Bex Rimmington interview: Unfinished business for Melton's Iron Lady
The moment is still fresh in the mind. While the healing of time will make the memory less raw, it will gnaw away until it's put right.
In more than two decades of putting herself through the ringer in the name of sport, Bex Rimmington had always kept her emotions in check; through extremes of physical torment, joy and despair.
But then came the World Ironman Championships.
“It was three miles into the run when I started getting emotional.
“I knew then it was going to be a case of survival and not racing, and for me that was quite difficult.
“You have to reset your mindset from what you want to achieve; from going to win to just finishing, and I think that’s why I got upset.”
Few things in sport are as exacting, or plain crazy, as the demands of the Ironman.
Hauling yourself through 2.4-miles of open water, pedalling 112 miles, and then just a trifling full marathon to negotiate.
The chance to compete at this monster’s global championships, in Kona, Hawaii, had been the longest of shots.
Rattling off an application for the Specialized Zwift Academy Triathlon Team, Bex had all the expectations of success you’d imagine in joining a worldwide hunt for just four athletes.
But the long-odds came in. The humble yet determined sportswoman from Melton claimed the dream ticket, lining up as the only Brit alongside an American, a Belgian and a German.
After six months of bespoke training, co-ordinated by an expert team, and buoyed by a few trips to Zwift’s Californian HQ, she duly qualified for the worlds.
She added: “What happened with the academy, was a fairytale story.
“Never in a million years did I think that would happen to me. It’s been crazy.”
Out in Hawaii, things started so well.
After swimming the stretch of Pacific Ocean which had inflicted two bad jellyfish stings just days earlier in training, Bex lay 10th overall and second in her 35-40 age group.
With persistent frets over pacing, a few alarm bells may have rung as rivals slipped past in the cycling phase.
In endurance sport, fears and doubts have to be shrugged off as the mind tricks the body into further effort.
Yet as running shoes replaced the cycling cleats, the finish line gradually became an evermore distant mirage.
Reality finally kicked the door in; the body would no longer be fooled.
“It’s a strange effort because it catches up with you throughout the day. It’s such a long effort.
“You have to back off in the swim.
“Although physically you are okay, mentally it’s quite draining.
“You constantly have to keep thinking about what you’re doing.
“It wasn’t just me that was suffering, hundreds of people were walking, some were dropping like flies. But I knew I had to finish.”
After clocking a four-and-a-half hour marathon, and 13 minutes shy of 11 hours since leaving the start line, she crossed the line 34th in her age group, 191st woman and 1,234th overall of more than 2,300 finishers.
With scores more athletes failing to finish, it was still an immense achievement.
But when asked whether she would repeat the ordeal again, the look of incredulity that meets the question screams unfinished business.
“I’m coming to terms with it, slowly.
“The more I reflect on it, it’s a big achievement to complete it, but I still have ambitions to get that perfect race out there.”
A new coach is in place and light training has already begun for World Ironman: The Sequel.
While the 35-year-old will have to make do without Zwift’s help, this time she will have the best part of a year to prepare, mentally and physically.
Next time, there will be no emotional moment.
“There was only 12 weeks between qualifying in Bolton and the championships.
“Doing back-to-back Ironmans, having never done one before, was a little too much, so we’re going to have a different strategy next time.
“At the start I knew deep down I wasn’t fully recovered from Bolton, but I wanted to race and wanted to win.
“That was unbelievable ambition bearing in mind it was only my second Ironman, but that’s my competitive instinct.
“We looked into going professional next year, but we’ve decided to stay amateur, and if all goes well we’ll see about going pro at the end of 2019.”
Life revolves around sport for both Bex and her boyfriend Simon, a cyclist with a British track championship medal in his palmares.
Both somehow make it work despite also having to earn a crust.
But their hectic schedules and extensive travelling for competition, did leave the Lancashire home they share without a floor until one was recently laid.
Six years after moving in.
Sport has underpinned Bex’s life since the word go.
And the ambition, which has driven her this far, soon emerged.
“I can remember in Year 5 being asked to draw what we wanted to be when we were older.
“I drew a picture of me standing on a podium next to a swimming pool.”
Flitting from activity to activity, Bex finally discovered a focus for her considerable energies at the pool.
And then things became more serious.
“I literally did everything as a youngster - trampolining, gymnastics, dancing, swimming.
“When I got to nine or 10 I favoured swimming a little bit more. I was good at it and was winning so that was a pull.
“I joined Melton Swimming Club and progressed from there to racing nationally.”
Waterfield Leisure Pools was an apt venue to launch her career in sport, following in the wake of one of Melton’s most successful sportswomen.
The indoor pool was opened in 1965 after a 10-year public fundraising drive, just in time to help propel Jean Jeavons all the way to the 1972 Munich Olympics.
It’s still a place Bex holds dear.
On the morning we meet, she has already trained there, arriving in the lingering darkness of a midwinter morning during a whistlestop return to her family home.
All very far removed from the Hawaiian heat and its touchy jellyfish.
“I qualified for the nationals from 13 to 18 and made the final at 50m front crawl.
“I remember leading at halfway, but ended up eighth. If there were finals for 25m it would have been ideal.”
Even as a teenager there was a clear-headed aspiration.
Reaching a national final would be enough for most of us.
But it met neither Bex’s drive for bigger success nor her need for fresh challenges.
She diversified and threw her swimming abilities into triathlon.
In a remarkable first full season she became a European age group champion, and won a big amateur race in London.
She was clearly onto something, but a chance meeting altered her path once again.
“While I was teaching Amelia Coltman to swim I got to know her dad Gary.
“He was talent team manager for British Cycling, but I didn’t know what he did at the time.
“He said ‘I’d like to see you cycling’ and he invited me up to Manchester for training.
“I ended up on the track with Rebecca Romero and they told me if I focussed on cycling I could be pretty good at it.”
Plotting the career trajectory of Bex Rimmington seems to follow that of your common-or-garden rollercoaster.
Where there are exhilarating highs, crashing descents can follow close behind.
Such is the sporting life, particularly the amateur one.
When asked to pick out the highlights of a remarkably varied and dedicated career, winning a world championship medal comes pretty high up.
As pilot to visually impaired para-cyclist Lora Turnham, the tandem pair won bronze at the 2009 UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships.
It came only six weeks after joining the British Cycling Academy.
But just a few pages deeper into this chapter came one of her biggest disappointments.
A failure to replicate the podium finish a year later was met with typical ruthlessness by British Cycling’s zero tolerance for near-misses.
“Because we got sixth places at the worlds, after medalling the year before, they withdrew the funding and that was a big shame.
“We were ranked one in the world that year on the road, but didn’t medal when it mattered.
“Part of the deal with British Cycling was that you can’t work while you’re on the programme so I couldn’t afford to carry on.”
The everyday essential need to pay the bills killed the dream.
Ambitions of performing in London in that balmy summer of 2012, the golden ticket for thousands of Brits in the second half of the noughties, had to be sacrificed.
“I had my heart set on London and I really believe I could have been there. It broke my heart.
“I had to separate myself from cycling after that.”
Watching her former team-mate go on to compete twice at sport’s greatest show on earth also brought mixed emotions.
“Lora didn’t medal in London, but she did get a medal in Rio.
“We keep in contact and I was really proud of her, but I still wanted to be that person on the back.”
Moments like this in life define us. They make or break.
Bex knew only one way to deal with disappointment, and while getting back on the bike is a bad choice of metaphor, she did choose to push herself harder.
Such mule-headed stubbornness never to accept defeat has its roots in her childhood.
“I have three elder brothers and we were always competitive.
“We used to watch the boxing and have pretend fights.
“I wouldn’t stop until I beat them even though I was 10 years younger.
“They’ve all been really supportive throughout my career.”
Making a clean break from cycling, her career took another typical tangent when a Girls for Gold talent ID session in 2008 showed a physiology suited for the water, this time without the need to get wet.
“That was how the rowing came about.
“I had to do a 60m sprint and was only 0.2secs off selection for bob skeleton.
“I think my parents gave a sigh of relief about that!”
While still grieving for cycling, life in a boat seemed as good a place as any to decamp.
Within 16 weeks of learning to row, Bex was competing at Henley Women’s Regatta and taking her first win in a single scull at Ironbridge.
But given time to heal, a return to the saddle was always inevitable.
Inspired again by that yearning to right a wrong, her heart and head were finally ready to face the bike again.
A steady stream of success on the road following a move to live among the hills of Lancashire duly brought another career spike.
After all those frantic years as an amateur, splitting the demands of working life with maintaining peak fitness, the dream chance came to go professional.
After a season with ambitious women’s cycling set-up Team WNT, she was offered a one-year pro contract as a domestique, working alongside talents such as Katie Archibald, the future world champion and Olympic medallist.
Typically the adventure would end prematurely before the chance came to appear in the main act.
Brought down while descending at 31mph in a stage race in the Czech Republic, the crash caused a broken wrist which ultimately finished her season.
There was little surprise when the contract was not renewed, but the experience had been refreshing and reviving.
“It was amazing. We did eight or nine countries in six months.
“I was racing against the best in the world, it was just a shame it came to an abrupt end.
“I’m pleased I’ve done what I have and it’s good to have come full circle.
“I feel a better athlete now than I did before I started racing my bike.”
Now moving deeper into her thirties, Bex was on a roll.
After more than two decades at the sharp end, she decided to expand her horizons rather than narrow them.
It was time to complete the circle.
“I always knew I would come back to triathlon. I’m much better structurally from cross-training.
“As a female, your peak performances are in your mid-30s.
“There is so much expectation on younger people now to perform and they are burning out, but ironically it’s only now that I’m getting the most out of sport.
“Dani Rowe has just retired and she’s 28.”
Ironically, it’s perhaps because of her long amateur career, rather than in spite of it, that her love of competition remains as strong, and her body physically able to indulge it.
Attempts to dampen down this competitive streak have several times foundered on the rocks of her insatiable ambition.
“This year I said I’m just going to do the Ironman; I’m not going to be competitive.
“But then I saw the (Zwift) academy and applied for it, so my low-key year just went crazy.
“I have said this a few times and then something catches my eye.
“I’m going to be like the 85-year-old man who crossed the finish line in Kona - that was incredibly inspirational.”
If you’re still wondering why that floor took so long to lay, also factor in the coaching that eats into the couple’s already-scarce free time.
Bex volunteers at local Go Ride club, Cycle Sport Pendle, helping to train the next generation, from six-year-olds learning to ride, through to teenagers learning to race.
“I figured I needed that balance so I did coaching to give back to the sport.
“Simon is a Go Ride coach for British Cycling so between us we could probably pursue that in the future, but at the moment we’re both enjoying what we’re doing.
Don’t expect sport to go on the backburner any time soon; not while there are scores yet to settle, at least.
“Even on a rest day I feel lost and think ‘I have to do what normal people do’.
“Sport is quite addictive. I still get a buzz from doing it. If that stops, I shall call it a day.”