This year, Sarah Crowley had a smashing career breakthrough. She won the Ironman Asia-Pacific and European titles, the ITU long distance Worlds, and made the podium in her second crack at Kona. But at age 34, after a long journey, she was no overnight sensation.
Slowtwitch: Tell us about your early days in triathlon.
Sarah Crowley My first triathlon was an Olympic distance in Adelaide at the age of 20 where I won my age group. In 2007, I raced the ITU Olympic distance Age Group World Championship in Hamburg where I had the quickest bike and run splits but took a wrong turn out of T2 which cost me 4 minutes and I finished 4th. From 2008 through 2010, I raced full time and did well in ITU series triathlons and earned enough points to race 2009 ITU World Championship Series races in Yokohama and London. I also ran 1:19:20 at the 2014 Noosa Half Marathon. So I had a very strong run already.
ST: What was your strength? Your weakness?
Sarah: My best 10K is under 34 minutes. So I’ve always had a large engine. But my swim was very poor. I could win a Continental Cup by biking up and running fast. I could stay in touch on a World Cup but never win a World Cup or WTS race. When it came to the highest level my swim was simply not there. I was swimming 20 minutes and everyone was at 18.
ST: Also you suffered some injuries?
Sarah: Early in 2010, I sustained a hip injury that we were struggling to diagnose and repair. So I decided to return to work as an accountant at Deloitte Corporate Finance who allowed me to spend some time away from the sport to get my injury sorted. I continued to get good results until I suffered a plantar injury that affected my Achilles. After surgery in March of 2013, I lost a lot of conditioning and working full time, I spent a lot of time regaining my fitness.
ST: How hard was it to regain your form?
Sarah: I was just trying to do too much. Honestly my coach at the time was an age group coach who didn't know too much about long course. And I got pneumonia. So I put on a bit of weight. Racing part time I was doing OK. Always thirds and fourths. I’m not going to lie. My swimming was thrashing about. [Laughs.]
ST: When did you make a decision to go all in with triathlon?
Sarah: In 2014 and 2015 it got to a point where I won a race in Korea and I got 4th in Malaysian Ironman. I just decided I needed to change or I would not get any further. It was quite frustrating. Finally, I decided to commit to the sport, quit my job and get a proper coach starting in 2016.
ST: How did you contact your coach Cam Watt?
Sarah: I’d always known Cameron when I was racing ITU. We sometimes did open water swims together in Brisbane. When I moved to Brisbane to train at the Queensland Academy, Cameron was around. I could see he is a really good communicator. He really cares. So when I started looking for a coach at the start of 2016 he was on my short list.
ST: Did you know he was affiliated with the Brett Sutton group?
Sarah: That was a huge factor. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of the long course system in Australia. With his history in the sport, I knew Brett was really good. I didn’t actually know when I went to TriSutto that Cam was coaching with them – he had just come from another job to start coaching again. It was very fortuitous. Cam is very good at my weakness – swimming. We spent the last 16 months focusing heavily on improving my swim.
ST: Besides the swim, what did you work on?
Sarah: Cam also adopted the Brett principles. From that I got stronger and lost a lot of weight - gradually - over the last 16 months. You put on a lot of weight in the office because you work late. You train at weird times of the day. Your body is under a lot of stress and you eat a lot. I started with Cam in February 2016 and spent months training. I won a few races and things were going in the right direction. But I still wasn't at all where I am at now.
ST: Tough day at Kona in 2016 - you went to Hawaii for the first time. It might have been a great experience. But 15th in 9:42 was not your target.
Sarah: It was a shame. I thought I was heading in the right direction, but I was unwell. Prior to Kona I did really well at Ironman 70.3 Asia Pacific in Cebu and had the fastest run [1:25:49] in the heat. I won a 70.3 race in Korea the following week. I trained really quite heavily before 70.3 Worlds. I think I ran myself down with too much training. It depressed my immune system and I got pneumonia with all the coughing on the plane and I took 13th.
ST: At what point did Cam Watt say to you, you can do much better?
Sarah: I think after 2016 Kona we went back to Australia and he asked me: Do you want to race to win? We can easily do that. This summer we can go around and make a professional job out of it. Or, do you really want to get up to the top level? In that case, we need to stop racing so often.
ST: Why were you racing so much?
Sarah: Mainly for the adventure. You want to go places and see what you can do. You feel like you want to get noticed. But really people only notice the big races. So at the end of 2016 we went away and did a big swim block at the end of the year in Brisbane. We did that before the 2017 Dubai 70.3 [Crowley finished 3rd].
ST: Was the improvement due to increasing your swim base?
Sarah: It was more changing the swim stroke, locking it in and getting stronger. It just had an incredible impact. I am lucky enough I took on the new stroke and had enough time to dial it in. So I was able to give up the old stroke completely. It's made the biggest difference. Yeah I got stronger. I can get faster running. But the swim has been the key to my improvement.
ST: Your big races occurred mid-season in 2017. What did you learn about your capability?
Sarah: Both big wins - Ironman Asia Pacific and Ironman European Championships - played out very differently. At Cairns I led from the start [with a women’s-best 57:06 swim and women’s-best 4:50:00 bike split and closed with a second-best 3:06:01 run]. I learned I could lead a race and do 9 hours solo. And then at Frankfurt we dropped into the race really late so I wouldn’t feel stressed about being involved in a big race.
ST: You had a lot of ground to cover after the swim to chase down Lucy Charles. She swam 48:29 and you were 7:48 behind.
Sarah: She can swim like a fish. She is bit of a Ledecky of triathlon.
ST: Why did you do so well?
Sarah: Before the race I had no expectations. We went there to race some more girls I hadn’t had a chance to experience. So I could feel comfortable at Kona. So I could say it's not a big deal. I’ve beaten them.
ST: How did you work your way through the field at Frankfurt?
Sarah: I had a strong ride [women’s-best 4:40: 32 split, 4:36 better than Charles]. But it was mostly my run. Lucy didn’t have a bad run. I just ran faster. [Crowley ran 3:05:12 to win. Charles ran 3:13:18, better than her 3:18:36 at Lanzarote but not good enough at Frankfurt.]
ST: You were running Ironman marathons as fast as Daniela Ryf’s first run split at Kona [3:07:00]. Did you feel you could be in contention this year?
Sarah: With my level of my training I think I have advanced since Penticton. [At the ITU long distance worlds in Penticton, Crowley ran 1:55:37 for 30km – five minutes faster than Helle Frederiksen and Heather Wurtele – at a 3:45 per kilometer or 2:39 marathon pace.] Don’t forget in Cairns and Frankfurt I didn't actually have to push my run so much because I had passed everyone. In Penticton, which was 30km not 42km, I got to run fast.
ST: What was it like to be a world class contender at Kona after your three big results?
Sarah: It’s a lot of fun. And it’s a lot better than sitting in an office. I just feel privileged to be at this level. I am so thankful I can reach the potential I always knew I had. It’s been held back by the fact that triathlon has a swim in it.
ST: What did Cam Watt say to you coming into this race?
Sarah: We just wanted to race the way we’ve been training. If you can do that, you are going to have good day. It comes down to a bit of luck and magic and taking advantage of the situation when it arrives.
ST: Has Cam Watt’s squad helped?
Sarah: Yes! I am lucky to have [Cam Watt’s strong swimmer and biker] Josh Amberger training with me. So I know what the standard has to be. I think that will help get there eventually. It is not far off. We just need to get that going a little more. Same with the bike. We know the standards set by Dani and those who have come in the past, like Chrissie.
PRE RACE PRESS CONFERENCE
ST: You raced a lot this year. How much do you have left?
Sarah: In actual fact this year was a little bit less racing. While it probably looks like I’ve had a little more racing. I checked and in previous years I raced up to 20 times. I think this year it was only about 10 races – but three of them were premier events and I had fantastic results. This is my 11th of the year.
ST: One thing you took away from racing Kona last year?
Sarah: I raced in similar locations around the world. But Kona has unique conditions. I think it just really brought out the importance of focus. I learned that things can change quite quickly here.
ST: Were you surprised by your swim?
Sarah: I had my best swim ever and it shocked me. My coach Cam Watt has been saying I had it in me a long time. I was swimming quite well in the pool, I just hadn’t translated it into open water. My swim split was 53:07, 3 seconds ahead of Dani! [4:19 behind Lucy Charles.]. I had quite good bike rides all year and hoped I could ride well today.
ST: How did you process that near-front swim?
Sarah: It shocked me. And I didn’t know the dynamics of the front of the race. I have never been in that situation before. I think I was a little bit unsure of that.
ST: What led to your crash?
Sarah: I fell off just before Kawaihae [40 miles into the bike leg]. I’d just collected a drink and I was drinking it when I came off. Thankfully I had played softball in the past and I instinctively went into a tuck and roll. Luckily I didn't break anything.
ST: How did you recover mentally from the crash?
Sarah: I had to make a split second decision whether I could keep going or not. Annabel [Luxford, who finished 9th] came up on me and called out: “Sarah! Get up!” So I picked up the bike and kept going. It shocked me - I skinned up my elbows and it hurt. Definitely that crash changed everything. After that my first thought was to survive and trying to get back in gear and stay in touch.
Despite the crash, Crowley finished the bike with a women’s third-fastest 4:57:51 split – 4:41 slower than Ryf , 4:25 slower than Heather Jackson and 28 seconds better than Charles. At T2, Ryf had a 47 seconds lead on Charles, 4:38 on Crowley and 5:32 on Jackson.
ST: How did your run start?
Sarah: I was quite slow for the first 3 kilometers or so and that is where Heather [Jackson] passed me and got away. It just highlighted how important it is to focus on your own race.
ST: At 16 miles, you caught Jackson and ran with her into the Energy Lab.
Sarah: We were running together for a while at the Energy Lab. She got a gap when I went to the Porta Potty. At that point, all the work on my confidence paid off. I was thinking ‘I have 10k left!’ rather than ‘Gosh! I still had to run 10k!’
ST: Headed for home on the Queen K you passed Jackson for third. How much confidence did you have that you would protect a podium finish?
Sarah: Thankfully I had practiced the back end of the run in training. That helped me surge away a little bit and hold on.
Despite her crash, Crowley matched Lucy Charles on the bike leg. While Crowley’s best-ever Ironman swim improved 5:48 over her 2016 mark, she still lost 4:19 to Charles. Charles’ 3:08:09 marathon, 5 minutes better than her previous PR, surrendered just 3:23 to Crowley’s 3:05:36 and thus took the silver by 2 minutes.
ST: After your imperfect race, what does the future hold for you?
Sarah: I think I progressed on many levels. And I learned a lot. I think I got 90 percent of the way there. In the future I think I need to be able to unleash the fury that Dani talked about when she decided to risk a surge at the end of the bike. That was quite remarkable.
ST: Besides Cam Watt, who has helped you the most this year?
My husband Michael Crowley took time off from his career as a lawyer to support me and he has made a tremendous difference.
ST: How did you feel about your podium finish?
Sarah: There are signs I am heading in the right direction. My normal fuel strategy didn’t work that well this year. So I could feel better. But when you walk away with third place after all these things went wrong, it was quite remarkable.
ST: Do the corporate jungle and high stakes professional sport have anything in common?
Sarah: Ah this is more painful [chuckles]. But the corporate world is also very cutthroat. To be honest there are a lot of similarities. You have to make choices. At times you have to be selfish. Today I was very selfish after my crash. I had to survive, so I could not take any pulls on the last part of the bike. That is very similar to choices you must make in the corporate world. There are times in both worlds you have to be very selfish.
ST: You have to be mentally strong at Kona. So many things can go wrong. In the blink of an eye, you can make a mistake. Get sick. Crash.
Sarah: It is funny you should say that. When we were coming into the race this morning Cameron said: “You've done all the work. But one punch can knock you out.” When I was lying on the ground after the crash, I was thinking: ‘Oh. I think I just got my one punch. [Chuckles.] But that was not how I expected it.’ Then I thought. ‘No. I’m not out of it. The bike is OK. It is time for me to get up.’