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From the finish line to the front line

Sport

DOUBLE JOBBING Westport professional triathlete Hilary Hughes is also a qualified doctor.

Interview
Michael Gallagher

Hilary Hughes is a professional triathlete based in Westport. She competes all across the world but never forgets her roots or what really matters.
Here, in the second part of our exclusive interview, Hilary speaks about Ironman, becoming a professional athlete and how being a doctor on the frontline battling Covid has grounded her and given her a proper perspective on life.

IRONMAN
“The Ironman consists of three elements: a 2.8km swim followed by a 180km bike ride and 42.2km run. Within that it’s divided into age groups, which I was doing for years. Basically, anyone can enter as an age-grouper, turn up and race. Then there are the professionals – a smaller field of men and women. All national governing bodies set standards and athletes who hit those standards can get a professional license.
I’m still doing the same race but competing against a smaller, more competitive field who have all invested more time to be better. Professionals are trying to make a living from it and that certainly makes a difference.
In recent years I managed to qualify for both the half and full distance as an age-grouper for the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii and loved that. I also competed in the World Champs in Utah at the end of 2021 and was second in my age-group and fourth fastest amateur female overall. I was absolutely thrilled with that.

FIRST RACE AS A PROFESSIONAL
“I recently took my Pro License and the Europeans in Elsinore, Denmark was my first race in that category. It was really exciting, but I knew it would be tough. I knew the swim would be my weakness. I haven’t given it as much time as running and cycling and it’s definitely a work in progress.
I knew I would be on the back-foot from the outset, and I was. It was a stacked field and all week I told myself I’d be dropped in the swim, and I couldn’t give up. It was awful and I wanted to give up, but I didn’t.
I was swimming as fast as I could and part of my brain was telling me ‘this is awful, I’m a joke,’ but another part was saying ‘you knew you’d be in this position and you promised you wouldn’t give up’.
There was only one girl behind me coming out of the water, but I had to keep going. I jumped on the bike and was on my own for a long time. The girls in the group in front of me were working together into the wind and I knew they had a serious advantage, but I just put the head down and kept cycling.
It paid off because at 70k I caught a few girls and passed them, and I was thrilled with that. I hopped onto the run then and eventually finished 13th which I was really happy with.

THE ‘YOU HAVE TO’ ATTITUDE
“A lot of people in sport have this awful phrase where they say ‘you have to do this if you want to be the best’ or ‘you have to think this way’ or ‘you have to desperately want to win this race in order to do well’.
They tell me that in order to be good one has to be aggressive and self-absorbed. Well, I’m screwed so because I’m not aggressive and I love encouraging people around me and for a while when all this is being fed to you it makes you wonder if you should switch your mindset. But then, I think I’m doing okay and I am not going around slitting everyone’s throat. Of course, there are people who are naturally that way and achieve great things because of that mindset, but that’s not me.

MIXING MEDICINE AND SPORT
“When I was on the Irish Track Cycling team, I came back from the World Cup and had one night at home before starting a week of nights in Galway. That taught me it was impossible to mix high-level sport with medicine, so I took a year out and moved to Majorca to continue with the team-pursuit.
At the end of that year, I had to either stay at the cycling or go back to medicine to finish the six-months of an intern year. If I didn’t go back to medicine at that stage, I would have to repeat the entire year, so I went back.
I was shipped up to Letterkenny and finished the internship year there. I focused on that and told myself to let go of the elite sport thing for a while, but I was still training away and entered a few triathlons more for fun than anything. However, I competed very well and was podiumed in every single event I entered, I won the national series and won the middle-distance championships.
COVID
“My internship was over and I moved to Dublin to work in some of the hospitals. I worked in The Beacon for a while and then Covid hit so I put sport on the back burner. Those were tough times. I worked in Clontarf rehab for four months before the vaccines and it was insane. I’d work a ten-hour shift, go home, do an hour on the bike and at the weekends I’d keep up a bit of training.
Sport didn’t seem as important at that stage and I was very happy working, trying to help people at such a terrible time.

BACK HOME
“I came home to Westport in 2021 and worked in the vaccination centre in Castlebar while training for Ironman Lanzarote. I loved working there because it was the positive side of Covid. People were marching in, delighted to be getting the vaccination and I was so happy to give them something to protect them.
When I was in Clontarf we had people coming straight from ICU to us for rehab. All these people had horrendous days and were sometimes six weeks incredibly sick before they came to us. You could see the shock in their eyes. Some of them could barely remember going into hospital and then they realised that they had been there for six weeks and had nearly died. All their limbs were weak, they had lost loads of weight and they looked like they had been taken out of a washing machine.
It gave me a great perspective on life and what really matters. When I was in Letterkenny I was still doing triathlons and finishing in the top three every weekend but I’d go back into the hospital the next day and nobody cared. I’d go back into work where there were life and death situations all the time and nobody cared whether I was on a podium of not.
I was focused on those people and they were focused on the only thing that mattered – staying alive. I loved that and miss it now that I’m going down the professional athlete route where everyone has to get more and more selfish and think about themselves almost exclusively.
Thankfully, the experience of 2020 helps me keep it a little bit real and grounds me. One can be a balanced person and still achieve.

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