The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year, and world record-holding Triathlon champion, has the London Games in her sights


Chrissie Wellington is cycling through Hyde Park on Thursday when she stops to chat. Two days after being named The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year, she repeatedly stresses that winning an honour that was the property of her heroes is surreal.

Though she has pulled over on her bike to interrupt her afternoon ride, there is no halting her career. A world record-holder and three-time Ironman Triathlon world champion, she now wants a fourth title. But that is not all. The London Olympic Games are less than three years away and she would also like to be there.

Given that cycling over the Himalayas was once Wellington’s normal morning ride, do not bank against her in another challenge that awaits one of the toughest women in British sport. The Ironman Triathlon remains the priority for Wellington, 32, but in the next 12 months she plans to compete in a series of cycling time trials to determine whether she has the speed to go for a place in the British cycling team. It is an opportunity to add another string to her bow. “It is amazing what the body and mind can achieve,” she says, “great things if you really set your heart to it. My parents taught me that.” Ironman is the ultimate sporting test, a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon, all in less than nine hours.

Wellington, from Norfolk, this year broke the Ironman world record by more than 13 minutes in a time of 8hr 31min 59sec before winning her third world title in a course record in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. July’s world-record performance in Roth, Germany, saw her cycle for 4hr, 40min 28sec. The individual time trial in Beijing was won in 34min, 51sec by Kristin Armstrong of the USA — so much more a test of speed. “Next year I intend to just get a gauge of how good or otherwise I am,” Wellington says. “I am under no illusions. The British cycling team is absolutely phenomenal, so it would take an incredible amount for me to even tiptoe through the door.

“But I will never say never. I want to push my limits, test myself, test my body and mind. I always want to strive for more and that more could potentially be an Olympic sport. It requires a different skills set. My physical and mental attributes are more suited to longer-distance racing.

“It [time trialling] is a totally different sport. I have a clear idea of what it will take and that is why I need to test myself and put myself in these races to see how I fare. I don’t want to assume I would be able to step from one [sport] to another and I definitely do not want to take anything away from the British cyclists. But athletes have shown that they can cross disciplines. It is certainly worth exploring. If I did okay in those [time trials], then I could definitely speak to British Cycling about how I might pursue it.”

The best example of a British sportswoman switching sports is Rebecca Romero. At the Olympics in Athens in 2004, she won a rowing silver as a member of the quadruple skulls; four years later in Beijing, she won track gold in cycling’s individual pursuit.

When Wellington arrived at the David Beckham Academy near London’s 02 Arena last week for the 2009 Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards, held in association with Brittany Ferries, she read about the previous winners. Two hours later, after world champion sprint cyclist Victoria Pendleton had come third and world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis second, Wellington was stunned when she found out she had won.

“I was looking through the brochure at all the names of the women, phenomenal athletes, who have won this award — Tanni Grey-Thompson, Sally Gunnell, Ellen MacArthur — many of whom were childhood heroines of mine,” she says. “To have my name among those is a huge honour and something I did not expect to happen. There are so many fantastic female athletes who have achieved so much this year and over time, and triathlon is still not a mainstream sport, it is a minority sport, though the number of participants are growing. I did not expect the British public to vote for me. I am incredibly happy and it is great to represent my sport and to raise the profile of my sport.”

Wellington, who worked as a policy adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), became aware of her talent for endurance while on a sabbatical with the charity Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN). “My passion was international development and I also wanted to get some experience working in development on the ground,” she says. “That is why I took a sabbatical. When you are working at the high level of policy-making [with Defra], you can effect change but you cannot see that change in effect.

“I went to live and work in Nepal for over a year, working for RRN, a large charity. I was a jack of all trades. I was managing a water, sanitation and health project, I was piloting a new approach to sanitation in Nepal, I wrote papers, editing books on the impact of the civil war on poverty. I earned a massive $100 a month.”

When she was not working, she was mountain-biking. “Every morning before work, for a couple of hours, and then all weekend, we would go away on these big rides,” she says. “I cycled over the Himalayas on my bike with my friends and that is when I realised I had more of a talent for endurance activities. I could keep cycling and cycling all day and did not really get that tired.” Those rides formed the beginning of a journey that is far from finished.

There is another big year ahead for Wellington and Ennis, who, as she celebrated coming second in the awards,revealed her plans to compete at the world indoor athletics championships in Doha in March. “I have never done a world indoors,” she said. “Hopefully it will be my first. A lot of it is to do with missing a whole season last year and now making the most of everything.”