When fate forced triathlete Shanelle Barrett to quit her Olympic dream, she took another route to get there. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

Shanelle Barrett cranks up her electric bike to top speed and zooms through the township of Taupo. Her cocker spaniel, Mika, is towed behind in a little trailer, ears flapping in the wind.

On her way to work, Barrett just wants to feel like a world-class triathlete again.

It’s been 14 years since she had to surrender her very realistic dream of competing at an Olympics – struck down by glandular fever while in Europe on the world triathlon circuit.  

She flew home to Taupo and spent six months sleeping. As she slowly recovered physically, she fell into “a really dark place”.

“I’d gone from hero to zero; from one of New Zealand’s best to nothing,” she recalls.

But she never lost her “massive desire” to get to the Olympics, and realised it could be done another way.

Barrett became a leading technical official in triathlon, creating courses and running events around the world – including the swim course at the 2012 London Olympics, and the four triathlon events at this year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

And now she cycles to work – a “dingy” little office at the back of her parent’s motor vehicle business – to her job as, quite probably, the only woman on the globe who owns and runs a World Cup triathlon event.

Barrett is the event director of the New Plymouth ITU World Cup – the only major international triathlon still raced in New Zealand.  

“I was battling to come to grips with ‘If I am not Shanelle the triathlete, then who am I?’.”

– Shanelle Barrett

A year ago, she took over the event from Gisborne couple Terry and Kathy Sheldrake, legends in the multisport world.

“Terry has been a role model to me all through my career. I put on the Weet-bix Kids Tryathlon for him in Taupo when I was just 20,” Barrett says. “I’ve followed him through officiating in the sport, then event management, so I was honoured when he offered me the event.”

Barrett also sees the World Cup as a vehicle for her other passion – promoting women in sport. Not just the elite athletes who line up on Ngamotu Beach for the sprint distance 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run, but the women who volunteer to help run the event.

She hopes to inspire them with her own backstory.

Born in Taupo, Barrett grew up outdoors: “I was always with my brother making bivouacs in someone’s gully.” 

From the age of five, she’d tag along with her dad to the local harriers club every Saturday. Despite her pleas, she wasn’t allowed to run until she was seven.

“Ever since that day, I just wanted to run and compete,” she says. She raced in her first triathlon at 10.  

That year, 1990, she was part of a mass jump-rope demonstration at the closing ceremony of the Auckland Commonwealth Games. She spent the day watching the track and field competition, and told her mum, Kay: “I’m going to go to the Commonwealth Games.”

Her dedication and commitment to triathlon intensified. At 13, she told her mother she needed to train with a swim squad in Rotorua to improve; which meant getting up at 3.30am to drive her to the pool, and back to Taupo before school started.

“God bless my mum – she took me every day of the week,” says Barrett, who credits her family’s support with helping her become an elite triathlete.

She was 10th in the junior world championships in 1998, 10th in the 2002 European Cup, and eighth in the 2004 Oceania championships. She was in the running to make the New Zealand team for the Athens Olympics.

But, as she was training in France for her final qualifying bid, Barrett fell ill. She spent the next six months in bed in Taupo; her dream of competing at the birthplace of the Olympics in ruins.

“Ever since that day my body has had relapses every year – I suffered a lot of liver and kidney damage. I know if I get too stressed I can feel the symptoms coming on. It’s just an ongoing battle,” she says.

And then she experienced “a real dark, dark time” with depression.

“I was battling to come to grips with ‘If I am not Shanelle the triathlete, then who am I?’. The biggest thing that helped me was my family teaching me that they loved me as Shanelle. It was a big turning point for me to understand that I was a person outside of my sport,” she says.

Barrett got a job, but still had “this fire in my body” to get to the Olympics. Her attempts to return to the top as an athlete were futile. So she decided she would get there as an official.

She did the right courses, officiated internationally, and was selected for the 2012 Olympics in London on triathlon’s technical official team. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve finally made it’. It wasn’t the way I’d dreamed I would, but I was just so proud to be there,” she says.

Barrett was the chief swim official on The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, where one of her roles was checking for protestors who might jump in. “We were also on swan patrol, because the Queen’s swans swam in the area. Heaven forbid if we ran one over,” she says.

“Technical officials for tri are so different than other sports. A referee or umpire gets on the field and manages the rules. In triathlon, you’re not only involved in the rules on the day, but beforehand, you’re responsible for so many aspects of the event including setting the course, and making sure it’s accurate and fair.” 

Barrett wasn’t the only Kiwi woman overseeing the London triathlon course – Juliet Fahey, from Timaru, was also an official, who went on to oversea the Rio Olympic triathlon four years later.

At this year’s Commonwealth Games, Barrett rose to the rank of technical delegate – the top dog, in charge of running the triathlon.

It was a two-year appointment. And all of it voluntary.

“It was a lot of work. Over the last couple of months it was like taking on a second full-time job. The New Plymouth World Cup finished [in March], I had one day off, then I went to the Commonwealth Games. It was ridiculous,” she says, laughing in hindsight.

She helped design the course at Southport on the Gold Coast, and learned a lot about event management – including how not to overcommit (“which I did”), and how not to micromanage. “I’m big on ensuring everyone in my team takes their role and owns it. I’m not very good at delegating, but I’ve learned I can’t be everywhere on race days,” she says.

The New Plymouth triathlon requires Barrett’s attention year-round. She ropes in her husband, Neil Holdsworth, to help with operations around race day, and employees people to do media and sponsorship part-time.

She has planned a week-long “festival of triathlon” next March – including the Weet-bix Kids Tryathlon, secondary school championships, and the World Cup event. She praises Taranaki, in particular the New Plymouth District Council, for supporting the event.

“Next year, I’ll go to the ITU [International Triathlon Union] and bid for another three-to-four years. As long as the city still supports the event, I’d love to continue it,” she says.

Barrett is highly regarded by the ITU – in fact, she’s one of seven members of its technical commission, who have global conference calls once a month to discuss such things as the rules of the sport, uniform approvals and selecting technical delegates for events.

As much as she’d love to help run the 2020 Olympic triathlon in Tokyo, Barrett has decided not to throw her hat in the ring. It would be unfair, she says, to take all the experience, at the expense of another woman progressing.

“I’m all about mentoring and inspiring other women to come through now. There are some really good female officials in New Zealand, who I’d love to see progress,” she says.

In 2015, Barrett was chosen for the Global Sports Mentoring Program, created by the US Department of State to “empower women through sports, and sport for community”.  She spent a month working with mentor Joan Corragio – a brand marketing genius with Saatchi and Saatchi in Los Angeles.

“She taught me how to tell my story. It was a massive step to accept, ‘Hey, I didn’t quite get there as an athlete, but I did as an official’. I came away thinking I can motivate and inspire other women with what I’ve achieved and where I’ve got to,” she says.

Barrett is setting up her own charity to mentor and inspire young people and women through sport. “Sport has so many avenues; it’s so powerful. The values and lessons I learned as a kid have seen me through to what I do now,” she says.

“Through the charity, people will see the benefit in what can be done outside the event itself. It’s going to leave a legacy here in New Zealand. If I can give someone the opportunity to go out into the world, I will have done my job.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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