RENDEZVOUS WITH TRIATHLETE DANICA BONELLO SPITERI
Danica is 33, and has been a national team triathlete for the past 15 years. She is also a medical doctor specialising in Sports, Exercise & Musculoskeletal Medicine, currently working in the UK, though she plans to move back here next year. SWAG’s admiration for this leading local practitioner of one of the toughest sports in existence has no bounds, and after getting her insights into the sport and the eternal debate between local and international levels, that feeling has only been strengthened.
What is your earliest sporting memory?
I can remember being active in sports since I was a young girl. I initially started off as a dancer from the age of two and spent 11 years of my life doing that. I clearly remember practising my dance routines at Alison White dance studio, as well as the thrill of performing on stage in front of large audiences, including the annual MADC pantomime at the Manoel Theatre. I regretfully stopped dancing when I found triathlon was taking up all my energy!
What inspired you to take up your sport?
I initially started swimming aged 12, when my mum sent me off to summer school as a means to vent off my energy. During the scholastic year I enjoyed running. Initially it was running after all my friends… this developed into winning quite a handful of medals and points for my team on sports day!
I started to compete in races and did well. Then, one fine day, my swimming coach dropped the word triathlon to me. It was new, but adding in a bike sounded exciting enough for me to accept. My mum borrowed a mountain bike from her friend for me – it was way too large actually, but it worked for me.
In my first triathlon I was third out of the water with the men, dropped way behind in the bike segment, but then ran my heart out – and won. It was my first triathlon victory, at age 14. The triathlon bug has since then been engraved in my heart!
Are you a professional triathlete?
The word professional in sports can have two meanings. Professional athlete is often referred to an athlete whose occupation is training, and he or she receive an income from it. Unfortunately this is not the case for me, as I have to work to earn a living. However, I believe that I have become professional in the way I manage my training – quality rather than quantity – my races and my tactics.
Sponsorships in sports, especially triathlon are not often offered, but recently, following my World Championship win in off road cross triathlon, I have been approached by ECCO shoe shops for a sponsorship deal for the racing season of 2015, which I have accepted, as they have high quality BIOM shoes that I will enjoy making use of. Over the past few years I have also been greatly supported by Buff headwear www.buffmalta.com and BBB cycling parts which are an asset to me.
How much training does your sport require?
Within the last 18 months or so I have made the big jump from age group racing to enter the harsh world of elite racing. The gap between the two is very demanding. Most elite athletes are full time athletes and train approximately 35 hours per week as they are supported by sponsorship or their triathlon federation funding for income. It is physically impossible for me to juggle my medical occupation, plus its studies, as well as that amount of training.
This year I have managed to push up my training hours to approximately 15 hours per week, meaning that I do tend to train twice a day, mainly swimming in the mornings before work and I run or cycle after work. I have learnt how to train intelligently and work on quality rather than quantity in training and the effects of that have proved my theories in this year’s races.
What have you had to give up or minimise to be successful at your sport?
I don’t feel that I have given up too much, as it is more about discipline and time management in order to fit in everything in my time table. However, I do admit that I do not spend time watching TV… not that I regret it, as I get more satisfaction from training.
Also, at times I may not be able to meet up with friends as much as I would like to as I may be tired in the evenings, or else I have to catch up with my training. But having said that, most of my friends are sporting friends, so I tend to ‘meet up for a gossip’ with them whilst out on a run or on a long Sunday bike ride.
An additional difficulty used to be getting up early in the morning to drop out of a warm bed and head to the pool. But with time, my body has grown accustomed to the early wake up time and I now look forward to it.
Do you spend a lot of time abroad training and participating in events – or can you reach the pinnacle of your sport in Malta?
I relocated to Leeds in the UK at the beginning of 2011. This was due to a work contract to specialise in Sports and Exercise Medicine. However, Leeds is a world-class training hub for triathlon and the competition to get into the training group is huge.
I succeeded in training at Leeds Triathlon Centre where I feel I have learnt so much more about triathlon – both racing and training. Since I am now racing regularly at International Elite level, this means that I often have to travel for races (mainly Europe), so my weekends have kept me occupied with travelling to and from racing.
My friends in the UK are now accustomed to me being away for weekend races by now! Prior to moving to the UK, I had long reached my peak in Malta as I was regularly winning triathlons with a comfortable cushion. This led to stagnation in my performance and I dont feel that I am able to race to the best of my ability in Malta.
I thrive on hard challenges and hard race courses, so I feel that racing abroad is where I am able to put my body (and mind) to the test, as I am head to head with athletes of my ability or better.
What tournament do you enjoy participating in most?
I enjoy the big stage events of triathlon, such as the Commonwealth Games, and the World or European Championships. I am now familiar with the big names of the sport: at times I race against them as well. I enjoy the pressure to perform, knowing that winning will be a tough battle, so I get the satisfaction of really pushing my limits and knowing that that was the best I could do on the day. I also enjoy the post-race camaraderie with the athletes I race against.
What do you feel are your proudest sporting achievements?
With almost 20 years of racing in my background, there have been multiple joys of achievements, and each time I reach a pinnacle, I tend to find something harder to achieve, and this tends to cancel out past achievements.
However, this year, 2014, I believe was one of my best years ever in terms of sporting achievements. I have represented Malta in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where I pretty much raced the top women in the sport, placing 15th overall. I was pleased with this result, as I was the only amateur athlete to finish the race, whilst the rest of the field of finishers were full--time athletes. I was happy to prove that one can juggle a job, studies and still perform at a high level if given the opportunity.
I have also placed second in the European Championships, and I also secured a World Championship title in cross triathlon offroad bike and run. I also raced in the Spanish Elite National Sprint triathlon Championships, placing a very creditable 13th this year. My performance led to a personal invitation from a top Spanish team, CTOA, to race for them in the first divison category of Elite athletes. I helped the team place fourth overall in Spain. I’ve also just concluded my triathlon season by racing at the Xterra World Championships in Maui, Hawaii, where I placed 5th in my category. This is a new style of triathlon racing for me, where the bike section is on the mountain bike on offroad terrain and the run is also a trail run (offroad).
With regards to team events, I helped my university team, Leeds Metropolitan University, achieve a gold medal in the British Universities and Colleges in Sport competition in the standard distance triathlon event, where I placed a very close fourth place overall. First place was less than a minute away.
What do you think was your best ever achievement so far?
Previous achievements include various podium positions, including two gold medals in the Triathlon Championships of the Small States of Europe and multiple National Championships titles in Duathlon and Triathlon in Malta.
An award I was surprised to be handed was the ‘Sportsmanship Award’ in 1999 where during the National Championship race, the bicycle of my rival athlete, who was ahead of me, broke down and I stopped to give her my bike to continue her race. This would have meant that she would win the championship title and it was a close tie between the two of us, but I knew that deep down, she was probably stronger. In the end, we both lost the title, as she refused my bike offer, yet I had lost precious time and was beaten by another athlete.
Other awards bestowed upon me were the ‘SportMalta Award’ and the ‘Sportswoman of the Year Award’. The latter award I feel was a great achievement for the sport of triathlon, as I had achieved multiple top five positions over the years, but winning it was something I thought was out of my reach, as there are so many top, very talented female athletes in Malta. I accepted the award with great pride and honour.
The sport of triathlon has grown and developed so much over the past 10-15 years, making it an even more competitive field than ever. I sometimes wish I was still 18 years old and able to be exposed to more international racing and coaching knowledge from a younger age, as I feel that it is only now, since I have brushed shoulders with international elite athletes that I have started to understand what proper triathlon racing is about.
I feel that in Malta, triathlon knowledge and exposure is limited, but I hope that with time this will change and I am happy to share knowledge I have learnt myself to younger, keen, talented triathletes. However, there will always be a great gap in what is offered to athletes in Malta in comparison to abroad.
An additional regret is that I had an opportunity to go to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 as a promising athlete, but I was three months too young to attend, and I was pulled out. I used to dream about the Olympics as a child. But I am thankful that I have been able to be part of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, albeit as a Sports Medicine doctor to the international athletes, thus helping them achieve their dreams, which was very satisfying.
Who do you admire in the sports world?
I don’t tend to admire one specific athlete, but I tend to pick out the good aspects of various athletes. Training alongside Olympic and World Champions in Leeds, and being able to get to know them and talk to them is much more effective than admiration.
Usually we just look at the ‘champions’ when they are standing on top of the world on the podium. But I now see how hard they train, what they go through when they are injured, even long term, and how harsh the real world of the elite athlete is. I admire the Leeds triathletes for how hard they work to achieve their dreams and goals.
Away from the sports world, who do you admire?
In the normal world, I admire my parents, Oswald and Ruth Spiteri, and my husband, Etienne Bonello – Malta’s top male cyclist – simply because I cannot understand how they have put up with me and all my dramas, adventures and crazy ideas all these years! They have also taught me very good values that I treasure, and I now go to them for advice as they are always there to help keep me on the right track. Thank you!
What is your most painful sporting memory?
The most painful sporting memory is a bike crash in 2008, whilst racing in Malta in the Sicily-Malta friendship Games, where my front wheel touched the back wheel of another cyclist, whilst we were racing at about 40km/hr as we were up in front. I left some good skin samples of my DNA splashed along on the tarmac, which came off all aspects of my body, though, thankfully, no broken bones. I managed to crawl back onto my bike, ride the last 2km and then hobble through a 10km run. I still managed to hang onto a third place finish and brought home some good points for Malta. Needless to say, I was in considerable pain for quite a while after that!
Over the years, have you kept or collected any interesting or treasured sporting memorabilia?
I have an interesting and vast medal and trophy collection – two of them in fact. One is pre-marriage and has been left at my mum’s house, whilst a second collection has accumulated post-marriage at my house. I’ve almost always won a trophy or medal whilst competing in Maltese races. I also have a collection of race numbers from races I participated in abroad, as there the competition is tougher, so race numbers are my memento.
For each race, my race result is written down on a sticker and attached to my trophy or medal or race number, so that I am able to remember what time I had covered the race in. This was a suggestion from my mum when I had started to win races, and I have stuck to it religiously throughout these past two decades.
What other interests do you have aside from your sport?
My other interests are reading good books, but I don’t have much time to do that. On the other hand, I love anything to do with adventure, the great outdoors, travelling and exploring the world. In fact this year, I took part in a ‘tough mudder’ challenge, which entailed getting around a 20km mud-filled obstacle course.
I also enjoy participating in such activities in good company who enjoy similar adventures. I am also a medical doctor for the popular TV programme Liquorish, a role that I think suits me well, as it requires medical knowledge and adaptability outside of a usual clinic. This fits in nicely with my specialisation.
For relaxation, I enjoy going out to sea on a sailing boat or simple leisure snorkelling. I also love a good girly gossip with some of my close friends, or some quality time with my husband.
What are your favourite music and films?
I do not particularly have favourite artist, but I do admire a good friend of mine, Ira Losco, who was at school with me. I was honoured to have her sing at my wedding as well. We only get to occasionally ‘Facebook chat’, but we have a lot in common in our lives, so I admire her lots and I also enjoy her music, especially when listening to her during a hard run or long bike session. On the international scene, I listen to various types of music, depending on my mood and what I’m doing. I also need to have some good music going whenever I’m driving my car.
What is your current situation with your sports club or clubs?
My club in Malta is St Patricks’ Athletics Club and I also race for Team Greens Cycling Club. Internationally I have a Spanish team, CTOA, that races in the first division in Spain. Next year I will also be racing for a French team in their second division, after being personally contacted following my performance and an altruistic gesture to an athlete who races with this French team, during the triathlon race of the Commonwealth Games.
What ambitions do you have?
My ambitions are plenty. Time and energy are my limiting factor.
I am keen to continue exploring and learning more about elite racing in Sprint and Standard distance, but will be keen to start exploring more about alternative races, such as cross triathlon and maybe one day train for a proper Irondistance competition or a full marathon. My main difficulty with that is the boredom of long training solitary hours.
I wish to raise the level of triathlon racing and training in Malta, to possibly have proper elite level athletes competing at high profile competitions. I am keen to bring knowledge over to Malta and pass it on to whoever is keen, interested and willing to learn.
I will also work to see that Sports, Exercise & Musculoskeletal Medicine will become a fully developed speciality in Malta, so that both athletes and non-athletes can have access to proper medical facilities when required, as this is greatly lacking in Malta and there is a great need for it.
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