We made a new friend recently... Frankie Sanjana is a great triathlete who has started to make waves last year following return from a severe injury. She has a very interesting sporting background and talks to us about transitioning from Age-Grouper to Pro.
Getting started in triathlon
I made the decision to switch sport from rowing to triathlon in 2012. I was sad to leave a sport that I loved and was good at, but triathlon seemed to offer a world of possibility in comparison. Being a total beginner at all three sports, there was also plenty of room for improvement, which was very refreshing after reaching a level in rowing where my times had plateaued for over a year.
At first – and sometimes still today – I attributed any success I had in triathlon to “the triumph of enthusiasm over talent”. I signed up for Galway 70.3 as my first race in September 2012, came 6th in my age group and was lucky to get a rolldown slot for the Worlds the following year. From that moment on, any question of going back to rowing disappeared!
My first Ironman in 2013 was a total disaster (let’s just say it involved a bike crash, concussion, burnt feet and a marathon that took longer than the swim and bike combined...) but I managed to pick myself up and have another go later that year, at IMUK in Bolton. I was very happy and surprised to win my AG and take a Kona slot for that year, but Kona itself went badly – without enough time to recover between races, I rushed the post-ironman return to running, picked up an injury and ended up walking most of the marathon.
My plan was to race one more year as an age group athlete in 2014, race Kona more competitively this time, and then start to race professionally in 2015. The year started out well, with the Kona slot I was after banked early in the year and a top 10 overall at IM South Africa in April, followed by winning the half distance Monster Mojo in the UK (which I hope is able to go ahead again next year, since it was a fantastic event!).
Unfortunately at that point everything started to fall apart: to cut a very long story short, I had bilateral hip surgeries to correct impingement that was causing me excruciating pain while I was running, and had a full year out of competition.
Why I chose to take my Pro licence so soon
Coming from international rowing, I knew I wanted to aim for the same in triathlon and wanted to compare myself to those people and that standard sooner rather than later. I saw that my times in IMUK and IMSA would have earned pay-cheques if I’d been racing in the pro category – it seemed silly to pay to race when I could be getting paid to race!
Despite the injury and time out of competition, I decided to stick with the original plan of racing pro from 2015, in part because I didn’t know when I would be able to compete again, and wanted the flexibility of being able to enter a race when I was ready.
How is racing triathlon as a Pro?
My first pro race was at Challenge Heilbronn in June 2015 – I was so nervous my hands were shaking to the extent that I struggled to pump up my tyres in transition in the morning! I finished 8th out of 9 pro athletes, which wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but after the year I’d had I was mostly just relieved not to be last. The first few years were frustrating since I was still improving, but not as quickly as I had been before the hip surgery, which was by far the longest injury I’d ever had. I’ve since tried out a few different setups in terms of coaching, training bases and ways of working on swimming (which I still find the most challenging of the three sports).
In 2018 the hard work all started to pay off and I qualified for my first professional 70.3 Worlds; 2019 was a bit of a breakthrough year, where I set a 70.3 PB of 4:08 at Galveston, Texas, had my first pro win at 70.3 Les Sables d’Olonne, France, and set a bike course record at 70.3 Xiamen in China.
2020 has obviously not gone according to plan! Since pools have reopened I’ve been taking the opportunity to work on my swim technique without the pressure of being ready to race, in the hope that this will yield benefits for the 2021 season. I’ve also been doing more training for full Ironman in the hope that one of the later season races might go ahead. This isn’t looking particularly hopeful, with cancellations still coming thick and fast, but again, the training should stand me in good stead for next year and beyond.
Advice for moving from Age Group to Pro Triathlon racing... Learn from my mistakes!
Be aware that pro racing is a very different experience from AG racing: you can go from having loads of people around you all day to barely seeing anyone, especially if, like me, you’re not the fastest swimmer and tend to get dropped off the pack. It’s important to have the confidence to know that your race is going well even when you no longer have the immediate feedback of passing people frequently on the bike and run.
I would suggest keeping some part time work initially – sponsorship is very hard to come by and in the early days the majority of my carefully crafted sponsorship enquiries or applications didn’t even receive a “thanks but no thanks” in response.
One unexpectedly good thing I found about the situation we’ve been in during 2020 has been the chance to recover from the travel and spend some time at home with family. I’ve definitely had years where I spent more nights away from home than in my own bed, and 2019 was the busiest yet. The travel is fun and exciting, but it can also be exhausting (not to mention expensive... those airline bike fees add up quickly).
It’s not something I’ve struggled with myself, but I’ve heard of others losing some of the joy of the sport once it becomes their job rather than something they do for fun – obviously we all go through rough patches, but remember to keep enjoying it!
Although pro racing can be challenging at times, I’ve also found it extremely rewarding, and I’m excited for a return to racing, whenever that may be. If you’re thinking of turning pro I would definitely encourage it; it’s something that very few people get to experience, and it’s changed me and my life for the better!
We think we'll all be seeing a lot more of Frankie in races over the next few years. Frankie will also be contributing to the Neuff Red team, so keep an eye out for future articles.
Good luck with your racing!