Two of Australia’s most experienced Para-triathletes have reignited their careers after receiving news they wanted to hear a decade ago.
Sally Pilbeam and Justin Godfrey were well placed leading up to triathlon’s introduction to the Paralympic Games at Rio 2016. Pilbeam was World Champion in 2014 and 2015 and Godfrey was winning on the domestic scene and gaining strong results overseas.
However, when the program for Rio was released, the classifications in which they competed were not included. The decision had enormous ramifications for Pilbeam, Godfrey and their fellow competitors around the world.
When the same thing happened for Tokyo 2020, Pilbeam tried to qualify in a higher classification before eventually stepping away entirely and Godfrey moved towards cross-triathlon, winning two world championships before succumbing to injury in 2018.
It seemed the two highly accomplished triathletes would never have the chance to represent Australia at the Paralympic Games.
That changed in late 2021 when the International Paralympic Committee’s Governing Board approved the expansion of the triathlon program for Paris 2024. The new schedule, the IPC announced, featured 11 medal events, three more than at Tokyo 2020, and included Godfrey’s and Pilbeam’s classifications.
The pair is now chasing qualification rankings alongside their Australian teammates, including at the Paris Test Event on August 19 where they will race on the course on which they hope to compete at the Paralympics next year.
“The information came out in dribs and drabs,” Pilbeam said.
“The number of athletes and medal events came out before which actual categories were racing. But then when I saw it written in the press release, I thought, ‘Right, it’s official!’”
The 45-year-old high school teacher and mother of two all-but retired after her unlikely attempt to qualify for Tokyo racing against athletes with a lower level of impairment. She’d been due to race in the US in March 2020 when Covid hit, adding to the stress of low funding because of her classification’s absence from the Games. The one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games was the final straw, leading Pilbeam to step back, prioritise her family and recuperate physically and mentally.
“I’d won world championships back in 2014, 2015, was runner up in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and through all that period of time I was up there as a podium level athlete, yet I wasn’t being treated like that because I didn’t have a spot at the Games,” she said.
“You get to a point where you think, ‘This is costing me a fortune’. Then with Covid, the borders closed, all the pools closed, it just got to be too much.
“I ended up stepping away and going back to work full time. I don’t think I ever used the word retirement, but I think it was assumed and I did think it was all over. I had the mindset that I’d done some amazing things and I’m happy with what I achieved.”
Contentment didn’t run deeply enough. When the expanded Paris program was released, Pilbeam decided, ‘You know what, I’ve still got more to do here and I want to give it a go’.
“It changed the game,” she said.
“I never thought that I’d be doing this. The way that it’s happened, having that break and coming back with the knowledge of what it’s going to take, I’m just really enjoying it. I love training and racing, but it certainly helps when you’ve got a motivation there that’s realistic. To finally have the opportunity is a big thing, so why not give it a go?”
When the announcement was made, Pilbeam and Godfrey texted each other across the country asking if the other was going to give it a go. Their predicaments were similar.
“When they announced the classifications for Rio, I sort of lost everything,” Godfrey said.
“I didn’t get any funding because I wasn’t podium potential, even though I’d won world championships. It was crazy.”
Godfrey broadened his racing scope but stuck mostly to cycling after injuring his shoulder.
“I thought that was it for me because my classification wasn’t at the Games so there wasn’t much point trying to get back (to Para-triathlon) after that injury. But then when Paris was announced, it changed things for me.
“My coach back then told me about my classification being included and I thought, ‘Well, I’d better have a chat with my wife because she might not like me doing those 4.30am starts again’.”
The answer was obviously supportive because Godfrey is back on the circuit, raced at Montreal last month and picked up his first ranking points for the Paris 2024 qualification period. The period ends next July 1, a day before Godfrey’s 50th birthday.
“It was a dream that I thought would never happen,” he said.
“It’s been a long term itch that I’ve never been quite able to fulfil. Now it’s become a reality and I’m on that list after one race. They’re looking at prospects, I’m getting more assistance and, even at my age, I’m still improving, which is great. It’s something to really aim for.”
The Para-triathlon events will take place September 1 and 2, 2024, in the following classifications:
PTWC (women’s, men’s)
PTS2 (women’s, men’s)
PTS4 (women’s, men’s)
PTS5 (women’s, men’s)
PTVI (women’s, men’s)