Serious Sisu: Laura Siddall
San Francisco-based Laura Siddall is a professional triathlete with a degree in mechanical engineering. She grew up in Yorkshire, the youngest of four girls and daughter of a mining engineer and a math teacher. Her older sister, Naomi Siddall, represented Great Britain in Netball at the Commonwealth Games. After moving with her corporate job to the sporty environs of Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Laura began competing as an amateur triathlete in 2009. After several podium finishes, friends encouraged Laura to consider turning her hobby into a career. She moved to San Francisco as a professional triathlete in 2013. Laura has tested herself in a number of half and full iron competitions, placing second in New Zealand’s Challenge Wanaka triathlon. She has ambitions to tackle the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
When you were young, did you ever think you’d be travelling around the world competing in professional triathlons?
No, to put it bluntly. I was hugely passionate and into sports when I was a kid, doing hockey, netball, athletics and all that sort of thing. I guess when you’re younger you might dream of going to the Olympics, but I never really felt that it was a reality. I wasn’t really sure how to get there, so I just enjoyed playing sports, and whenever I did them it was always a pretty serious hobby. I guess I never really appreciated that it could be a career or something that I could do full time until I was a lot older.
Who did you look up to in the world of sport?
I was a huge fan of Kelly Holmes, Sally Gunnell, Linford Christie, Roger Black, all of those people in terms of track athletes. I guess they seemed on that higher level when I was just getting into the sport. But I went to a fairly academic school, and always felt that the path was do your GCSEs, do your A levels, go to university and get a job. Sport was always a hobby, it was never really a thought that I would turn that into something full time.
When I was going into my A-levels, my school had just brought in a PE A-level, and I think everyone assumed I would take it, and everyone assumed I would go to Loughborough University, the main sports university in the country. I think a little bit of rebellion came in to play, so I didn’t do it. I went to an academic university sport remained a hobby and a break. I wasn’t sure what it would mean to have my hobby as everything in my life.
Was it always easy keeping your academic and sporting strengths in balance?
None of it came easy. I was a bit of a swat at school and university. I had to work pretty hard to get the grades, rather than being naturally talented. That’s true of both areas to be honest. I think I got a fair amount of natural sporting ability, but I’m not the most naturally talented. I had to work quite hard to achieve. I liked having that difference and that broader range of skills; not just getting pigeon holed into being the ‘sporty one’. I didn’t want to be seen just as the sporty girl at school, I wanted to be known as smart as well.
Tell me about your decision to take on a gap year in the military.
When I was leaving school, gap years were pretty rare. A few people did them each year, but not many. It just wasn’t the thing to do, and again, I think there was some rebellion in deciding to go down that path. I also realised that I was about to undertake a four-year engineering degree, and that was quite daunting. I wanted a break and I wanted to do something worthwhile and useful. It is still one of the best years of my life. The things I learned and the experiences I had in that year set me up hugely for the rest of life. Going, at the age of 17 or 18 into—in theory—a position of leadership, is a big thing. You learn a huge lot about respect for others. I gained respect from my team for getting stuck in and not being afraid to get dirty.
What did you picture when you looked ahead to the rest of your life?
I really didn’t have any idea. I just thought I’d get engineering job. At the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t 100% what I wanted to do. I don’t think I had the guts to take the risk at that time, so I was playing it safe.
I got a graduate placement with Shell and started working with them in the north west of England at an oil refinery. I was selected for a program designed to give young graduates the opportunity to work overseas for a couple of years. Because of my sporting interest, Australia had always been a place I wanted to go and live. I headed over to Sydney for two years, but when that time was up, I wasn’t ready to leave. I’d just started to do triathlon, I was living by the beach; the lifestyle was great. Triathlon at that point was my hobby but quite a serious one. I tend to do things all-in or not at all.
What was your very first triathlon like?
After completing a six-week beginner’s triathlon course with a group called Bondi Fit, around ten of us signed up to compete in a race. I really didn’t have a clue about it. Naivety was wonderful at that stage. I had a bike that was a hybrid mountain bike. I just had my trainers, and no fancy clipped pedals or shoes. I remember thinking once I’d finished it, that I was definitely going to buy a proper bike! That race was a sprint distance—the shortest standard distance you can get. It’s a 750m swim, 20km bike ride, 5km run, a pretty long way from what I do now. Doing something for the first time in the context of a race is always challenging though. The run is always a struggle at the end of a triathlon, because you’re tired from the swim and the bike, so it’s about convincing yourself that you will get through it and get to the finish line. That is still the case now I’m a professional triathlete.
How do you convince yourself that you can do it?
It’s about having confidence in the training that I’ve done, confidence in coaches and the people around me and the confidence in my own abilities. The other thing you do for the longer races is you just break it down. You don’t think of the marathon as a whole, you only think of the next marker of the next aid station. By breaking it down into much smaller pieces it’s a lot more manageable.
What made you finally commit to a career in triathlon?
I was in my corporate job, but more and more of my headspace was thinking about the sport and the next training session. I just began to think, “you’re not getting any younger, sport is only going to be here for a limited amount of time, and you can always come back to a corporate career. It is now or never.” I didn’t want to look back in ten or twenty years’ time and think what if? I decided to give my hobby my full attention and see what I can do.
I still felt I had a huge amount to learn, so I wanted to be in an environment where I could develop. I got in touch with Matt Dixon, who is now my coach, and ended up selling-up my life in Sydney and ending my corporate job. Five weeks later I found myself in San Francisco, working with Matt as a professional athlete. Once I’d made the decision, I wanted to just get on with it. If I thought too much I would probably not have taken the leap.
What are the main differences between amateur and pro triathlon?
As an age grouper (amateur), you’re starting in a wave, usually categorised in five-year age bands. I was in the 30-34 group at that stage. I could be starting as a 7th wave. There’d be 6 waves of men and women ahead of me. So, you’ve constantly got people around you. You’re constantly passing people. There’s always somebody to aim for. At a professional level, you could get onto your bike after the swim and you could bike 90km without seeing a single person. That’s a very different environment mentally. You’ve got to be able to occupy yourself, to keep your focus and to keep pushing yourself without seeing anyone else in the race. For the full distance, that’s 180km where you might not see anyone or you’ll see very few people.
What is life like for a professional triathlete?
It’s odd, no one tells you … there’s no job description or terms of reference to help you understand what it means to be a professional athlete. I probably didn’t give this enough recognition until after my first year in the sport. Making the step up, you subtly or self-consciously place an expectation on yourself that you have to justify the decision. You feel others are asking “who does she think she is?” There’s a pressure on you to be winning and delivering in races rather than just being submerged in the process and the journey of developing as an athlete. Subconsciously I wondered, do I belong, do I deserve to be here on the start line? I was suddenly lining up against people that I’d looked up to for the past couple of years in the sport. Sport before was my hobby, but now it was my life. Suddenly that was all I had.
Another thing I found hard is the recovery element. You’re not rushing between sessions and a corporate job. You can take the time to do a proper quality session, and then you commit to the recovery aspect of resting or sleeping. I’ve always been on the go and I like to be busy. Part of my job now was to recover and be ready for the next session, but I would feel guilty if I was sitting at home not doing anything.
When did you line up next to your peers and feel like you belonged?
It took me until this year. During the two races I did in New Zealand at the beginning of this 2016–Challenge Wannaka and Iron Man New Zealand—I actually felt I was in there as a contender and in there with a shot. After my two races, I gained that belief that I do belong and I can compete. It’s funny, as girls or women, typically we feel we’re only as good as our last session, and if that was a bad session, that’s what we remember. Whereas a man will tend to think they’re as good as their best session. I’m always aware of that factor.
What are your strategies for beating doubt?
It’s very important to have a good support network around you and people that you can talk to and confide in. I have Matt, my coach and Paul Buick, my cycle coach. I have great relationships with them. Some people call it your ‘inner circle’. It’s an individual sport, but we certainly can’t get there on our own. We need that close network to be able to go through the highs and lows.
What is your routine like in San Francisco?
We have pretty early starts most of the time. There are about four or five pro triathletes in San Francisco, but we have a huge amateur squad to train with too. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there’s a 5.30am swim squad, then we’ll do a very casual group run after swimming. After that, the four of us who are professional do a strength training session followed by a gym session. That might be it for the day, or the afternoon might include an easy spin or bike ride. Each day is different.
Do you go it alone when you race?
For me it is very much about doing my own race. You’ve got to focus on your own process and abilities. If you get too caught up in what other people are doing, that’s potentially going to sabotage and ruin your race. You can control your own race, but you can’t control what other people are doing. That said, whilst you’re in your own race and going through your own process, you have to be aware. You have to adapt and be flexible around your plan. The main focus is being able to deliver and execute the best race I can.
Do you think about life after sport?
I’m still convincing myself sport will be forever! One common thing I get asked is “when are you going to stop having your gap year? When are you going to stop your career break?" I’m certainly not thinking that this is coming to an end any time soon. I still feel I’ve got lots I want to achieve and I still can achieve. But of course you definitely have to think about what's next, as sport and life can change so quickly. I'm certainly working on ways to combine my corporate, military and sporting experience (both team and individual) to develop valuable packages for businesses. I want to share my experiences and what I've learned, and if I can help others to achieve their goals in a sporting or professional context, that would be amazing. Right now though, I feel I have a lot more years left to compete.
What remaining aims and personal goals do you want to fulfill through triathlon?
I still strive for getting the best race out of myself that I can. Having that purple patch, that’s the essence of it. A lot of people call it being ‘in the zone’, where it’s all in flow and you get the very best out of your capabilities. I think that’s what athletes strive to achieve.
In terms of personal goals, I’d love to race in Kona at the world championships in Hawaii at some point, potentially next year. Also, it’s great to attend fun races in cool places. I intend to make the most of opportunities to travel the world and see different countries and meet different people whilst getting to do what I love. I’ve had a fair few podiums, but I’m yet to win a race as a professional, and I would love to do that too. It’s great to have those goals, but I also think you can’t be too results focused, because you can’t control that. I could have the best race ever and smash all my boundaries and limits and put down this absolutely killer performance, but if someone else has a slightly better performance on the day, they’re going to win.
What is some of the best advice you’ve received?
My motto is “don’t die wondering”. A friend from Sydney said that to me, and it’s stuck with me for the last few years. Make sure you’re still having fun and not putting the pressure on yourself to deliver only results. It’s important to immerse yourself in the journey. At the end of the day, I chose to do this. Life’s too short to be doing something that you’re not happy with. It’s also too short not to take a leap and go and do something bold. If it doesn’t work, well do something else.
What do you love about your sport?
I love that it does welcome and encourage anybody from any background, of any ability and of any age. You get people competing from age 15 up to 90. We’re all racing on the same course on the same day, literally side by side with each other, and that’s one of the great things about the sport.
Who do you know who has serious Sisu?
A good friend of mine called Abby Ehler is a sailor. She was part of the all women yacht crew that sailed in the Volvo Ocean Race last year. It freaks me out the thought of being in the ocean for that long – just you and your team, being exposed to the elements. I think there’s a huge amount of bravery, confidence and team work at play there.