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Penny from heaven: How award-winning triathlon coach Penny Rother is inspiring women to achieve their fitness goals | Coaching Adults | ConnectedCoaches

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Penny from heaven: Award-winning triathlon coach is inspiring women to achieve their fitness goals

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Penny Rother

CENTRE OF ATTENTION: Penny Rother with fellow Great Britain triathletes Oonagh O'Brien, left, and Ann Johnstone, right

  • Busy mums can still make exercise a part of their life and fit it around their children.
  • Getting active will help boost self-image as well as fitness.
  • The idea that if you are not a good athlete, you will not make a good coach is nonsense.
  • Being coached and being a coach are both enjoyable and rewarding experiences.

Triathlon coach Penny Rother is a passionate advocate of coaching and a champion of women’s sport and fitness. 

Her own story serves as a glowing example to working mothers everywhere that there is an exciting life to be lived beyond the full-time roles of managing your career and ensuring the smooth running of your family unit. 

Which parents haven’t shouted at their child at one time or another: ‘There’s no such word as can’t’? 

Penny is keen to hammer home the same message to the women of Edinburgh, making them realise it is the word ‘won’t’ that is in fact holding them back. 

She has balanced her career as a doctor – she has worked as a GP at the same Bonnyrigg practice, five miles south of Edinburgh, for 31 years – with bringing up two children, while still making time to compete in cross-country for Scotland and triathlon for Great Britain. 

‘When I started triathlon, I had two young children, a career, a husband, a home to run and a life to live, and my coach gave me a training programme that helped me improve while ensuring I didn’t neglect my other roles,’ she says. 

Penny’s children may have flown the nest, but she is a mother figure to a whole new brood now, who also look to her to nurture them, guide them and educate them during their ongoing development. 

She says coaching her crop of predominantly middle-aged female triathletes, who are members of Edinburgh Road Club, gives her a wonderful sense of fulfilment and a great deal of pleasure. 

And she must be doing something right as, this month, she was crowned Community Coach of the Year at the 2015 UK Coaching Awards, which recognised her achievements in ‘widening access for working mums through her coaching’. 

Olympic legacy 

Penny was born in St Andrews in 1958 and, with free use of the famous golf links at her disposal, could have trodden a very different sporting path. 

If your parents paid rates, as you did in those days, you got to play for free at St Andrews as a child,’ she explains. ‘I can wield a club, but it’s not a passion. I play once a decade.’ 

So golf’s loss was running’s gain, and with a little help from an Olympic athlete, Penny took her first steps in a sport she soon fell in love with. 

Her two older brothers were keen runners. One of them trained with Donald Macgregor, who finished seventh in the 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich, and also happened to be Penny’s German teacher at school. 

‘He would stay and have tea with us after going out running with my brother when he was home from university,’ remembers Penny. 

‘We went to watch him in the Olympic Games, and it was those Olympics that really inspired me, just like a whole new generation have been inspired by London 2012. 

‘There was a fantastic performance from Mary Peters to win her pentathlon gold medal, and I absolutely loved it. 

‘So when I got back to school, the PE staff asked Donald if he knew of any girls who ran as they wanted to enter an under-15 girls’ team in a cross-country race. He said to ask me as he knew both my brothers were runners. I started running then, at 14, and I’ve been running ever since.’ 

Life in the fast lane 

In the years that followed, Penny tried every kind of running there was – cross-country, track, road running, marathon and hill running. 

She joined Dundee Hawkhill Harriers, where a certain Liz McColgan was a member. She is seven years younger than Penny and, even as a sprightly teenager, would zoom off in the first few metres to plough a lone furrow out front. 

‘We used to start the race together, but that was all I ever saw of her,’ jokes Penny. 

‘I used to run with Yvonne Murray as well, and people used to say to me, “Why do you bother if you know you are going to finish miles behind them?” 

‘Miles behind’ was a gross exaggeration as Penny went on to represented Scotland at cross-country. 

Proving that age is no barrier to success, she has continued to thrive on competition, savouring success around the globe. 

‘I did my first triathlon nearly 20 years ago and have loved it ever since,’ she explains. 

And she’s not all that bad at it either, competing for Great Britain in the ITU World Triathlon Series, where her roll of honour in the 45–49, 50–54 and 55–59 age group categories over the years includes a gold medal in Honolulu (USA), silver medals in Edmonton (Canada), Lausanne (Switzerland), Madeira (Portugal) and Queenstown (New Zealand), and bronze medals in London and Beijing (China). 

She also won the National Triathlon Championships in 2009 and was named British Triathlon Female Age Group Triathlete of the Year in 2005. 

Age is just a number in triathlon as one 90-year-old male competitor in the ITU Series race in Chicago last year will testify to. 

As Mark Twain once said: ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ 

‘It is a fantastically inclusive sport,’ says Penny. ‘You cannot ever accuse it of being elitist. I suspect that it is the only sport where the Age Group Championships are at the same event as the Elite Championships. We may not be competing with those 30 years younger, but they are there, and we are doing roughly the same course.

‘You frequently see guys compete in their 80s and women in their 70s over the sprint distance.’ 

Wheels in motion 

Penny is coaching’s most ardent supporter, enthusing: ‘I absolutely love being coached.’ 

It is certainly true that good coaches breed good coaches, and Penny’s career is a perfect illustration of this. 

When she competed in her first World Triathlon Championships in 2001, she was self-coached and finished fourth. She remembers thinking to herself: ‘I wonder what I could have done with a bit of coaching.’ 

She adds: ‘I was coached by professional coach Fiona Lothian – who is now Head of Performance at Triathlon Scotland – for eight years, and I loved it. She was fantastic at balancing work and family life with training. It’s a great example of what you can do with a bit of smart thinking around coaching. 

‘Being coached is fantastic, and I love all the bouncing ideas off people and getting different takes on things. 

‘I am now coached by Linda McLean, who is a Level 3 coach in Scotland, and I still get so much out of it. But I wanted to give something back.

'I wanted to help busy mums like me to make exercise part of their life and help them fit it around their children.’ 

Her first steps into coaching came six years ago when she went along to the Great Scottish Swim at Strathclyde Country Park with three friends. Between them, they had 11 children, and afterwards, Penny asked them if they had ever thought about doing triathlon. 

‘They were just swimmers and said they had never cycled on the road and would be too scared. So I promised to teach them.’ 

Weeks later, she had successfully recruited several more members to the Edinburgh Road Club, which is the biggest cycling club in Scotland, with around a quarter of the 600-plus members triathletes.

‘Using some of the club bikes, we met at one of the girls’ houses because she had a three year old she had to take across the road to nursery at 9am and be back at 11.30am. Then off we’d go. 

‘We built up slowly until we competed as a group in a 100-mile sportive.’ 

The group has increased rapidly in numbers over the years, and there is no stipulation that you must train in all three triathlon disciplines. 

Some women have gone on to compete at the World Age Group Championships, and others have taken part in seven-hour half Ironman competitions, but if you want to just swim, or join in the running or cycling sessions, then there is no pressure put on you to ‘up the ante’. 

Penny, it seems, gets as much out of coaching them as the women do out of being coached. 

A Level 3 triathlon coach, she coaches a weekly swim session at the club and arranges the rota for the other sessions, while taking a weekly bike session for the triathletes all year round (and a second one in the lighter evenings from April to September). 

‘They are an awfully easy group of women to coach,’ she says. 

‘Most of the time, we just go for a cycle, but in the summer, we might do something more specific, like time trials or race pace efforts, something more structured, but it nearly always involves a cup of coffee and a piece of cake at the end and a bit of a chat.’ 

Penny Rother coaching

TRI THIS: Penny passes on some tips poolside

Feel-good factor 

In her day job as a GP, Penny says she meets lots women who spend their life working, looking after their children and running a home. 

She is happy to provide a gentle nudge in the right direction, offering advice on the health benefits of exercise, and providing a few motivating examples of what is possible when fuelled by a small dollop of enthusiasm. 

‘Quite often, they don’t do anything for themselves,’ she says. ‘They may be overweight or beginning to suffer from health problems, and I suggest to them, can they not go out and do something that could benefit them health-wise?

‘Often, they say something along the lines of, “I can’t go out Tuesday or Thursday because Bill goes to football,” and I’ll say, “Why does he get to go to football and you have to always remain at home?” 

‘Getting fit is good for women and good for their self-image. It’s important you feel fit, and if it means you lose weight and your figure looks better, then that just increases your feeling of well-being.’ 

Penny says she strives to lead her team by example and is guided by the goals of the athletes, rather than imposing her own performance targets on them. 

The people she coaches, she says, are never going to be Olympic athletes, and her intention is ‘to coach them to do what they want to do and be as good as they can be, not to win gold medals’. 

Ironman, iron lady 

Hopefully, some of Penny’s protégés may decide to branch out into coaching themselves in the future, and her advice to them, and anybody else contemplating starting out on a new venture, is not to be scared. 

‘A lot of people think that if they are not good athletes themselves, they can’t coach, which is absolute rubbish,’ she says. 

‘Taking a Level 1 or 2 course is not that onerous. Certainly, Level 1 is an achievable standard for most people. There is not a lot of academic input.’ 

Regarding her own coaching future, she has it all mapped out. 

She intends to retire in a couple of years, when she will have more time to dedicate to her coaching. 

The plan is to coach two or three evenings a week and develop the triathlon arm of Edinburgh Road Club. She says she has no desire to make a living out of coaching. 

And talking of retirement, does she have any plans to hang up her running shoes? 

‘Oh, God, no. Why would you stop? 

‘I’ve done one Ironman and would like to do another, but as I always say, I don’t need time to train, I need time to rest.’ 

Stopping running then is definitely not on the agenda. On this, the ‘iron’ lady is not for turning. 

Penny’s top tips

  1. Keep sessions fun.
  2. Keep sessions simple.
  3. Keep sessions safe.
  4. Be prepared to adapt sessions depending on participants’ abilities (and adapt for mixed abilities).
  5. Be prepared to adapt sessions depending on the weather.

sports coach UK’s Reach campaign is aimed at attracting more women into sports coaching. Read more empowering tales from women like Penny on the Reach website or follow @ReachCoaches on Twitter.

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