Winter, early 2020.
It’s the start of the pandemic and Erika Ackerlund, a recent college-grad and ITU Distance triathlete, has just moved to Victoria, British Columbia. Where she will spend the foreseeable future training for a promising, up-coming season. Out for a training ride, much like any day as a triathlete – buried in the mundane of yet another interval, she allows her mind to wander to the idea of a promising career.
Her pedals turn, the snow falls.
The road bends, her mind turns.
The aspiration of a promising professional career in sport is brimming. Then, quicker than her recent descent, the first race of the season gets canceled. Then a second. And a third. Soon thereafter, the entire WTS calendar gets put on hold.
There’s a tension, an unknown.
And then she lets go.
Futility, perhaps. Fatalism, maybe.
Yet here she still is; training, racing, fresh off a top-10 finish at WTS Hamburg. So, we sat down with Erika to discuss her humble beginnings in this sport, how she persisted during a time of uncertainty, and where her intentions lie.
VENTUM: How did you become a professional triathlete?
ERIKA: When I followed a presidential scholarship to the University of Montana, I was looking for ways to continue competitive sports. Having swam and ran in highschool, triathlon seemed like an interesting pursuit. I joined the very small team and thought triathlon would just be a college hobby. I didn’t even plan on getting a road bike. But, I met my now boyfriend Elliot through the club and he showed me how to train and loaned me the gear I needed to start. Right away I began finishing towards the front of local and collegiate races. When I earned my elite license during college, the idea of being a professional athlete was incredibly exciting.
VENTUM: Did you immediately want to go pro?
ERIKA: I immediately wanted to go pro, but hadn’t necessarily realized how much that would mean giving up my other life and academic aspirations. I think making the choice to dedicate myself to one thing, triathlon, has been the harder aspect mentally than wondering if I would be fast enough to make it. I have no idea where my confidence that I could swim, bike, and run fast enough came from because at that point I wasn’t fast enough to even be considered by the USA Triathlon recruitment programs.
VENTUM: Your career has been stifled by the pandemic, especially given when you turned pro. When did you realize your triathlon career would be adversely affected by the pandemic?
ERIKA: I had moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 2019 and was planning on basing there year-round for the foreseeable future. My first race of 2020 was cancelled around March and not long after the entire World Triathlon schedule was put on hold. Victoria shut down very quickly. I lost all pool access and the lakes were too cold to swim in until mid- May. Initially, I took a day or two to sit in bed and watch Netflix, but then I got back to bike and run training and from there hardly took a day off all summer.
VENTUM: How did this affect your outlook on racing?
ERIKA: My initial outlook on the pandemic was a bit unique. 2019 had been my first season out of college and racing full-time. It had gone horribly. I was on-off sick all year and it wasn’t until the season ended that I discovered it was allergies and learned to handle them.
So come the start of 2020, I was starting to re-build my base mileage but was still very nervous I would get sick any day. My general fitness wasn’t incredibly high and I was always wondering if I should just look for a job instead. So to have an entire spring and summer with no option but to train consistently was a bit of a relief. I came out of it with more fitness than I’e ever had and confident that I could not only train without getting sick, but train like the best girls in the world do.
VENTUM: Any decisive moment that made you stick with pursuing triathlon?
ERIKA: There have probably been many, but the most recent would be my top 10 finish at Hamburg World Triathlon Championship Series 2021. I think everyone cherishes their first WTCS top 10.
VENTUM: When you realized racing would return, how did that feel? What race did you do first?
ERIKA: Early August the start list for WTS Hamburg came out and I was honestly shocked to even make the list given my world ranking at the time. It brought some big decisions for me because if I left Canada where I was living and training, I wasn’t going to be allowed back in given the new restrictions. Elliot and I made the decision to forgo our lease there and come back to the US so I could have the opportunity to go race. It wasn’t an easy decision though, because we loved where we were living and I had great training options and lakes for open water swimming, so if the race didn’t happen we would have regretted it massively.
I can’t say I really believed I would be racing until l actually landed in Europe. That whole week pre-race I was incredibly, incredibly nervous. My side – story is that I had only started one WTS level event before. In that race, I had swam so badly that by the time I got onto the bike I was already far behind and ended up being lapped out of the race. Fast forward to 2020 and I found myself lining up for just my second WTS race (which at the last minute was also named 2020 Elite World Championships) when swimming had been the most impacted sport during the pandemic. That summer, I swam almost entirely in lakes and about half of the time I was by myself using my watch’s beeper to tell me when to start and stop intervals. I learned to embrace open water swimming more and more, but it is a completely different style of training to being in a pool where you know the exact pace of every 100m throughout practice.
I raced Hamburg purely out of fear of being last, and while I probably shouldn’t recommend that strategy, I had the best race of my life. I finished 14th and had spent part of the bike ride right up there with the lead pack. Seeing names like Duffy, Zafares, Beaugrand, and many others I look up to on the suits around me really validated the training I had done all summer.
VENTUM: What do you look forward to most in races? When is your next race?
ERIKA: Most of the time I am concentrating too hard to really think much until the race is over. But now and then, during a good race, I’ll have moments of feeling fast and in control, and I’ll see the cameras or spectators watching, and remember that I’m doing something I used to watch and fangirl over on tv. That’s pretty cool.
WTCS Abu Dhabi on November 5! Looking at the start list, it’s going to be a fast and exciting race with the gold and silver olympic medalists and long course phenom Lucy Charles all lining up.
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