Most athletes focus on one sport. Some might do cross training but very few are able to excel in two events. Triathletes, however, have to do well in three events: swimming, cycling and running. It’s a grueling sport which requires a tremendous amount of training and sacrifice.

Zoe Natasha Bowden is an 18-year-old triathlete who recently represented Malaysia in the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games where she placed a creditable fifth. She’s currently training and aiming for the 2018 Palembang Asian Games. She talks to Savvy about her passion for triathlons, the sacrifices she has to make and her goals for the coming years.

How did you get started in triathlons?

I started participating in triathlons at the age of 8. It was my school headmaster at that time who introduced me to the sport. It seemed strange at first to do three sports at once but once I got myself involved, I realised how exciting it was. I was already swimming and running at the time so I just needed to learn how to ride a bike. On the weekends, I’d head down to Putrajaya with my parents to train in all three sports.

Do you like swimming, cycling and running in equal measure?

I love all the three sports individually but as I was a Kuala Lumpur state swimmer in my early teens I’d say my love for swimming slightly overrides the other two. Triathlons always start with swimming so my abilities there give me a good head start when it comes to triathlons.

What’s a typical day like?

My weekly schedule consists of training sessions in the morning and evening except on Sundays, which is my day off. Morning sessions start at 5.30am because I have to be in school by 7.45 am. After school, which ends in the afternoon, I head back to change for training. After that it’s dinner and study time. I’m usually done and exhausted by 8.30pm. I have a tight schedule and always have to be on top of things. It’s hard work but at the end of the day I feel satisfied knowing I’ve utilised my time fully.

Many young people like to have an active social life but you have to spend much of your time training.How do you deal with that?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by a group of friends who appreciate and understand my dedication and the sacrifices I have to make. Most of my friends are athletes as well and they are undergoing the same journey as I am so it helps that we’re able to be there for one another and understand the process we’re going through. I know what’s important for me. Sometimes, I do feel like I’m left out — social wise — but I remind myself of how much I have achieved in my sporting career and that motivates me to carry on. Honestly, I don’t regret the sacrifices and decisions I’ve made.

How do you avoid burnout since you train so much?

The key to not burning out is listening to your body and mind. Some days, I experience extreme fatigue due to my busy schedule. Communicating with my coach is important as we’re able to work out a compromise where I don’t miss a session but maybe reduce the intensity or duration of the training. Luckily, I have Sundays off so this gives me the time to catch up on the work and sleep I’ve missed.

As a triathlete, Zoe Natasha Bowden is trained to prepare for the unexpected.

What is it about competing in triathlons that appeals so much to you?

Triathlon is such a unique sport. It’s hard but extremely exciting. Not one race is the same as the next. You do the same three events but there are different terrains, laps, courses, weather conditions etc. Every race is unique in that sense. Triathletes train to be prepared for the unexpected.

If you weren’t a triathlete, what other sport would you specialise in?

It’s quite hard to imagine myself not being a triathlete because it’s such a big part of my life. I guess I’d have continued to pursue my diploma in classical ballet as well as be involved in a team sport like touch rugby.

Do you watch your diet a lot or can you afford to eat whatever you like because you exercise so much?

I exercise a lot so I have to consume food that will give me energy to perform in training. Usually, I eat more carbs and protein in my meals as this helps repair my damaged tissues and give me a primary source of energy. I eat fruits and vegetables but not excessively. What I put in my body will affect how I perform in training. It’s hard sometimes with all the temptations around me but I’m developing a strong mind-set to eat what’s good for my body and treating it right. This doesn’t mean I’m constantly analysing everything I eat and I do have some bad habits. I’ve managed to cut down on sugary foods in the past two years but ice cream is still a struggle.

How was your SEA Games experience?

This was my first SEA Games and it being home-based made it very memorable. I was the youngest female to compete in the event. In the lead up to the race, I went through many challenges mentally as I felt overwhelmed. But on race day itself, I performed better than I expected. I swam and cycled well but during the run, I faced extreme cramping in my legs so I was left with no choice but to run at a comfortable pace. I ended up in fifth place. Overall, my performance surprised me and I definitely see myself going in the right direction.

What are the competitions you’re looking at in the coming year?

I intend to race in more international races like in Japan, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. I might even take part in races in Europe or Australia depending on my progress and what my coaches recommend. But a main goal is the 2018 Palembang Asian Games.

Do you aim to go to the Olympics?

The Olympics has always been my long-term goal. But my focus right now is to slowly build up my character as an athlete and gain experience without it being too overwhelming. Key races to participate in leading to the Olympics would be the SEA Games, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. I guess I have to play it by ear and see which ones I’m able to participate in. But definitely these races are my main goals for the near future.

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