Rachel James, 32, has a story like no other, here, she chats to editor Keagan Ryan about growing up in Papua New Guinea's north-east and her triathlon dreams.
Going for a casual run or ride isn’t as straightforward as it sounds for Rachel James. PNG’s leading female ITU triathlete must ensure she’s in a group while training in Port Moresby, so as to avoid any unwanted attention. But with the support of her friends and the wider community, Rachel is committed to improving over the Olympic distance and is hell-bent on taking her place on the start line for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Rachel hails from Kavieng in PNG’s north-east – a well-known surfing and scuba-diving tourist destination filled with stunning lagoons and rich culture. This outdoorsy upbringing, combined with active influence from her mother, from New Hanover/New/Ireland, PNG, and Australian father helped mold Rachel into the athlete she is today.
“My parents were very athletic in their young years. Mum was a long-distance runner and my father was a surfer, triathlete and weightlifter,” she said.
“My parents instilled a competitive passion for sports in myself from a very young age. In the islands I was…boating, fishing, diving amongst the coral reefs, surfing, playing football with my brothers and cousins…I was very much a tomboy.
“The downfall of island life…is sometimes it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to strict time schedules. Tri training regimes have taught me some discipline in this area but I still suffer from ‘island time’. My coach is constantly on my case.”
Rachel’s triathlon journey started in 2010 when she joined the Port Moresby club – a small group of multi-sport enthusiasts, predominately expats. She was the only female Papua new Guinean at the time but by this stage she was used to mixing it with the men.
“Triathlon is a very new sport in PNG. We brave the roads and conditions,” she said.
“I also joined our local cycling club (Port Moresby Cyclopaths)…for the health and fitness benefits and a good, fun social atmosphere. I did a couple of races and really enjoyed it. I felt a great sense of accomplishment after each race. I didn’t have any gear except for swimmers and goggles and had to borrow a bike, bike shoes and a helmet. Triathlon is a very new sport, so there are limited resources and technical knowledge available in terms of elite high-performance coaching specifically for tri. This is slowly changing and we’re starting to get regional clubs and outer provinces organised to promote triathlon development across the country.”
The treacherous roads aren’t the only concern for Rachel, who works as a consultant specialising in marine, social environmental management, sustainability and climate change resilience within the Pacific region while training; she must also be alert to danger. As such, Rachel can never train alone – ruling out a casual run or ride.
“Port Moresby can be a major challenge. Safety in numbers is a must and a security escort is necessary. Road safety is a major issue too. The cycling culture is new, cars don’t respect bikes on the road, they aren’t aware of the rules and there is always concern with motorists for your safety,” she said. “As a female there’s particular extra caution and limitations. Spending so much time out on the roads, you are exposed, either running or cycling.”
Rachel has overcome extreme difficulties and some very traumatic incidents while training in Port Moresby, however, she is resolute in achieving her goals - with the support of her husband and manager she remains undeterred. It wasn't long before she was flying the flag for her country, representing PNG in 2011 at the Pacific Games in New Caledonia. Three years later she finished second at the Pacific Island Championships in Guam. This promising result led to an invitation to represent PNG and compete at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 – a rare opportunity for Papuan athletes considering the size of the country and its dearth of resources. Nevertheless, Rachel was determined to test herself despite only being able to complete a short few months’ worth of preparation, including a three-week camp in Sterling, Scotland prior to the Games. On race day Rachel was lapped out in the first lap of the bike course, completing 7.5 kilometres of the eight-kilometre loop – emerging from the water nine minutes behind the lead girls.
“I held my head high, I was positive and upbeat about the situation. I had given it my best under the conditions and limitations,” she said.
“I still felt and wanted another shot to qualify for the Commonwealth Games, to compete and complete – hence my journey.”
After gaining a taste for high-level competition, Rachel vowed to up her game, committing to dedicate more time and energy to her training. The first step of this new-found motivation was going offshore and seeking professional guidance, which led Rachel to meet Toby Coote – head coach of the Sunshine Coast Tri Academy. The results were almost instant, with Rachel finishing fifth at the Pacific Island Games in Port Moresby, clocking a much-improved time of 1:11 hours – trailing just the French territories. Comparatively, at the 2011 Pacific Games Rachel finished well behind the pace in a time of 1:50 hours. Now she’s the top-ranked female triathlete in the Pacific Island Commonwealth countries. Rachel’s ascension to Olympic-distance racing gained further momentum in Mooloolaba this year when she became the first PNG representative to race in the ITU World Cup. Although she was eventually lapped out on the third lap of the bike, Rachel is confident she’s making inroads in her development and relished the brief taste of ITU competition. “It’s a great achievement for our country, PNG, myself to proudly fly the flag and for the Pacific Island region as a developing sport across our region, the Pacific islands and women in the Pacific,” she said.
“I was lapped out on the third lap of the bike but the experience for me was fantastic and invaluable. You’ve got to always back yourself and believe in yourself. Every opportunity you gain and learn and improve from that experience, the good and bad, you use it. I have this outlook and approach to everything, whether it be my academic study pursuits, my professional career goals or my triathlon career.”
Rachel unknowingly turned out to be one of the feel-good stories of the ITU World Cup race at Mooloolaba, as the raucous crowd vocally rallied behind her, trying to lift her through the course in an attempt to help her complete her first ITU race. Although the effort of the audience was ultimately in vain, it didn’t go unnoticed.
“It was fantastic to hear and see total strangers cheering me on. It gave me that extra energy boost I needed to continue around the course,” she said.
“World Cup-level racing is a major step-up. It’s a lot of pressure and I was very nervous in the days leading up, so to have the support of all the spectators as I did on the day was so inspiring and encouraging. The triathlon community is amazing and I always find at races and events, everyone is so welcoming and super positive and encouraging, no matter what level of racing.”
In the future Rachel is hoping to qualify for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and further develop the PNG Tri Kids program – an initiative close to her heart. Rachel has helped start the New Ireland Tri Academy – a Tri Kids program with up to 40 children from the islands training together in a team environment. Now she sees it as her job to be a role model and hopefully inspire PNG’s athletes of tomorrow.
“Especially the young girls. To show them women can be strong and tough and achieve their goals in life,” she said.
“I believe sport can play an important role in shaping our communities in PNG for the better. Sport has a massive role, it can…help steer our youth away from anti-social behaviours, helps with character building, improves self-esteem and develops positive attitudes and mindsets for life. It can also help bring down major cultural barriers and encourage gender empowerment for young girls and women alike – something very important for my country. I hope to inspire our juniors to excel in their sports and life and pass on my skills and knowledge to them – our future little athletes. I get much appreciation in doing this. It’s self-rewarding to give back to where it’s needed.”