6th April 2023
Silver win in Italy for Team GB Duathlete and Learning Support Assistant, Jess Smith
It’s not every day that someone working in a local College is training on the side, running 120km and cycling around 350km a month to qualify to compete for Team GB in Italy. So, to get a silver medal in Age Group and come 5th out of all women competing (16-80) is a huge achievement.
Explaining what competing for Age Group is, Jess said: “You compete for Team GB on an international level, with a variety of other ages and nationalities, but you are judged on your own age group performance and the performance overall. So, in my race I came 2nd in my age group, and 5th out of all the women (16-80) who were also competing on that day. I did Europeans, so I was competing with women from the continent. There is no Olympic level for Duathlon, so Age Group lies just under the equivalent level called Elite. The categories from Elite down to Age Group, then National, Regional, and Local.”
Giving some background to how she ended up here, Jess said that she did some running in school but wasn’t overly sporty and PE teachers in the past never thought anything much of Jess’ ability. So, what changed?
Back when Jess lived in Birmingham and went to college, she was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome (now more commonly diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as the overarching condition). She found running and exercise were natural ways of producing serotonin, chemicals which calm the symptoms of her conditions, and joined a local triathlon club after regularly running and cycling around Birmingham by herself.
But what started as a hobby became more addictive for Jess. She said: “From 2016, when I started, to 2020 and being in lockdown, I had run around 100km across the four years. Now, with my training I’m counting 100km-150km a month.”
The turning point came when Jess was suggested to compete in Age Group in Europe. Jess was baffled by the suggestion but went along with it and signed up for the qualifiers last year. At the last moment, Jess panicked and pulled out of taking part. “Because of my asperger’s, the panic completely took over. I just didn’t think I was good enough to compete at that level.”
Over the summer of 2022, Jess continued to train in what time she had spare alongside working as an engineer at the time. After the summer, Jess took the plunge and took part in the last event of the qualifiers and ended up winning her Age Group, an automatic qualification to compete in Europe, and was in the top 10 of all women.
Jess then started working at the College at the start of 2023 whilst working a full-time job, Jess recognised this is hugely demanding as sport was starting to feel like a second job when she wanted it to be fun. After catching covid over Christmas, Jess nearly pulled out of going. But, she committed and had 10 weeks of training behind her. After that, Jess set off to Caorle, Italy to compete.
At the start line, she set off with a fast pace and looked at her watch thinking “there’s no way I could maintain this.” But, she managed to running over 4.6km in 17 and a half minutes. At the transition to the bikes, Jess was in disbelief that she was in 6th place.
Jess used the other racers in the top pack and stayed in their slipstream, drafting to make easier work of the ride and keeping up with their pace of around 38km/h.
Jess climbed another three places. The women in the top two positions were expected to be where they were. But to Jess’ surprise, she found she was right on the heels of second place. Keeping the pace would secure a bronze medal. From there, Jess said “I don’t remember the race, my mindset shifted and I was in a trance.”
Getting off the bike for the last few miles of the race, Jess quickly found herself neck and neck with second place. Whilst feeling guilty about the woman in second place being someone she looked up to, Jess made her move to second place.
Jess grew the gap, doing around six-minute miles and reached the athletic stadium and saw the blue track, which Jess knew was the last 100 metres. Before reaching the line, Jess took a chance to look back but it was then that she knew she had it in the bag.
Crossing the line, Jess broke out into tears of relief and disbelief.
Her partner David England had a lot of confidence that Jess would get a podium position. Jess said “he’s a huge advocate and basically my second coach. He helps train me on his e-bike to set the pace for me to run, hand water bottles to me; he is committed to helping me train and I’m really grateful for that.” As an avid photographer, he also went to Italy to capture the race and the amazing moment she took the silver medal home. You can see his other work on Instagram here.
Jess typically finds encouraging the students in her care at South Devon College much easier than encouraging herself. She tells them to not let anything stop them achieving their goals because they’re so much better than they think, but they always respond that Jess needs to tell herself that too!
“Until a few weeks ago, I was very much the underdog of my local tri club”, Jess said. “I suffer quite badly from imposter syndrome but getting this medal did make me stop and think ‘you know what, I must be alright.'”
A big congratulations to Jess Smith! Her duathlon success has earned her a free place to compete in Europe again next year so, after a well-deserved rest, she’ll be back to training again to see what she can achieve next time! If you want follow her journey, you can check out her sports Instagram here.