Apparently Lesley Paterson doesn't have enough to do. The decorated Scottish triathlete has a master's degree in theater from San Diego State, and she dabbles in producing and screenwriting, in addition to dominating the XTERRA off-road triathlon tour.
So -- sarcasm alert -- with that wide-open schedule, Paterson decided in 2011 to start her own triathlon team, Braveheart Racing, with her husband, Dr. Simon Marshall, a sports psychologist.
They developed the Braveheart team with a twist, though: If you want to join Paterson and her husband's world-class SoCal team, you have to also mentor an athlete from lesser means. That meant some of the best triathletes in the world had to pair up with impoverished city kids who had never done a triathlon.
As she prepares for a XTERRA nationals this weekend in Utah, we asked Paterson about working with her husband, Braveheart's mission and why she came up with her own version of Sasha Fierce.
One of your mental tricks as an athlete is to create an alter ego for yourself. What is he/she called, and why do you do this?
I've used an alter ego as a mental strategy for some years now. There's actually quite a bit of good evidence in psychology about why this helps. I grew up riding in Scotland. Cycling was very much a working-class sport in Scotland when I got started. Virtually no women, but plenty of bricklayers, welders, plumbers and shipbuilders. Most of these guys were tough as nails. Proud Scots, no gloves in the winter, they would ride hard, swear a lot and live for the weekend club ride. Nothing seemed to phase them, so after years of racing and feeling anxious, vulnerable, sometimes very emotional or just beaten down, instead of trying to talk myself around and give myself continual pep talks, I just decided to become someone else for awhile. Inspired by the hard men I used to ride with in Scotland, my alter ego is a tough Celt called Paddy McGinty. He's the guy you want next to you when it all kicks off, someone not fazed by the circumstances, an incredible capacity to get the hard work done. Rain or shine. It's like having an instant super hero. When I put on Paddy's costume (my race kit), I can become all things I want to be on the start line. Anyone who has seen that look in my eyes when in focused training mode or in races will know it's Paddy, not Lesley. And Paddy needs to be a tough bastard. Paddy also helps me separate my two lives: my professional athlete persona and the normal, real, emotional me, Lesley. When I heard Beyonce also uses an alter ego ("Sasha Fierce") to perform, I realized I wasn't the only crazy one!
Why did you start the Braveheart team?
This team was about creating a family for one another, and then we were motivated to pay it forward by mentoring someone else to do the same. Because triathlon is a sport of privilege, I really wanted to find mentees who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to triathlon. In 2012, I ran a week-long triathlon camp for young adults (ages 17-23) who had all come from challenging backgrounds, whether it be homelessness, poverty, disability, violence. They all were willing to face their fears. Not long after, our local paper, The San Diego Reader, had a cover story about one young man in our camp, Theo Tucker. Here's a kid raised by his grandparents in a gang-riddled neighborhood, an incredibly talented athlete in high school who lost everything because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time on one night.
Part of the qualification for making the cut on the elite team was getting out of your comfort zone. What are some moments when you've done that?
At the 2011 Worlds, I came out of the swim in great position, and I thought, "Holy crap, I feel amazing." Then I double flatted (two flat tires) within the first 300 yards. All my rivals went sailing by, and in a race won by seconds, I figured that was it. In my saddle pouch, I always keep one canister of Co2 to fix a flat. Any more is too heavy, and with two flats, you're screwed, anyway. However, the night before my husband put two canisters in, just in case. I fixed the flats, thinking this was an omen, and I rode as hard as possible and enjoyed myself. I clawed my way back and took the lead with a half-mile left on the run. Another one I would mention is allowing myself to grieve when my best friend committed suicide. It sounds like an odd thing, but when you're brought up in Scotland, often people are not outwardly emotional. We were cycling partners, and he was like a father to me. When he left me his bike in his will, I truly let myself feel the sadness and acknowledge it by going for a long ride on a route we used to go on together. The distance and speed of his last ride was still on his bike computer. I went to "zero" out the computer to start the ride, but I couldn't do it. I just rode on top of his last ride. We did that ride together.
At one point, you were training full time, and that bored you. What was missing, and how did your performance change after you discovered your love of film?
I retired from the sport when I was 20. I was put through training systems that didn't address any of the mental aspects of sport. I believed I had to think and be a certain way in order to be a world champion. I just wasn't the person they wanted me to be, and I lost faith, along with passion for the sport, and didn't know why I was doing it anymore. It was as if I were numbing my emotions and shying away from who I was by trying to become somebody else. I then went to study a masters in acting and drama, and somehow that released me and allowed me to look inside myself. All of a sudden I could access emotion and let it go. I was inspired and filled with passion again, so when I returned to sport, I no longer saw my emotions as a negative thing.