The Ironman Cometh: Dominic Rohan-Gates

Swimming is not the forte of many triathletes. Dominic Rohan-Gates, a newcomer to competitive swimming, certainly doesn’t let that get in the way of his Ironman title.

“I can swim in the open sea”, he said, “But the fear is still there, the feeling that the water is deep.” (Photo illustration)

I am currently two months into my triathlon training. The drills have begun to take effect on my body. Those that I find most challenging are related to swimming. Having a limited experience in swimming means I feel like drowning each time I complete a length in the pool. My core, considerably weakened since the surgery in 2011, took some beatings from the swimming, as well as the core and flex sessions.

My fear for the deep end of the pool never quite diminished. I begin each session with a feeling of dread, although strangely enough, I don’t feel too bad at the end of it. I am a shit swimmer. I acknowledge that, and I can live with that. But I wish I could improve fast, well before the aquathlon in April 2014.

Enter the Ironman

It was around that early January time when I was seriously questioning my ability to be a triathlete that Dominic Rohan-Gates walked into the running store that I am working at. Clad in a long winter coat, narrow trousers, and with his head covered in a buff, the Fulham personal trainer looked more like a hippy than a triathlete.

“I suspect my fear (of swimming) is more to do with a sense of mortality.”

Rohan-Gates wanted to replace his Asics trainers, which he had been using for training for some time. I asked if he wanted a new pair of Asics. “No, I don’t mind getting a different brand,” he said.

Although he was not fussed about the brand, Rohan-Gates had a clear idea of what he wanted in a pair. I got him to try a few pair of minimalist models, which I only recommend to experienced runners, such as the Adidas Adizero Feather, a track favourite.

While he tried the shoes on, we got chatting about his triathlon experience, my triathlon training, and my frustration at being a lousy swimmer. “I swam to the deep end for the first time last year,” I said, while I watched him moving his feet, feeling the running shoes that I took out for him. “I don’t know how I am going to manage the June event in Hyde Park”.

Swimming to slow start

He turned to look at me. His face softened, not quite the facial expression that you would expect of an endurance athlete. “I swam for the first time eight months before my first triathlon in 2012,” he said. “You’re joking!” I exclaimed. “No,” he replied. Rohan-Gates told me that the first time he trained in swimming, he moved in a curve and ended up on the other side of the pool. Eight months later, he did his first triathlon. He said he didn’t do too well in the swimming event, and took 55 minutes to complete that first phase. “I had not done open water swimming before,” he explained. His skill improved afterwards, after he had undergone a couple of open water training sessions prior to his next triathlon.

‘“I swam for the first time eight months before my first triathlon in 2012,” he said.’

He saw the disbelief on my face and added, with a mild shrug: “I did an Ironman”, as if his novice experience in swimming was no big deal. Indeed, he did that grand event, at the Ironman Switzerland in July 2012 where he came 73rd out of 100 competitors. Not bad for someone who started competitive swimming the year before.

What you want is on the other side of fear

Rohan-Gates is now training for the Ironman in Mexico, to take place in autumn 2014. He has sponsorships, but is still looking for some more funding to better secure his place there. It would be great for someone his calibre, and of his determination, to represent Great Britain. That should make quite a headline.

“Aren’t you afraid of water?” I asked him. “I am afraid of water. Always have been”. His eyes hardened at this question, and it was only then that I caught a glimpse of that steeliness and sense of permanence – or willfulness – that made him cut out to be an Ironman.

“I can swim in the open sea”, he said, “But the fear is still there, the feeling that the water is deep.”

“I can swim in the open sea”, he said, “But the fear is still there, the feeling that the water is deep”. And as he said this, he looked down to try on another pair of shoes.

I think I recognise that fear, although, in me, the feeling would have been amplified. I feel it and I fight it every time in the water. I suspect my fear is more to do with a sense of mortality, heightened considerably since my brother’s passing several years ago. But I also know this fear to be unreasonable – and conquerable. If anything, it makes me more focused in reaching terra firma safely, and quickly. My swimming coach Stephanie Ellis once told us about a GB coach who, in order to get the best out of the swimmers, made sure that the athletes don’t feel too comfortable in the water. The more uncomfortable they are in the pool, the faster they swim to get out of it.

“What’s your name?” I asked, after all that talking. “Dominic Rohan-Gates,” he said. “I am the ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Champion for 2012”.

In the end, Rohan-Gates settled for a neutral pair of Asics Gel Lyte 33. Size 12. The heel drop was about 6mm from heel to toe. He eyed the pair, his face softening again, and said: “It looks like it’s going to be another pair of Asics.”

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