Updated: Aug 17
Bella Bayliss is a superstar of the highest order. She is one of the legends who is humble and hard.
"I know I can be special, I just know it!"
These are the words said to me with a tinge of desperation, a drop of defeatism, a speck of disillusionment , a crack in the voice, all the while with an expression of hope.
This very different young woman had me feeling sad, that up to now she just hadn't found what she could be special at but her common sense was now starting to eat away her confidence that she one day could be special at something. Why different? that's easy; I was looking at a straight pink hair cut that spiked up out of her head ,rather unusual clothes scheme her little ankle tattoo and the most open truthful set of eyes you could look into.
The next time we meet for a real get serious talk, the young lady had transformed into a bright aqua blue head of hair, and as we ran along the shores of lac valley d Joux, me trying to get a fix on what I could do to help this young lass, the sweat had started to do its job and blue streaks were now down the side of the face , along her back as she was trying to impress me by dropping me on the run, the vivid colors reminds me of the movie Avatar, but she was still no nonsense didn't give a shit, this is me and like it or lump it.
You would be forgiven into thinking you were looking at a female William Wallace with the blue hair dye running down her face now,as she uttered the words that so effected me.
So much has changed and so little has changed about the girl from the Scottish highlands, watching the refined young mother, all grown up playing with her son in the pool,, watching her now give advice to her coaching pupils, but let me tell you Bella Comerford now Bella Bayliss, is still the same girl , still has the same value , still the same no nonsense attitude to life, but as the curtain comes down on her career , the girl that described herself as 'I cant swim, I don't bike that good either, I'm not a natural runner, but I can hurt more than most ' will be leaving the racing scene, knowing she made herself special, very special.
This is her story, it's as amazing as it is true, as its a tale not many of us can relate to but all should know why Bella Bayliss made herself special. Bella is an enigma in triathlon because of her simple yet complex personality. Not many if any triathletes around the world know of her as a person or as a great athlete. Blowing ones own trumpet, is not one of Bella's strengths.
I talk to most recent squad athletes it becomes so apparent they know so little about Bella. Comments like "oh 'she is so disciplined, no nonsense and no fun girl" have me wanting to show the tri world that one of their unsung heroes was anything but 'no fun'.
The stories over the years I could tell, nobody does long eyelashes, 9 inch pumps and sparkles better than a young Bella, just as, seeing her standing outside a hospital, bashing on the door wearing nothing more than underwear as she valiantly tried and did save a team mate who was taken very very ill at 3am in the morning.
Or watching Bella fall off the bike on the first lap of a long course race in Ibiza ,and then ride 80km in one gear till the finish and with blood everywhere, set out on the run, and what does she ask the coach on arriving in bike transition?
"How far am I down on the leader? Do you think I can run her down?"
That day it was no easy catch, the leader was a very young Emma Snowsill, and Bella did do the unthinkable, ran her down to take the win! Yes a modern day William Wallace, blood caked over her face, a little smile and a shake of the head as she mumbled "that was a tough day coach", as she was lead away to the ambulance.
So many stories of fun, courage and honor. How many after getting a podium podium would refuse the organizers request to shake hands with a confessed drug cheat, but rather gave a lecture that, we should shun not appease, we should stand up to such unacceptable behaviour. Did the boos bother her? It must of hurt, but as with most things Bella was right in her stand and dam the consequences.
Then there is the kindness. At present Bella is training an athlete who she races and has managed to train her to beat herself. Did this phase her? When I asked should I find her another coach? Bella answered
'coach, I'm proud to train her to beat me, that is my job. You taught me that, to give 100% nothing less .'
Well readers, I never had to teach her that at all, it was and still is her best quality. Everything is done to 100% with Bella Comerford nee Bayliss, it comes with the package.
Here is the beginnings told by Bella and I fill in the rest as she too modest to 'blow her own horn' I'll do that, as she deserves people to know the real champ, I've had the privilege to know and work with over 13yrs.
The doc - where did you grow up Bella ?
Bella I grew up between 1 and 6 in a very remote part of Scotland called Corgaff , we had 4 pupils in our school, it was very close to Scotland's one ski area at Lecht in the Scottish Highlands. The house we lived in had no electricity, my Mum told me it was so cold there we at times had frost on the inside of our windows in our little home.
From there we moved to Aberdeenshire, this was less remote, the local school had 14 pupils. Best way to describe it, still a pretty cold place. Dad had bought some acres and decided to live off the land while he built our home himself. During this time we lived in a caravan on the property. Still quite young, I can remember going to an outside toilet but I must admit I just didn't know any better; no water out of the taps didn't seem a real bother to me or my family. It took a few years for Dad to fiish our home and it was not till later in life that I was made aware how different my kid years were.
doc what was your first introduction to sport ? Bella Well, to be honest, I was horse mad as a child. My dad decided he wanted to plow our paddocks old school and thought it would be cool to get a horse to pull a hand plow. He bought a horse, that was soon seen as completely mental, after Dad broke it in to the plow, every now and then he would put me up on top, and I sat on the neck as dad plowed with her. It wasn't long till I was able to sit on her by myself but being such a handful, she would take off with me on. That mad little horse would go for what seemed like hours , and I just loved it! It was like going on a big adventure to me every time we took off.
This lead to my family taking me to pony club. I can still remember our little pony was misbehaving as usual and I was standing out in the wrong way. Then to finish the whole experience, the star pupil was standing next to me and my mental horse kicked her expensive beautiful pony, to finish the whole day .However, I was very lucky that a family either took pity or a liking to me, wanting me to continue and they lent me one of their ponies , and so my horse riding career was underway. I couldn't wait to get to pony club and I started to compete in everything: x-country, over jumps, dressage, I just couldn't get enough. Because we lived in a remote area there was a lot traveling involved.
As I progressed thru the ranks, it became very expensive. We were a normal family and to be one of the top girls you are hindered by the quality of the horse you were riding. You are very limited to how far you can go in the sport if you are not rich or have a rich sponsor. The other options when you love horses is to ride work and looking after race horses or gain your qualifications to teach horse riding at the pony clubs. At 17, I left home to join a full-time training course to be a qualified instructor at the Marc Phillips Glen Eagles Equestrian Center. **** I will break in here , to explain, that Bella may have indeed been special in the horse area if she had the financial means. Many many good riders just don't have the means to fulfil their dreams in this area. Bella, I'm told was a very courageous and talented horsewoman. She became a fully qualified instructor from the most prestigious school in the country . Back to Bella **** The horse period; at around 15 I had a boyfriend who was a great hill run racer. We had this specific type of race in Scotland and he used to take me with him to the races and I got hooked. Then Mum introduced me to the triathlon as it had horse riding and running in it. I taught my self to swim and I was again doing a new sport that had all the elements I was passionate about. This lead to my first triathlon at around age 17, so i now had to learn to ride a bike. When you are working with horses it's a 12 hour day with 1 day a month off. It's a labor of love that's for sure but, now I was frustrated because I had caught the triathlon bug, I needed more time to train, and that was never going to happen while I was working with horses.
Doc - so you wanted to test your self in triathlon? Bella While I loved horses, I just knew there was not time to train and test myself. I just felt that settling into being an instructor was not what I wanted at such a young age. So I took a job at Edinburgh airport as a security agent. Yes I was the lady with the magic wand that annoys every person that gets a red light going thru the scanner. I was chuffed as I thought I was working only 8 hours a day and had the weekends off. Could train before work and after it.
So I threw myself into it with all my usual give it all, by this time I had a triathlon coach, John O'Donovan (you sat next to him at my wedding), he was brilliant for me at this time, gave me direction and confidence I could keep improving.
Doc Yes I did and what a wonderful nigh,, Bella had the knack of finding the right coaches, as I sat next to John he was explaining his last weeks adventure with his wife; they were doing an open sea kayak paddle. 'Nothing to strenuous, about 25 mile depending on the currents,' But they had a little trouble one of the guys they went with, half way through the paddle he gave up (or gave out I would suspect.)
'bit of a current against us but really he should have been fine, me and the Mrs hooked him up and took him back to base.'
'well that ruined a good paddle' I said
'Not at all, we dropped him off and got going again, as it was a beautiful day , water temp was good around 14C. Could have been higher but we were not going to waste the day.'
yes John understand completely, err not! as you get the picture, John was a hard bastard too!
Bella As I improved, I then transferred to Aberdeen airport to terrorize the locals there coming thru the x-ray machines, to be closer to my coach, as triathlon was now taking over my life, every minute was taken up with sleep eat work and train. Again I thought how lucky I was being able to train while working. How difficult it was I never really understood until I look back now. In the winter, it was bitterly cold and because of work I was riding and running early morning and late afternoon. It was always pitch black and freezing. I just got my head down and did it and thought of the weekend when I could train in the light and go racing. It was a special time, but it was tough.
How tough? As I said, only become evident to me when I became a full-time triathlete. Pro squad work in some camps started at 7.30 am, I used to think half the day was gone before we even started. What is this I used to think, these pros have got it easy.
Doc - When I meet you, you were with my old friend Dr Darren Smith. Bella yes Darren had become the national coach of Scotland, and John being the great person he is suggested the next level beckoned for me. We kept in touch and I moved into the Scottish program with Darren where I spent a couple of years traveling and learning more and more about triathlon, and worked towards my ultimate goal or what I thought it would be, to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games.
That was my special. If I could just do that, I was thinking it would be all worth while . I was in awe of Annie Emmerson, who was on your team at the time. I thought she was brilliant and as I couldn't swim that good I did a number of duathlons with her and we hit it off. She was the one that said if you want to give triathlon a real crack, you should talk to Brett , 'he is a great swim coach and has improved me no end' so we first met at a duathlon in Calais in France, and Annie said, 'here is your chance go talk to him". I did and that is where, I met the doc!
**** After meeting Bella, I was intrigued by her forthright attitude in our talk and her obvious desire to be better. It was also a very pertinent moment in triathlon coaching history, as at the time Dr. Darren Smith was trying the shed his sports scientist label to become a real coach. I will be honest, I always had certain reservations of how he would do in the world of fallibility that pro athletes are. We had a talk about Bella and I left with 2 impressions:
that I would work with Bella Comerford with his blessing , but also
he was going to make it as a top coach.
That meeting showed me how far he had come and that his guiding principle is what is best for his athlete. Mixed with his knowledge I could see he had turned his white coat inside out and got about the business of the art of coaching. In subsequent years he not only proved he could coach but went on to be the best Olympic distance coach on the planet.
It was truly a touching moment, to have a man with 3 times my education, 2 times my intelligence say 'mate, you and your way will fit Bella like a glove., Bella and I struggle at times to get on the same wave length. .I think you can help her, relieve some of her frustration. I would not only be fine with it but would advise it as her best option going forward.
That defining moment, the selflessness of a young coach, was the reason for Bella Bayliss becoming special. Our getting to know each other period was rather short. We did some preliminary work and our team was on its way to what was to become a full blown Brazilian adventure in itself! (but that is for another story.) Bella joined her hero Annie ,and we arrived in a small out back town of Sao Carlos, 4 hours and three coffee stops drive from Sao Paulo the capital of Brazil.
The training was as brutal as was our training facilities. I had gone there to start working with a Brazilian partner on a team and social project, so facilities were not our priority. We worked out on a private farm for safety, which had a 2km bike road, an 800m bike loop, we would ride to a 25m pool, with a dirt 400m track. We ran in a cow paddock, yes with cows in it. It was my job to lead the run and scare the cows out of the road. On our long run we would go down the main road and the pollution coming out of the old trucks would suffocate you, all the while Bella just ate it up, trained like some one on a suicide mission.
I suppose in a way she was. Bella had this burning desire to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. Our first dispute was this problem as I saw it , as I didn't see Bella as a short course athlete at all. She being swim challenged was always busting her arse to catch up on the bike , and would finally do it with the main bunch at races about 2 klm from the end of the run race , the front pack long gone , but she would just hurt her way into the middle of the race.
I had told her that what I believe she was special in, was hurting.
Putting up with pain levels that most competitors could not and to use that she would have to consider going long. To stay with me, she would not have to consider but actually go long. Bella has this unique ability to never mince words, never talks behind your back, and if a spoon can do the job, then she will bring a spade to make sure the job gets done properly. Bella if you get the picture, is not frightened to give any one a piece of her mind, especially the coach.
So after my laying down the law, her retort was simple:
I've been working for the last 4 yrs to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth games, it's my dream , it's all I ever wanted. If you can get me to qualify for it , and I do it, I'll do whatever race you want me to, and will leave short course racing for good and try to make it as a long course racer.'
One must be careful of what one says to me, as we said no more about it. The blazing Scot made her point to me, and I got what I wanted, her approval to do what I wanted with her career.
The next part of her story is how the legend was born, I trained her for the Commonwealth Games and she qualified, and went on to fulfill her dream to represent her country. That done with the closing ceremony still playing in her ears, we sat down and she confided that all her savings were gone, with the travel and camps, and racing short course made her no money, so to continue we needed a plan, a financial plan.
Of course I already had a plan, the hardest ironman in the world is held in France about 4 hrs from our base. I had won the race before with another, what can only be described as 'a tough bitch'. She being s , will not be offended me using that term, as she funded her whole career on the back of that win, I was sitting here with another tough bitch, who was in desperate need of money and the race carried the best prize purse in Europe. However it didn't carry the best field because, well, because its a monster, the course from hell!
I think Scott Molina who won the race , best described it, when he was offered $25000 US to defend his title:
'Embrunman makes Kona look like a picnic, I think the race took 5 years off my life, so I wont be back, but it was a moving experience I'll cherish as the hardest day I have ever done in triathlon .'
I think all are getting the picture, this was not a race for the faint-hearted. The bike is actually 188 km with it going up and over the col de Izzard , yes the very same climb done in the tour d France.
Just so you don't think there is only 1 climb and up to the peak is 20 km strait climb of between 8 and 12% in places . The race starts with a 7km climb straight out of the water, and at the 178 km mark, it's more a sick French joke, you come by the bike transition and they send you out for the last 6 klm climb. The run is no better , or more relief, ,as you run from the lake back up to town 4km away, all uphill, 2times.
But the good news is the swim is flat.., but it also has its difficulties as the race starts in pitch black, with competitors following a trail of canoes with candles on the back of them, I kid you not, it's a happening alright, and it happens all day. You might ponder why start so early? Well when Molina won he broke the course record that day and went, wait for it, 10 hours 25 min and change. So you can see mere mortals are out there for a hell of a long time.
So this was the race I decided to test Bella in. It was both a necessity from a financial point of view as well as a pointer to me , if she had what it took , to make a living in ironman racing.
I had Fiona ring the race organizer up on the very same week of the race , we have a habit of that, but I wanted to make sure that Bella was in a good frame of mind for the gruelling event, as we had not a lot of time after the Commonwealth Games short course race to get ready for such a devastating race. He assured me, that while we had no accommodation left and there was none in town as the place is totally booked out, that if Bella was a good as my other girl you shocked us with then if you make the registration before closing, we could have a free entry. That next morning at training, I spoke to Bella and said, I have entered you in a race this weekend' we will leave early the day before the race, and we will treat it as just training, a sort of survival test for you Bella.
While apprehensive, when I explained that the prize pool was so big that if she could come 5th that it would be the biggest check of her career and allow her to do a 3 month camp, in Spain with the proceeds.
Being Bella, the first question 'if I 'survive and finish, will i get 5th?'
I answered of course
'well could I get 3rd? cause that's a lot of money!''
Bella has a unique way of looking at ironman, and it started here in the car on the way to the race. Having worked so many odd jobs at varying pay scales we decided when she was bored of hearing Dire Straits on the way to southern France , how much an hour is it going to pay.
We worked out that this race would take 12 hours, so the winner would take home more than 700 dollars an hour. 'wow not many jobs I wouldn't do if I was paid that' Bella and you get paid to train, it's a bonus.'
With that the mind set was in place, Mr Icanno was going to pay her if she got 5th $200 per hour and if by some miracle I could get 3rd he gonna pay me $400 an hour 'that is crazy coach, why aren't all the girls in ironman here racing?'
'well Bella , you will find that out first hand tomorrow...'
We arrived at registration, I took her for a pizza and an ice cream for the race prep meal washed it down with a bottle of water, then drove the car to literally the swim start, watched the sun go down over the lake, and slept in the car, her in it and me under it, so we could be with out the hassle of trying to drive into town at 4am in the morning through a traffic jam.
The race details are hazy. It seems so long ago, but Bella swam well, got in good position and stayed that way all day. She negotiated the climb and the death defying descent down the Col de Izzard and just got stronger and stronger with every km. We started cutting in to the lead of all the top girls and by half thru the run Bella was still going like a short course train, she hit the wall with a lap to go on the run, but as she was to prove throughout all her career, walls are no barrier to her, she just bears down and goes to war with Mr Pain.
He don't get the better of Bella Comerford, never did, the last 2 hours I still see her struggling fighting the tears and the course, and this course you can see the athletes in many positions and you feel their pain; you are helpless to do anything other than just encourage, that the finish is near.
That day Bella Bayliss showed indeed how special she was. Not fit to do any Ironman but to overcome the sheer hardship of this race to take her first ironman victory at the hardest ironman there is, was just a highlight of my coaching life. She had proved to me, I was right, she was just playing in the wrong race, and the most important happening, she proved to herself she was special, no mortal could have done a better job that day than Bella Comerford. She was so happy and so tired she cried for hours both of happiness and sheer exhaustion.
We collected the laurels but more importantly the check and headed back to camp, both knowing how special a moment in her young life this was. She now, with a full wallet. packed up and came to the Spanish camp with Loretta Harrop, Annie, and a host of champions, but her demeanor in this camp was one of I deserve to be here. It changed her completely, no-one ever doubted Bella in the group again. She had earned her stripes, and the respect of her peers.
As we trained in Spain, and news of her success leaked out. We were astounded to hear some negative statements from areas of no knowledge of Embrun as a supreme test, no understanding of how good my little Scot was, so as we trained away in Spain, again we heard the American reports of not a real Ironman and none of our good USA athletes there.
We were in the middle of a training block and Bella was working really well. I can remember at the time she didn't even have a bike bag with her, again, we both thought and talked between ourselves, 'next year we will show them Bella , they will all believe next year.'
I did a little bit of research and found that we could get a flight to Florida, from Barcelona which wasn't too far from where we were training . I can remember I was with Annie Emerson, Loretta and Bella on a longer run, and I started to wind the girls up and it just got harder, faster and harder faster every km. We had gone well over 16km and Bella knew the other girls had much more pace, and so she went to the front, and just hurt all of us for about 5 more km till the end. It was just pain for pains sake , and I hung on grimly. There was no banter as we cut along the ocean front at the playa, it was one of those days that gets you thinking, and so after a day of reflection on how terrific that effort was I called Bella in and said:
'you know how every body thinks your dead from the hard racing season'
Yes ,was the nod.
'well yesterday, your body told me that far from dead, but you may have improved since Embrunman. Why don't you think about taking some of that money you won and invest it in a plane ticket and go over to Florida and show those yanks Bella Bayliss is the real deal.'
Well after her initial surprise, Bella started to think and said 'I'll check the prize money and tickets but I don't have a bike box and we have to go like in 3 days, it's a bit short of time, and every body telling me I shouldn't do another Ironman till next year.'
I said, 'Bella its your call, I'm just saying, I think you can do a great job there, your training is on fire, the last minute race before ended up the best race of your life, why cant this one be the same?'
The next day, Bella came back and said her mother thought we were both insane and no-one she talked to said it was a good idea, in fact it was crazy and 'will hurt my career before it starts'. 'Is there any better reason to prove 'em all wrong' was my retort and that is the key to Bella Bayliss, ever since I have known her, she has just kept proving everyone wrong.
Next day she arrived with an air ticket, and said 'sod it, lets show 'em I'm special. We need to work out how to pack my bike, I only got a wheel bag.' Within 3 hours, Bella and I were sitting in the lounge room cutting up card board to place around her bike frame and Kellogg Corn Flake packets to put around the the chain rings and derailleur.
The next day, Bella was on her way to the USA, who knows what they thought when they picked her up at the airport and she had a bike frame in a cornflakes packet. To be honest that is the beautiful thing about Bella Bayliss, she wouldn't have give a flying f...... what they thought , she is all substance no fluff that girl.
Bella Bayliss pulled the bike out of that packet and did show them American journalists what all who knew and trained with her already did, she is very special. She annihilated the field in the WTC Florida Ironman, the plucky Scot showed the whole triathlon world she was indeed special .
World long course champion
World duathlon podium
Yes 15 ironman or distance race wins
7 iron distance 2nd place podiums
5 iron distance 3rd place podiums
and over 50 wins and podiums of other professional races during her career
Special does not do her justice. Bella Comerford now Bayliss, and now mother of Charlie ,makes me cry every time I think back over her career, for all the right reasons. The time has now come to make the toughest decision an athlete has to make, and that is when the time is right to move on to new directions.
Bella in typical no fuss fashion has decided the time is right, 'I believe I have been the best I can be, I'm proud of what I have achieved, I look back and I cant really believe it still'.
Bella you need to believe it. It's been an inspirational journey. Well done kid, I have trained many champions but none more special. Through will power, dedication and discipline you proved to not only every one in triathlon, but more important, to yourself that you were indeed very very special.