Overcoming barriers to pave the way for others through swim, bike, run

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If there’s one thing you get from talking to Bianca Fernandez-Clark, it’s a passion for swim, bike, run and a drive to encourage diversity within the sport.

Now a two-time IRONMAN World Championship finisher and a member of the Great Britain Age-Group Team, even by her own admission, the 35-39 age-grouper finds it hard to imagine life without participating in sport.

But during her time growing-up in the Dominican Republic that was a reality.

“I didn’t do any sports at all,” Fernandez-Clark reflected. “Sports back in my country were not a thing at all growing up in the 80s/90s. There’s a whole load of reasons around that. For starters, all the girls had to have their hair chemically straight so you can’t really sweat or get it wet so you wouldn’t swim, and you wouldn’t do exercise for cultural reasons, it was not very appropriate. All that’s changing slowly, but at the time that’s how it was.

“I can’t imagine not doing sports now. I still find that hard to believe when something which has become such a huge part of my life was actually not part of my life for so long.”

A champion for diversity in the sport, Fernandez-Clark, who represented the GB Age-Group Team for the first time earlier this year, is Chair of the Women of Colour Cycling Collective, a member of the 10IronWomen community, and is one of the co-founders of a new initiative called Fund Her Tri UK.

“There are so many barriers to women and people of colour, both in cycling and triathlon, and it's just something that I can't just sit and do nothing,” Fernandez-Clark said. “I have and have had my barriers and a lot of the barriers that I have overcome some people from other backgrounds and our communities haven’t.

“It pains me to see so few women and people of colour at the start lines. Triathlons are so central to my life and have provided with such big sense of accomplishments that I want to be able to through these communities give back and bring more women into it.”

It was at a 10km run in Madrid where Fernandez-Clark took part in her first sporting event whilst on a study placement in the Spanish city, followed by a half-marathon and a marathon. The London resident then combined swim, bike, run for the first time when taking on a super sprint triathlon.

It wasn’t until seeing the IRONMAN World Championships on TV that she was inspired to pursue swim, bike, run further.

“I remember thinking that looks absolutely insane, how can people do that?,” Fernandez-Clark recalled.

This would, however, mark the start of Fernandez-Clark’s own IRONMAN journey, first over the 70.3 distance and then the full distance. What she was not expecting was to end up completing her first full IRONMAN at the most prestigious of them all, the IRONMAN World Championships in Hawaii.

This was in 2019 when Fernandez-Clark became the first athlete from the Dominican Republic to compete at Kona.

“I had signed up to an IRONMAN and they had a lottery to invite 40 athletes to Kona, I was one of the lucky ones who got chosen,” Fernandez-Clark said. “I was still quite a beginner, I had done a 70.3 but I hadn’t done a full IRONMAN, so I didn’t know what to expect. The whole thing was very daunting but when you get there it’s something that’s hard to describe. It’s just very special and something like I have never experienced before.

“What made it even more special was the fact it was the first time my country’s flag was at the Parade of Nations, which was an incredibly proud moment for me. I know it wasn't due to qualification, but still it put my country on the Kona map. Crossing the finish line was a feeling like no other; nothing I had done had come close to that. It was just electric. I was obsessed about going back, I knew I had a lot of work to do but I wanted to return to Kona.”

That return would come sooner than she expected with the original goal to try and qualify for 2024.

Despite a bike crash in March leaving her not knowing whether she would be able to participate in any triathlon events this summer, Fernandez-Clark qualified for this year’s event at IRONMAN Sweden in August.

Back for the second time in Kona, Fernandez-Clark set personal best times across all three disciplines, beating her overall time from 2019 by 55 minutes.

“It was another dream come true to come back to Kona as a qualifier, especially when this year I had a bike crash in late March and my triathlons had a big question mark during the summer,” Fernandez-Clark explained.

“Like the first time, I lived the experience to the fullest. One of the pros earlier in the week said it was a ‘privilege’ and it is a privilege to be there, to be healthy, to be able to afford to do this sport. That resonated with me a lot because this year I didn’t even know, back in March with a sling over my shoulder, whether I would be able to do triathlon again this year, and then I end the year in Kona. I was incredibly thankful just to be there again.

“The race was as hard as expected, maybe even more, but there’s no accomplishment in my professional career that has ever come close to qualifying for Kona. It’s probably because I’ve never been athletic, I had never done any sport, it doesn’t come naturally to me, but those small wins of just beating the times I’ve done previously mean the world to me.”

The GB Age-Group Team provides British Triathlon Home Nation members with the opportunity to represent Great Britain internationally. You can find the 2023 Age Group Major Events calendar here.

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