Cunnama’s comeback to the top

Jodie Cunnama (nee Swallow) overcame depression, an eating disorder and an abusive relationship to work her way back to the top of the sports world. She now hopes that her experience can provide inspiration to others.

| March 29, 2017 | PERSONALITY

Photo >Delly Carr | Bahrain Endurance Media

As a 16 year old, Jodie Cunnama (who was then Jodie Swallow) won a “Champion Children” award in the UK – she was then touted as a potential Olympian in both swimming and running. She would eventually make it to the Olympics as a triathlete in2004, a logical step for an athlete as talented as she was in the two sports.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, though.

“My early school days were sandwiched between training sessions and training has always been a crutch when I have felt misunderstood or confused by life which I often have,” she says. “I have always wanted to give my best and to be my best and although I definitely excel at the former I still work at the latter. I am pretty tough on myself and that’s difficult because there are always ways in which we could get faster. That is the conundrum of sport: finding a height that you can be content with and descend from fulfilled. If my husband [James Cunnama] wasn’t so devoted to a lengthy career, I am not sure I would have remained racing for so long, but our relationship kept me battling through injury and out the other side. I am still good at it and it still makes me happy so that is all the motivation I really need right now.”

“Still good at it” is quite an understatement – earlier this year the 35-year-old won her seventh straight Ironman 70.3 South Africa title. In 2009 she won the ITU Long Distance World Championship (which she won again last year) and in 2010 she led from start to finish in taking the Ironman 70.3 world title. In 2014 she finished fourth in Kona.

All those results are a sign of Cunnama’s incredible resilience. During the early 2000s she was steadily moving up the standard-distance rakings with podium finishes at the 2000 World Student Games, the London Triathlon and the 2003 ITU Athens World Cup, which served as a test event for the Olympics. After a disappointing in Athens a year later at the games, Cunnama fought with depression, an eating disorder and a violent relationship.

“My proudest accomplishment is in my ability to convert the mental agony of an eating disorder, an abusive relationship and low self-esteem into a productive source of inspiration to fuel my dreams and transform my psyche,” Cunnama says in her bio posted on sponsor Cervelo’s website.

Cunnama hopes that the lessons she’s learned through sport can provide motivation for others.

“In the beginning I had something desperate to prove – probably more to myself than anyone (I suffer from low self-esteem),” she says. “Nowadays I know I have absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. I have showed my credentials time over again, now I want to be a positive role model for younger athletes, to show that you make your own luck and that you can change your life through sport, your family’s life and your own flaws. There is no place I stand taller or speak clearer than when I speak about sport. I don’t feel as shy or inadequate.”

Cunnama will compete at the Ironman African Championship on the weekend, a race she led last year before a bike accident would eventually force her to drop out.