Vinolee Ramalingam - Chennai
3-time Ironman Finisher | Ironman Certified Coach @ Tri Lee Coaching | Unived Ambassador | womenfortri Ambassador
She was body-shamed, abused on social media, had troubling weight and hormonal issues, but that was nothing compared to the support and confidence her family had in her. She’s the first Indian woman to complete three IRONMAN 140.6, first woman from Tamil Nadu to complete Ironman 70.3 World Championship, France, 2019, first Indian woman to qualify twice in a row for Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Completed Ironman Barcelona 2017, Ironman Italy 2018 and Ironman Cairns, Australia 2019. From a college professor to a professional athlete, certified Ironman coach, here is 35-year old Vinolee Ramalingam’s journey.
Hailing from a small town – Thanjavur, her father was always into athletics and in fact, also a national awardee. Unknowingly Vinolee's training for Tri started at an early age. She had a fear of water, and any water body freaked her out. When she was quite young, her father just pushed her into the water and she had no choice but to swim. She started representing the state and nationals in swimming when she was in Grade 3 and basketball, cycling and athletics and won accolades from Grade 8 onward. In 2000, she won her first national gold medal in athletics for 100m and 4x100m relay and one for basketball. She always dreamt of representing India at an international forum. The thought of holding the tri-color gave her goosebumps.
In 2010 she got married, shifted to Chennai and got into a hectic work routine. Life revolved around bus-stops, college and home. To make matters worse, she gained a lot of weight post-pregnancy. Her life was running on auto-pilot. She tried to go to the gym and follow a diet pattern, but everything seemed impossible to follow due to irregular work hours.
In 2016 she came across an event organized by the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). Her husband showed her a picture of the lake for the swim and she was mesmerized by the image. She decided to 'take a plunge' literally and figuratively, after a gap of 15 years! This was her first ever Tri event. She struggled hard to keep herself fit and completed the event with a sense of accomplishment. The event consisted of a 1.9km swim, 90 km cycling and a 21km run. Soon, with the 2016 Full Ironman on her mind, she decided to participate in the Hyderabad Ironman 3/4th race with no clue about the technical aspect of the race and sure enough it was the toughest. She could finish the pool swim of 2.3kms and the bike ride of 130 km easily, but the 32 km run was daunting. Seeing her struggle, the organizers advised me to quit. But the stubborn soul in her wouldn’t quit. She reached the finish line after the cutoff time. This was with hardly any practice and almost negligible body strength. But she was still the only woman to finish the race.
In 2017, she was the only woman participant to finish the 15KM Swimmathon conducted by CTC Chennai. There was a buzz about Triathlon. Vinolee started gathering more information and found it interesting. Taking into consideration her gap from athletics and her weight gain, she decided to participate in the half iron category – swim 1.2 miles (1900 meters), bike for 56 miles (90Kms), and run for 13.1 miles (21Kms). Swimming came easy to her but due to a lack of stamina, she was lagging in running. She didn’t even have a cycle, and wearing a helmet was something new to her.
She made training plans independently and with much reluctance, yet with a firm mind, she finished Ironman 140.6 organized by CTC Chennai in 2016 and 2017. She led the swimming course, but missed being a podium finisher as running was her weakest sport. For a moment, she was disheartened. She has always believed that the podium is not life, but it’s a challenge to herself – to chase her life goals. She worked hard for a year, managing strict working hours and also working on her body.
In 2018, she won the International Triathlon Championship in 70.3 Ironman distance in Gujarat. She was progressing slowly but reasonably well. Slowly and steadily, she started to learn more about the races and the terms. Bodyweight and poor running form were still an issue for her. Although the working hours were strenuous, her focus was firm.
The triathlon race in Barcelona caught her attention. She wasn’t sure how to register for an international event. Google came to her rescue. She noted down everything like a sincere student, prepared an excel sheet and jotted all the pointers – the course, elevation, cut off timing, the country’s temperature, and other factors.
The next hurdle was to take necessary permission from the college she was teaching in and plan the trip’s budget. Her friend Ashwin briefed her about the racecourse, and she was petrified to know about the elevation. She had just four months to prepare, and she was not ready to fail. Four months went by in a jiffy, and she was all set for her first ever international race. She reached Barcelona three days before the event. It was her first trip outside India, and she was anxious to say the least. Once she assembled the bike, she went for a trial and faced two punctures. Although she knew how to mend the punctures, it took her 30 mins. She mentally prepared herself to hurry up because she would lose time in the race in case of such a mishap.
On the bib collection day, the officials informed her that a wet suit was compulsory for the race. She wasn’t carrying one and so, rented one for the race. The swim trial was challenging in a wetsuit. With a heavy chest, and the wetsuit was suffocating. Her limbs felt stuck and she was breathless. Standing at the shore, she was almost in tears, even though swimming was her strongest sport. She closed her eyes, meditated for a while, and remembered what all she had gone through for this race. She found her heartbeat coming back to normal and went on to complete the swim course in an hour and 20 minutes, and gracefully finished the race in 14 hours and 53 minutes.
There was no stopping from here on. Vinolee went on to complete 3 full Ironman events in Italy in 2018 and in Cairns & Colombo and the half Ironman World Championships in Nice all in 2019.
She attributes her success to the fact that she's from a small town where she learnt humility, felt challenged to make her presence felt in a man's world and her incredibly supportive husband Rakesh who has been her pillar of strength in all her tri endeavors. She sometimes feels guilty of giving less time to her young son, but he truly looks up to her and has started participating in triathlon events himself too.
Vinolee's wonderful story is an inspiration to all women who play many roles - daughter, wife, mother, sister, employee, home maker, but who still need to live for themselves. In our society, this is not easy, but only a woman can achieve what Vinolee has done. Helmets off to all you wonderful women out there!
Vinolee continues to pursue her passion for triathlon, training hard for the Asia Championships Cub and South Asian Championship Nepal in 2021. But beyond being an athlete herself, she is now a qualified Triathlon coach too. You may follow her on her Instagram page through the link below.