The commencement of a new Olympiad is always an exciting time, and as we head towards Tokyo 2020, there is the natural cycle of events that sees the establishment of a new order and the rise of the next group of challengers.
With the retirement of several senior female athletes post-Rio, there is a void that is yet to be filled in Australian women’s triathlon. So, season 2017 is one to be watched with curiosity, as athletes regroup, restructure and try to reinvent themselves.
One of the logical contenders for the position of Aussie ‘numero uno’ is the immensely talented Ashleigh Gentle, who first came under the scrutiny of the triathlon establishment, as an unknown young kid with a monster run she developed at Little Ath’s, and All Schools track and cross country.
Ashleigh came to triathlon from the unlikely world of representative touch football and netball and credits triathlon pioneer Jenny Alcorn as her inspiration to have a crack at adding swimming and cycling to her superb run leg.
“I was running with Brian Chapman, but then I got involved in a running group, organised by Jenny Alcorn and her Surfers Paradise Triathlon Club. It was just a few times a week, and everyone else was swimming and cycling, so I wanted to give it a try too. That is how I started triathlon. I had to pick up the swimming and cycling pretty quickly, but once I did, I fell in love with triathlon completely.”
Ashleigh’s progress from rank beginner to the podium of the Junior Worlds was rapid, culminating in a silver medal in Hamburg in 2007, again in Vancouver in 2008 and finally picking up the World Junior title Budapest in 2010.
The youngster from the Gold Coast had the tongues wagging, and her raw talent confirmed that she had the potential to be the next hot property.
“I have very fond memories of being a junior because it was a lot of fun. I was fortunate enough to make my first junior worlds team at the youngest possible age, which allowed me race juniors for four years, and to experience travelling and competing overseas very soon after I started the sport.”
“My first silver medal in 2007, in Hamburg, is still such an incredible memory. I was so young, so naïve, but I loved triathlon, and I just went out there and went hard. I was pretty shocked when I came home with second place, but I was able to get another silver the following year. Then after a rough year in 2009, I was fortunate to become Junior World Champion, which was amazing.”
The world of sport is littered with talented junior champions who lose their way for a myriad of reasons and never make it to the big time, but Ashleigh and her support team were always acutely aware of keeping her grounded. Team Gentle realised that talent without the required hard work was a recipe for disaster and could not support an athlete in tackling the enormous challenge of stepping up from junior, then to under 23 and finally to the elite ranks.
“The transition from being a junior to an elite is a massive thing. It isn’t easy or quick, and for me, it has taken time, but I have learned so much through my career.”
“As a junior, I was going from being a young prepubescent kid, going through the changes and challenges of adolescence and all that is wrapped up in that. Then when I was in my early twenties, it was very hard work growing up physically and mentally and going from racing sprint distance to Olympic distance.”
“Now at 26, I am out of that period of my life, but there are still plenty of challenges as I try to establish myself as an elite triathlete and keep growing as an athlete who is really competitive on the world stage,” she said.
Ashleigh said that part of that growth is developing the skills necessary to deliver consistent performances, learning how to peak for a specific day and having the ability to handle failure as well as success.
“Part of maturing is developing yourself as a whole athlete and being able to get through the hurdles of adolescence and transition and come out the other side.”
“There have been some results that I have been really proud of, and there have been other results where it just wasn’t a good day. Unfortunately, those performances have been at the races where I wanted to get the best out of myself.”
“I have been consistent in the WTS for a long time now, but now top ten isn’t enough, I need to make sure I am in contention and rivalling people for the podium spots.”
“Performing on a specific day is very daunting, but that is what we have to train for. It is all well and good to be consistent, but you don’t get rewarded at the Olympics for consistency. You have to be able to turn up on that particular day and perform. That person is the winner, and deservingly so because they turned up and performed.”
“I remember in Budapest, Emma Snowsill hadn’t done anything all season and she turned up and just annihilated everyone. She wasn’t the world champion, but she showed up and showed everyone what she could do.”
“That is also why I have so much respect for someone like Gwen Jorgensen. She had one day in mind for years before the event in Rio. For that to culminate in a gold medal, I can’t even imagine the emotion or the happiness she would have experienced.” she said.
As a result of two sensational performances in 2016 that saw Ashleigh podium in World Triathlon Series races in Abu Dhabi and Yokohama, she was given the final discretionary spot and selected in the Australian team for the Olympic Games in Rio.
While Olympic team selection was a definite highlight, at the other end of the spectrum, it also provided her with one of the lowest points in her career.
Heading into Rio 2016 Gentle was at the top of her game, and she had every reason to believe that her hard work and career best form would continue into the Olympics. But her 26th place in the biggest race of her career left her bewildered and disappointed.
“I came home from Rio, and, I really don’t know how to describe the feeling. I didn’t want to think about it – I didn’t want to chat about it to anyone, I was pretty happy not to think about Rio. It took me a while to even acknowledge to myself that it was a pretty good achievement to just be there and race.”
“I felt like I had disappointed not only myself but everyone who had supported me so much. I struggled to think about it and even now just talking about it I feel the emotion come back because it was such a big thing.”
Ashleigh said the result initially left her flattened and empty, but the test of a real champion is how they respond to adversity. Her response was measured, thoughtful and well considered, and has been the catalyst for major changes in 2017.
“My result in Rio left me so deflated, and I never want to feel that way again at a major championship. I knew I had more to give and it just didn’t happen,
so that has been a key factor motivating me to reassess everything and think about what I need to do to make myself a better athlete.”
Gentle has been based on the Gold Coast for 21 years, but her soul searching, her quest for answers and her intense desire for change has taken her further south to Wollongong, the home of coach Jamie Turner and his Wollongong Wizards.
“My ultimate goal is not only to be a top Australian athlete but to be truly competitive among the rest of the world. After the Rio dust settled and the disappointment subsided I was surprised by how motivated I did felt.”
“I realised that if I was to improve and grow to be a more consistent athlete, I needed to change something. Because if I kept on doing what I was doing, I was just going to get the same result.”
“I spoke to Jamie at the end of the year, just wanted to chat to him. I went for a trial in early January and spent three and a half weeks in Wollongong. I was only back home for a week before I felt my decision was made for me. I thought it was what I needed to grow as an athlete, so I went back down, and I have been enjoying it ever since.”
Ashleigh said moving to a squad, changing her entire life and daily training environment was an enormous decision.
“The trial was important. I just went with the flow and did what they did. I just went with it and thought I had to immerse myself in the program and experience all that they experience in their home environment.”
“I had a great time in Wollongong and decision made itself clear to me. I had chatted with a lot of people, including Josh [Amberger] my long-term partner of eight years, before then and I knew I had the support of everyone if I went to Wollongong to train. Knowing that made it easier. It is a big decision, but it is a commitment I have made to invest in myself and my career.”
“I am really enjoying it but some of the sessions and the way Jamie trains is really different to what I am used to. I am really embracing it and learning as much
“I know nothing is going to happen over night. One thing I have learned in triathlon is that it doesn’t come easily or quickly. What I am working towards might not happen straight away, so 2017 is the year to discover and see where I am at and what I can do.”
“I know I have to be patient and I hope along the way I can put some good results together. But what is motivating me is the desire to get the absolute best out of myself in the next four years leading into Tokyo,” Ashleigh said.
One of Ashleigh’s short term goals is to book herself an early spot on the Australian triathlon team for the Commonwealth Games and avoid the pressure of leaving her inclusion to the discretion of the selectors.
“I have learned from experience that discretionary selection is something I would rather avoid if possible,” she declared. “This time last year I had already done Abu Dhabi and also had to keep proving myself all the way through to Yokohama.”
The first Aussie home in the top ten at WTS Gold Coast and Hamburg get’s the automatic selection for Commonwealth Games Gold Coast 2018, so Ashleigh is fired up and ready to perform to secure a spot to race on home soil in front of her family and friends.
“I didn’t get the automatic Olympic selection from Gold Coast in 2016, and I didn’t get the automatic in Rio the year before but fortunately I got two WTS second places, and I think that was the only reason I got picked on the Olympic team.
“On the Gold Coast the first Aussie inside the top ten gets the automatic selection, so it is crucial to race well. The next spot is the Hamburg World Triathlon Series race, and that is exactly the same – the first Aussie in the top ten goes to the Commonwealth Games. If it is someone different in Hamburg that would be two automatic spots taken and the third spot would be discretionary.”
“I know which way I would rather get picked in a Championship team and that is through an automatic spot. That is a pretty big motivating factor for me this time around.”
The dream of racing in the Common-wealth Games 2018, is hugely significant for Ashleigh because the Gold Coast holds a very special place in her heart.
“The race on the Gold Coast is really important for many reasons. I was pretty excited even when the Gold Coast was announced as a World Triathlon Series race and an event leading up to the Common-wealth Games.
“This year the race doubles as an automatic selection race for the Games and that is something I have been thinking about for a long time and would really love to achieve.” “Home is always home, and it is always really comfortable going back to because family and friends are there. It is really exciting and not just for triathlon but just to have all the sports there and be able to be on my doorstep it is really something that I have been looking forward to for a long time.”
Ashleigh said the importance of racing in your own backyard and the power of the local crowd to inspire a great performance cannot be underestimated.
“It is really cool to have all of Australia behind you. Even at the World Cup in Mooloolaba, the support was enormous – so it will be huge at the World Series race.
I don’t think people realise how important the crowd support and the support of the nation is for us. Even when we are racing in Europe, it is nice to know everyone is behind us. It always means a lot when we put on the green and gold.”
“The home crowd really lifts an athlete, so I really hope we get a massive crowd to the Gold Coast race to help us perform well and really experience the intense atmosphere of a major competition. If the supporters come along and see the how awesome the racing is, how close and intense the competition is, they will really get a taste of what is going to happen in the Commonwealth Games 2018.”
“It is always great to hear people shouting your name, and it always helps along the way too. If you are neck and neck with someone and you are the one to get the support the whole way, it truly does lift you. There is nothing more exciting than racing before a home crowd and one that is potentially a Commonwealth Games. It is something I know will be incredible,” Ashleigh said.