For a 29-year-old mother of 15-month-old Savana Rose, Nikki Butterfield has traveled a long road to her moment of triumph at the prestigious Abu Dhabi International Triathlon last weekend. Starting her athletic life in 1997 as triathlete Nikki Egyed, she won the 2003 Under 23 ITU World Championship and the 2005 Australian long course championship. Nikki switched from ITU to non-drafting in 2005. After racing two Ironmans in 7 weeks, numerous half Ironmans and finally placing 5th at the 2005 ITU long course World Championship, she realized she had over raced and was burned out, injured, and changed course -- most importantly by marrying Bermuda Olympic triathlete Tyler Butterfield.
For the next four years, she became a professional cyclist. In 2006 she won five races and made the podium 15 times in European races. She was left off the Australian World Championship team that year due to “lack of experience.” The next year she made the podium at a World Cup but shortly after she started to experience External Iliac Endofibrosis that plagued her for years. The injury left her riding with less than 50 percent blood flow to her right leg, yet she still finished top 15 at 8 World Cups before her injury was diagnosed and she had corrective surgery in 2008.
Determined to make the Australian cycling team at the Beijing Olympics, she recovered quickly and within 10 weeks after surgery placed 7th at the World Cup in Switzerland. At the final Olympic selection race – the Montreal World Cup, Nikki followed team orders to support her teammate, the defending Olympic champion, who finished 5th. Nikki was a strong 10th. But then selectors told her she didn’t make the Olympic team because they “weren’t sure she had recovered from her surgery” – despite the fact that she had been the only Australian in the final group of every World Cup selection race other than the one she was told to work for her teammate.
Although her results had been Australia’s strongest for the prior two years, and after making the strongest Australian showing at the 2008 World Championships, Nikki was left off the Australian team for the 2009 World Championship. Ultimately tired of losing so many political wars, she took time off to have baby Savana Rose and switched back to triathlon. In a light schedule in 2011, she took 2nd at 5150s in Boulder, Darmstadt, and Klagenfurt and made a big splash with a wicked fast bike split at the $1 million Hy-Vee 5150 event that rocketed her to a big lead at T2 before she faded to 4th on the run.
In a hint of big things to come, she topped her season with a win at Ironman 70.3 Syracuse.
At Abu Dhabi, Butterfield showed she wasn't all about the bike as she outraced the current Ironman 70.3 World Champion and the 2010 Ironman World Championship runner up and the recent 2012 Ironman 70.3 Panama champion as well as the reigning ITU long course world champion. While Butterfield has not thought much about her new exalted status in the triathlon world, she has sharp recollection of the brave and smart tactics she used to take home the Abu Dhabi crown.
Slowtwitch: Nikki you had a 44:43 swim -- almost six minutes back of Jodie Swallow, 3:40 back of Caroline Steffen, Rachel Joyce and Emma Kate-Lidbury, 40 seconds back of Angela Naeth and even with Melissa Rollison. When and how did you break into the lead on the bike?
Nikki Butterfield: Obviously I knew I was going to have a deficit after the swim. I caught up around 125k. Then no one wanted me to move anywhere. And at some point you have to say ‘What’s the point of sitting on the front and killing yourself?’ You have to be adaptable …
ST: So you wanted to work with Melissa to catch up. But you knew you had to build a lead on the bike or her run was likely to take you down.
Nikki: I came out of the swim with Melissa and I knew that she was right there. So straightaway on the bike I wanted to try and gap her. Because I knew she was the fastest runner in the field. But she didn’t let me go. She’s obviously been given really good advice -- not just physically. She is obviously a fantastic athlete. I am not surprised at that. But what is really impressive is her grasp of tactics which she has learned quickly. She has really just fallen into the sport and has found her feet I guess.
ST: So when did you take the lead?
Nikki: It was a bit complicated. Melissa and I basically rode together until we caught up to Angela and Caroline and Rachel Joyce and the last person we caught was Jodie. That group of five [with Swallow dropping back near the end of the ride] rode most of the bike together until 150k. As the race progressed and I realized they weren’t going to let me go, my top priority was making sure that Melissa’s legs were more tired than mine coming off the bike. So I just sat a 15 meters behind her and kept letting her leave gaps to Angela, Jodie, and Caroline. She did that three or four times and I let her do the work to chase back on. You know, there are only so many times you can do that. It takes it out of you. I felt I had a chance of matching anybody else’s run but I knew I didn’t want to have to run shoulder to shoulder with Melissa.
When Melissa left the final gap that was too far for my comfort I attacked past her and jumped across to what I thought was going to be the other three girls. In the meantime Angela had gotten away from Jodie and Caroline. I don’t know how Angela got away, I was behind playing around with Melissa!
Once I got to Jodie and Caroline, I just sat back for a bit and caught my breath again. Then before they noticed I had jumped across from Melissa, I attacked again as hard as I could and worked on jumping across to Angela.
ST: Angela said she made a small break from the group first. But she then waited for you to arrive. “Coming to that turnaround [at 150k] I punched it. I could see Nikki behind me. Then 10k from that I could see her slowly coming up on me. I thought I would catch my breath until she came up on us and we could work together. I said ‘Let’s work.’ But it didn’t quite go in my favor. She blew by me and I just tried to hold on as best I could.”
Nikki: I attacked as though it was a bike race. I didn’t worry about the run. I knew it was then or never. It was my race and if I fell apart on the run so be it. At least I’d given it a go.
ST: On the run, you led by 1:45 at T2. How much pressure was it with Naeth, Rollison and Steffen behind you at the turnarounds?
Nikki: I was doing the math and the way I worked it out [halfway through the run] I had like two and a half minutes on Angela and Caroline and then I had like three minutes on Melissa. I was still a little bit worried about Caroline, but not overly worried. But I was still worried about Melissa even then.
ST: Could you could see Melissa was struggling by then? After the race, she revealed that she had turned her ankle three weeks prior to Abu Dhabi and lost a lot of training fitness coming into this race.
Nikki: It was hard to see because even when she is running super, super fast she has this long loping stride and it is kind of hard to judge how fast she is going. Obviously the further through the run you get, the more you think you can keep it.
ST: When did you know you had enough steam on the run?
Nikki: Until you cross the finish line and you have done the distance of the race, you can’t guarantee anything.
ST: Looked to me Hy-Vee you had an incredible bike that caught everyone’s attention. But this was your big breakthrough. What did this win mean to you?
Nikki: Last year I was training and I wanted to do well. But with Savana being less than a year old, she was my priority and I didn’t want to be leaving her all the time. Not that I want to leave her all the time now. But everyone has to go to work sometime. And to be off work I guess you’d call it part time for a year. Now I am taking it more seriously. It’s not that I’m gone all day. But definitely I go out for a six hour rides quite regularly and that’s a lot more than I was doing last year.
ST: What does this win do for you confidence?
Nikki: It is very different running 20k versus a marathon. So I have a lot of work to do to replicate any kind of performance close to this in an Ironman. In the Ironmans I did back in 2005 – even then I could run 30k really well but then I lost almost an hour in the last 12k. To be honest, I am pretty scared of Ironman right now. It will take a lot of work.
ST: Will you take some time to enjoy this?
Nikki: Maybe a week or two. I have stuff to do to get my green card and I am not going to jump back into training. But I am hoping to do St. Anthony’s and St. Croix in eight weeks time. So there is not really much time to sit around.