Shanelle Barrett hopes her own moving triathlon story is an inspiration to the hundreds of young athletes lining up at the Taranaki Tri Festival at Ngamotu Beach this week.
The event director of the New Plymouth ITU World Cup lives and breathes her sport, and was once among the elite. That all changed 15 years ago when Shanelle was struck down by glandular fever while competing on the ITU circuit in Europe.
The illness robbed her of the dream of making the 2004 NZ Olympic team and, ultimately, ended her career – the kidney and liver damage she suffered resulting in regular relapses.
But her passion for triathlon remained, and she looked at other ways to stay involved.
She trained as an international triathlon official and was selected as a technical official for the 2012 London Olympics. She went on to create courses and run events and, 18 months ago, became director of the New Plymouth ITU Triathlon World Cup event.
“I love the sport so that’s why I wanted to still be involved and give something back,” she says.
“I hope that by doing what I have done I can inspire young people, particularly girls and women, to get into sport and show them that there are other avenues if things don’t work out for them.”
Most of the athletes know her story, and she is often called upon for advice around injury or missed selection.
“It’s an advantage to have that experience and understanding of what it’s like to be an athlete – being nervous before a race and the technical understanding – and also because of what I’ve been through. I like mentoring and being in a position to encourage and support young people.”
The Taranaki Tri Festival began yesterday, with thousands of youngsters taking part in the Weet-bix Kids’ TRYathlon. The WIL Sport NZ Schools champs are held on Friday and Saturday, before the main event – the ITU Triathlon World Cup elite women’s and men’s races – are contested on Sunday. A 2.5km and 5km fun run to raise money for the Mellowpuff Charitable Trust will also be held on Sunday.
With qualification points for the Tokyo Olympics up for grabs, there will be full 65-strong elite women’s and men’s fields in the World Cup event, led by five-time world champion Javier Gomez, of Spain, in the men’s, and the consistent Angelica Olmo, of Italy, in the women’s.
“New Plymouth is the most amazing community and goes out of its way to host and support the event,” Shanelle says. “And Port Taranaki is outstanding – it’s rare for a big company to make it so easy to host an event of this size.
“The athletes, organisers and officials really feel at home in New Plymouth.”