By Kent Gray/
Now she works full-time in triathlon, Julia Tilley was never going to struggle to find her next sporting challenge. What the 33-year-old New Zealand beach volleyball rep hadn’t fully anticipated, though, was just how quickly she’d fall for the tri life.

One minute Tilley was signing up for Triathlon Tauranga’s eight-week beginners’ course with an eye to Sunday weeks Gen X/Marra Tinman Triathlon, the next she found herself doing strange things like arranging training around coverage of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.   

“I’ve been a bit captivated by the sport really, watching Kona, learning all the athletes and just being impressed by the level and what they put their body through… it’s pretty insane and very inspiring” Tilley told

Converts have seen this classic rookie behaviour before, if not lived the utterly addictive journey themselves. You sign up for a sprint distance taster and before you know it, you’re feasting on the comradery of like-minded clubmates, scouring YouTube for training tips and secretly wondering if longer distance races are in future. 

“I know,” Tilley said with a laugh when warned what comes next. “I’m like, there is no way I’ll do that [a long-distance race] but apparently that’s how it starts with triathlon… it slowly increases until you think that racing in Hawaii would be a good idea.”

Tilley’s professional involvement in triathlon has followed a similar inspiring progression. To help fund her globe-trotting beach volleyball dreams, she found herself working on the Weet-Bix TRYathlon series in the mid-2010s and that ultimately led to becoming Director of the Fulton Hogan Mount Festival of Multisport. This January’s Festival again features the signature Tauranga Half, hardly the distraction someone trying to ignore the lure of long-distance triathlon needs.

Tilley has at least made peace with her decision to slowly transition away from beach volleyball – for now. Missing Birmingham Commonwealth Games selection earlier this year with Olivia MacDonald admittedly still smarts, especially as it was to Tilley’s former team-mate Shaunna Polley (and Alice Zeimann).

Shaunna Polley and Tilley competed together many years before launching their own Commonwealth Games campaigns.

But she draws comfort from more than a decade on the global circuit which has included international podiums and at home, having her name engraved on the New Zealand Open trophy more than any other player in history.

The green shoots of a high-performance program for the sport, with associated funding, means the pathway for those following in Tilley’s footsteps is now much clearer. That’s both encouraging and why Tilley hasn’t given up on the beach life completely; 33 isn’t considered a dinosaur in beach volleyball after all given the forgiveness of the playing surface.

But other important life events – marriage and a mortgage chief among them recently – mean Tilley has savoured staying put in Mount Maunganui and having a steady income. Being able to immerse herself in the Tauranga tri scene has been an added work-life balance bonus too.

“That was one reason behind it, meeting the local tri community, one side of it was for work, learning about racing and the third one was, I love training and being active and physical and kind of where I am with volleyball, what other things can I get into? It ticks all three boxes for me.

“I’ve really enjoyed it. I love learning and the science behind training and different types of training…triathlon training is nearly the opposite of volleyball training. For volleyball you’re always trying to train to be explosive and powerful whereas starting out for triathlon, you’re doing some slower sessions and trying to keep your heart rate relatively low.”

The November 20 Tinman won’t technically be Tilley’s first triathlon after she signed up for the Marra Sprint Tri “on a whim” – and zero training – four years ago. That said, Tinman, which includes the Tri NZ Suzuki Series New Zealand Standard Distance Championship, will be Tilley’s first race with a specific training block behind her.  

“Try and put all three disciplines together and survive is the main goal,” Tilley said before remembering her high-performance DNA. 

“I’m very competitive by nature so I’ve just got to leave that at the door for this one and just try to pace myself and have fun. I have trouble with the whole pacing myself and not going too hard so I’m just going to try and leave something in the tank for when I get to that mountain run on that base track. Just enjoy myself pretty much.”

It’s what the 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km sprint event at Tinman is all about. There’s plenty of fun to be had in the Have A Go (300m/13km/3km) distance as well and, luckily, still time to sign up for the perfect intro to triathlon HERE. 

Like Tilley, chances are the sport will tick plenty of boxes for others considering the tri life. You don’t have to kick on to longer distances, as difficult as you suspect Tilley will find that prospect.

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