Two identical twins. Only one Para-Triathlon World Cup spot.
Overcoming adversity has always been par for the course for Claudy sisters, Chloe and Judith Mac Combe every one of their 24 years. This, however, was different.
Since being diagnosed at birth with a form of albinism which means their vision is restricted to around one third that of a person with 20/20 vision, the siblings have consistently refused to believe their eyesight provided an excuse for any lack of ambition.
Yet only two years after inadvertently discovering para-triathlon as a sport and remarkably qualifying for the ITU Paratriathlon World Cup event in Madeira, here was a hurdle even the determined Co. Derry duo were struggling to clear.
After less than 36 months in the sport, both Chloe and Judith had proven themselves good enough to compete in Portugal but a lack of funding meant only one Triathlon Ireland spot was available and the twins would have to make the decision over who travelled themselves.
For sisters who had barely spent 24 hours apart in 20 years, the news was crushing.
“It helps so much having each other,” explained Chloe, “Even training turns into a competition between us. We’ll be on the treadmill and Judith will turn her pace up a bit and I’ll immediately turn mine up a bit more.
“There’s always that healthy rivalry, we drive each other on, especially because we are twins.
“We have always done everything together. It was very difficult when we found out only one of us could go to the World Cup. In fact it was devastating.”
Devastation, however, would give way to a remarkable World Cup performance that brought Chloe home a superb seventh in the PTVI (Para-Triathlon Visually Impaired) Women’s category. However her memorable display only came about after a magnificently selfless gesture from Judith.
“Judith nominated me to go because her swim time wasn’t as good as mine. I wanted her to come out and support me but she couldn’t. She said it would be too difficult to watch me racing and not be able to race alongside me,” explained Chloe.
“We chatted a lot about it but Judith was adamant. It was a brilliant thing for her to do but hard for us all, our parents included.
“The funding comes through Triathlon Ireland and they simply hadn’t enough money to send two of us. Judith could have potentially paid for herself to go and compete but that would have been a lot of money.
“Judith and I haven’t been separated for more than three or four days in 16 or 17 years so that was unnerving. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do? Who’s going to get my weird jokes?
“We help each other in so many ways but in the end I thought, right, ‘I’ll go and I’ll race for Judith; I’ll race for myself’ and it went well.”
Indeed, Chloe exceeded all expectations in what was her first race outside Ireland, coming home in a time of 01:27:51 for the sprint triathlon which comprises a 750m swim, a 20k bike and 5k run, athletes using a specialised tandem bikes and tethered swimming during the competition.
The event was won by French triathlete Annouck Curzillat in 01:14:04 but the overall experience of international competition has whetted the appetite of the Claudy duo.
“It was my first international race and my first in that sort of heat which was something else,” adds Chloe, “I went out a week before to acclimatise and it was incredible. The atmosphere was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t realise the interest in para-triathlon but the size of the crowd was unbelievable.
“There were people with various disabilities there competing. Anytime we have raced before, it’s always only myself and Judith as visually impaired athletes so it was weird to meet several other competitors who were also visually impaired.
“I’ll admit I didn’t realise the scale of the event before I travelled. At home, you mention para-triathlon and most people don’t even know it’s a thing but in Madeira, everyone knew about it and was interested in it. They knew about tandem bikes and were able to tell me about it .”
World Cup glory is all a far cry from the chance meeting in Dublin back in January 2017 that set Chloe and Judith on a path that both hope might eventually lead them to the Commonwealth Games and beyond.
Having rowed at the Ulster University at Coleraine where they were students, the twins were disappointed when they were unable to continue after graduating and travelled south to a parasport expo hoping to rekindle their interest in rowing.
However a chance meeting with Triathlon Ireland coach, Eamon Tilly, changed everything.
“Rowing was a good sport for us to do because, generally speaking, you don’t need to be able to see as you’re moving backwards.
“We were invited to a Team Ireland Para-Rowing ID Day previously but unfortunately that fell apart.
“When it did, we were left at a bit of a loose end sport wise and we went to that parasport expo in Dublin to see about trying to get the rowing restarted but we bumped into a guy called Eamon who asked us, ‘Can you swim?; then, ‘Can you run and cycle?’
“Five minutes later we’d signed up to attend a training day the following month in Belfast and that was it.”
With the current Triathlon season winding down now, the twins’ next international date isn’t expected until March 2020 when Judith will be the one flying the flag for Claudy though Chloe is hoping increased funding and sponsorship might help the Mac Combe girls emulate Britain’s Brownlee brothers as siblings competing together on the highest stage.
“The World Cup event showed me the potential for para-sport,” adds Chloe, “Until that race I thought ‘If I get somewhere with triathlon, great - if not, I’ll always have my degree.’
“I did the World Cup and now our coaches are talking about the Commonwealth Games and potentially Paris 2024. That would be amazing - a dream.
“Judith was buzzing for me (after the World Cup event) and it gives her something to aim for too. We plan to keep training together and getting into races together but she’ll be out to beat my time next year when she competes internationally.
“If we could get sponsorship or funding, then, yes, it would be brilliant to be able to focus on training full time but finding someone to help do that is not an easy task.
“The Commonwealth Games is the next target and perhaps we could be the next Brownless Brothers,” she laughs, “We already get nicknames like ‘Triathlon Twins’ but there is a lot of work before we start thinking about that!”