- Doug Williams
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SAN DIEGO -- As a screenwriter and filmmaker, Lesley Paterson would appreciate the story:
A wee, gritty lass from Scotland -- who played rugby with the boys in her youth -- turns her attention toward triathlon and becomes one of the best in Britain as a teen. But after failing to make the Olympic roster and becoming frustrated with her inability to improve, she quits the sport and focuses her attention on her college studies in drama.
Soon, she falls in love, marries and moves to the States with her husband. She pursues a master's degree in theater and lands some small acting roles in independent films, but has to make ends meet by taking a variety of odd jobs.
Then one day, the wee lass, now nearing 30 and long removed from her athletic past, feels the tug of competition and enters a road race. It unlocks the joy she felt in her youth, and she starts training again with a new passion. When she enters an XTERRA off-road triathlon, something clicks. Running and biking on mountain trails feels a bit like running through the Scottish Highlands with her father as a girl. It's as if she's found the sport she was always seeking.
Over the next few years, everything comes together. She becomes the dominant force in off-road triathlon, winning two U.S. and two world championships. The film production company she launches begins to take off. Her coaching business flourishes. And now, at age 33, she's been invited by Scottish Cycling to be a part of its mountain bike program for 2014, which could bring her full circle to the Commonwealth Games in Scotland -- and perhaps the Olympics in 2016. Long after losing her Olympic dreams, she finds them again.
The story, of course, is Paterson's own, but she's far too busy living it to film it. Plus, there are too many scenes left to write.
The queen of off-road triathlon feels blessed to be where she is, but she's convinced even better things are ahead. More races to win, films to be made, parts to be played and doors to open.
"Oh my goodness, yeah," says Paterson. "I feel like I'm at this point where everything is just going to explode, you know? I'm going to get to the Olympics, I'm going to have my own show, I'm going to get an Oscar for my screenplay … "
She laughs at the outrageousness of it all -- the way it sounds when said out loud -- yet is convinced all things are possible. And why not?
At just 5 feet and 100 pounds, Paterson has been a giant force on mountain trails the past three years, the product of a killer training regimen and an upbeat attitude that has turned negatives into positives.
When she won her first XTERRA world championship in 2011, she overcame a recent illness and a punctured tire at the start of the bike. It was true Scottish grit.
"Those were huge things that went on in that race," says Tammy Tabeek, a four-time masters world champion mountain biker and Paterson's good friend. "You're only talking about an Olympic distance. It's not like Ironman distance where you're, 'Hey, I've got plenty of time to turn this around.'
"That goes back again to her mental tenacity. You know at that point in time, probably the average bear would say, kind of basically, 'Screw this, I'm done.' And Lesley at that moment made a decision: 'Well heck, I'm just going to keep trudging on.' She just started to gain momentum and started to pick off people on the bike."
Then on the 10k run, Paterson caught three-time champ Melanie McQuaid and passed her in the final stretch.
Said Tabeek: "It was just phenomenal."
As Paterson sits at a small café attached to a San Diego grocery store, she hardly looks the part of a world champion athlete who has appeared on magazine covers, in films and in music videos. She blends in with the rest of the shoppers on a gray day, wearing a bulky coat, workout shorts and running shoes. Her blond hair is pulled back tight.
It's not until she begins talking about her career that Paterson's energy and drive become as apparent as her Scottish burr.
At her core, Paterson is a grinder who found off-road triathlons by chance. "My first sport was rugby, and so it was about getting dirty and being feisty and the grittiness of it," she says. So when she saw a magazine story on XTERRA a few years ago, it leaped off the page at her.
"I felt the butterflies in my stomach," she recalls. "I thought, I want to give this a go."
In her first XTERRA race in 2008, she wasn't prepared yet finished ninth. By the end of that year, she'd come on to finish fourth in the U.S. championship and 10th in the worlds.
As she committed herself further to the sport, she flourished.
She hooked up with cycling coach Vince Fichera, who transformed her training methods. She began combining high-intensity work with low-intensity/high-resistance workouts that helped her develop muscle mass and pedaling power.
She worked with her husband, UC San Diego professor Simon Marshall -- a cyclist, triathlete and sports psychologist -- on strengthening her mental approach. In the process, she created her own philosophy of training and competing that was based on being positive, enjoying the journey (rather than focusing on results), making the most of bad situations and embracing the beautiful surroundings of races that give her so much more joy than traditional road-course triathlons ever did.
"I think it suits my heart better," she says.
When she finally won her first event, the XTERRA Pacific Championship in May 2011, it was a breakthrough. She followed that with a second-place finish at the U.S. championship, then won her first world title. In 2012, she won the U.S. and world championships; she also won a gold medal at the International Triathlon Union Cross Triathlon World Championships.
This year she won the XTERRA Philippines Championship and the West, Southeast and East series titles before claiming the U.S. championship. Her streak of seven straight victories was finally snapped at the world championship Oct. 27 on Maui, where she finished second to New Zealand's Nicky Samuels.
Paterson says there is no one reason for her dominance in XTERRA. It was a combination of so many things, including the lessons she learned from her failed first triathlon career, the trials she experienced as an actress and her revised mental approach.
One of the things Marshall points to is the "power of psychological momentum." He says his wife, after figuring out the ins and outs of XTERRA over two to three years, was able to create a snowball effect after her first victory.
"It seemed to be a monkey off her back psychologically," he says. "Finally she felt she had the talent and mental fortitude to not give up and quit, and do well. And that kind of bred a winning culture in her head. She started to begin races knowing that she could win them."
Even in finishing second at the recent worlds, Paterson made the most of a tough situation.
She said she felt drained after a long season and realized early that she didn't have her usual energy. But she was determined to persevere. "I got to the start of the bike and I had nothing," she says. "I thought, Aw, this is not going to be fun."
But she finished the bike in fourth place, then willed herself past two runners -- including Flora Duffy in the final 100 meters of the run -- to claim second.
"You know, by running myself into second and essentially having a sprint finish for that was satisfying and positive to an end that wasn't what I wanted it to be," says Paterson. "And that's what I've taken from that. I fought the fight and I know why I came up short, and that's OK."
It was yet another learning experience.
"I go through these cycles," she says. "I grow, I progress, I succeed, I get more and more intense, the pressure starts to come on, something happens, I have a bit of a downfall, I fall off the train, I learn, I grow, which is good. And the good news is that falling off a train was still a second. It wasn't hideous, and I think in the past it could have been hideous."
The actress and filmmaker
Even while she was playing rugby or racing triathlon in Scotland, Paterson was dancing and fascinated by theater. So when she came to the United States, she fed her creative side by earning her master's in theater at San Diego State.
Though she found acting roles in student films and small, independent movies, her career wasn't taking off. So she switched focus, thanks to some advice from her friend Ian Stokell, a writer and triathlete.
"He said, 'You need to write your own work and you need to produce your own work that you can star in,'" recalls Paterson, who says the advice was "way more clever" an idea than depending on someone else to hire her.
She and Stokell formed their own production company, Sliding Down Rainbows Entertainment. They've produced several shorts and the feature film "Something Blue", some documentaries and workout DVDs, and have been in talks with a fledgling TV fitness network to do a show in which Paterson would play a lead role.
Even some doors in Hollywood that would never have opened to her as an actress have opened now, she says, because a couple of producers just happen to be amateur triathletes who admire her success in XTERRA.
But her and Stokell's biggest film project is a remake of the World War I classic "All Quiet on the Western Front." She and Stokell bought the rights to it and spent two years writing the screenplay. They've been marketing it, meeting film executives, directors and actors, and hoping for something to break.
"We've been on this crazy journey," she says.
Paterson says she sometimes feels overwhelmed by training, competing, working on film projects and managing Braveheart Fitness Coaching, her San Diego business with her husband.
But she says one of the things she's learned is that she's happiest and most successful when she's immersed in multiple projects. Her obsessive personality needs the varied stimulations, and they all seem to work in concert.
In fact, she's adopted the principle of "task emotion theory" in acting from her master's thesis to her role as an athlete. Essentially, it's the process in which actors use their nervousness to fuel their work.
"So I started to do that with my sport," she says. "So if you take the quality of nervousness and you say that has a quality of 8 or 9 or 10 out of 10 at any given time, that's essentially an energy that you can fuel that character with. And that character is my racing character."
She becomes Lesley Paterson, driven athlete, and embraces the role.
Paterson's time spent writing, coaching, working on film projects and going to business meetings actually helps her as an athlete, says Marshall, because she doesn't have the time to micromanage her athletic anxieties. It keeps her focused on the big picture.
"Having lots of irons in the fire at one time is the way that she's able to cope with the single-mindedness she needs as an athlete," he says.
Back in June, Paterson entered a U.S. Cup cross-country mountain bike race at Bonelli Park east of Los Angeles. She was essentially an unknown in an event that included a handful of former Olympians and top pros, an off-road triathlete in new waters.
She started from the back of the pack, yet won by 20 seconds over Canadian Olympian Emily Batty. It was that race that caught the eye of Scottish Cycling and revived Paterson's long-dormant hopes of competing in the Olympics.
Tabeek, her friend and an experienced mountain bike competitor, is certain Paterson has what it takes to compete with the best mountain bikers in the world. Tabeek says Paterson's technical ability has improved "100 percent" over the past year, and her ability to "climb like there's no tomorrow" is rare.
What she did at Bonelli Park was a huge statement, says Tabeek.
Though Paterson is by no means walking away from XTERRA, she's going to be diving further into mountain biking over the next couple of years to see what it yields. Just one more thing to add to the future screenplay that even Paterson sometimes has trouble believing.
"In 2002, when I gave the sport up, I had just missed out on selection to the Commonwealth Games for triathlon," says Paterson. "Now it looks like I'm probably going to get to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 for mountain biking. I never would have thought that ever in my wildest dreams. And it's going to be held in Scotland. And the mountain bike course is where my dad grew up. You know, it's just bizarre how these things happen."
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