Ed. note—we continue our series on the backgrounds of the Wattie Ink pros with our story on Donna Phelan, whose path to and through triathlon is anything but linear.
There are probably few athletes that have worked under Barrie Shepley as a first triathlon coach (Canadian head coach), then Bill Davoren (Australian head coach), Brett Sutton, Paula Newby-Fraser, Siri Lindley, Dave Scott and Julie Dibens. There are also likely few athletes that have raced an Ironman three weeks after breaking an elbow. Or finished on the podium at Wildflower after having a rib broken at an ITU World Cup the weekend before. Fewer still with a career laundry list of injuries that include bilateral hip labral surgeries, bilateral illiotibial band surgeries, foot surgery and chronic hamstring injuries. And there’s just one that has gone through that hell for one reason: to race against the best.
There’s just one Donna Phelan.
If you’ve followed the pro scene, you may or may not have heard the name of this Canadian. But she’s done it all. She trained with the legendary TeamTBB under Sutton for five years. She swam in the famed Fishbowl in remote Borrego Springs, California under Siri Lindley. She’s called Chrissie Wellington, Hillary Biscay, Mirinda Carfrae, and Leanda Cave teammates. Not bad for a girl from Canada’s island province of Newfoundland, with a doggedness that has earned her the nickname “Diesel.”
Phelan began her competitive streak quite early. She began swimming at age 8, and competed in the Canadian Olympic Trials at age 16. She continued to swim through college at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University while earning a physical therapy degree. Upon graduation, she sought out something that would feed her competitive drive, and found triathlon. “I worked in Corner Brook, which is a big triathlon city in Canada, and did a swim relay for the Corner Brook Triathlon and loved it. I’d run cross country in high school, and it dawned on me it that triathlon would be the next way to keep being a competitive athlete.”
Success came quickly; she did her first tri in Corner Brook in 1996 and qualified to race her age group at ITU Worlds. She finished 30th there. The next year, 17th. Then fourth, third, and second. In 2000, it was time; she turned pro. And her successes continued at that level, as she finished second elite at Canadian National Championships that same year. From 2000 to 2003 she competed internationally, representing Canada on the ITU World Cup circuit. Those were deep years for the Canadian national team, which comprised Jill Savege, Tereza Macel and Samantha McGlone, and Phelan's shot at an Olympic start was a long one. Her coach at that moment, Brett Sutton, presented her with a moment of reckoning.
“He told me he would stop coaching me unless I raced long distance,” Phelan recalls. “He entered me in Wildflower in 2002, and I fought him on it, because I’d never biked 56 miles in my life." The then-unknown Phelan beat Lori Bowden and Heather Fuhr to take third at the iconic California race in her first half ironman. It represented an awakening: long-course would be her path.
From there, she moved to Ironman, finishing fourth in her debut at Japan in 200, and qualifying for Kona. But it would also be her first dealings with the taxing effects distance racing had on her. Pain in her right knee that year led to iliotibial band surgery in 2004, and then rehab and stop-and-start attempts kept her on the sidelines for nearly two years. She made it back to racing in 2008 and saw results instantly, posting a second-place finish in 2008 at Ironman China. Later that year she raced Ironman Switzerland with a broken elbow sustained when wet train tracks took her down three weeks before, and then raced the Hawaii Ironman World Championships to wrap her year.
In the summer of 2009, Phelan raced Ironman Switzerland, and then the famed Alpe d’Huez Triathlon the following weekend. The kicker? After racing to a 5th-place finish in Zurich, her coach had her ride with her team from her base camp in the tiny ski village of Leysin, Switzerland to the town of Huez. Two days, 80 miles a day, over French Alps passes made famous by the Tour de France.
The next day, back in Leysin, her coach prescribed a track workout. “I attempted it, but knew my left IT band was in trouble.” Off to race again a few weeks later at Eireman in Ireland, she was leading the race halfway through the marathon, and the knee forced her to pull out. “I couldn’t bend my knee anymore and running with a straight leg wasn’t going to get me to the finish.” Another surgery. Another rehab. Another comeback.
The 2010 season showed promise. She did three Ironman races but another injury popped up: her hip this time. A cortisone injection in her hip flexor got her through the race in Kona, but the pain persisted. In 2012, an MRI revealed a labral tear. Soliciting medical advice, she was sent reeling. “Doctors and physiotherapists told me I would never run or do triathlon again, not even at a recreational level,” she says. One doctor, however, believed he could fix it. She had surgery in June, rehabbed and was told two months later that the right hip needed surgery as well. It meant ten tedious weeks on crutches, a year gone, and a career in question.
Eight months later, however, Phelan was racing, taking third at Leadman Tempe. She did a handful of 70.3s with mixed results, but by the end of the year had a new problem: her foot. “I felt like I was running with a marble in my shoe at the end of 2013 and early into 2014,” she says. Another MRI, and this time it revealed a partially torn plantar plate ligament that needed repair, and a neuroma (inflamed nerve) that had to be carved out. “Doctors said it’s usually the size of a piece of wet spaghetti, but that mine was the largest he’d ever seen, that it was diameter of a quarter.”
One more comeback. She won Rev 3 Venice, Florida half in the fall of 2014. It was the one bright star prior to rather middling 2015 and 2016 campaigns where she battled chronic hamstring pain. She was near her breaking point. “I questioned whether I should continue racing, whether my hamstring would let me run competitively again, whether I should retire or if I should switch and race age group. It had been 12 years of ongoing injuries, and I felt like it was finally the last straw.”
Last fall, Phelan learned that former ProTour cyclist Tom Danielson had begun coaching. It was a risk. She’d worked with every top tri coach in the game. Why a name new to the sport? “I thought perhaps a change of coaches, to someone with a different background other than triathlon would be worth taking a chance on,” she says. “I’d had every top coach in the world coach me the last 15 years, and felt I had nothing to lose by trying something different.”
The change began to pay off. Within six weeks of working under Danielson, her biking was lifted to a new level. She placed second at the RAAM Six-Hour Time Trial World Championships, covering 212 kilometers (131.5 miles) in six hours.
“The biggest difference, without a doubt, in Tom’s coaching was his belief and confidence in me,” Phelan says. “I didn’t feel like I was just another triathlete on a team where there were numerous triathlon superstars. Finally, I felt like someone else had more belief in me than I had in myself. That made more of a difference to me than any coaching program in the world could ever make.”
2017 has been off to a great start so far, despite one setback. Triathlon Canada requires minimum time standards annually to maintain professional status, and Phelan's barren 2016 meant she didn't qualify. Despite her long pro resume, she was relegated to racing age group this season, as she tries to regain her pro card. It’s not what Phelan wanted or expected, but she’s rolling with the punches because she's finally able to race. She competed at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside to open her season, finishing second age grouper and winning her age group by six minutes, which, as a top-three overall, earned her pro license per USAT rules. The result, though, was short lived. She discovered after the race she'd been disqualified, cracking the speed limit on a short section of the Oceanside course. She would have to try again. In early May she raced St. George 70.3, winning her age group by a huge 11 minutes, but missing the overall podium by a scant two spots.
This summer, Phelan rides a wave of confidence, believing her roughest patches are behind her and the best in a long time is yet to come. She heads from her San Diego home to Boulder to train with Danielson and her teammates, aiming for a big result at that Colorado town's 70.3 in August. “It’s a frustrating process after racing pro for 17 years, and beating pros in my last few races by as much as 20 minutes” she says. “Qualifying to race pro is harder than maintaining pro status; there are a lot of age group women that would be competitive in the pro field. I want to race against the best women in the world. I think it’s more ambitious to challenge myself rather than be in a field with an easy win. I want to know I have a race on my hands with the women on my left and right. It brings out the best in me. My old teammate Erica Csomor from Hungary once told me that if you want something bad enough, you have to knock on a door three times to prove you really want to enter and go down that path,” Phelan says. I’m hoping that my third attempt this year will be that open door.”