Woman of Steel
The IRONMAN World Championship 2017 on Hawaii has come to an end crowning Patrick Lange and Daniela Ryf as winners of one of the world’s toughest triathlons. Sports Gazette spoke to Neda Bilokapic - a fresher, who has just recently completed her first half IRONMAN, about what it takes to cross its prestigious finish line.
“At that moment everything collapsed. I was sitting there on the ground crying somewhere in the middle of South African vineyards with hundreds of thoughts going through my head”, sighed Neda.
The 33-year-old Croatian loves looking back at her first IRONMAN experience in 2016. Although the defeat was still visibly engraved in her eyes - even visible through the Skype monitor - she talked openly about her accident:
“A screw on my bike had loosened after around 19 miles. I wasn’t able to control it anymore and fell on the ground. The competition I trained so hard for was suddenly over.”
As the name suggests, a half IRONMAN is exactly half the distance of the original competition which includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bicycle ride and a 26.22 mile run in that order without a break. It is considered to be the one of the hardest triathlons in the world and Neda managed to overcome her South Africa disaster finally crossing the finish line in Iceland exactly one year later.
“I thanked God for making this moment happen. After South Africa I had to prove myself that I can do it, that I can go through all three disciplines. Now I could even say I am somehow thankful for this stupid screw falling off my bike”, she laughed.
The professor of kinesiology currently working as a sports therapist in Dubai has not always been an endurance freak. She used to teach dancing and yoga back in her home country as well as giving indoor-climbing lessons to children.
She explained that most people start with triathlons in their 30s. They had been good in one or two disciplines but cannot compete on a high level anymore. Yet, their experience is pretty useful for those kind of competitions.
She started cycling as a recreational measure. “It cleared my head after work and helped me to relax, so nothing professional”, Neda said shrugging her shoulders. In the meantime she became part of the so-called Running School, a world-wide trainee programme for running teachers.
“I needed something new and got interested in the whole idea of triathlons”, she continued.
In 2015 she stumbled across South African triathlon coach Trace Rogers and her international Dubai based team ‘GroWings’ and started training with them.
“One day, Trace came up to me and said ‘I think you should try an IROMAN, I think you are ready’. I just stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing. I seriously thought it was a joke”, giggled the athletic brunette.
Yet, inspired by her team Neda joined their tough routine ahead of the MiWay Cape Ultra Triathlon: “I thought if they can do it I can do it, as well. There is this hunger for competition I have and it started waking up again.”
The United Arab Emirates are a popular winter holiday destination for everyone that seeks the sun. Summer, however, turns into hell. With temperatures climbing up to over 50 degrees, GroWings had to train in early morning hours to avoid being baked alive.
“We trained daily. I woke up at 5am, 4am sometimes even 2am to avoid Dubai heat”, said Neda sitting at her kitchen table. It was late but guessing from her shorts and short sleeved shirt it must have still been pretty hot.
Although you are left alone with your body and your thoughts during a triathlon, the Croatian agreed that without her team she would have never made it: “We are all amateurs and have full-time jobs. So the biggest motivation waking up so early is knowing you will be surrounded with like-minded people to start the day.”
After nine months of daily training besides working ten hour shifts - even two times a day as the competition came closer - Neda was ready to board the flight to Cape Town. She participated in various triathlons and duathlons back in Dubai but this was on another level.
“I was so excited and motivated for South Africa because I thought I had trained enough to finish it”, she recapped.
Neda didn’t finish the official race but she competed it in the best possible way.
She took a sip of her pre-bedtime milk - a triathlete routine - and placed the cup on the table remembering: “After my accident I was barely able to calm down. I somehow managed to stop crying and went up to the referees asking if I could at least run those bloody 13.1 miles.”
They switched her timer off and allowed her to run out of competition. “I knew I couldn’t just watch the others take on the final discipline. I had to join and finish the competition in a dignified manner.”, she smiled.
The ‘Challenge Iceland’ half IRONMAN 2017 became her next attempt. The slogan “Race like a Viking” became literal, as soon as Growings stepped out of the plane coming from 48 degrees to chilly 13 degrees.
“On the day of the triathlon the wind was so strong I had to pray it won’t blow my modest 54kg of body weight away and I was seriously worried that we will all drown in that ice-cold lake”, she laughed.
Yet on that day, the Woman of Steel crossed her first ever IRONMAN finish line and describing the moment she was lost for words.
Neda is convinced that sporting success mainly derives from mental strength. “No matter how many times you fail or lose or get hurt it is about how you come back.”
The young athlete has proven that everyone can become an IRONMAN. To her, “sports is more than just winning or losing. It is about pride and about self-esteem and about how you come out of a competition as a person, not as an athlete”.
We are all unstoppable, but only if the mind lets us.