On that starting line in Palm Cove, flanked either side by the best female athletes in the sport of Ironman, Renee takes her place calmly. Just like the rest of the professional cohort, her physique is one honed by her craft. The indent of muscle ripples beneath flesh with a palpable energy and strength, and when in motion there’s a grace to Renee’s movements. Even during a transition, the movements are swift, rehearsed, like she’s been doing it all her life. It’s hard to believe then that Renee has only been a professional athlete for five years, that she was 31-years-old when she did her first triathlon in 2014, that she weighed over 100 kilograms and was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
If sports is an industry that loves an origin story, Renee is testament to the power of change. Living in Melbourne, her life was one that revolved around work. Alongside her business partner, she ran a number of businesses and had multiple investment properties to her name. Working 70 hours a week, the office became a second home to Renee who regularly spent weekends at her desk. It was tiresome, but she was successful. Whatever unhappiness she felt and the unhealthy habits she’d adopted were obscured by designer clothes and extravagant holidays. Reflecting on the corporate lifestyle that had once defined her, Renee admits, “As a business owner, you tell yourself that you’re doing that because it’s your own business and you’re committed and driven. I was using work to cover up unhappiness and to give me something to focus on and that’s where I was putting all my energy at the time.”
It wasn’t until Renee visited friends in Noosa over a weekend that she came to reassess her lifestyle. By chance, a triathlon was taking place and with a mutual friend taking part, she joined the supporters in attendance. There, on the sidelines, Renee fell victim to the thing Ironman instils in everyone within its vicinity: hope. Watching the competitors, Renee was struck by the camaraderie, by the overwhelming enthusiasm of all taking part, by the celebration of the act of doing - that regardless of speed and ability, simply lacing up and giving it a go was cause for triumph. For the first time, Renee saw a sport that wasn’t defined by talent but effort, a testament to one’s will and personal character. It was there that she decided she would train for her first triathlon, vowing to return to Noosa to do that very same event in twelve months time.
First, she had to buy a bike. Second, she had to teach herself to ride a bike for the first time as an adult. Renee began looking for training clubs, hoping to meet others interested in triathlons and gain as much knowledge as she could from the experts. But after years of spending her time doing little else but working, Renee was so embarrassed by her weight that she held back. She chose to swim at lunch knowing that the pool would be relatively empty and rather than run with others or along the Bay in Melbourne, she stuck to the confines of the gym where she used the treadmill. When she talks about that period in her life, it’s hard not to feel the pain of someone trapped in a body they suddenly don’t recognise, a body they can’t relate to or love.
“I was so anxious and so frightened of my image and the way I looked and the fact I couldn’t run very fast,” recalls Renee. Just weeks out from her first triathlon, she realised she’d have to join a club if she wanted to finish strong. When she arrived at training, she was so consumed by anxiety she couldn’t leave the car. Only years later does Renee realise just how much time she wasted thinking about how her own body would be perceived, that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of her success were the negative thoughts she gave space to in her head. “We build up so much of it in our own head and when you get out and join a group, you realise nobody cares. No one is looking at you,” says Renee. “The people outside your small circle, they might talk about what you did for 48 hours, and then nobody cares after that. It’s the same with this fear that we have with looking bad or our self-image. A lot of it is just our own insecurities and what we build it up to in our heads.”
When Renee did her first triathlon in March of 2014, she had lost 20 kilograms. She’d also quit smoking. But if you needed an indication of the trajectory Renee would soon find herself on towards becoming a dominant force in the sport, you’d need only look at her reaction upon completing that first sprint triathlon where she finished 252nd female or, as she says, “one of the last”. After teaching herself to cycle, finding the courage to join a club, and training tirelessly to summon the stamina to complete a 750m swim, 20km ride and five kilometre run, there was no sense of accomplishment. Renee wanted more. She wanted to be faster, to do better, to prove to herself that she was capable of competing against the best. “I was so disappointed when I crossed that finish line. I think it had reignited my competitive spirit and I was just so devastated at how bad I was and how slow I was,” she admits. “I realised then that I’d fallen in love with the sport.”
In June of 2015, Renee did her second half Ironman and placed third in her age group. At the time, she was racing as an amateur, but her dedication and commitment to training was enough to rival the professionals. Just eighteen months into the sport, she decided to take on a full Ironman, an event so ludicrous in its distances, it’s hard to wear anything but a perplexed expression when talking to an ardent fan. For the uninitiated, the Ironman involves a staggering 3.9km swim, 180.2km bike ride, and 42.2km run. It is, understandably, one of the hardest events on the planet, one where simply finishing such a beast of endurance is to be worn like a badge of honour. Against a strong field of professionals and seasoned veterans, Renee won her age group, automatically qualifying for the world championships.
In the years that followed, she targeted specific results to qualify for her professional licence, seeing her become a professional in the women’s field and no longer the amateur that had seemingly emerged from nowhere. When Renee talks about this, there’s a sense of nonchalance. But her calm response to the incredible success she’s enjoyed so early in her Ironman career is not to be confused with arrogance. Rather, it’s the response of someone who never doubted that such a thing was possible. She may have struggled with body image, but those struggles were Renee’s alone to bear, a product of the expectations and standards she held herself to. This is a woman who started her own business, who knows what it is to work hard, to build something from the ground up, to chase success with nothing but a pipe dream and determination.
The day before the Cairns Ironman, I meet Renee in the lobby of the Shangri-La The Marina hotel. Her blonde hair is pulled into a bun and with her cap pulled low, she cuts an unassuming figure on the far couches. Her blue eyes are fixed on the interactions taking place around her, savouring the respite from being the focus of attention as, come tomorrow morning, all eyes will be on her. It’s clear the hotel has become the stay of choice for out of towners racing the Ironman. The tiled floor is dotted with sports bags, there’s a heavy scent of Deep Heat that permeates the building, and the sound of clicking bike gears as entrants walk them out of the building and to the transition point is enough to give you a nervous tick. It sends us looking for somewhere quieter to chat, settling for a local pub overlooking the water. For anyone else, the setting is a tranquil one. But Renee looks out and sees the streets she will be running down, the corner turns she’ll need to make having already spent more than fifty minutes in open water and close to six hours on the bike. For Renee, this is a setting for tactics and race planning. Still, she doesn’t appear far away. In conversation, Renee is endearingly present, earnest, and buoyed by a charisma that has you knowing that come tomorrow morning you’ll be counted as one of her fans.
It’s clear that tomorrow is a big day for Renee. Distance aside, she’s hoping to make her mark on the Cairns Ironman and come away with a podium finish. Every athlete can talk of the sacrifices professional sport requires, but for Renee it meant giving up her business. When she turned professional, she struck a deal with her business partner that granted her four years out of the business. After those four years, she’d either have to sell down her remaining shares in the business or come back to work full time. With the agreement ending this year, she decided to continue to pursue her Ironman dreams. It might seem like an easy decision given the lifestyle she was living before, but when you give up stability in pursuit of your dream, you give up an identity. Renee achieved success in business that she’s yet to see come to fruition in her racing and while you can only expect a win to be in her near future, every time such a feat eludes her is a reminder of what she gave up. There is the fuel that stokes the fire and then there is the fuel that rattles the conscience, that has you lying awake at night wondering: did I make a mistake? How do you sustain the energy to keep chasing your dreams when it feels you’re only getting further and further away?
As Renee will tell you, the decision is one that still weighs on her mind. “Four years ago, it was an easier decision at the time. I’d fallen in love with the sport, it had changed my life and I couldn’t focus when I was at work. When I was in the office I was just thinking about wanting to train full-time and wanting to see how far I could get in the sport,” she admits. “This decision I’ve had to make now has been more difficult. I’m not sure why, but it’s a big deal. I’ve been self-employed and running a business since I was 24, it’s all I’ve ever known.” She takes a breath, considers her response. “I guess it’s just that fear of having nothing to fall back on now. Going back to fear of failure, if I get a really bad career-ending injury or don’t want to be in the sport after twelve months, I don’t have that fall back anymore.”
Renee’s story is now well known amongst the triathlon community and sporting world at large. But here at the Ironman, there are inspiring stories like this everywhere. The difference is that for many of those entrants, the story is enough. Just like the clock attached to the timing chip on their ankle, it ends the moment they cross that finish line. Since falling in love with the sport, the origin story of Renee has fallen short of the person upon whom it is based. The identity that sprang forth from that tale no longer fits the athlete Renee is today, yet it is the story people will immediately refer to when talking about Renee; about her impressive weight loss, about how she came from nowhere to become a professional, about how her background was so far removed from professional sport that being counted amongst the best should be celebration enough. Maybe this is why Renee is so exhausted, despite having spent the last week tapering. Maybe it’s why every race means so much to her, because every time Renee races she is fighting to be seen for who she is as an athlete and not the story people know.
Renee is first to come through the transition station off the bike. As she slips into her running shoes, she throws water from aid station cups on her head, desperately trying to find momentary relief form the unrelenting heat. Crowds have gathered along the esplanade, banging makeshift drums and cowbells as the professionals start on what will be the final leg of the Ironman. But at 22km, the race marshal on bike alerts everyone to the first-placed female. It’s with a shocked discovery that we learn it’s not Renee. A second female comes past and still Renee’s pink jersey is nowhere to be seen. When she finally does come into view, her lips are taught. Even with her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, the expression etched into her forehead is one of extreme pain. Her strides are short, each contact of foot to land sending a jolt of agony up through Renee’s body. It’s hard to watch, to not want to reach out and steer her off course, whisk her away to an aid station, to cold water, to the comfort of rest.
After a total of nine hours and some 21 minutes, Renee comes through the finishing chute in fifth place. With a stiff-legged stagger she moves through the athlete tent where top-placed males and females huddle under heat lamps, swaddled in space blankets as they shiver-sweat their way through bites of white bread and sausages. There are emotional embraces, a chattering of teeth as athletes trade tactics and exchange harrowing tales from out there on the course, but Renee is defeated. Her disappointment is palpable, a heartbreak you feel simply looking at her body deflate with exhaustion. As she watches the women’s medal ceremony take place, champagne flowing from the top pedestal, she sees her goal slip away from her, those months of training betrayed by an inability to take in fuel. It’s impossible to fathom just how much Renee was hurting on that run. That she finished at all is staggering, as we come to learn from her coach that stomach troubles that persisted from the bike saw her unable to keep anything down during the run. Those 42.2 kilometres were run solely on one liquid gel and a propensity to dig in deep.
When Renee reflects on the race, her heartache is yet to soften. “I had some really dark moments out there. ‘Why am I doing this sport? Why don’t I go back to work? I’m never going to be at the top, I’m never going to win an Ironman, I’m just an average Anne,’” she reflects. “I’d never felt pain like that before…I kept making deals with myself: just run, then you can stop at the aid station. Just run, do whatever you can, don’t even look at your watch, don’t worry about the pace, just run and then you can stop again soon.”
Sport is a purely human celebration; the heightened emotion that comes with competition means it’s not just a theatre of triumph and human strength, but also one of loss, of broken dreams, stolen victories, upsets that linger in the mind long after the race has been won. Renee knows this, it’s clear in a YouTube video she posts to her fans following the Ironman. “I’m incredibly sad, that’s the honest truth,” she says. “I know everyone says, ‘Get back up’ and ‘there’ll be another chance, it’s just a race’ and all that. But the reality is, this is my job. It’s important. The results are important. It means a lot to me.”
Her voice cracks. “This is what I work for everyday, and I want to win an Ironman - that’s my dream. It’s my goal and I feel like yesterday was my best chance to do that and I failed. That’s how I feel. I feel like I failed.”
For her ever-growing fanbase, Renee is anything but a failure. For so long, professional athletes have only ever talked of their strengths, knowing that to admit anything but is to give opponents a leg-up in competition. But Renee doesn’t use superlatives or the worn language of the athlete and through the transparency she’s shown towards her struggles, she’s allowed others to see themselves in her. We might not have the stamina to endure an Ironman, but we know what it is to look in the mirror and feel a sense of embarrassment, to sit in the car afraid of judgement, to fall short of the expectations we set for ourselves. As Renee addresses her fans through a camera lens, there is the pleading sense that this is still a woman fighting to break free of her origin story. “My background and my story is very important and it will never change, it’s part of who I am. But I also don’t want that to define me. I’m at that level of my career now where I know I’m getting better but I want to be better. I want to be on the podium consistently at every race, I want to win an Ironman. I want to qualify for KONA,” she says.
“I don’t want to be known as that girl that was overweight and is racing pro now and does ok. That’s great, but I don’t want that to be all that I’m known for. I want people to look at my results and go, ‘Wow, she’s a good athlete.”
The results will come for Renee, that much is clear from her training. But to think she has amassed her supporters as a result of her performances so far or her humble origins, would be a mistake. We might derive our identities from the careers we pursue, but Renee’s fanbase support the person she is simply due to the way she does things. It’s in the doing that we derive inspiration from Renee. It’s in the way she approaches life, with a dogged tenacity, enthusiasm and perseverance, the way she brings that energy to her work, be it in business or the Ironman. It’s in the way she continues, makes deals with herself at the pit of despair, refuses to give up even when her body is pleading for her to stop. It’s in the way Renee continues to fight to be seen as an athlete, when the reality is that for everyone watching, even amongst the professionals, Renee is the top contender.