Nicola Biani’s fitness journey started in Grade 1 as she lined up for her very first 2km cross-country race. All she wanted to do was make her step-dad Carl proud. As the gun sounded, she sprinted off, tripping in the process. She got up and kept going, finishing second. It was a moment that was to define her attitude in the years ahead. The following morning Carl woke Nicola up at 4.30am – and the next morning, and the next, and the next and the next. So began a daily morning ritual of either a 20km road cycle or a 5k run. In the evening they’d go to the gym where Carl taught Nicola how to swim.

A year of intense training passed as Carl helped Nicola with her running, cycling and swimming techniques. At the age of 8, Nicola and her brother entered their first triathlon – 650m swim, 20km ride, 5km run. She entered another triathlon, then another, then at age 9 finished her first 94.7 Cycle Challenge. Then came more school cross-country races, triathlons, cycle races.

At high school, Nicola continued her sport unabated. Swimming, hockey, touch rugby, indoor hockey, cross country. At 16, she took part in a triathlon that took her 6 hours to complete. She’d just finished her first Half Ironman – a huge, huge achievement.

It was after a casual game of volleyball that Nicola first began experiencing headaches and dizziness. The headaches became worse and she began to sleep more and more. Her head wanted to explode. She entered the Spar 10k Women’s Race but stopped at the halfway mark. Dizziness, impaired vision, confusion, intense pain. Sleep. Vomitting. Doctor. Diagnosis – Encephalitis. Then she lost the sight in her right eye. Neurologist. Diagnosis – tumour in her Pituitary Gland. The tumour was leaning on her optic nerve, causing her eye-sight to erode. It was time for surgery. But Nicola stayed positive because in her mind she now didn’t have to go to school or write exams! Huge bonus!

Surgery day arrived, the op went well, ICU was all good. The physio arrived and told Nicola she was there to help her learn to walk again. Nicola laughed at her. ‘I’m an athlete’ she said. ‘I’ll show you how to run, not just walk’ she said, before getting out of bed and promptly falling over. Two weeks later, Nicola was walking again and back home. But not for long. Three days later she was back in hospital as her body rejected food and water. All sorted – back home Nicola went. Then she started complaining that her nose smelt – like a dead dog. Off to the ENT. Back for more surgery. Septum removed this time. Who needs a Septum anyway right? All sorted.

A few months passed and Carl suggested Nicola should try another Half Ironman to show this whole tumour thing that it would never beat her. It worked. She had beaten it psychologically.

Then Carl came up with the challenge of all challenges! ‘Nicola’ he said. ‘Let’s do the full Ironman – together. This race will change your life.’ The big day arrived. As Carl and Nicola stood ready at the start, the oldest male in the field was announced. Then the youngest female to ever compete in the race was announced. It’s Nicola! The canon blew. 1200 athletes took to the water. Nicola was blown away, swimming alongside Carl – her hero, her inspiration. At the end of the swim leg, Carl stopped Nicola and told her to look around, to touch the sand, to take a moment to reflect. She did. She’s never forgotten that moment. A 180km cycle and 42km marathon later, with Carl egging her on during those deep, dark moments as she wanted to give up and throw it all in, Nicola crossed the finish line. It was dark. Night. The crowd was cheering. She looked at her watch – 14 hours, 20 minutes. She looked at Carl. ‘Nicola,’ he said. ‘YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!’ She burst into inconsolable tears as her entire body shook. Nicola was now officially the youngest South African female ever to have completed a full Ironman, finishing an outstanding 3rd place in her age group.

Today, Nicola continues to compete in the Ironman competition as an inspirational icon to everyone with whom she comes into contact. In 2016 she placed 4th in both the Port Elizabeth Ironman and Challenge ROTH Ironman in Germany. And she’s not stopping until she achieves the first place position. ‘My biggest inspiration, without any shadow of a doubt is my stepdad. Carl woke me up every morning, trained me, sharpened me mentally and emotionally, persevered with me; believed in me,’ says Nicola. ‘He’s the strongest man I know, he’s my hero, I will forever look up to him and I love him so much.’

Finally, a photo on Nicola’s Instagram feed reads: ‘Second place is good. First place is better. But not giving up is everything.’ We’d have to agree. You can follow Nicola on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/nicolabiani13/