From the outside, Kristy Jennings (#175) seems to have it all. Gorgeous enough to be named Miss New Zealand in 1999, Jennings also has the athleticism to win the 35-39 age group at the 2017 XTERRA World Championship.
But that's the thing about XTERRA. You never know what demons athletes are taming or unleashing out on the course. And Kristy Jennings is no different. She didn't start training for XTERRA to become fast or add another trophy to her pile. Three years ago, all Jennings wanted to do was to overcome her debilitating fear of water.
"My fear was not only of being in the water," said Jennings. "Simply walking next to or looking into deep water was enough to make my heart race."
Jennings knew that she needed to set a goal to give herself the inspiration to get over her fear, so she signed up for a local sprint triathlon.
"I was OK at running and reasonably capable on the bike," said Jennings, who at the time, was unaware of her talent.
In order to train for the race, she hit her local pool for the first time since childhood, but her fear surprised her. She was terrified of the grates and even the lines on the bottom of the pool made her nervous. She couldn't swim more than ten meters before she had to stop.
"At that point I decided I needed some help so got in touch with a local endurance coach Merryn Johnston and explained my predicament," said Jennings. "She wondered about whether I might need to see a psychologist rather than a coach but decided to help me anyway. It was the best thing I could have done as she has supported me in the most caring and sensitive way possible. She is still my coach and is also now one of my best friends."
Coach Johnston saved her early notes from working with Jennings. One read, "Kristy managed to touch the bottom of the pool today and by the end of the session she had learned how to do a dolphin dive."
Under Johnston's patient guidance, Jennings graduated to swimming in a lake.
"I remember feeling the most horrific panic, but I tried not to let it show," said Jennings. "Merryn discussed that the weeds on the lake bed were a habitat for fish and if you look at them closely they are actually quite beautiful when they sway in the gentle waves."
Jennings knows that her fear is irrational. She likens it to someone who fears spiders while holding one in her hand.
"It’s not that I think I am going to drown and it’s not that I think anything is going to harm me. It's just pure fear. Logs, rocks, buoys, jetties, weeds and even rubbish are enough to make me panic inside, even to this day."
Still, despite the fear and the discomfort, Jennings persisted. At the start of the triathlon she signed up for, she waded into the cold, weedy lake with a feeling of dread.
"It was a horrendous, crowded start," she remembers. "And to this day it is one of the worst things I have ever done. I hated it."
Jennings finished second, but rather than resting on her laurels, she wanted to keep going.
"I thought, 'Hmm, that still isn't good enough for me. I need to do a real swim.'"
She entered the 2015 XTERRA Mototapu, which was to be held two months later. Despite Jennings' trepidation, she swam and ended up winning her age group. Even more impressive was that she was the fourth female overall behind three elite XTERRA racers.
"Qualifying for XTERRA Worlds in 2015 meant everything to me," said Jennings. "I felt proud to have achieved not only my goal of swimming in a triathlon but of being able to tie it together with two other disciplines and actually do well."
Jennings headed to Maui for the XTERRA World Championship in October of 2015 feeling completely overwhelmed but also reminding herself that the hard work she had put in would mean that she was capable of completing the course.
"I had never swum in waves before and I remember sitting on DT Fleming beach two days before the race with tears rolling down my face thinking, how can I possibly do this?" said Jennings.
Remarkably, Jennings jumped into the ocean when the gun went off and finished sixth in her age group. Her coach's training combined with Jennings' refusal to give into her fear helped Jennings learn how to control her panic.
"I know now when that gun goes off that I have to shut it all out."
Fast forward to 2017, and when she was training for the XTERRA World Championship this year, Jennings was focused solely on racing - not on fear.
"I now love playing in the waves," says Jennings. "My swim still needs work, but my bike makes up for it. The struggle of dealing with the heat on the run after coming out of a cold New Zealand winter will always be a challenge. But I guess I wouldn’t be doing this sport if it wasn’t a challenge."
Next year, Jennings has her sites set on the elite field in the XTERRA Asia Pacific Tour.
"I believe that barriers in life are to be challenged and eventually broken. I would encourage anyone to tackle their fears and the feel the empowering rewards of smashing that barrier down."