The unsinkable Flora Duffy

Flora Duffy has been through a lot in her 25 years. The Bermuda native was a running and triathlon star at age 8. Ten years later she finished 8th at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in just her second Olympic distance triathlon. After several top 10 finishes in ITU World Cup competition, she qualified for the 2008 Olympics. But beset with an eating disorder, she fell into a spiral of fatigue, injury and depression and did not finish at Beijing and left the sport. In a remarkable comeback guided by a patient coach, supportive family and encouraging friends at the University of Colorado, she regained her health, her competitive zeal and perspective. Along the way, she rejoined the elite ranks of her sport.

This interview was conducted in two parts – in person with coach Neal Henderson last summer and by email this week.

Slowtwitch: What was it like growing up in Bermuda?

Flora Duffy: Bermuda is probably the coolest place in which to grow up and live. I spent my childhood on the beach. It’s beautiful. You don’t really appreciate that beauty until you leave. I went to boarding school in England and I immediately felt: ‘Get me home!’ I truly fell in love with Bermuda then. England was rain. It was cold. It wasn't by the sea. I just missed my pink sand beaches.

ST: How did you start out as an athlete?

Flora: I was in a swim club and did an Iron Kids triathlon when I was eight. I won my age group and totally fell in love with the sport and joined a local triathlon club, Tri Heads. I had great friends and had a lot of fun. We did triathlon training every Saturday morning. I am still in touch -- Neil de Ste. Croix, the Tri Heads’ coach, came to London to watch me in the Olympics.

ST: Were your parents and siblings athletic?

Flora: My mom Maria is definitely in shape now. We go to the gym together and she looks great! I am a two-time Olympian and I look chubby next to my mom. LAUGHS. My dad Charlie is a pretty good runner. Only recently I learned he has run a sub 3 hour marathon. My youngest brother Campbell is really into sailing. My older brother Joel was always a good runner and swimmer. But he is really good at soccer.

ST: What were your early sports?

Flora: At primary school and middle school cross country meets I would always win. Now there is a lot of news about me in triathlon. But if you ask people in Bermuda even now they will tell you I’m a runner.

ST: And when you were older?

Flora: For four years, I went on athletic scholarship to boarding school at Kelly College in Devon, England -- a tiny little town. I was this little girl from Bermuda and thrust into this posh boarding school. And so it was definitely a huge change and probably the best decision I made. It was a big swimming school – and they also had a little triathlon team. There were four of us and I really developed as a triathlete there.

ST: What was your first big race?

Flora: At age 18 in my last year of high school I qualified for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. So as I graduated, I was leaving to go to the Commonwealth Games in three weeks. My professors wondered, ‘What is going on here?’

ST: Were you surprised?

Flora: The world of triathlon was surprised. This little 18 year old from Bermuda!

ST: Had you raced before?

Flora: That was my second Olympic distance triathlon. I had no international experience. I was thinking: ‘What the heck is going on?’ And at the time, the girls from England, Australia and New Zealand were very strong. It was a huge event and all of a sudden I am racing with Emma Snowsill, whom I idolized.

ST: What were your strengths?

Flora: Definitely at 18 my run was the strong one. My swim was hit or miss. Sometimes front pack, sometimes third pack.

ST: How did that Commonwealth race go?

Flora: Great! I came out of the water with Helen Jenkins and I was thinking: ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ I was this little 18 year old and I was riding with the heroes of the sport. I finished 8th.

ST: Did that change your image of yourself as an athlete?

Flora: That was a huge turning point. Bermuda started to take notice of me. Hmmm. We should probably fund this girl and let her develop as an athlete Later that year, I came 2nd at the ITU junior world championship in Lausanne and I got a couple top 10s at World Cups. Say, who the heck is this girl??

ST: Did you plan to go to University?

Flora: I graduated high school in the spring of 2006 and that Fall I enrolled at my old boarding school in a course for a few of us who wanted to stay on and prepare for University. I worked with a triathlon coach there leading to the Beijing Olympics. He was a good coach but things went bad for me. I was getting ill and injured.

ST: What caused it?

Flora: Well, it was this whole thing.

ST: Please elaborate.

Flora: OK. It’s not too terribly embarrassing. It is quite common actually. I had something very similar to Hollie Avil’s issue with being unhealthy and not eating correctly. It's amazing how fast that can consume you. [Great Britain’s Avil had a spectacular start to her triathlon career. At age 18, she earned two podiums in ITU World Cups, won gold at the ITU Under 23 World Championship, and qualified for the Beijing Olympics. After Beijing she suffered a series of illnesses and injuries and retired from the sport in May at age 22, citing an eating disorder]

ST: Did triathlon make you vulnerable to body image issues?

Flora: It kind of stems from that. In triathlon, they say the slimmer you are the faster you run. And when you are 18 and a female, you think, ‘Sure. Of course!’

ST: Did friends warn that you were on an unhealthy path?

Flora: Tons of people. My swim coach and my triathlon coach made it an issue. Eventually my body decided I don’t want to be this way. It's not healthy and it was totally out of my control. I was just a total mess and --- I quit.

ST: Quit your anorexic ways?

Flora: No. I quit triathlon. I went to Beijing injured and not healthy and my body was on a downward spiral. There was nothing anybody could do. [Duffy did not finish at Beijing]

ST: What did you do next?

Flora: I took time off from sport and worked full time in a shop back in Bermuda. After a time, I decided I didn’t want to be working there forever and needed to finish my schooling and get a degree. I applied to the University of Colorado because I had friends there and I heard great things. When I was accepted, I contacted [coach] Neal Henderson [of the Boulder Center of Sports Medicine] because I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to get back into triathlon. I just didn’t know when.

ST: Before coming to CU, how bad was it?

Flora: I lost 20 pounds. Once you are under the control of it, you are a wreck.

ST: How did you turn it around?

Flora: I just took a whole step back from triathlon. I approached life and exercise in Boulder as a college girl. I was not thinking of performance at all. And so that helped me. I just looked on my experience and realized I had no control over my body. You get disconnected from people. You are totally not yourself. I finally decided, ‘No way! Not doing that again!’ I had good friends and I just went on to be a normal college student. I simply exercised to stay healthy because I didn’t want to get morbidly obese.

ST: Neal, how did Flora approach you?

Neal Henderson: Flora came in January of ‘09. We chatted a bit about being healthy and starting to train a little. I said ‘You don’t need to get up at 5 in the morning to go swim. You don’t even need to run at all. But biking is a really good thing.’

ST: Flora, when did you become comfortable testing your physical limits again?

Flora: I started bike racing and I joined the CU cycling team. It was fun, hard amateur racing and provided the competitive edge I needed. I was thinking ‘Oh, this is fun! I like this!’ In the fall of 2009, it all clicked in place and I wanted to do triathlon again.

ST: Neal, why was cycling Flora’s best re-entry to sport?

Neal: I was using cycling for Flora just as something for her to revive her love of competition. She is an athlete. You don't have many folks who go to the Olympics who aren't competitors. I knew she has suffered some impact damage while running, so cycling was probably the ideal avenue for Flora to rediscover her love of competition -- whether or not she wanted to take triathlon back up.

ST: You were careful not to push?

Neal: We didn’t suggest anything more than cycling until she asked if she could start swimming. I just said if you want to go swimming, there is this group at Rally Sport. They swim these days and you can join them if you want. Later she asked about running a couple days a week. I said ‘Well, OK. Twenty or 30 minutes, just soft surface. Just relax. Keep it easy. I don’t care how fast or slow.’ I saw running as a healthy thing -- to restore bone density. It was one of those things that Flora decided it was time to start doing a little bit more.

ST: Flora, did you fear returning to intense training?

Flora: Not at all. I decided to do it because I loved it. I realized there is more to me than just being the average college student. CHUCKLES

ST: When did your training become serious?

Flora: In the summer of 2010, I raced my first World Cup again. It happened to be Hy-Vee -- a big race with a million dollars on the line. I jumped straight in the deep end. Neal said ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.’

ST: You could have picked an easier race?

Flora: I hadn’t raced in a while and it was kind of a shock to be racing Emma Snowsill, Emma Moffatt, Helen Jenkins and Paula Findlay. I thought, ‘Good grief!’ But it was fine. I had a great swim and I rode with the front group and we put time into the chase group. Then I ran OK and finished 20th. I was so happy -- my first World Cup, my first triathlon -- in two years! I was healthy and enjoying it. That was huge. I thought, ‘Wow! I want to do this again!’

ST: And then?

Flora: I went to ITU Under 23 Worlds. Emma Jackson won, Kirsten Sweetland was second and I got 8th. I had been out so long, I was pleased to crack the top 10.

ST: When you took stock at the end of 2010, what did you think?

Flora: It was a successful year, considering I was building back into it. And there were signs that I had a lot more potential.

ST: Neal was always reserved about encouraging you to train harder?

Flora: Yes. He would totally not lead me on. No way. He was a guide on the side. His position was ‘I will guide you if you want to go there.’

Duffy was consistent in 2011 - taking 8th at the Guadalajara Pan Am Games, a 6th at the Huatulco World Cup, 9th at the Beijing Grand Final, 13th at the Edmonton World Cup, and 1st at the Mazatlan ITU Pan Am Cup.

ST: How did you feel about your 12th place at the 2012 Pan Am Championships last January?

Flora: Terrible! But I got points. That was the main goal.

Neal: She was bummed but I was happy. There was a silver living. It didn’t make her foot worse. And she got points.

Flora: In April I went to Sydney and I had a terrible race there – 48th. But then I raced the Huatulco World Cup, which offered double points, and I won. It is amazing what one really good result can do. To take advantage of Bermuda's Olympic spot, I had to be ranked in the top 55. Which is easier said than done. There are a lot of great girls racing now. At the beginning of the year, I was not in a good position with Olympic points. And I was injured -- I had plantar fasciitis from October all through the winter, which I got from running.

ST: How did you stay fit?

Flora: I rode a lot and tried alternate methods of run training.

Neal: We used some high tech gear where you put this airtight thing around you and it increases the pressure so your gravity resistance drops to 70 percent of your body weight. The impact is less but you can still run fast.

ST: Do you race mainly on emotion? Neal of course is very scientific and cool headed?

Flora: I guess I am more emotion-based. I want to do well, obviously. And I definitely get annoyed if I felt I could have raced better. Do I get frustrated at people who doubt me? Definitely. Last year I was inspired me to prove people wrong. Some people said, ‘Flora can't run. She'll get off the front on the bike, then fall off the back!’ Early in 2012, I won a World Cup in Huatulco and I ran away from the field. Five days later I raced San Diego in the front pack and finished 6th.

ST: San Diego was a high-pressure race for many whose Olympic dreams were on the line.

Flora: San Diego wasn't a make or break race for me because I won the weekend before, which gave me a bit of a cushion in Olympic qualifying points.

ST: How did San Diego go?

Flora: I was swimming well and came out with the front group. As soon as we switched to the bike, I went to the front. I thought, ‘OK, let’s get this thing going.’ I didn’t want those girls in the chase pack to catch us.

ST: You didn’t wait for others to share the work?

Flora: Not at all. We had talent in our group and some of us were motivated. Sarah Haskins came to the front and Laura Bennett was doing some work because they needed top 8 to qualify. Then a few other girls started working and we put time into the big group behind us. I came out of transition 4th.

ST: How did you hold up with very little run training?

Flora: Helen Jenkins took off first, then Erin Densham and Laura. I might have been next. Vicky Holland and Jessica Harrison soon passed me and Sarah Haskins came flying by me trying to catch Laura, but then she blew up. The second lap I re-passed Sarah Haskins and I ended 6th.

ST: Where else did you race before London?

Flora: I raced the Edmonton World Cup [sprint distance] and got third [14 seconds back of winner Lauren Campbell].

ST: How fit were you going into London?

Flora: Training was going really well. San Diego showed that pretty much. My focus was more on the running. But it was hard because I've been getting a couple of niggles here and there which reminded me what it was like not to be able to run for a while and you think, ‘Oh my God!’ But everybody deals with those things. So I kept it in perspective and Neal made sure I was tapered, healthy and ready.

ST: What was the difference approaching the Olympics in London versus your approach to Beijing?

Flora: I had a lot more confidence and belief in myself. Going into Beijing, I was hanging by a thread.

ST: What was wrong?

Flora: My body was totally run down. My body was exhausted, fatigued, out of control. It was telling me, ‘No, I'm not doing triathlon.’

ST: This was more than fatigue?

Flora: I needed rest. And I had a couple injuries — I had an IT band problem and a shin problem. After Beijing, I basically knew I wasn't going to do triathlon any more. Going to London this year was totally different because I was excited to race. I was confident. And I was keen to race after the Olympics.

ST: Are you proud you were able to come back from such a low point?

Flora: Some people were impressed I came back. Many people can’t -- it breaks them. For me it was very satisfying – and a little unbelievable.

ST: Who offered the most support?

Flora: When I moved to Boulder, it has an amazing atmosphere and I met so many great people here. Working with Neal and his great training group made me realize the sport should be fun and enjoyable. Through that, I totally found myself again. I think it helped that I kept a pretty low profile when I moved to Boulder. I was just this girl who went to college and did some bike racing.

ST: With your win at Huatulco, your 6th at San Diego and your 3rd at Edmonton last year, you were competing with the top tier of ITU Olympic distance triathletes. Did you have hopes of a podium at London?

Flora: I think everyone has hopes of finishing on the podium at the Olympics, so yes, I did. Finishing on the podium was a stretch but anything is possible at the Olympics. I was also very focused on finishing in the top 10.

ST: Before your crash behind Emma Moffatt at London, were you in the position you hoped?

Flora: I had a terrible swim, so when I came out of the water in the second pack, I was worried. But when I saw who I was with (Norden, Moffatt, Jenkins), those fears quickly disappeared. At the time of the crash I was in a perfect position at the front of the chase pack (3rd going through the corner) with the intention of staying out of trouble. I felt good and highly motivated to race hard.

ST: Why did so many women crash in that corner?
Flora: The roads were wet, there was oil on the road, and there were a lot of white lines where there was no traction. We could not pre ride that section of the course that morning so none of us knew how slippery it was. Also it is not a technical corner, thus we went through it very fast. So high speed + slippery roads = crashes.

ST: Did you take some pride in fixing your mechanical after the crash and

Flora: Yes, of course. I had been through so much to qualify for the Olympics and to be there in top form. My family and friends were there, so I had to finish for them at the very least. There are also a lot Bermudians who live in London who were scattered all around the course cheering for me. They really kept me going.

ST: How important was it to have your family there in London?

Flora: It was huge. I would have been a wreck without. Having four years of preparation go down the drain in a split second is tough to deal with, so I certainly needed a hug from them once I finished. They have supported my dream of competing at the Olympics and racing professionally since I was a little girl, so it was great they were there to pick me up.

ST: What did your friends at CU and in Boulder say to you?

Flora: I have a great, tight knit training group, and they were all pulling for me to race well. Everyone was there for me when I got back and told me to keep my chin up.

ST: Any lingering disappointment?

Flora: Yeah, there is and I think it will be there for a while. I am quite bitter about the Olympics because of the disappointment I suffered in Beijing and then having to deal with upset again in London. I understand though, that crashing was out of my control and things happen. Good thing I am 25 years old and RIO 2016 is just around the corner (no pun intended). Third time lucky.

ST: How much confidence did you derive from finishing 2nd at the USAT Elite Nationals in Buffalo and 3rd at the Los Angeles Triathlon after the Olympics?

Flora: A lot. After London I didn't train for a few weeks and enjoyed my time in the village and let loose a little bit. I was quite upset about crashing and I didn't want to think about triathlon. Once I got back to Boulder, I found my motivation and managed to get in a few good weeks of training before USAT Elite Nationals and came away with a good result there which reset my season. I also felt great about running 33:32 at the Los Angeles Triathlon. The course may have been a little short, but I was 1 to 3 minutes faster than everyone else.

ST: How has your training gone over the holidays?

Flora: I took 3 weeks off in November and I got a few good weeks in before I went home to Bermuda for Christmas. I had my wisdom teeth out so I had to stop training completely for 4 days and then slowly build back into it. It was kind of nice to have a few days off but it was not nice to be on a liquid diet over Christmas!

ST: Do you plan to race ITU this spring?

Flora: I don't think it is possible to race a full ITU spring while in school. I will do the WTS in San Diego because it is an easy 2 hour flight right after the race. It is my last semester of University and I want to make it a good one. If racing has to take a back seat until May, so be it.

ST: What’s ahead for 2013?

Flora: I am going to do a lot more non-draft Olympic distance races with the main focus on Hy-Vee. I will race a combination of 5150, Rev 3 and ITU races. I want to race more in the US because my sponsors are based here and I think the non-draft format will suit me.

ST: Do you anticipate greater improvement free of a heavy school schedule?

Flora: I hope! My training volume will be the same but I will have time to recover properly when I’m done with school. Last semester some of my days were ridiculous -- going from training to class to training to class. I am looking forward to graduating!