Sandstone Ambassador Chantal Cummings shares her experience of giving up her full time job to become a full-time professional triathlete and gives advice to anyone looking to take on a sporting challenge
I have been competing as a professional long distance triathlete since 2018 having taken up triathlon in 2011. For a long time, I was managing to balance both full time work and racing as a professional athlete. However, there was a crux point where I felt that I wasn’t achieving what I wanted to in triathlon in terms of results. I kept finishing just outside of the podium. In addition, whilst I was getting great opportunities and experiences with work, I couldn’t fully commit as I really had my heart set on having a sporting career whilst I am still young enough. I therefore started to feel increasingly conflicted between sport and work.
What was it that made me transition from working full time with a professional hobby to being an athlete full time?
I got to the point where I really had to question what it was that got me out of bed every morning. After a while it became clear that it was the deep rooted motivation that I want and believe I have the opportunity to achieve both personal and international success in sport. Looking back, that desire has been there all my life. If you asked my primary school teachers, they would say that I always wanted to be on every team and would try to be the best at every sport. I of course wasn’t the best in everything, but it is that mindset that has really driven me and led me to wanting to be a part of competitive sport.
My love of sport really took off when I started rowing at age 12. Unfortunately I couldn’t achieve my dream of one day having the shot at being selected for the Olympics because of a bad back injury. However, that drive to be successful in sport never left me. Once I recovered from my injury, I was driven to find a new sport where I could still get my chance at great sporting success. It is this that gets me out of bed every morning and I know I will have no regrets in taking this opportunity now to train and compete full time, whatever the ultimate outcome ends up being.
Taking the leap to become a full time athlete
Whilst on the outside being a professional athlete might seem glamorous, it has been a much tougher than I thought going into professional sport full time. The reality is, you can’t really afford to have a bad day in the same way that you can get away with in the office. The ‘job’ is seven days a week so it’s certainly not a career you can take on without an absolute love of the sport (which fortunately I have). Training day in and day out has taught me a lot about compromise and having to always put my performance first, even if at times that means letting people down. One of the hardest things is that I have really had to learn to be selfish which does not come naturally to me at all. But, if I want to be the best I can, it has to come first.
A big challenge for me has been learning how to slow down. Previously juggling a full-time job and training meant I was used to living life at 100 miles an hour. Slowing down did not come easily. I kept feeling I should be doing jobs all the time in between sessions when I really needed to just be recovering and and rested for my next session. Fortunately I was lucky enough to be abroad in a training environment for three months which forced me to learn pretty quickly that if I didn’t slow down I wouldn’t achieve what I had left my working career to do. That thought was enough to make me disciplined in slowing down and see resting as part of the job.
A further challenge has been for me to accept that there is a road to progression which does not have shortcuts. I am always wanting to take big leaps towards my goals. By not accepting that progression takes time I, at times, hindered my progress because I pushed too hard and constantly felt as though I was underachieving and failing which is not a good place to be. I therefore had to reframe my situation and start to look at the positives and wins from each session. I had to highlight those and provide myself with a sense of achievement which in turn meant everyday I wanted to aspire to beat my performance from my previous sessions. Once I started to take this approach, I started to become much more in tune with my progress week after week.
Pushing through tough races
I often get asked how do I keep going through tough races. This has again been another mindset shift for me. With the help of my coach Perry, I have learnt to love the pain and strive in feeling uncomfortable. Now, it might sound strange but I am constantly searching for that. I tell myself the pain is a good pain as that’s where I need to be in order to produce a good performance. There are of course times where it feels too much to handle, but the key is holding your focus in the present moment and not letting your mind wonder. I practice a lot of self-talk in my races to ensure my mind is focused on the task in hand and that I am doing everything I can to succeed. I have a huge will to win and therefore I strive to achieve that whenever I am on the start line. However, triathlon is an unpredictable beast and therefore you need to be able to react to what’s thrown at you whilst still trusting in your own race plan. For this, confidence and belief in what I am doing and why I am there in the first place is critical.
Advice for anyone looking to take on a sporting challenge
You want to pick a challenge that is difficult but also realistic for you to achieve. Don’t compare yourself to others and instead think about what is possible for you in the context of your life. To set yourself up for success, I always recommend to the triathletes I coach to communicate their goals to their family and friends so that they understand their commitment and can support them. For additional support, see if you can find others training for similar challenges so that you can train and practice with them. Taking on an endurance challenge is tough. Making sure you have people around you who you can share the highs and lows with is key.
Ultimately there also needs to be an enjoyment factor. For me, the first step is understanding why you are taking on the challenge and what you want to achieve as the outcome of that challenge. Most people taking on a challenge will be doing this alongside another career. To set yourself up for success, you really need to have a reason to get out of bed earlier than you normally would in the morning or be willing to give up evenings. Often, the ability to do the challenge is the easy part. The real challenge is in the months of practice and the training to ensure you are ready.