UVic alumna Melanie McQuaid is a force of nature on the extreme triathlon circuit. The 32-year-old is investing in the sport’s future as a coach and mentor.
By Jessica Earle
At age 11, Melanie McQuaid was in and out of the pool by 6:30 a.m. before her younger brothers were even out of bed.
The two-time Xterra champion and record holder—who has twice swum the 1,500 metres, mountain-biked the 30 kilometres and ran the 10 kilometres of the extreme triathlon to victory—has incessant drive. With a self-described obsessive personality, McQuaid says she found her outlet in competition.
“When I was in my early 20s, I was super Type A intense and neurotic, and now I’m like, super Type A and intense and mellow.” She paused and laughed. “That’s the difference.”
Growing up in Nanaimo, “she was rarely home,” said her younger brother Shawn. “She was busy doing her own thing all the time and was a constant over-achiever.”
McQuaid’s main training partner and a member of Canada’s Commonwealth squad, Errine Willock, says the Victoria resident trains “rain or shine and gives it all she’s got.”
Legacy is her catchphrase
Success as free advertising
McQuaid, now one of the strongest cyclists on the Xterra circuit, started mountain biking in the ’90s, during her third year at UVic. She had no experience except for a race around Shawnigan Lake on her dad’s bike in high school, but she soon found herself working up through the ranks at a startling pace.
Considering medical school at that point, she struggled to commit to both disciplines but opted for the rocky terrain of extreme sport. In 1995 she went to the Canada Games for road racing and, in the next year, made the national mountain biking team. What ensued was an illustrious, decade-long cycling and mountain-biking career.
“She was hell-bent on becoming an athlete,” said Shawn, adding that funding from sponsorships has only recently begun rolling in. “Before the last couple of years it was kind of painful seeing her not make a lot of money, chasing something without a lot of financial benefit behind it.”
Today, McQuaid is as well-known for her ambassadorship as her race results and she has worked as a television and radio personality and a publicist, and has appeared in numerous advertising campaigns for everything from running shoes and sunscreen to bike parts and salon services. In her brother’s words, McQuaid fulfills all the roles herself. “She’s her own boss, her self-promoter, her news anchor.”
She’s comfortable in the public eye and churns out sound bites, works through reporters, and openly discloses personal growth and personality flaws with a veteran’s ease. She said she makes her living as “a soft public-relations campaign” where she is the companies’ living advertisement, but she believes the unexpected marketing skills and PR gigs will be useful in finding “a real job” when she retires from the pro circuit sometime around 2008.
The downside to her busy schedule is that she frequently over-commits herself. Like her pre-teen years when she was up before dawn to practice, McQuaid said her drive borders on fanatical. She said that before a race day she craves distraction so she is unable think about the event, the competition and the chance she may sabotage herself from giving it her all.
“I need to be very busy, otherwise I obsess. So I tend to fill my life with lots of extra stuff, which is advantageous because it makes me a valuable athlete, but sometimes . . . I really need to settle down and focus.”
Unlike her 2003 Xterra win, where she can’t remember crossing the finish line and ended up in medical care, her 2005 win was one of her racing highs. Most of her family came to see her and they shared wine the night before the race. McQuaid said this ritual means she can relax, have fun with people and be in the moment.
“If I did everything puritanically correct, I would be so obsessing about everything that would happen because I’d be over-thinking. So for me, I just distract myself up until the very last minute, and it doesn’t take me very long to just be there right in the moment.”
McQuaid emphasized that she is nearing the end of her career as a professional athlete, but her future goals remain embedded in sport.
In 1998 she started Racegirl Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates health and wellness to school-aged children and women—a cause that strikes a personal note. She lived with an eating disorder in her late teens and early twenties and said at one point she “struggled with everything” and had little self-esteem. “I would be frustrated all the time, for how much I was exercising I just wasn’t getting lean enough.
From his view as her coach, Patrick Kelly believes McQuaid has had an important impact and is opening doors for fellow and future women extreme athletes.
“Melanie has been leading the way and is a pioneer,” he said.
Involved with the expansion of Victoria’s Pacific Sport Institute, McQuaid, a rumoured candidate for the 2008 Olympics, is also keen to leave her mark. “The more I’d like to be involved . . . with leaving some sort of legacy of sport in Victoria,” she said.
Up first, however is the U..S triathlon series and defending her world title of Xterra champ.