By Lucy Roberts
The inaugural World Paratriathlon Series, presented by Volvo, gets underway this weekend in Leeds – the first of its kind to be held in the UK.
Para-triathletes and Volvo Ambassadors Lauren Steadman and Claire Cashmore are great friends and have been since they met at boarding school, but once the gun goes off for their events, they’ll be competing against each other.
Steadman used to compete in para swimming before making the decision to change to paratriathlon for the 2016 Rio Paralympics where she won a silver medal.
The youngest half of the frenemy partnership spoke about why lockdown positively impacted her, how she manages to maintain such a good friendship with Cashmore and revealed why she decided to take part in Strictly Come Dancing and SAS: Who Dares Wins.
Q) Why did you make the switch from to swimming to doing triathlons and was it easy to do?
A) I think for me, I loved swimming and I had a really successful swimming career, but I was giving about 110% and just not quite getting back the amount of effort that I was putting in. I went to boarding school, so every time I came home from boarding school, I’d always do a bit of cross training, running with my dad, riding my bike and my uncle just happened to triathlon and said: “I think you’d be good at triathlon.” I never really thought about it and then 2012 came round and just a year before the actual Games, I’d just done a small triathlon for my uncle, you know what uncles are like, ‘go on, give a triathlon a go’, so I did. And I did it and I loved it and British Triathlon asked me if I’d consider doing a race for them. I borrowed a wetsuit, borrowed a bike, borrowed shoes, everything was borrowed, but I did it and I really loved it and I just decided that actually although it would be difficult I think a change was needed. And since changing, I’ve never looked back. I miss swimming but I’ve never looked back. And because triathlon has swimming in it, I don’t feel a million miles away from swimming, I still love to swim and I get that in every week, it’s just a different way.
Q) How do you feel about finally being able to take part in events again, such as the Paralympics and the upcoming World Paratriathlon Series?
A) I’m really excited, I think there’s a sense of excitement and a sense of nerves, like does my body remember how to race because it’s been so long. But honestly I can’t tell you how it feels to do paratriathlon races with the blue carpet, the atmosphere and just racing the girls from around the world. You can train as hard as you want to but the best way to get an indicator of where you’re at is to actually race the other girls to see if you’ve made improvements or if you’ve got more to do. I’m very excited to get to Leeds and do the race there, work out where I’m at, where the other girls are at and then I guess push forward for a couple more months and the Olympic Games are finally happening. It’s been a long time coming but I actually feel pretty excited, pretty confident. I can hands down say that I’ve done a lot of work during lockdown and I’ve enjoyed it as well. One thing that was really lovely in lockdown was as competitions were taken away, you actually realise what you do sport for because there was nothing to train for so why were you training? You were actually training because you love to train, it brought back a bit of enjoyment, you know when you’re a kid and with exercise and training you did it for the thrill of it and that was what lockdown did for me. Sometimes it’s very easy to get hooked up on medals and results and stuff when actually if you strip back all those finalised things that come from a race, you question why did you start in the first place and why do you still do it and it’s because you love the feeling of the water around you, you love the thrill of being on your bike, you enjoy the hard sessions of running when you get to the end and there’s the endorphin rush. To be able to come back down to Earth a bit and remember why you started. I think that goes across anything, I know lots of people started lots of different hobbies and stuff in lockdown and I think I just really appreciated having a year to strip things back and then now build back up again. It feels like we’ve had two pre-Olympic years and it’s been quite lovely.
Q) Will it be disappointing to not see spectators from across the world watching you from the stadiums at the Paralympics or will you be solely concentrating on your performance in the Games?
A) Without doubt any athlete, Olympic or Paralympic, of course will want to have spectators there because it gives you that extra edge, that support. If you’re struggling in a race and there’s some people there shouting: “Come on Steadman, come on Great Britain,” it’s just an added extra bonus. But at the same time if you flip it on it’s head, I’m very grateful that there’s a Games happening at all and I know that although perhaps parents and friends and spectators might not be there on the actual course themselves, they are there with me and I know that the TV channels will be doing their best that they can to televise it so I think it’s the best scenario in the worst pandemic the world has had. I think for me I’m trying to keep really optimistic and know that actually everyone is still there, they’re just not there physically. I’m pretty sure my mum and dad, and friends and family will all be there at 2am in the UK watching me race at 10am in Japan. It’s just a different way of doing things, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be special.
Q) How much improvement do you think sport has made over the past 10/15 years in terms of inclusivity, but what more needs to be done to further improve?
A) Obviously this will be my fourth Games and as an athlete that started very young, when I was 14 and I also when I was younger didn’t have the greatest knowledge of disability sport myself. But I went into disability swimming and learnt about a whole world of disability sport and then qualified for my first Games and all I can say is that the shift between each of the Paralympic cycles has been very dramatic and there’s been so much love, energy and time put into showcasing and displaying just quite how amazing some people are with the disabilities they have and what they overcome. With London 2012 I think Channel Four did a fantastic job in televising the Games and I had lots of people kind of feeling a little bit sad and down when the Olympics had finished and then all of a sudden they remembered the Paralympics was coming and there was an interest there. For me, before the Games I’d go in and see kids and they’re more concerned with my arm instead of asking me what I do as an athlete. Whereas after London and certainly after Rio they’re less concerned with my disability and more about me as an athlete which shows a massive shift in a whole age group of children that are looking beyond disabilities and actually seeing the person as an athlete themselves which I think is great because with inclusivity, kids look beyond that now and know that actually anything can happen, you can do anything you want to do. The mindset shift has been fantastic. Could it be better? Yes, I think that’s the same with absolutely everything in life, there is always more to do, more to push for. But I think loads of big companies, for example Volvo, and all the other sponsors and the Paralympic Games and individual national federations are pushing for inclusivity, extra coverage of disability events, and I just think it’s going in the right direction and it just needs to continue to have the same amount of support.
Q) How important is it to you that you’re involved in a gender equal sport as paratriathletes compete over equal distances for equal prize money?
A) To be honest I’ve never been in a sport where I’ve felt there’s been a massive difference in gender equality. The one thing I do know in triathlon is that it itself is a very inclusive sport so you’ve got swim, bike, run for any age, any ability, any size, any gender, any culture, anybody is welcome and it’s such a friendly environment to be in that and actually it’s very easy to forget that other sports don’t have the same gender equality which I guess is a positive thing. You know if you forget about something in your own sport it shows that actually the sport is doing very well. I just think that you’ve got some fantastic role models within triathlon as well, from older ages to younger ages. The one thing I love about triathlon is the race can be won in the swim, the bike or the run, it’s never over until it’s over and I think there’s a lot of similarities between life and other aspects of things that people can draw in on. I think that’s what makes triathlon so attractive to both men and women is that it is a sport for everyone and anyone can do it. Even if you’ve got an elite pro-athlete and you’ve got a beginner, the beginner could ask the pro and that’d be it, they’d be talking about triathlon and bikes and everything for hours and it’s just such a beautiful sport.
Q) How do you and Claire Cashmore manage to have such a great friendship despite competing against each other?
A) I don’t know if you know this and I don’t know how many people know but I’ve actually known Claire pretty much my entire sporting career and we went to boarding school together. I was 13, nearly 14 when I met Claire and I think she 4 or 5 years older than me so Claire became kind of like the big sister when I was at boarding school. When I first started swimming I used to tell my parents: “I want to be like Claire Cashmore, I want to race like Claire Cashmore.” She was kind of like a role model for me when I was a younger athlete, so I think when you grow up with someone and you train together all the time you naturally become friends. The greatest thing with me and Claire is outside of when we’re racing we’re friends, we do a lot together but as soon as the gun goes it’s like right we’ve got to race, we’ve got to put our racer hats on and we deliver what we need to do for ourselves. But then after we go back to: “That was a fantastic race, well done.” Great sportsmanship but also I guess a long standing friendship there.
Q) How important is sustainability to you and how excited are you to be involved in the Recycled Roads campaign with Claire?
A) I’m super, super excited to be involved in the sustainability campaign. Volvo approached me a couple of years ago to work with them, be an ambassador and I was so excited at the opportunity to work with them because I’m very big on sustainability, recycling and ending plastic waste. It really is a pet hate of mine so when you actually stop and look at all the other initiatives that Volvo have, I’ve worked with them on other ones previously with water and the cleanliness of that so when they came up with this Recycled Roads I just took a step back and thought that was fantastic. They’re a leading car company anyway and they’ve now done something that resonates with me and I just think it’s an awesome campaign and I’m very excited to be part of it. I’m also excited to see where they can go in the future.
Q) Why did you decide to take part in Strictly Come Dancing and SAS: Who Dares Wins?
A) I honestly think it was because I love a challenge and that is across all aspects of my life. I think every single child has watched Strictly when they were growing up because it’s Saturday night TV. When I was younger I used to think wow, that’s amazing and you think in your head, that should have been a 10 and that shouldn’t have been a five. When the opportunity came round I sat down with my coach because obviously it was mid-Paralympic cycle, it can impact that and he just said: “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity Lauren and I think you should take it.” From the moment I accepted, it was like everyone says, I’d entered into a magical world, it really is and it was just absolutely amazing. I learnt a lot about myself as well because although everyone would think, oh she’s an athlete she performs all the time in front of crowds, but it’s one thing to do a performance in something that you’re very good at and it’s another thing to do a performance in a newly learnt skill. I learnt a lot about myself there that I’m not actually very flexible which is probably the key story. But it was something that challenged me and encouraged me to motivate and inspire other young children who might have an arm missing but also adults and parents. And then at the other end of the scale, we took away all the glitz and the glam and I went for SAS: Who Dares Wins and that felt more like home to me, I’m not sure it’s a good thing but it’s because it was a physical test, it was a mental test and it was similar to the world of elite sport where you’re in very dark places sometimes and that’s where you can deliver the top performances, it’s being able to handle the pressure, the anxiety and getting through that fear. I also wanted to see if I could transfer my elite athlete skills into a different world and I loved that one as well. I just really loved both shows and was it to prove to people? I don’t think so. It was more for me to be able to say that I can do this for myself and I have one hand but I can do it, I’m capable. After doing both of them I was like I can’t do this again, but about a year and half later, I’d be like okay I can do it again now. It takes a while to recover, they’re pretty intense. I think for about six months after Strictly I was still getting glue out of my eyelashes, out of my hair but it was out of this world. If you’re ever given a chance to do either of them, you should do them.
The World Triathlon Para Series Leeds is sponsored by Volvo and is taking place on June 5 and 6.
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