Interview by Natalie Christopher
Thank you for talking with CYPRUS GIRLS CAN today Carmen!
We’re very excited to have you as our Athlete of the Month and look forward to hearing your stories and advice :)
Natalie: So tell us Carmen, how did you first get into sport?
Carmen: I’ve always been very athletic and pretty involved in sports.
That would definitely be because of my Dad’s influence. When he was younger he was a competitive football and volleyball player and later he began cycling recreationally.
When I was 6 and my sister 4 years old, we were at a public pool. We were playing with a coin in the deep end. At some point someone spoke to my Father and told him that we had swimming talent and should start swimming lessons. It turns out that someone was part of the Canadian Olympic Swim Team!
So that was it, we started lessons. My first coach coached me intensely for ten years. I continue to look up to him, I think the world of him. Thank you Vassilis Skourides!
When I started swimming, I would show up to the pool craving for my coach’s approval while my sister would go just to play around! I started competitive swimming when I was 8 and continued until I was 16/17 years old.
N: Which events were you training for?
C: I was a long distance swimmer; I would compete in the 400m and 800m free-style and 400m medley (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle).
At the time, 800m was the longest swimming event for women in the pool, while for men in was 1,500m. Now the 1,500m event exists for women,
N: So that’s one of the three disciplines of triathlon (swim-cycle-run) initiated. How did you start running and cycling too?
C: I was always a fairly good runner; as a swimmer my aerobic capacity was good. I would win Cross Country at School.
I actually also began to compete in Modern Pentathlon (shooting-fencing-swimming-horse riding-cross country running 3km- although now order has changed).
N: Oh wow! How did you start that? It’s such a strange mix of sports.
C: Well a swimming friend of mine had become involved in it and he suggested I give it a go. He had raced in Greece and having seen the standard of the girls’ competition, he realised I would be able to beat them.
The first Modern Pentathlon race I did (as part of the national Cyprus Women’s team) was the Greek Nation Championship – which I won! I continued to train intensely for Modern Pentathlon and race for 2-3 years while I was studying Sports Science in Athens.
After some time I decided to have a break from competing, but I continued to swim and run casually to keep fit during last two years of studies.
DID YOU KNOW?
Today, the women's 1,500m is offered at the U.S. National Championships, the World Championships, the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and the European Aquatics Championships, among many others…
But not at the Olympic Games.
N: So that’s swimming and running covered. What about cycling? How did you start that?
C: When I finished my studies, I came back to Cyprus and was living with my parents. My Father had started cycling a few years before and he bought me a road bike as a present, just so we could ride together to keep fit.
We would ride 3-4 times a week and within a month he couldn’t keep up with me! We decided at that point to find a group to ride with, so I could go ahead with the stronger riders and my Father would have someone a bit slower to ride with!
N: Ok, so you had swimming, running and cycling experience at this point- but all as individual sports. How did you decide to bring them together and start Triathlon training?
C: Well actually I met my future partner and now Father of my child, Johnny, through cycling. We started dating and it was Johnny who got me into Triathlon training seriously. He was a competitive cyclist and so we trained on the bike together. In the beginning I didn’t have a Triathlon coach; we just did research online.
My first Triathlon competition was the Olympic distance National Championship in 2009. I was leading for the whole race, but I got stitches in the last 2km of the run and I got overtaken. So I came in second. Not bad!
After that I started training more seriously, but still self-coached. Although I began to compete abroad, my work (teaching swimming) was still my main priority.
N: So how was it that you decided to transition to becoming a professional athlete?
C: Honestly, it was Johnny. He saw that by National standards I was miles ahead. He helped me out a lot, he reassured me I was talented. He was the one that said ‘I am willing to support you’ and convinced me to try and take it a step further.
I had always loved the idea of being a high level athlete. I knew I didn’t have what it takes to be a pro swimmer, I was an average swimmer at best. But in Triathlon I was strong.
Around four years ago, I did some research and found a coach in Belgium who was happy to coach me online, with the aim of starting to train professionally.
A month before my first pro race though, I found out I was pregnant!
N: Congratulations! So how did becoming a Mum change things?
Well of course I didn’t take part in the competition I’d been training for, but I did continue to train for all three disciplines during my pregnancy, always according to how my body felt. All my cycling was done on the turbo trainer inside.
N: What advice do you have to other women about training while pregnant?
C: Continuing training while you are pregnant is just fine, as long as you and baby are healthy and you listen to your body. Find a Doctor who you trust, who may also be an athlete or is familiar with treating athletes. Definitely don’t start a new exercise regime while pregnant, but if you are already a proficient runner for example, there is no reason not to continue running, but at a lower intensity - if of course pregnancy is developing as it should and their are no medical issues.
Read some real-life stories about female runners who continued to train and compete while pregnant,
who went on to have healthy babies:
Professional athlete Alysia Montaño runs an 800m race in the US Track and Field Championships while nearly eight months pregnant. 28-year-old Montaño is a four-time national champion and says she knew she wouldn't win the race but wanted to show the world that pregnant professional athletes can still compete
A surprise pregnancy didn't preventing top runner Sarah Brown from training for the 2016 Summer Olympics, though she was due just three months before trials.
N: How did you get back into training after the birth?
C: After I had the baby I began training again quite soon. I started running and cycling 2 or 3 weeks after the delivery and a week after that I started swimming again. My body heals quickly apparently!
N: Give me a typical day in the life of Carmen.
C: I wake up at 5am, make breakfast for everyone (myself, my daughter and partner) and then I start my first session of the day some time between 5.45 and 6am. The session can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the sport.
When I get home I start cooking lunch and do some housework. At 1 o’clock I either go to pick up my daughter from day-care, or I go to the Municipal pool to coach the Nireas Triathlon Club for swimming.
In the afternoon I will have 1 or 2 training sessions, which will take 3-4 hours. I often also work as a swimming and running coach until 8.30pm.
Then I go home, make dinner and crash!
[Experience has taught me not to try and text/call Carmen after 9.30pm ;) ]
N: How do you find balancing being a Mum, training so much as a professional athlete and working?
C: It’s hard. As a pro athlete, when I’m not training I should really be resting. But obviously with a child, that’s not possible. I want to spend time as much time as possible with my daughter - and she’s very active!*
I am lucky as I do have so much support from my family. In August for example, Johnny watches her while I train three times a day.
My parents also help a lot. Every Wednesday this month they have been taking her to the beach, for example. They look after her a lot and I wouldn't be able to work and train as I do without their help.
Actually, it’s nice to have a significant non-triathlete component in my life as a pro. Often professional athletes end up focussing all their attention on their own body and how they are feeling, so I find it’s good to have to think about someone else so intently. It also helps when your kid is hilarious!
In terms of working, I work part time, but I do have to drive quite far. It takes me 40 minutes to get to the pool for example.
Being so busy forces me to be organised. I cook and make extra for the next day for example. I don’t have time to make elaborate dishes, but I do ensure they are nutritious. I eat a lot!
N: What are your plans for the future?
C: I have recently started working with a new coach, Perry Agass from the Trisutto Team. He really 'gets' me. He has a lot of experience in the industry and really knows how to get the best out of me.
To be honest, I don’t feel like I’ve proven to myself or anyone else that I can make it yet. I – and my family - have sacrificed a lot to let me pursue my dream.
My desires for the future? I need my break through race...I really want to continue this lifestyle.
N: What would you be doing if you weren’t a pro athlete?
C: I guess I’d be working (coaching swimming/running) more.
N: Why should someone try Triathlon?
C: Triathlon is a fast growing sport. The training for it is interesting, as it’s three sports in one. Mixing up running, swimming and cycling makes it less boring than training for one discipline only.
I truly believe that any woman with a job and a family can find a way to prepare for and finish an
Olympic Triathlon (1.5m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run).
If you do decide to try triathlon, you need to be clever about how to use your time and learn to be organised, especially if you have a family. Training for three disciplines is time consuming!
A beginner can find the information they need online. But once you start competing, then I suggest you find a coach.
N: Any advice for someone's first Triathlon race?
C: It is not as intimidating as it sounds. Try taking part in a relay first to see what it’s like to be at a race and to realise it’s not as big as it seems. Most races allow teams of 2 to 3 people to compete, so you can either do the swim, the cycle or the run, or 2 of the sports and your team mate the other one.
Triathlons have a culture of inclusivity.
The fact is that you can be at the starting line with hundreds of other people. Every person there will have the same goal as you: reaching the finish line. Although having so many people in a race may sound daunting, it’s actually much less scary than competitive swimming or track and field, say, when you’re competing against just 6 or 7 people.
The finishing times between the first and last person in the race could be 1.5 hours – and they’re both considered triathletes. That’s one of the nice thing about triathlon, it’s very welcoming and inclusive.
N: Sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking they have to be of a certain standard to join a club to train- and then never end up feeling confident enough. Is there a minimum standard to start training?
C: Assuming that you can swim and ride a bike at a basic level, then you’ll be able to find a team that you can train with.
I modify my swimming sessions according to the swimmer’s ability. There is no reason to feel shy or embarrassed about not being good enough!
N: I know I was worried about that! My swimming was weak and I was convinced I needed to swim on my own first, to improve, before I joined a triathlon club. In the end, a friend persuaded me to just to a swimming session with her tri club. I’m really glad I did, otherwise I would still probably be ‘trying to get good enough’ to join a group! In the mean time, my swimming has improved loads!
N: How do people react when you tell then you’re a Triathlete?
C: People, both men and women, often come up to me and ask if I work out. I then explain I am a triathlete but rarely do people realise I mean I professional and that I train 3 times a day for my job. I guess people doesn’t understand about races and prize money.
N: If you stopped training professionally, would you continue with Triathon?
C: If I ever stopped training as much as I do now, I wouldn’t continue to compete. I’m never confident with my preparation as it is - ever. Even with the 30+ hours I train now. If I was only training 10-12 hours a week as an amateur, I would always have the ‘what-ifs’ haunting me in a race.
I would continue to swim, bike, run just to keep fit, but I wouldn’t show up at races.
N: What are the realities of being a professional female athlete in Cyprus?
C: I think Cyprus society thinks a woman can be a high level athlete until she finishes her studies. Then it’s time to get a job and relatively soon after that, start a family. Very rarely is it ‘allowed’ for a woman to keep training at a high level after she has a family.
In addition to the social stigma associated with being a professional athlete and Mother, there is a real limitation in sponsorship offers in Cyprus. Usually offers (in Triathlon) are in the form of products, not cash.
I have to go abroad to compete to make money [from races], but I don’t have the money to go abroad regularly. I cannot demand more money from the Cyprus Triathlon Federation as they do not receive very much funding from KOA.
So I am always faced with the dilemma of: “Do I go work more, or train more?”
Maybe if being a female professional athlete was respected more,
the situation would be different.
N: What is your opinion on the situation of women in sport in Cyprus in general?
C: As I said, continuing to train at a high level after your studies is generally frowned upon in Cypriot society.
The problem may even start earlier than that – in senior year or maybe even during the last 2 years of school, when parents force their children to put all their focus only on studying. Training for a sport takes a backseat. That problem is caused by a lot of things, not just society. For example, children attend school in the morning, followed by private lessons in the afternoon/evening, leaving no time for sports.
The good news is that I’ve definitely seen an improvement in women doing exercise in general in Cyprus over the years. More and more women seem to go to the gym, for example.
Young women in Cyprus are realising they need to be active to be healthy.
The desire to be active could be driven by social media and wanting solely to improve their physical appearance, which in my opinion is a negative reason to exercise, but still – at least it is leading them to be active.
N: It would be excellent to see women and girls finding the sport that they truly enjoy best and enjoying the outdoors, rather than focusing entirely on aesthetics and their body looking good. What do you think can help this?
C: Accessibility is a huge factor. The choices of sport options in Cyprus is gradually growing, which helps cater for different people’s tastes. I would have never imagined some people I know trying say Stand Up Paddle (SUP) or running at the Grammiko (Linear) Park (in Nicosia), but they have!
It’s amazing to see whole families walking along there, I never dreamed I would see that. That’s great.
N: Accessibility is definitely a huge factor.
Making information about sporting activities easily accessible is one of our main aims at CYPRUS GIRLS CAN.
Triathlon Clubs in Cyprus
Alphabetically, by District - click for more information
Nicosia // Λευκωσία // Lefkoşa
Bikin Cyprus Club
Nireas Triathlon Club
Larnaca // Λάρνακα // Larnaka
Limassol // Λεμεσός // Limasol
Famagusta Nautical Club (also in Nicosia)
K1 triathlon Club (Akrotiri)
Pafos // Πάφος // Baf