When Angie Keen told people she wanted to start racing triathlons, they told her she’d never be any good.
Fortunately Keen didn’t listen. And last month, the 35-year-old Rotorua policewoman finished on top of the podium for her age group at the world triathlon cross championships in Ibiza, Spain.
Not a traditionally sporty child, Keen grew up horse riding and tap dancing, and didn’t start triathlon until the age of 23.
Then inspired by a colleague, she underwent a lifestyle change and now competes at the highest level on the world stage, excelling in a lesser-known variant of the sport.
Growing up in Ohariu Valley in Wellington, Keen learned to swim at a young age, her family often going on trips to the south coast. She became a strong swimmer and worked as a lifeguard from the age of 16.
So when it came to triathlon, Keen found the most difficult leg to master was the cycling.
“I hadn’t ridden a bike in years and years,” she says. “I’d never ridden a road bike either, which is quite different to a mountain bike that I sort of rode as a kid,” Keen says.
Keen never knew what she wanted to do for a living when at school, but always had a desire in the back of her mind to join the police force.
“That had always sort of been on the cards,” she explains. “For me, the appealing thing about the police was the excitement, and you never know what you’re gonna get type thing. I’m a very adventurous person, so that kind of just fitted what I was interested in.”
After starting the recruitment process, Keen was offered a management role at a pool in Wellington, and put her police dream on hold for a few years. She worked her way up to become the pool’s operations manager, responsible for training and assessing a team of 30 lifeguards and other staff.
But around five years ago, she started police college, and now is working full-time as a constable in Rotorua.
“The best thing would be the excitement of it, you just never know what you’re going to get,” Keen says.
“And then the interaction with a huge range of people …You can’t help everyone, but you get the odd one where you can see you’ve made a difference in their life and it’s definitely a rewarding feeling.”
As an adult, the first triathlon Keen competed was mainly racing against kids – “to my horror … I had no idea,” she laughs.
“But literally after that first one, it was so short, I was just hooked on it.”
Even with people doubting her, Keen spent two years working hard in the sport, and realised she could have the chance to represent New Zealand.
“It’s just continued from there. It’s more of a personal challenge than anything, just seeing what I can do,” Keen says.
As she grew older, her mindset changed as well. “It’s just taught me a lot, and it’s been really helpful in the job as well,” she explains.
“You just teach yourself that anything is possible. If you put your mind to it, you can achieve it. But it’s up to you how much you want to achieve that goal.”
A member of the Taranaki Triathlon Club, she’s been coached by Graham Park for the past five years.
Keen’s best results so far have come in the cross triathlon discipline, where instead of cycling and running on the road, competitors do a mountain bike and a trail run.
And that all happened out of injury, Keen explains, the result of training for longer-distance races, like the Half Ironman.
“I had ongoing injuries for years and years and I felt like all I was doing was just managing running injuries. It’s quite frustrating when you’re training for worlds and then you can’t run.”
Despite the injuries, Keen made it onto a few podiums, finishing second in the 25-29 age group at the 2017 long distance world champs and at the aquathlon world championships that same year. And then third in the 2018 aquathlon world champs in the 30-35 age group.
“But I was still injured, so I felt like I hadn’t really reached my potential,” she says.
After a seventh-place finish at the 2018 long distance world champs, Keen took an entire year off all forms of running to rest her body.
“I wasn’t even allowed to run across the road if a car was coming,” she says.
That’s when she took up mountain biking, and off-road racing, and eventually added off-road running back into her training schedule.
Finishing first in the world in May was a feeling Keen had been chasing for a long time.
“It was amazing, it’s kind of what I’ve been aiming for for years – obviously not this discipline of triathlon. But it’s always been the goal, so it was a very good feeling,” she says.
For her next competition, the world triathlon finals in Pontevedra, Spain later this month, Keen will be competing in the super sprint triathlon and aquabike events – the first a short and fast event, and the other, a race with just swim and bike legs.
“I’ve really enjoyed the change of training. I haven’t ridden my mountain bike in a while and had to learn to ride my time-trial bike again, which was a bit scary,” she says.
In her year off running, Keen took up surf boat rowing after being asked to join a team. With the Wellington Titahi Bay open women’s surf boat crew, Keen won multiple national titles and represented New Zealand with her team.
It’s something she would have loved to keep going, if her lifestyle allowed it.
“It’s not an easy sport just to decide you want to start doing – especially living in Rotorua now, there’s just not an option here,” Keen says.
“And it’s quite terrifying to be honest, it was the most scared I’d ever been in my entire life. So I was lucky the crew I was with were very experienced and very good – I had a lot of trust in them.
“I think to go out and do that again, I’d really have to trust who I was with cause it was freaking terrifying. But it’s such a cool sport.”
For someone who arrived at competitive sports later in life, Keen encourages anyone to go after it.
“Just give it a go, anything is possible really,” she says.
“I’ve amazed myself with what I’ve been able to achieve, coming from a non-sporty background, or my sports were different, with horses and stuff like that.
“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it, and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something – because you can.”