It all started with a bet. “A few colleagues dared me,” Tim Fowler, British national age group triathlete says.
Fowler grew up in the world of equestrian but after sustaining a few big injuries as a young father, riding horses became too much of a risk. Sport naturally faded out of his life and it wasn’t until he was in his mid-40s and overweight that he agreed to a friendly wager that took him to the start line of the Oxford half marathon. Not only did he finish the race but, he smiles, “I actually beat the two people that dared me to it. They were both about half my age so I thought, right, well, I'll show you. I’m not sure they were overly happy because they thought they could easily beat an old man and they didn’t.”
The race relit Fowler’s fire for competition and pretty soon he wasn’t just running, he was cycling and swimming too. “It started with just running. Then I did some pool-based triathlons, got into open water swimming after that, and it has gone on from there.”
Open water swimming was the hardest challenge.
“I've always enjoyed swimming, but not in a sporty sort of way,” he says. “The first time in the lake was a bit daunting. In a pool, you've got 25 meters and then you can stop but in a lake you can't. The first lake that I found to swim in was huge. I looked at it and thought, I'm never going to swim around that.”
“It was quite a big step to go from a pool to a lake. You can't touch the bottom, it’s murky and cold, and then I just thought, right, well I've got to do this. I'll swim to the first buoy and take it from there.”
Just like the half marathon, Fowler took it one step at a time and gradually made his way around the lake and into the world of open water swimming. He laughs about how he couldn’t swim in a straight line back then but being able to see and wear comfortable goggles helped. “I’m not just saying this, THEMAGIC5 goggles are just revolutionary. I always had trouble with goggles. I tried the big ones where you end up suction cupping them to your face and you have those big rings. I’ve tried smaller ones and I’ve just never been able to get them comfortable.”
“I saw THEMAGIC5 and thought it was a gimmick initially,” Fowler admits. “But I did the scan, paid the money, sat back and thought, well, I’ll give it a go. The goggles came back and the first time I put them on, I thought, well, this is just ridiculous! You don’t have to clamp them to your race, they shouldn’t work. There’s no big rubber seal, they shouldn’t work. But from the word ‘go’ they’ve been brilliant.”
Now with years of experience and even a 10km open water event to his name, Fowler is confident swimming in all types of conditions and places.
“I wish more people would take up open water swimming because it's much more enjoyable than pool swimming. It can take you to so many more exciting places. I've swum in the River Thames at home, I've swum in the sea, it’s just enjoyable and as long as you've got a basic competence, you can swim anywhere.”
For Fowler, “anywhere” includes the world stage.
More than being an athlete again, Fowler became the chairman of the prison service triathlon club. Working in the prison service, he learned they had their own national sports association and, as chairman, it allowed him to organize races for other service workers, locally and across the country.
“I started to organize races as a club. We would race against other services—the fire service, police, that sort of thing—and then I became aware of the World Police and Fire Games.”
Since 1985, the biennial event has been held in different cities around the world and brings together 10,000 active and retired law enforcement and service athletes from over 50 counties to compete in 60 different sports.
As luck would have it, the Games were held in Rotterdam that year—a drivable destination—and Fowler and four other club members went to represent Great Britain. “It’s just like a mini Olympics,” Fowler explains. “You’ve got a parade of nations, the venues are in different places, there’s language barriers.” The excitement only urged Fowler on who competed in the cycling time trail, the open water swim, and the triathlon where he took the bronze medal.
Fast forward two years to this year’s iteration of the World Police and Fire Games and Fowler traveled all the way to Canada, not just to race, but to compete.
“I just want to be as good as I can in my age group. As I get older, obviously, I can only be effectively competitive against sort of my age group. I can't beat a 25 year old who’s on top of their game but I want to remain as competitive as I can be within my age group.”
Fowler’s main target was the triathlon and he had his sights set on the top of the podium.
“This year, I did a little bit of research on my fellow competitors,” Fowler says with a smile. “I worked out my main rival was a Czech prison officer. He spoke no English so we tried to communicate through Google Translate on our phones but that didn’t work—but it was a bit of fun.”
“I went into the race with the mindset of not getting over excited and making any mistakes,” he says, noting a few that cost him last time. “I came out in the middle of the swim pack and then cycled myself into the gold medal position. I didn’t go too mad on the bike so I had enough left for the run and I kept first place which I was pleased about.”
From overweight to gold medallist, Fowler won a lot more from that bet with his colleagues than he wagered.
“Now I look back at a 45 year old as a youngster. I’m 58 and still going.”