Anu Francis is one of the world’s top elite para triathletes from Adelaide, currently ranked World number 2. After three months racing in Europe chasing qualification for the 2024 Paralympics, Anu went on to win the Paris Paralympic Test Event. Unbelievably, three years ago Anu couldn’t swim!
Having missed qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics in the sport of rowing by the smallest of margins, Anu talent-transferred into triathlon. Growing up she loved running and was competitive until her early teens, when her degenerative disabilities began to make her fall behind my peers. Not receiving the diagnoses of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Dopa-Responsive Dystonia (a one-in-a-million neurological condition) until her 20s, she barely ran again until she began triathlon, and only taught herself to ride a bike for the first time since childhood in the 6 months prior to her talent-transfer as cross-training for rowing during lockdown. Self admittedly, Anu noted that when she said ‘I couldn’t swim, I mean on day 1 of triathlon training when my coach asked me to swim 25m freestyle to show him where we were starting from, her apologetic smile indicated that they would be starting from the very, very beginning’. At this point, you might be wondering how Anu went from zero swim ability to placing 2nd in a full field at World Championships in just three years.
Anu shares her tips that could help you reach your swimming goals in her Pursuit of Paris – powered by deboer swim tips article.
Find your team
My biggest tip for improving all aspects of your triathlon performance (and enjoyment of the sport!) is to find your team. For me, this has been my coach and club. After around a month of 1:1 coaching in the pool learning how not to sink, my coach invited me along to his club’s swim squad. I truly believe this was the ‘secret’ to my rapid swim progression. The friendly competition of the squad environment made the sessions fly by and kept me motivated and consistent with my training. Before I knew it, I had built up from 500m to 3km sessions and could keep up with athletes who had been swimming for years. Swimming is incredibly technique-focused and is the discipline I found the toughest both physically and mentally, and my progress certainly hasn’t been linear, with technique changes sometimes requiring you to take a step backward to then be able to move two steps forward. Having established a great team around me, I’ve had the confidence to trust in the process and ride out the peaks and troughs, knowing I’m not in it alone. Not only does having a team help you reach your goals faster, it also makes training and racing so much more enjoyable and is a great way to build friendships (with people who are as crazy about triathlon as you!). Becoming a part of my triathlon club has hands down been the best part of my triathlon career, and I can truly say that I wouldn’t be the athlete or the person I am today if it weren’t for them.
Open water swim regularly
We all know that open water swimming is a very different beast to pool swimming, so get out there and practice it as much as possible. Practice siting, turning, drafting, and swimming with and against currents so that come race day you’re comfortable in the water and can handle whatever race day throws at you with less stress. Find a group, or at least a buddy, to swim with. Not only will this make open water swimming safer and more enjoyable, it will also hold you accountable to consistently getting out there and building that form and mental strength, even when the weather makes you want to stay in bed (remember, it may be like that on race day!). My final tip here is to find (and practice in) a wetsuit that not only improves your swim speed and keeps you warm, but that feels comfortable and is quick to get off in T1. There’s no point in having a fast wetsuit if it begins to hinder your swim half way through the race because it’s restricting your shoulders, or if it takes ages to get off in transition. Finding the right wetsuit can be difficult, but once you find the right one it’ll be so worth it (and worth every cent too!). One of the best ways to find the right wetsuit is to speak to other athletes and even ask if you can try their suits. I’m always more than happy for people to try my Fjord 2.0 because it’s been such a game-changer in reducing my swim times and increasing my confidence and enjoyment of open water swimming this season.
Only compare you to you
My first triathlon was at National Championships in 2021, around 4 months after day 1 of swimming. Having only swam 750m once in the pool, my goal for the swim was purely to finish it, which I knew would be a real mental game. Whilst I now stand on the start line knowing that I am indeed capable of swimming 750m, the swim is still my weakest leg. At World Championships in September, I recorded the fastest bike and run times in my classification and finished second, just 22s behind the multiple time world champion, who is a two-time Paralympic medalist and current World #1. What this result doesn’t tell you is that I was second to last out of the water and two minutes behind the swim leader. Instead of comparing myself to that lead swimmer and feeling down about myself, I celebrated my fastest swim to date and all the work my team and I had put into halving that deficit from 4 minutes at the start of last season. Learning to swim is a long-term goal that doesn’t happen overnight, so I’ve been working on shifting my perspective on my swim deficit from a negative to a positive. Instead of being frustrated that I’m not the fastest swimmer, I look back at where I started on day 1, right at the very, very beginning, and am filled with pride at how far I’ve come, and excitement for what’s still to come. Everyone’s journey in triathlon is unique. We all have different starting points, goals, and capacities. The only person you should compare yourself to, is yourself. Come race day, trust that you’ve done the work and are ready. Trust and follow your plan, talk positively to yourself, and make sure to celebrate your progress and achievements throughout.
Anu Francis is an Australian Para Triathlete. She won the Paris Paralympic Test Event and came second at the World Championships in 2023.