Donna Phelan has been all over the world, but unlike the average tourist, she has to push her body to the limit wherever she goes.
The 38-year-old St. John’s native has been competing “on and off” in Ironman triathlons since 2003 and the competition has taken its toll on her body.
Phelan had surgery on her right knee in 2004. She returned to competition in 2006, had the same surgery on her left knee last October and returned to competition a few months later.
Phelan lives most of the year in San Diego, spends February through April training with her triathlon team in Thailand and June through August training in Switzerland.
During her career, Phelan has competed in Australia, New Zealand, China, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Switzerland, France, England, the United States, Brazil and Guatemala.
Phelan competes in five or six triathlons a year.
This year, she competed in the Wildflower Half Ironman in May (in Northern California), Ironman Brazil the end of May, Ironman UK in August, and she’ll do the Ironman Hawaii in Oct. 9 before the Ironman Arizona in November.
“The toughest triathlon I’ve done,” she said, “would have to be Ironman China last year, racing in 110 degrees (fahrenheit). The Corner Brook Triathlon is the toughest Olympic distance race I’ve done because of the challenging hills.”
Phelan’s best performances have been in the last few years. In 2008, she was second at Ironman China and ninth at Ironman Switzerland. In 2009, she was fourth at Ironman China, fourth at Ironman Malaysia and fifth at Ironman Switzerland. She placed fifth at Ironman Brazil and fourth at Ironman UK.
Phelan, the 1999 St. John’s Molson female athlete of the year, said there’s no quick way to success in her sport.
“I don’t know if there are any shortcuts to becoming a better competitor. Hard work is still the only sure ticket to improvement. If you want to beat other people, you have to be willing to work harder than them,” she said.
There is really no triathlon season, according to Phelan.
“Triathlon has pretty much become a year-round sport. The first races start in January in the southern hemisphere and the last race of the year is Ironman Australia in December. In North America, races usually begin in March and finish in November,” she said.
“I don’t know if there are any shortcuts to becoming a better competitor. Hard work is still the only sure ticket to improvement. If you want to beat other people, you have to be willing to work harder than them." - Donna Phelan
Competing in triathlons around the world doesn’t come cheap, and Phelan admits her sport is expensive.
“I work part-time as a personal trainer during the off-season which for me is from November to February.
A few of my sponsors help out financially, and I also win prize money when I finish in the top 10 (and within eight per cent of the finisher’s time) at an Ironman race,” she explained.
Phelan said the funding required on a yearly basis depends on the number of races she does and where they’re located.
“I get free coaching as part of the agreement with the team (www.teamtbb.com) that I race for and I have my bike, running shoes, wetsuit, etc. provided by sponsors.
“When I’m away at training camp, my expenses are just the basic everyday costs of living — food and rent mostly. The bigger expenses come from airfares to races and hotel accommodations. It helps to travel with one airline and accumulate air miles. And, of course, it helps to win prize money to cover those expenses.”
Though she now lives in California, she still refers to San Diego as her, “second home.”
“I don’t get back to Newfoundland as often as I would like,” she said. “But my parents come out to visit every winter which cuts down on my trips back ‘home.’’’
Despite the grueling schedule she has kept for the past seven years, Phelan has no plans to stop competing anytime soon.
“I’ll continue to compete as a professional as long as I keep improving and I remain competitive,” she said.
“I love the sport, so even after I retire as a professional, I think I’ll still compete as an amateur to some degree. Whether or not I’ll be competing in the 80 and-over-age category, I’m not sure,” she joked.