Meet Anna Willett: An Aussie super-mom based in Shanghai

Last weekend's ninth-place finisher at Ironman 70.3 Taiwan (and 45 to 49 age-group champ) tells her inspiring story and shares how she balances parenting, career and sport.

| March 23, 2017 | PERSONALITY

Photo >Anna Willet Personal Collection

Last weekend Anna Willett, an Australian who lives in Shanghai, finished ninth overall at Ironman 70.3 Taiwan, taking the women's 45 to 49 age category. We caught up with the inspirational mother of three to find out how she manages to balance being a mom, her career and training at such a high level in one of the world's biggest cities.

“I thought I was crazy getting into this. Now I tell people they are crazy not to.” How long have you been doing triathlons? What got you interested and involved in the sport?

Anna Willett: Problems with running is what got me started. In 2013 an Ironman friend, who I happened to think was inhuman because of what he did, was buying his wife a road bike and, at that time, I was riding up and down the road on a really heavy Trek hybrid, so I said get me one too.  Like most people, I spent a lot of time falling over at the lights, then eventually got used to the cleats. That year I entered three sprint triathlons here in Shanghai. I trained myself for these races, sometimes working out with a friend. Those races were the turning point. I won all three and thought “Hey, I can do this.”  Then my hip went – I had Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) which required nine months of physio, surgery and 12 months of recovery. I actually still had pain running once I recovered, but I was desperate to get back into the sport so I pushed through it. I did a few more sprint distance races and won them. Then, in 2015, desperate to take it to another level, I randomly entered myself into Ironman 70.3 Vietnam. Everyone thought I was crazy (I thought I was crazy), but part of me thought “I have to get over this hip issue and just do it.” I changed shoes, running style and eventually the pain was gone and I competed in Vietnam.  I beat my goal time by an hour, came second in my age group and booked my spot for the worlds in Mooloolaba. After that I was hooked.

Once of the biggest reasons for doing this (and I have to keep reminding myself when the motivation drops from over training) is the change in my moods. I am nicer to the kids, sleep better, healthier and, most of all, I have a huge bunch of new friends.

Photo >Anna Willet Personal Collection

What brought you to China? What is it like to pursue triathlon there?

Twelve years ago my husband (then boyfriend) and I quit our jobs to travel and work overseas. He landed a job in Taiwan, I went to university to study Chinese and got pregnant. We now live in Shanghai with three daughters aged 11, 9 and 3. They all speak Chinese and we all enjoy our life in Shanghai.

The pollution is our biggest challenge and a lot of training has to be done indoors. And Shanghai is flat, so we often have to spend weekends in the mountains to adapt the legs to hills.

The community support and triathlon atmosphere in Shanghai, despite the pollution, is like one big family. There is a huge expat cycling community and the group is growing because more Chinese are joining. I have never had so much support and encouragement in my life in anything. There is always some one to help out, loan you gear, give you advice, or drop back so you do not get lost. We lean on each other in so many ways and there is nothing the group would not do to help another. Just this week one lady needed to go to France for an urgent back operation and can not afford the flight. In one day we had the points/funds to get her there.  You have to be passionate and slightly crazy to get up at 5 am two to four mornings a week to beat the traffic and race a bunch of crazy Germans or English or Americans or whoever shoes up on one of our regular morning routes. We are all competitive and race each other and have fun. Those mornings are my social outlet. We are a little low in female numbers, but that is also growing fast.

Photo >Anna Willet Personal Collection

What does a typical training week look like?

I have built up to training around 15 hours a week of low and high intensity days. Three sessions of each sport a week, strength and yoga. Not much running training – I get my cardio from the elliptical and a few runs off the bike. I do not work full time, so I am very lucky that I can juggle my training into my day depending on what is going on in regards to weather, pollution, sick kids etc. I have a Wahoo Kickr and spend half my cycle time on it. I am also equipped with a good treadmill and elliptical trainer so, with the air filter on and a good DVD, I can pretty much train anytime.

You work as a photographer – is it difficult to balance your career and triathlon training?

My career is constantly evolving. I like photography, but really like triathlons and there has been a shift in my priorities. I am also completing a graphic design degree. I work freelance and have a regular client base of clients through word of mouth: that is enough. I am a study freak always learning something so I think when I finish the graphic design degree I will do more on nutrition and sports science. I am fascinated by it.

The whole family did Xiamen 70.3 last year. The kids raced on Saturday and my husband and I Sunday. We were officially crowned an “iron family.” One of my daughters can still name all the pros that she met and stood on the podium.

I just bought my eldest her first road bike and they have started doing kids triathlons here in shanghai. The sport is new but each year there are more and more opportunities for them to race. They love it. I am also a Rocket Science ambassador and so all my gear is from them and they are a great company. I really like my association with them and supporting them. Rocket is all about the athlete and having fun. Not only does that help with costs, but it feels great to think even at my age someone else might be interested in helping me achieve my goals and coming on that journey with me.

Photo >Anna Willet Personal Collection

Can you tell us a bit about your race in Taiwan? Will you compete in Chattanooga?

That was supposed to be a training race, I had this whole plan to walk/run the last leg. I paced with Kate Bevilaqua for half of it and, when I saw that I might actually break the five-hour mark, powered on through the pain in the last 5 kms. Much to my daughters’ amusement, I nailed it with only two seconds to spare – 4:59:58.

I have now qualified twice for Chattanooga and turned it down twice. I still have one more chance in Japan in June, but I’m still on the fence. I have at least three races planned, Japan in June and Qu Jing in August, with one more later in the year to wrap up the season. In between all that I’ll do about five to 10 Olympic distance ITU races in China with my club, Shanghai Elite Tri Club.

Then maybe, and just maybe, we start thinking of doing a full Ironman …