Kiwi triathlete Kate McIlroy announced her speedy arrival at the top of her new sport when she finished first in a World Cup event in Hungary two weeks ago, surprising even her closest coaches and mentors.

The former world mountain running champion isn't getting too carried away with her early success though, insisting she still has much to learn about triathlon. But she acknowledges her progress so far is promising.

Her triathlon education continues next month when she starts her first World Champs event on the Gold Coast, but McIlroy's ultimate goal is qualifying for the London Olympics in 2012.

McIlroy was on track to accomplish her lifelong ambition to represent New Zealand at an Olympics last year, but a persistent achilles injury derailed her bid to qualify in the 3000m steeplechase.

The heart-breaking experience is what ultimately led McIlroy to try her hand at triathlon.

You've recently made the switch to triathlon, what prompted the move?

Basically just the frustration of injuries when I was running and I couldn't get any sort of consistency with my training and the injury that I had was holding me back from doing any sort of specific speedwork. I got sick of always having to take time off because I was injured so I decided triathlon might be a bit nicer to my body with a mix of the three sports and it seems to be working at the moment.

You must be thrilled with your early progress in triathlon, have you surprised yourself?

Yeah, definitely. I really didn't expect to get the results that I have for the last few months. I didn't really expect to even get a start in some of the big races that I have, so obviously to get a start and to finish in the top 10 or close to it has definitely surprised me.

What discipline do you need the most work on?

Definitely my swimming. It's definitely my weakest and it's probably in a way the most important discipline. If you have a good swim it sets up the whole race and it means you're not chasing the whole way, so I've had to work really hard on my swimming and it's improved a lot over the last few weeks. I've still got a wee way to go, but it's nice to see that I've actually made a bit of progress this year.

How are you coping with all the underhand tactics some of the athletes use on the swim leg?

Obviously the first 300m of any swim is really physical, everybody likes to get in a good position to get around the first buoy, so there's lots of people trying to push you under the water and pulling you back and trying to swim over you so you've really got to get on your guard. I wasn't really expecting it a few months ago when I went in to my first international race, so since then I've obviously had to watch out and make sure I hold my ground a bit.

What inspired you to embark on a career in sport?

I've been involved with sport ever since I was little, I've run since I was seven and I always had aspirations of going to the Olympics and I think most young kids do. Since I was pretty good at running I thought I'd see where it takes me. It's still a dream of mine to go to the Olympics, I still haven't made it yet so I guess that is what has kept me going all these years.

Describe your job ...

Most of my days are centred around my training. I usually go for my swims first thing in the morning for about an hour and a half. Then I come home, have breakfast and usually a quick power nap. Then I usually get out on my bike, which can take anywhere from an hour and a half to four or five hours depending what's in the programme, and then I do a run straight off the bike. Otherwise I'll come home have lunch and relax for a bit and then I'll go for a run. It's pretty much swim-bike-run every day.

What's the best thing about being a professional athlete?

The best thing is probably not knowing what day of the week it is, you sort of lose track of dates and times, which is actually quite nice. Not being stuck inside all day is also a bonus, I get the freedom of being outdoors. And also chasing summers all around the world is pretty cool.

And the worst thing?

Sometimes you feel like you've been run over by a steamroller when you're in hard training. Just being really, really tired all the time and then having to get up and train again when you're feeling exhausted. And having to head out the door when the weather is awful outside is really not that motivating.

What's the proudest achievement of your sporting life?

The proudest would have to be winning the world mountain running champs, but winning the [triathlon] World Cup round in Hungary two weeks ago was also pretty special.

And what was your worst moment?

Having to withdraw from my European campaign last year, which was hopefully going to lead me on to the Olympics. I had done the qualifying time but my legs just wouldn't let me train, so I couldn't compete. That was definitely my lowest moment.

What's the one career ambition you'd like to realise before you retire?

An Olympic medal, definitely.

If you weren't a professional athlete, what would you be doing?

I'd like to be a high-flying businesswomen. I'd like to own my own business, I don't know what in, but it would be cool.

Who in the world do you most admire and why?

Cathy Freeman is definitely someone I admire. The fact she won an Olympic gold medal when she was under ridiculous amounts of pressure to do so, I really admire that. And also Paula Radcliffe as well, just because she is constantly injured, but she always comes back and produces impressive results.

What's your favourite venue you've raced at?

Probably racing at the stadium at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. It was a pretty amazing experience racing in front of 70,000 people.

Who was your childhood hero?

Despite the fact she has a bit of a sketchy past - I completely idolised Flo Jo [US sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner] when I was growing up. I used to wear the same lycra pants as her, even though I couldn't sprint - I just wished I could.

CV
2009: Made the switch to triathlon, winning her first race in May in the ITU Pan American Cup in Austin, and this month won a World Cup race in Hungary.
2008: Missed out on qualifying for the Beijing Olympics after suffering injury in the lead-up to the Games.
2006: Represented New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games, finishing fifth in the 3000m steeplechase.
2005: Won World Mountain Running champs in Wellington, named New Zealand Sportswomen of the Year at the Halberg Awards.
1997: Named New Zealand Junior Athlete of the Year.