How One Woman Overcame Personal Challenges To Become An Ironman Athlete - Women's Health

How One Woman Overcame Personal Challenges To Become An Ironman Athlete

New Zealand athlete Nikki Mathews struggled with an eating disorder for much of her youth, coming to be hospitalised as a teenager as a result. Thanks to sport, she managed to rewrite her own narrative and has gone on to become an age-group winning Ironman.

The sport of Ironman is an intensely physical one. There are endurance sports and then there are the kind that demand an excavation of the soul, those that prove so mentally draining and physically challenging that to stand on the starting line is to know you will come face-to-face with your limits and only those willing to push past and stand in the pain cave will prove successful in completion.

The event we now know as Ironman began as a debate between friends. After watching an around-the-island running relay on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, the friends posited the question of which kind of athlete has the better endurance: the swimmer, cyclist or runner? The idea of then piecing together a marathon, rough-water swim and bike ride took shape, becoming the first triathlon of sorts. It’s believed the first Ironman took place in 1978, boasting just 18 contestants. Now, it’s a global phenomenon, with events taking place around the world in exotic locations that do little to distract competitors from the discomfort of the event itself. For those looking to take part, the Ironman involves a 3.8km swim in open water, followed by a 180km cycle and ending with a 42.2km run. 

The sport itself may be a gruelling one, but for New Zealand athlete Nikki Mathews, Ironman was what got her through some of the biggest challenges in her life. Growing up, Mathews suffered from an eating disorder which had a significant impact on her life. Hospitalised as a teenager as a result of her disordered eating, Mathews spent nearly 15 years confined to a wheelchair, weighing just 20kg at the age of 20. “The 15 years that I was sick is almost like you lose a bit of your memory, it’s all quite blurry. But I remember it as a very sad time. My parents were stressed, they were super sad, you could see it in their eyes,” says Mathews.

“I remember going to bed at night and wondering if I would personally wake up in the morning, or would I die in my sleep? And the worry that I had, despite the fact that I wanted to die, there was also a part of me that very much didn’t want to die. The only way I can describe it is like having that negative monkey on your shoulder 24/7, telling you how horrible you are, how bad a person you are, how you don’t live up to people’s expectations. Imagine listening to that for 24 hours,” she says. 

Most didn’t believe she’d overcome such a thing, but it was only when Mathews turned to endurance sport that she found a way to process her condition and see the beauty that lies in strength. “Triathlon has not only been a physical motivation for me, but it has taught me so much about myself when it comes to learning to reframe situations, to having belief in myself. There’s just so much to the sport other than the physical execution of swim, bike, run,” Mathews reflects. 

“I was hungry enough to want better from myself when I was that sick. And now I am hungry enough to wanter better from myself within triathlon,” says Mathews.

Known for its incredible community that supports and uplifts one another, Mathews found strength and solace in other Ironman athletes and competitors and managed to overcome her condition and build strength. Determined to rewrite her narrative, she went on to compete in triathlons and in 2019 won her age group at Ironman New Zealand, a race the saw her qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. There, she finished fourth in her age group. 

Mathews’ story is an inspiring one, not least because of what she’s achieved in the sport of Ironman in so short a timeframe, but because it also speaks to the ability we all have to rewrite our narrative, to defy expectation and push past our limits. You can see more of Mathews’ story below. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues, please contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673 for support and access to effective services. You can also chat online or email them here.

By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

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