Finishing an Ironman race is a tough challenge, but winning her age group and placing third overall in Turkey was the target achieved by one of Malta’s top athletes, DANICA BONELLO SPITERI. After her achievement in Turkey, which saw her qualify for the World Championship next year, Bonello Spiteri spoke to Kurt Aquilina about her experience…
Danica Bonello Spiteri, 39, has been active in the triathlon scene for many years and has competed both locally and abroad since the age of 17.
However, winning the 35-39 category of the Ironman 70.3 race in Antalya with a total time of 4:31:34 on November 1 was a challenge like no other.
“I still can’t believe the time and result I managed to achieve,” Bonello Spiteri told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“I’ve been involved in triathlon for nearly 25 years but switching to the 70.3 (miles) is completely different as it shifts focus towards pace, nutrition and the fact that you are competing alone without knowing what’s going on with the other athletes. Especially with COVID-19, the race was very different.”
Speaking about the race itself, Bonello Spiteri highlighted the staggered start of the swim part which set her back due to her trying to get around other athletes who did not have the same pace.
“It took around 70 minutes until all athletes started the swim because there were around a thousand athletes. They were very strict about COVID-19 measures,” she said.
“There were many athletes who were slower than I was, so I lost some time trying to get past them, whereas usually you start as a whole group and the faster athletes get ahead easily.
“In the bike segment, we had the wind blowing against us and I set on a pace which now I think was a bit too safe. Then in the running part, which was three laps, I started the first lap well, kept the pace in the second but I got tired in the last and I lost my form. This is the thing I’m not too happy about – Maybe I needed a bit more training.”
Bonello Spiteri remarked that after crossing the finish line, it was only after a while that she understood she had won her age group and also finished third overall. However she said it was overall a great experience which will also take her to the World Championships in September.
Just like all other sport, COVID-19 has taken its toll on Bonello Spiteri’s training regime as well.
“COVID-19 messed up some things in terms of training. In March and April, the pools were closed and the sea was cold, so this sets you far back. Also, I had to take some time away because of my daughter who was only six or seven months, so training was very restricted and I don’t believe I did a lot of it this year,” she said.
“By the time facilities opened, you would have lost some of your basis. Even certain races which usually prepare you were not there. The Tour ta’ Malta, which I usually use as my base for the season was not there either. But in one way or another, everybody is in the same boat and we’re all doing our utmost.
“The races which were cancelled in the beginning of the season mostly took place in September, so we ended up having a race every weekend. If you have to race in the weekend, you’re missing certain key training sessions for the Ironman distance.
“Now that I know I’ve got the World Championships, I’m going to have to put my mind to it, to match the level there will be. However, I’ve heard that there were a good number of high level athletes (in Turkey) as well.”
Bonello Spiteri amalgamates her efforts with her profession.
As a sports doctor, she explained that her job helps her understand athletes, even their frustration during injuries and said she helps in rehabilitation because it is something she experienced.
“When you see a person who is broken by his injury and work to build him back up to eventually see him race, train and enjoy himself with no pain, that gives me great satisfaction. It’s more of a passion than a job,” she said.
Having been also a consultant with the English FA for the past five years, Bonello Spiteri said that it is there that she really understood what it meant to take part in elite sport.
“The difference is in the attention to detail, even in the work that goes into creating training camps which is intensive,” she said.
“Even in terms of injury prevention, there is a lot of attention on the athlete. Not only it is important that a player knows how to move the ball but it is also important for him to feel strong and have good movement – an athlete isn’t supposed to end up injured when you increase his training.”
Despite the funding which goes into such a system, it is also possible in Malta, especially with the advantage of being a smaller country. However she lamented the mindset which she said need to change.
“You see how some athletes have a certain mindset but in Malta, we’re still a long way back. This is not something which costs money but it is something cultural which we can develop,” Bonello Spiteri said.
“We enjoy taking part in sport but the attention to detail is the difference between one who just competes and one who goes abroad and wins. It’s usually the little things which you have to do everyday in order to compete on an international level.”
Asked about the difficulty of fulfilling potential, Bonello Spiteri admitted that she enjoys the fact that a good number of athletes are now seeing a future in their sport and are going abroad to improve their level as she insists it is important.
“When I was 17 years old, I think I was possibly the first Maltese woman to go for the London triathlon and there were around 3,000 athletes.
“The time I achieved, under two hours and a half, was the best time any Maltese woman had ever achieved and that’s because I was in an environment where I felt I needed to push harder,” she said.
“This is the future – improving our mindset and increasing our level.”