Triathlon – A numbers game for maths teacher Elaina

Triathlon is an endurance sport that comprises a swim, a bike ride and a run, in that order. Distances vary between the extremes of a ‘super sprint’ (400m swim; 10km bike ride; 2.5km run) and an Ironman (3.9km swim; 180.2km bike; 42.2km run).

As a result, triathletes are focused on numbers. This is particularly true if, like Elaina Gard, you are a maths teacher.

When Elaina isn’t teaching Year 6 pupils at the Dolphin School in Montpelier, Bristol, she trains to compete in triathlons at the longer end of the distance spectrum. In May 2023, she represented Great Britain for the first time, at the World Triathlon Championships in Ibiza (Spain), where she swam 3km, cycled 116km and finished with a 30-kilometre run.

“My race number at the World Championships was 6482. I thought to myself: ‘There are so many equations you can make out of this… I’ve got to show this to the children! When I came back to school, I used it in a maths lesson. Straight away, they were thinking up different ways of using the numbers, for example 6 + 4 = 8 + 2, or 64 = 82. We had a lot of fun with that race number!”

Elaina’s passion for teaching maths is matched by her passion for competing at the highest level. This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, her triathlon career began only two years ago.

The start line

Elaina grew up in Cornwall and attended a school with an excellent track record for athletics. As part of the school’s running club, she trained six days per week and benefitted from some outstanding coaching that regularly brought team success in the English Schools’ Cross Country Cup. Elaina dreamt of one day competing for her country, but during this time she suffered recurring injuries whilst trying to qualify for the England cross country squad. A year later, these injuries ruled her out of joining a development squad for the London 2012 Olympics. She felt like her dream of representing her country was over.

Fast forward to 2021 and Elaina had begun training in cycling and swimming. She was encouraged to enter a sprint triathlon, a shorter, faster format involving a 750m swim, a 20km bike leg and a 5km run. In her debut race, she finished as runner-up. She then entered another triathlon and finished third. “I thought, ‘I might actually be alright at this!’” Having previously fallen out of love with running, due to her recurrent injuries, Elaina found that she could take part in triathlons without getting injured. “So, I signed up for an Ironman, thinking ‘well, why not?’”

Elaina finished the race in 4th position, which qualified her to represent Great Britain in her age group. Her dream to compete for her country would come true in 2023 at the World Championships in Ibiza and the European Championships in Menen (Belgium).

Elaina during the bike leg of the 2023 World Championships in Ibiza, her debut representing GB

Inspiring the next generation

Elaina sees many parallels between being an athlete and a teacher. “In triathlon I am an individual, but also part of a group that is very supportive of each other. At training and when we compete, there is great camaraderie and the nature of the sport is very sociable.”

Similarly, the Dolphin School is a close-knit community that works together and encourages one another.

“Training to this level, whilst working in a very busy job, can be really hard at times. I have to be honest with my team and tell then when I’m tired or feeling a bit down after a disappointing race or training, but they are always so supportive. In 2022, when I was doing the Ironman, the backing from the school was amazing. They even had a live feed going so the pupils could track my performance. And I have been fortunate to be supported by the Venturers Trust with sponsorship and time to compete.”

She recognises that her success has been facilitated by the team around her, especially her family. “I am so lucky to have such amazing people in my life. They are there when I need picking up, take time out of their busy days to drive me to training and races in the pouring rain and they are the best cheerleaders.”

Competing in triathlons has taught Elaina to analyse her performance and respond accordingly: “In Ibiza I came 9th in my age group, which was really frustrating. It was the first time I represented my country and at the end of the race I ended up in the medical tent suffering and feeling really disappointed. It reminded me that I have a lot more to learn before the next event.” With her coach, she focuses on the positive lessons of a race. “We talk about three things that went well and three things that we’re going to work on. Identifying the successes is important, but so is understanding how and where we can improve.”

At school, however, Elaina cannot dwell on an unsatisfactory lesson. “If things don’t go to plan in the classroom, I have to bounce back quickly because, as a teacher, I perform day-in, day-out.” This is a skill that she likes to instil in her pupils. “Recognising the positives is key, as it’s a vital part of supporting the children to bring out the best in them.”

“My biggest goal is to execute what I’m doing – whether that is my teaching or a triathlon – to a level that I’m proud of. If I know that I’ve trained well and tried my hardest, I’ll be happy. I aim to teach my pupils to have a similar goal.”

In August, Elaina competed at the European Championships in Menen, where she finished 5th in her age group. Not only was she proud of how she performed in the race but, by finishing 3rd in the Great Britain team, she also achieved automatic selection for the European Championships in 2024.

“Always chase that dream because it is so worth it when you finally achieve it.” Elaina nears the finish line in Ibiza

Chasing dreams

In September Elaina was invited to speak to Year 13 students from Collegiate School, Merchants’ Academy and Montpelier High School. She told the students her story, from being a 15-year-old cross-country hopeful, to a triathlete proudly wearing the Great Britain kit, and encouraged them to never give up chasing their dreams: “Sometimes that dream will feel impossible, and the dream may change a little, but always chase it because it is so worth it when you finally achieve it.”

She does not shy away from what she has had to do to achieve her triathlon success. “A big race is months and months of training, alongside a full-time job. It can be overwhelming at times, but this is something I love: to compete at a high standard and to teach and inspire the next generation.”

Elaina admits she is always motivated by a challenge. A few weeks after her successful race in Belgium, she competed in a standard distance race (1.5km swim; 40km bike; 10km run), a shorter and faster triathlon in which she had never really trained. Another successful performance qualified Elaina to represent her country in the 2024 World Championships in that format too.

So, what other goals does she have?

As maths lead at the Dolphin School, she oversees the learning strategies for the subject across the whole school. “In the future I’d like to be the maths lead for all the schools in the Trust. So I have started to think about how can I get there; what is going well and what can I improve. It will take time and require small steps, just like a triathlon.”

As she finished her speech to the Year 13 students, Elaina urged them to think about their own challenges to pursue, whether in life, work or sport: “You’re never too old to put on a bit of lycra and chase a new personal best!”