She’s a multiple USA Triathlon Athena Champion, Athena community leader, and now Boston Marathon Qualifier. We talk all things training, racing, and #athenapride with Leslie Battle, and discover why she believes it is so important for us Athena athletes to stand proud, race hard and own our space in the Multisport Arena.

Story by Leah Gilbert

Q. I always say triathletes never forget their first event: what do you remember about yours? 

My first race was the Falmouth Sprint Triathlon in Falmouth, MA in 2009. My parents drove in 500+ miles from Buffalo. For a sprint! I was nervous. I have no recollection WHY I did my first tri, other than I had a few friends turning 40 who had it on their bucket lists, so we trained for the Crabman, which would then be my second triathlon. I remember seeing the bouys in the water for that first race at packet pickup and thinking, gosh that is FAR! It was 400 yards in the live ocean. There were fish…..

I ended up coming in third in the Athena division at that first event and was shocked… My parents were proud. I remember being self conscious, wearing 2 tri kits and a sports bra to hold it all in, wearing a surfing shortie wetsuit I bought at discount retailer Job Lot. I remember having wild hair, a too small helmet, and foaming at the mouth on the 3.5 mile run I thought was only 3. Nevertheless, I was hooked.

Q. Who inspired you early on in your triathlon career?

Kelly Burns Gallagher was an idol, still is… I was getting ready for my first half ironman, the Firmman, in 2011, a spur of the minute late season decision my teammates peer pressured me into. I remember checking the Athena results and was SHOCKED – she completed it well under 6 hours. Christina Berry, who I would come to know as an awesome all terrain cyclist, was another Athena who had done Firmman, which gave me a hair of confidence I could finish it. I thank them both.

I was seriously unprepared…I’d only ridden 40 miles and run 7-8, and had NEVER swum that far in an ocean with waves so big there are regular surfers on the course. I think I placed first Athena at Firmman finishing in roughly 6:51!

Q. How important do you feel it is for the Athena/Clydesdale Divisions to have a stand-alone Championship?

I think it is important for the development of the sport to respect and recognize achievement at all levels. My position is well known that I believe Athena/Clydesdale

Image: George Ross Photography

athletes should be included among their peers as just another competing division and should be welcomed at USAT Age Group Nationals, as we were in the past. But being acknowledged by USAT at all is meaningful, especially for athletes who oftentimes feel marginalized from the sport based on size.

Q. Is there still some stigma around the Athena and Clydesdale Divisions?

There are both good and bad examples of inclusion and respect in the sport.

For example, at Athena Clydesdale Nationals in Arkansas in 2014, as we walked to the swim start the announcer said: “There they go, the Athenas and Clydesdales…I bet they are going to have a TON of fun!” poking fun at our size… Really?

That event I was proud to earn both the Sprint and Olympic distance National Champion titles AND to have placed first in my age group, qualifying for the next year’s USAT National Championship AND to have earned 3rd fastest combined female times for both events.

The good? I was back at Falmouth, a year or two after my first tri there and I was wrapping up those 3.5 miles on the run when this speedster comes up from behind and said: “Hey, I remember you from last season.. You look GREAT! Nice work!” And off he went, I felt validated. Included. Respected.

“My only dream is that one day Athena and Clydesdale athletes will be respected for the similarly dedicated and well trained athletes they are by their more aerodynamic peers, by race directors, the USAT and ITU establishments, the spectators, and equipment manufacturers.”

Q. How is your training going at the moment? What event are you focused on right now? 

Training is going great! I just checked off a few 2016 stretch goals… I got a 5k PR of 22:22 at the RI State Police 5k (Rhode Island) earning the f40-49 win and coming in 5th overall. Earlier this spring, I earned a new half marathon PR at the Friendly Sons of St Patrick Half Marathon (Massachusetts) coming in at roughly 1:46, and I recently ran my second non-Iron distance marathon to a 9 minute PR, finishing in 3:49.40 earning a spot into the Boston Marathon for 2017! (At time of press Leslie reclaimed the National Athena AG Title over Olympic distance).

What’s next?  I have a few half iron distance events on the calendar for 2016 and would LOVE to get a PR (sub 5:30). My new coach, Amy Rice (2x ITU World Champion and 4th age group at Kona 2007) of Triathlon Training with Amy, encourages me to pursue a more conservative race calendar as I age.

“I had finished 100 triathlons in 4 years 2 months to join USAT’s Century Club, so now, not racing every weekend, twice a weekend frankly feels strange.”

Now, we train for events. I used to train AT events. Working with a coach is challenging if you are used to doing your own thing. But, as with any professional relationship, you have to committ to the process and trust that the coach is building a plan for your long term success.

Q. You seem to have a great coach in Amy. How important is it not only to have a coach, but one that you have a good relationship with?

Amy has a heart of gold. And she takes no gaff. I love her style. She’s intimidating. She pushes my buttons in a good way. I remember we were running the Blessing of the Fleet a 10 mile race in Narragansett, Rhode Island… She held me back till mile 8 then said: “OK, if you think you can beat me, go now! But DON’T let me catch you!” Talk about motivation. Motivation by fear. I’d be a liar to say it was not exhilarating to earn a PR that day (1:19:28), but also to stay ahead of my coach till the line. As an Athena, one of the challenges we face is building and maintaining confidence. Sadly, I routinely fall into this trap no matter how well I may do. I ALWAYS step to the line more as “The Fat Girl” rather than as the 6x USAT National Champion, Team USA Member, and Boston Marathon Qualifier.

Q. Tell us about your most memorable event.

There are now two.

USAT Nationals Milwaukee Wisconsin 2013. Chrissie Wellington was the banquet speaker and I bought a front row ticket. She was SO amazing. The gist of her speech was never give up: she reflected on her crash before Kona, her flat tire during the race, her comparative inexperience, her lack of confidence…. But she fought through for the win that year. I remembered this, but that is not why this event was memorable.

As I was out biking the course the day before, she was out running her distinct style so I

Image: Leslie Battle

videotaped her for posterity as I was on the bike… Total stalkeriffic fangirl… Then I had the fortune to run into her at her book signing where she said: “I remember you. You were photographing me on the bicycle!” Guilty, I blushed, got another legit photo and prepped for the race.

That day I got the privilege to toe the line with Kimee Armor, an amazing Athena athlete who I raced in Burlington Vermont at Age Group Nationals 2012, but who I didn’t actually meet until 2013 at Nationals in Wisconsin.

Historically I’ve always been late out the water, and 2013 was no different. I generally know where my competitors are on the course and this day was no different, I was not first in on the bike because of the swim. As the run went on I remember passing one Athena, then another, and another at about mile 4.5. It was POSSIBLE I made up ground, but I didn’t really know. I pushed the downhill to the finish line and fell directly into Chrissy Wellington’s arms, handing me a finishers medal whereupon she swiftly said: “You, again!”

I will never forget Milwaukee 2013. I also met Sister Madonna Buder in the VIP tent (who knew they had such things). We chatted as we reclined in the complimentary Normatec lounge being fed a free boxed lunch… I mention this not as a “look at me,” but to point out one of the MANY differences Athena and Clydesdale athletes are being deprived of by having a separate national championship. Neither Chrissie nor Str. Madonna will ever come to ACNC, nor is it easy for us to participate in the USAT Annual Member Meeting, because it is also held at the event.

To read more of Leslie Battle’s interview, including more about her most memorable events, head to Part II, Leslie Battle.