Why all eyes will be on Lucy Charles at the Ironman world championships

Lucy Charles' second-place finish at the 2017 Ironman world championships surprised everyone -- herself included. EPA/Bruce Omori

What would you do if you just missed out on making the Olympic team, after years in the pool dedicating yourself to being one of the best swimmers in the world? If you're Lucy Charles, you go to work at the local zoo and you sign up for an Ironman just for the challenge. And then, a few years later, you end up a surprise second at the world championships -- in an entirely new sport.

"Lucy's always been a phenomenal athlete," says Reece Barclay, Charles' fiancé and coach and a professional triathlete in his own right.

The two do almost all of their training together, and they are now headed to the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, where on Saturday Charles will attempt to better her second-place finish from last year. At last year's event -- Charles' professional debut at the world championships -- the then-24-year-old shocked everyone when she covered the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run faster than all but one woman: defending champion Daniela Ryf.

Since then, Charles has proved her silver wasn't a fluke, with podium finishes at Ironman and half-Ironman races around the world. Last month, she took second again to Ryf at the half-Ironman (known as 70.3 -- half the above lengths) world championships in South Africa.

In fact, Charles routinely beats the men out of the water at triathlons. In a training test race that covered the full Ironman 2.4-mile swim course in Kona, Charles beat all but one of the professional men, and he nipped her by one second -- over 47 minutes.

As a kid in England, Charles started swimming at her primary school's pool. A swim instructor came in regularly to give lessons, and right away Charles loved the water and the training.

"I was super competitive and wanted to do the hardest event there was," she says.

At 9 years old, the hardest event she could think of was the 200-meter butterfly. But over the years, she moved to something even harder: the open-water 10-kilometer swim.

She got faster and more serious, competing on the British national team. She even put university on hold for a year to train for the 2012 Olympics -- but then wasn't named to the team.

"It was pretty tough missing out," she says.

She did one more year of swimming, but says, "I'd fallen out of love." Her university scholarship had been for swimming and she wanted to quit the sport. So instead, she went to work in the marketing department at her local zoo. She also signed up for Ironman UK with Barclay, whom she knew from swimming circles.

"We knew we'd always wanted to do an Ironman," she says. Barclay had also been an elite swimmer, and the two wanted to start a coaching business, so they figured training for an Ironman triathlon would help.

"We only thought we'd do that one," Charles adds.

Charles had no biking experience whatsoever. She had run a few races as a kid, but she could hardly be considered experienced in that sport either.

She completed that very first Ironman in 2014 in 12 hours, 16 minutes -- a solid time for a beginner, but nothing that would indicate future greatness. And then she set about improving.

Biking was the easiest place to get better, fast. With no technical skills, she focused there first. There were plenty of bumps along the way: more than once she forgot to eat enough during the race and ran out of energy, and once she got so flustered in the transition between events that she ran with her bike helmet on.

But a year later, she finished the Ironman UK in 10 hours, 58 minutes and qualified for the Ironman world championships as an amateur in the 18-24 age group. That fall, in 2015, she finished the world championship race in Hawaii in 10 hours, 20 minutes and took the age group world title for 18- to 24-year-olds.

Then in 2017, she re-qualified for the Ironman world championships, as a pro, dropped her time to just under 9 hours and took second overall.

It would be a remarkable progression for anyone, but it's especially impressive for someone who also does almost all of her training indoors in London and has been coached by Barclay -- also new to triathlon -- since the two started the sport together.

"We constantly push each other all day," Barclay says. They do most of their training together, sometimes flying to the island of Lanzarote, off the coast of Morocco, to get some warm, outdoor rides in.

Now she trains about 30 hours a week, as a full-time professional athlete. She has cut down on her coaching business and has long since quit the zoo job. She and Barclay work out with a swim squad and a running group. Her running has now improved drastically, as well: She was a 19:30 5K runner, and she now runs around a 16:45.

The biggest difference, though, came from an attitude change in the spring of last year. Earlier in the year, after she had started racing triathlon professionally, she competed in a race in Dubai and finished 10th. And she thought, "Maybe this is how good I am -- the bottom end of the prize money."

But then she put in a big block of training, and at her next race, on the islands off of Morocco, she had a turning point -- coming in second by just six seconds and beating some of the best athletes in the world. "I started to believe," she says. And she hasn't stopped believing since then.

When she arrived to the Ironman world championships last year, she thought she could finish in the top 10. She came out of the water in first (as she typically does because of her background), eventually was caught on the bike, and then found herself still in second halfway through the marathon.

"I thought, 'This is brilliant, this is great,'" she says. As long as she didn't start walking, she thought, she would definitely come in top ten.

Barclay, who was racing in the amateur field farther back, had multiple flat tires and his race was going terribly, but he wanted to finish to see how Charles was faring. "The only thing that kept me going was I wanted front-row tickets to see Lucy's race," he says.

"Last year was a surprise for everyone, including us," he adds.

Most probably thought that Charles would be caught by the veterans during her run, but she held her own. And since she crossed that finish line in second, everything has been different. Now at races, it can take an hour to walk from the hotel to the transition zone, says Barclay, because of people asking for photos and autographs. They enlisted his dad to start managing some of her press requests.

This weekend, Charles comes into the Ironman world championships not as an unknown but as the biggest threat to potentially take down three-time defending champion Ryf -- though it will take another race of her life from Charles.

What's most exciting to many fans of the sport is that in an event traditionally dominated by older athletes, who gain from years of experience and mileage, Charles is by far the youngest in the field. On this year's start list, there are only five pro women under 30 and the other four are all 28 or 29. Charles is 25.

She already has shown massive improvements. How much faster can she get?

But despite being one of the youngest and newest competitors in the field, Charles isn't intimidated by the credentials of the athletes around her this weekend in Kona.

"I'm definitely not racing for second," she says.