From a fear of water to the World Championships: Meet Bristol Uni’s incredible Ironwoman

Megan Hamill, who competed in the Ironman World Championships this summer, said ‘the whole experience was just a dream’

It’s certainly not a myth that university drastically changes you as a person. While for some, this change may consist of living life cripplingly and permanently hungover, for others, the experience transforms them into an individual they could have only dreamed of.

In Megan Hamill’s case it’s undoubtedly the latter, as the 23-year-old, who graduated from Bristol this summer, used her time at the university to overcome childhood struggles, develop a tenacious mindset, and achieve the incredible status of an Ironman.

As if that wasn’t enough, this summer Megan, who only last year was scared of water and too afraid to get into the deep end of a swimming pool, competed in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. The Bristol Tab sat down with Megan to discuss her amazing achievement and to find out how her time at Bristol prepared her to take on this gruelling challenge.

Megan, who was once scared of swimming, now has to swim in the sea when she competes in an Ironman Triathlon

Growing up, Megan, originally from Portadown, County Armagh, faced countless challenges. Aged only 11, her dad had a severe accident, leaving him with lifelong injuries, and then three years later she learnt her mum had been diagnosed with blood cancer.

Discussing how this affected her, Megan said: “For me, the way I tried to deal with the stress and everything was by trying to be smaller and smaller, and it got to a stage where it was very unhealthy.

“I had a toxic mindset around my body and my food and was basically starving myself… I just didn’t think of myself very nicely, and that lasted right up until I came to uni.”

Whilst cold water swimming and self-help books “helped clear the negative thoughts and feelings,” it was her experience at Bristol, where she studied geography with innovation, that truly helped her to overcome her struggles and transform as an individual. By joining multiple societies, Megan was able to “focus [her] energy on positive things” rather than on her body.

“In fourth year, I really went for it and got into triathlon, and that was sort of like the big click. I realised I never have to go back to caring about how pretty I look or how skinny I am just for the sake of social media or others’ opinions,” said Megan.

She added: “You can’t expect to be a different person at the end [of university] if you come just to get by. You’ll be rewarded for what you do and for what you put in, and it showed for me this year.

“Bristol really was a transformative experience for me. I remember being at my graduation and thinking to myself I am a fully different person now.”

Megan graduated with a degree in geography with innovation

However, being a triathlete wasn’t enough for Megan, who ambitiously set her sights on competing in an Ironman. The daunting race, which is widely considered as the most difficult one-day sporting event in the world, consists of swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and then finally running a marathon.

Most university students face a perennial struggle simply to attend lectures, complete readings and meet deadlines, so how did Megan manage to balance all of that with six days of intense Ironman training per week?

She said: “I am usually one to put things last minute, but with Ironman training, I was forced to actually manage my time a lot better. Once you add more things to your schedule you’re forced to just organise your life a lot more.”

Naturally, the frequency of training meant that Megan was “unable to go out as much,” which “had a strain on [her] friendships”.

In June, a matter of days after finishing her dissertation, Megan flew out to Austria to compete in her first-ever Ironman; however, it didn’t entirely go to plan: “I was about 50km into the cycle and I heard something drop. I couldn’t work out what the noise was, but I kept going. Later in the race, while going downhill at a pretty decent speed, the whole seat literally fell off and I went with it.

“My whole arm was gushing with blood and I was so disorientated.”

Megan’s first ever Ironman didn’t exactly go to plan, but she still managed to finish the race

Megan quickly got back up and “balanced the seat on the bike and rode like that for 50km up hills,” which she says were considerably steeper than the likes of Park Street and St Michael’s Hill.

Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, Megan’s resolute attitude pushed her on to the finish line. It was the day after this gruelling race that she discovered she had qualified for the World Championships in Hawaii, she said: “The emotional rollercoaster of that weekend was just way too much… It was incredible; it was just like a dream.”

The intensity of her training really ramped up after this. With university now over, Megan went back to her hometown in Northern Ireland, where she spent four hours each day in the gym, often wearing her hoodie on the treadmill and bike to try and replicate the humidity of Hawaii.

But, it wasn’t the physical elements of training that Megan found hardest: “I didn’t even consider mental barriers as a factor before training started, but the mental marathons you run in the build-up are just something else.”

Fortunately for Megan, she was surrounded by an army of supporters who spurred her on, she said: “I can’t even begin to describe the support I received. You don’t really realise how special the people in your life are until you do something like this.

“Whenever I would think about giving up I would just think of the people who have supported me to help push me on.”

The long-awaited day finally arrived and on the 14th October Megan competed at the World Championships, in what was only her second-ever Ironman. She finished the race in just over 14 hours, smashing her previous time by nearly an hour and a half!

Months of intense training paid off when Megan crossed the finish line at the Ironman World Championships

Discussing the championships, Megan said: “The experience has just given me so much motivation. The atmosphere was electric and the whole experience was just a dream.”

When asked what she hoped others could learn from her story, Megan said: “Don’t doubt yourself and don’t be afraid to be alone if you know that you are on the right path.”

So, what does the future hold for Megan? Right now, she simply wants to focus on “living life”, but she says her long-term focus is to choose another challenge which will push her further outside of her comfort zone. Whatever Megan’s future has in store she is simply happy to be on “a different trajectory now.”

If you wish to look back at Megan’s incredible journey and support her in her future endeavours, then head over to her Instagram @soulfullyginger

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