body adapt to the intense workouts and races I have put it through, showing how resilient the human body is – the stoma has not held me back – it has done quite the opposite and I am excited to find out what I can achieve next.

National Sprint Triathlon Championships – Thorpe Park

Held on a very early Sunday morning in June just 3 weeks before the European Championships, Chris and I were stood once again in transition, bikes racked, kit ready, wetsuits on and away we went. My start wave was female only but don’t be fooled – there are some fast powerful swimmers out there and I had a battle holding my space in the water as faster swimmers tried to swim over my head. I found my own rhythm (as I always try to do in the water) and although I am never one of the fastest swimmers, I managed to exit the water in the top third of the wave. Wetsuit off, helmet on and flying mount onto the bike I can only say I surprised myself at how speedy I was through transition and throughout the bike course where I saw myself overtaking numerous females who had exited the swim much faster than me.

A flying dismount followed and into transition to switch to my running shoes, bike racked, helmet off and away I went to do what I do best  - run! I had no idea how many females were ahead of me now so I always run as fast as I physically can and sure enough I caught up with a few and fled past them. By the second and final lap I was on full cylinders and was hanging on both mentally and physically doing my usual thing of breathing like a train.

Finally I reached the final corner before sprinting the last 200m into the finish to find out I was second lady overall and first  in my age group only 16 seconds behind the first female. I was really proud to become national sprint champion for my age group (30-34).

National Aquathlon Championships, Leeds

Last year I claimed national title winning my age group and coming second overall so wanted to reclaim my title this year. A week after the national sprint champs I had a good swim and felt strong despite having a week of solid training leading up to the Europeans at the end of the month. I managed the 750m swim in 11:17 and completed the run in the fastest run split of 20: 10 coming third overall and first in my age group.

European Triathlon Championships, Dusseldorf

After winning silver at the Europeans in Lisbon 2016 and silver in Geneva in 2015, there was only one place I was aiming for, but I never ever thought it was actually possible after making the mistake of looking up competitors in my age group and finding out there were two triathletes from Denmark and Luxemberg who raced on the European Elite series over the last year.

After winning silver in Geneva my perspective changed so much towards how I perceived myself as an athlete. I achieved what I thought was unreachable and my confidence and self belief began to grow – maybe there was a possibility I could win gold! So I spent the last two years working towards that goal. My stoma has very rarely caused any issues. There was the stress of forgetting all of my spare stoma bags and appliances when I went to the Europeans in Lisbon last year. I need to change my stoma bag every day so I felt like I was missing a limb. Luckily my brother was able to fly some out with him the following day so I was able to race and win silver. What a relief!

The course in Dusseldorf definitely played to my advantage being a stronger runner. There was a long run from swim to transition. This is where I overtook many faster swimmers into transition. The bike course was wet with surface water after rainfall overnight. A large number of triathletes (including my partner Chris) slipped off their bikes despite being overly cautious and not carrying too much speed around the tight corners. (Chris was a bit cut and bruised but managed to finish the race in a respectable time ranking him 23rd in his age group). Somehow I managed to stay on my bike and again felt very strong as I cycled past female competitors who beat me out of the swim. I had overtaken the two elite women by the time I had entered transition so the 5km run was all I had left. I still had no idea if there were any stronger women in front of me so as usual I ran with all my heart (and lungs and legs) in hope that I would catch any leading women and avoid any of the other women from catching me. Two laps of the run and I hit the blue carpet sprinting to the line I heard the announcement “European Triathlon Champion Michelle Willcocks” and had a split second to enjoy my moment as I crossed the finish line.

Captured on camera the photograph reveals all – I was overwhelmed by such a mix of emotions; immense pride, relief, excitement, disbelief and calm – now all that nervous hype was over. I imagined this is how the Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee must have felt – all that hard work, dedication and passion towards achieving that goal and I did it!

National Standard Distance Triathlon Championships and World Championship Qualifier, Ripon triathlon

Stepping up the distance felt like a tall order having spent more time and focus on sprint triathlon. I had achieved National Standard Champion in the previous year in Liverpool so knew I was capable of finishing high in the rankings, although only one week after winning gold in Dusseldorf I felt very tired!

The swim felt slow and it was about 40 seconds slower than my time last year. I also didn’t feel prepared for where my transition rack was and which way to go for the bike and run exit. I executed transition fairly well with a flying mount on the bike. The bike course was challenging sharing the roads with mid afternoon traffic and 20mph gusts of wind whilst racing along an exposed stretch of road I had to hold my aero bars very tightly.

I entered transition behind another female and ran down the wrong isle to my bike rack so had to duck under a rack to locate my spot. Into my running shoes, helmet off and away I went to run the 10km. I overtook the female ahead of me to find out from spectators I was now in second place. I passed Chris as he had only 2.5 miles left and he told me I wasn’t far behind the leading female. I maintained my pace deciding I had time to catch her and surely enough I did with two miles to go. I managed to hold my pace and although I could feel the fatigue running through my body I pushed on despite the physical and mental discomfort I felt. Finally, a sprint finish to win overall and claim national champion title for my age group and qualification for the World championships to be held in Rotterdam in September.

World Championships – Rotterdam September 2017

After becoming European Champion in June I hadn’t really planned on going for the world title as well but after qualifying at Ripon I knew I had to give it a shot. So the remainder of the summer was spent working towards this final race of the season – the race of all races. Once again Chris and I ventured across seas and joined team GB in the race venue. I’d already studied the list of athletes in my race – over 80 competitive women – the worlds best age group triathletes all going head to head for that world title. I had an idea who the competition was.

Chris loves analysing and looking at athlete stats – swim bike and run times – who was the threat? I decided that I would not compare myself to the others – what’s the point? You can only do your best and that’s it – you can’t control the performance of others – only your own. So I told myself it doesn’t matter about the winning, not now. I’ve achieved what I wanted by getting my European title and this was stepping up the distance – double what I was used to. 1500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run. I knew that I would be having to catch the faster swimmers again on the bike as there would be much faster swimmers. The European Champion who was also Team GB was one to watch – a rapid swimmer and biker and could run a speedy 10km too. This was her distance too – I was playing her at her own game so it was a case of see what unfolds during the race.

Race morning was so nerve racking. It was still dark at 5am and I had a lot of preparation with my kit and being in the right place at the right time but managed to sort everything out on time and somehow fitted in eating my porridge hours before the race started which meant eating it in the queue for the boat we had to catch. But this adaptability to whatever situation is thrown at you is part of the key to success. I needed to fuel well and at the right time so I made sure I was prepared and could access my nutrition at the time I needed it. Next challenge – toilets. Eating porridge then involves needing to empty stoma bag. Hydrating well before the race means lots of trips to the loo. I spend most of my time pre-race in a queue for the loo or on the loo but it’s all part of the process to get to the start line as prepared physically and mentally (and with an empty poo bag) as I possibly can be.

The race start was suddenly happening. The buzzer went and off I went. I managed to stay clear of other swimmers and still swam a fast race and exited the water in about 8th place. It was a long 800m run to transition (from swim to bike) – again an advantage for me being a strong runner. I passed a few women in the process and focused on getting on my bike safely. As I rode, every time I passed a woman I wondered if they were in my age group and if I’d gained another place.

Then I saw the European champion. With only another 5 miles to go I was able to overtake her and put another gear in to get me in to transition
(to start the run) in first place. I still doubted myself though. 10km was a long way after pushing hard on the bike. I was tired by the second lap and my quadriceps muscles started to cramp up. I’d not experienced that before and worried they may stop working.

Luckily I could carry on and got onto the blue carpet. I was ready for a sprint finish but saw Chris in the crowd waving a GB flag at me to collect. He said “you have time, you don’t need to sprint” but I still didn’t think I’d won as I thought he meant they had already crossed the line and I may have been 2nd or 3rd. Unfortunately I think the announcer had fallen asleep because it was completely silent as I crossed the line. Then my family and Chris came running over shouting I’d won and it was only confirmed when Chris looked at the live tracking and that was that.

World Champion (30-34 age group) – champion of the world. Me – Michelle the girl with the stoma who only ever dreamed of competing for my country and getting on a podium. From a hospital bed 6 years ago to world champion. The emotion just flowed from me – I can’t describe how much pride I felt in that moment but I cried and cried (happy tears) as I hugged my family. It’s that moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  Michelle Willcocks World Champion Triathlete aka Stoma Girl. I still can’t believe that’s me!

I hope that my story inspires many people who are living their lives after stoma surgery or considering how life will be after having stoma surgery. Everyone has a different Journey with different challenges and experiences along the way but I found that having a passion and creating a life which allowed me to immerse myself in this passion every day and then setting myself key goals has given me the focus, strength and determination to reach those goals. I don’t think there’s a special secret to succeeding with such goals – I think it’s just about giving yourself time to practice your passion on a regular basis, let yourself feel the enjoyment and Buzz that this passion provides you with when you do it and continuing to do it – over and over and over and over again. I think the key is to enjoy what you do. But acknowledge that nothing worth doing is going to be easy – but I guess I’ve learnt to love the challenge of overcoming the hard times – because when you succeed - it only makes you stronger and more determined to aim higher.

Michelle's list of achievements

World Championships Standard distance triathlon (age groups) September 2017

European Champion Gold medallist Sprint Triathlon 2017

National Sprint Triathlon Champion (30-34 age group) 2017

National Standard distance Triathlon champion (30-34 age group)

National Aquathlon Champion (30-34 age group) 2017

2 x Silver medallist European Sprint triathlon championships (age group) 2015 and 2016

British Sprint distance triathlon champion (30-34age group) 2016

British Standard distance Triathlon champion (30-34 age group) 2016

National Aquathlon champion (30-34 age group) 2016