Twenty eight-year-old Newcastle Para-triathlete Lauren Parker could well become the inspiration of the nation in the countdown to this year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
The former Ironman triathlete, who was second in her age group at the Ironman World Championships in 2015, lost all feeling from the waist down after crashing into a guard rail in a cycling accident in April.
But today, after months of rehabilitation, heartache and training, Parker pushed and puffed her handcycle and racing wheelchair for 28 kilometres around the streets of Melbourne’s St Kilda beach in her one and only chance to win Games selection.
It was the Para-triathlon Continental Championships run as part of Race Three of the Six-Race Triathlon Victoria 2XU Triathlon Series.
Although race organisers had to cancel the swim because of poor water quality, turning the race into a duathlon (run-bike-run), the mix of world-beaters and newcomers pursued the course with just as much gusto.
Parker was second across the line behind Gold Coaster Sarah Tait, and with two discretionary nominations available, it is almost certain both Tait and Parker will join ITU World Champion Emily Tapp in a three-strong Australian team when Para-triathlon makes its Games debut in April.
For Parker, the prospect of turning her once blossoming Ironman triathlon career into a career in Para-triathlon has given her a new lease of life.
“I’ve only been on the racing chair for six weeks and the hand cycle, and to be able to complete today’s race in an OK time, I’m really happy,” said an emotional Parker, as she was swamped by over 20 members of her support team.
“I’m back doing what I love and that’s racing and I’m so excited to be back racing so soon after my accident; it’s hard to believe, I can’t describe it.
“With regards to the Commonwealth Games I’m hoping it all works out and I do qualify; it would be really exciting if I did with lots of hard work between now and then.”
And she was quick to praise her support staff, coaches, fellow Novocastrian and Paralympic wheelchair racing legend Kurt Fearnley, and her former training partner, carer and handler, former surf Ironman Brad Fernley.
“If it wasn’t for everyone around me, it’s like a team; it’s not just me. I wouldn’t be here without their support and the team; they got me to the finish line basically.
“Just training with Kurt under his renowned coach Andrew Dawes has been amazing, they are so supportive; I’ve had some good sessions with them.
“I’m very lucky to have them in my home town, to train with one of the best in the world and with one of the best coaches. I’m very happy doing three sessions of cycling and racing chair every week and four sessions of swimming.”
There are also two discretionary places available on the Australian men’s team, with former motocross champion and newly crowned Australian time trial and road race champion, Alex Welsh (VIC), the first across the line ahead of SA’s Scott Crowley.
Either Welsh or Crowley are expected to get the nomination in early February, behind automatic nominee Bill Chaffey and his fellow Gold Coaster Nic Beveridge, who was fourth at the World Championships in Rotterdam and is favoured to take the other spot, despite missing today’s final race after only recently returning to racing after injury.
Para-cyclist Welsh is another relative newcomer to Para-triathlon. He became a paraplegic in 2009 after crashing off a jump at the Blue Rock motocross track in country Victoria, fracturing his T7 vertebrae.
“I knew the Commonwealth Games were going to be on the Gold Coast this year and it was going to be a real good opportunity to have a crack at it … there was no handcycling in the Games,” said 24-year-old Welsh.
“I just wanted to be part of Gold Coast 2018; I didn’t really back off my handcycle training I just added in swimming and the racing wheelchair, and my beginning in wheelchair sport was the racing wheelchair so I had a good base in that to fall back on.
“So, I tied Para-triathlon into my cycling commitments and could see there were some great opportunities in triathlon and I’m really enjoying the process and from Cycling Nationals last week to racing this week it’s all been really successful.
“Last week was a dream start to the year in Para-cycling in Ballarat, winning both the time trial and the road race.
“I’ve had a pretty amazing start to the year, basically I could not have gone any better, and I was actually looking forward to the swim.
“I’ll admit it is one of my weaknesses but it would have been nice to show the progress I have made in that, but you can’t control the weather, you can’t control what goes on in the bay.
“Overall it was the best option (to cancel the swim); with so many athletes racing you can’t take any risks. You just have to make it happen; try and pick your battles and make up ground where you could and just take it easy and navigate the course correctly.
“I’m up against it (Commonwealth Games selection) because I haven’t been able to do a swim but we’ll see how it goes; I did the best performance I could today.
“I also raced in Florida in October and the swim was cancelled there as well, but I can swim. I just haven’t had the chance to show it.
“I would love to be part of the Paralympics; that has always been my goal since my accident.
“It’s the pinnacle of sport and I’m maintaining my cycling goals and Para-triathlon as well; the world champion in Para-triathlon does handcycling as well, it’s not impossible.”
In other events, two-time world champion Sally Pilbeam (WA) showed all her class to beat World Championship medallist Kerryn Harvey (SA) in the women’s PTS4.
Josh Kassulke (QLD) won the men’s PTS5 class from Tony Scoleri, while the women’s went to New Zealander Sharron Dagg over two-time Paralympian Claire McLean and teenage star Molly Wallace.
Albury’s two-time World Championship medallist and former Cross-Tri World Champion, Justin Godfrey, fresh from his Para-cycling silver at Nationals, won the men’s PTS3, with WA Paralympian Brant Garvey taking the PTS2 from another Albury boy, Glen Jarvis, and Mark Daniels.
Clint Picken finished ahead of Liam Twomey in the men’s PTS4, while Gerrard Gosens (B1) came out on top in the PTVI over Daniel Searle (B1), with Jonathan Goerlach in third after a puncture forced him and his guide to walk to the line.
By Triathlon Australia
Photo with thanks to Delly Carr | Triathlon Australia