Flora Duffy’s path to glory

After a remarkable 2016, Flora Duffy left no doubt she is one of the greatest short course triathletes on the planet.

While Gwen Jorgensen took the Olympic crown, Duffy won her first WTS event, took the World Triathlon Series season points title, defeated Jorgensen while winning the WTS Grand Final, and won a record-tying 3rd straight XTERRA World Championship. After the Island House Invitational Triathlon three-day stage race, Duffy proved she belonged in Jorgensen's league when she trailed the Olympic champ by just 18 seconds for the overall crown.

With $45,000 payday for a runner-up finish at the Bahamian event, Duffy earned at least $261,000 in prize money for the year in which she won two very different world championships.

Slowtwitch: Julie Dibens won the Ironman 70.3 Worlds and XTERRA Worlds in 2009. Karen Smyers won the 1995 ITU Worlds and Ironman Worlds in the space of a month. How does it feel to be in the company of these great triathletes?

Flora Duffy: I am not sure I am quite in their league… but it is cool to be recognized as one of the few athletes to win multiple (and very different) world titles in one year.

ST: You and Julie Dibens live in Boulder in the summer. Did you talk about it?

Flora: I see Julie quite regularly. I do quite a few of her swim sessions at Rally Sport Athletic Club in Boulder. We had a bit of banter about me potentially tying her record [three XTERRA World titles] before I left for Maui.

ST: When did you realize you were good enough to contend for a podium in WTS racing?

Flora: I don’t think you know until you finish on the podium for the first time! I’d had a really solid and consistent block of training leading into 2015, but still did not think a podium was possible. Thankfully I like to race hard and take a few chances, which landed me my first podium in Abu Dhabi [3rd] and later at Edmonton [2nd]. After that, the confidence comes and it’s easier to repeat.

ST: After those races, how discouraging was your 17th at the 2015 Chicago Grand Final?

Flora: Yes, 17th was disappointing and I was very frustrated because I hadn’t finished outside the top 10 all year and felt like I had failed. I was ranked 6th going into the Grand Final and dropped to 7th overall in the series. After a few days I realized that 7th in the series is awesome and one result doesn’t matter.

ST: Why were you 11th at the 2015 Rio Qualifying event?

Flora: It is hard to say exactly why. I suppose two reasons played a factor: one, I was just coming back after a bad shin injury, and two, it was Olympic selection so a lot of girls were super fit and needed to execute a perfect race to qualify for Rio. I didn’t need to solidify selection, so I was more concerned about the remaining WTS races.

ST: Going into 2016, what discipline needed the most improvement?

Flora: I knew if I ever wanted to win a WTS race, my running needed to continue to improve. The most important thing was to not get injured and have a consistent winter (or summer for me in South Africa) under my belt. While in Stellenbosch, I owe a lot of my progression to Ernie Gruhn who is a top running coach. Our goal was to turn me into a defensive runner - someone who can run a solid run split off a very hard bike.

ST: Tell us about your part in a 3-woman bike breakaway that put 90 seconds on Gwen Jorgensen at Gold Coast WTS?

Flora: That was a game-changing moment for women’s ITU racing, and I am so proud to have been a part of it. Helen [Jenkins], Andrea [Hewitt] and I rode so well together. Never once looked at one another begging someone to come through and pull. Helen ran super well off a very hard bike, won the race and solidified her spot on the GB Olympic team. I was also in good run shape, but I had not tested my run off of a hard, demanding bike ride. It gave me hope that after a few more key sessions my run would be where it needed to be.

ST: While you missed the podium, did it reveal what you needed to beat Jorgensen?

Flora: I think that race opened everyone’s eyes to what is possible if a few girls commit on the bike. It also suggested what could happen at the Olympics if the right trio of girls get together on the bike.

ST: At WTS Cape Town, you and Carolina Routier led the swim by 30 seconds. While you were caught at T2, how much did you have left in the tank for the run?

Flora: Cape Town was the first time I was ranked #1 going into a WTS race. Dan [Hugo] and I discussed different race scenarios the day before the race, including me soloing off the front. I never thought it would happen. But when the opportunity arose, I took it. It was unfortunate to get caught right at the end of the bike. Still, I’d rather risk it and create the race I want, than sit in the pack and follow. I was happy I raced to win and ended up third.

ST: What did you learn from WTS Leeds where you broke away to a 1:34 lead on Jorgensen, then held on for 2nd place?

Flora: I learned a valuable lesson: just because you can ride that hard doesn’t mean you should. I rode way too hard and had nothing left for the run! It was important to go through that - a little trial and error. Leeds was a bit bizarre because the two British girls in the breakaway with me were not allowed to work, leaving me to ride the 40km alone. I had never been in that situation before which is why I rode so hard. I just figured I needed to put as much time between myself and the chase group which contained Gwen. In hindsight, I wish I’d ridden a little smarter which would have left me more for the run.

ST: At 2016 WTS Stockholm you broke out to a 1 minute lead midway through the bike, then ran a 34:28 10k to win by 20 seconds. What did it do for your confidence?

Flora: I was very proud because I took what I learned in Leeds and made sure not to do it again. I rode with confidence and instead of smashing myself on the bike. I rode within myself and really worked the technical areas. As a result I ran pretty well! I’m not sure how I pulled that race off, but it will be one I will never forget!

ST: Prior to the Rio Olympics, Nicola Spirig spoke with you about a bike breakaway. She said you were the only competitor who had the strength to make a gap on Jorgensen. After the race, she was puzzled that you did not join her in a bike breakaway and led the pack to run you down. How do you look at it?

Flora: I would have to disagree with most of that. Nicola briefly suggested that we should work together on the bike. Everyone knew that Nicola needed to distance herself from Gwen on the bike. And if I wanted to medal, I also needed to break away. However, creating that situation at the Olympics is very difficult and takes a bit of luck. To every other strong rider in the front group, we were marked riders. So the only opportunity to get away was on lap one when everyone was on edge after the swim.

Chasing Nicola down was not my intention. Nicola was riding about 25-30 meters in front of us, so I decided to attack the group and bridge up to Nicola hoping she would get on my wheel and we could ride away. But as soon as I made a move the entire front pack reacted because I was a highly marked rider. Everyone forgets that there are a lot of other strong riders in ITU who were ready for the Olympic bike course because we all knew it would be a hard ride.

ST: With a challenging bike course that appeared to be right up your alley, why did you finish 8th?

Flora: I did the best with what I had on the day. It is the Olympics - everyone is 110% and ready for a hard race. Simple as that.

ST: Were you discouraged by Rio?

Flora: At first, but then I remembered that at the start of the year I told myself I would be very happy finishing 6th-10th. I finished 8th so goal achieved.

ST: While you did not work with Spirig at Rio, you needed some help at Cozumel. Tell us about asking top British swimmers Jessica Learmonth and Lucy Hall at the start of the bike leg: “Are you guys working or not? I need to know.”

Flora: After Leeds I wasn’t about to make the same mistake again! I asked them about 2km into the bike if they were allowed to work with me. Thankfully there were no team orders so Lucy and Jess were allowed to race how they wanted. I am very grateful the race played out that way... obviously! It was exactly how I needed the race to unfold to win the WTS series. I never imagined winning the GF too!

ST: Your run at Cozumel was 9 seconds better than Jorgensen! It gave you a 1:17 margin of victory.

Flora: I was surprised to outrun her of course but knew I could run well off of a hard bike. I think the heat and humidity played to my advantage. I grew up in Bermuda after all.

ST: How proud are you of this accomplishment?

Flora: I’m very proud of my race in Cozumel. Not just the outcome but more so the execution. I did exactly what I needed to do when it mattered most, and my performance reflected all the hard work I had put in all year. I was hoping to have that sort of race in Rio, but I am glad I had the perfect day in Cozumel.

ST: Did it prove someone can win it on the bike?

Flora: Yeah, of course! It is not just a runner’s race anymore. It is cool to be one of the main instigators changing the way women’s ITU racing unfolds. I’m not the fastest runner, but I have learned to run well off a hard bike. It doesn’t work out every time but it is worth the risk.

ST: How nuts did your tiny country go over your World Championship?

Flora: Everyone at home was pretty excited. Not only for the World Championships but for Rio, too. Bermuda doesn’t send many athletes to the Olympics so to have someone ranked #1 in the world going into the Games was a big deal. I was at home last week, and I heard there was not a car on the roads during my race on August 20th - everyone was glued to the TV.

Flora: A lot of pressure was off after Cozumel, but I still had to keep focus for Maui, which was hard… really hard. I turned 29 years old 10 days after Cozumel and ate too much and drank too much wine celebrating, and the next day I woke up feeling so terrible. It was a good thing though, because it was the kick in the butt I needed to be healthy again and train.

ST: You had a big margin of victory - 9:59 - so was this XTERRA Maui win your easiest?

Flora: No, definitely not. The mud made the bike so difficult and long! Towards the end of the bike I started to have some mechanical issues, but everyone was because the mud was just that bad. It was an adventure out there, but XTERRA always is.