Digging deep with Siri Lindley

A look at the autobiography of a champion triathlete and coach who rose from deep insecurity and doubt to realize her dreams in sport and life.

In a pro triathlon career from 1996 through 2002, Siri Lindley won the 2001 ITU Olympic distance World Championship gold, 11 ITU World Cup victories and two ITU World Cup series titles.

As a triathlon coach beginning in 2003, Lindley surpassed her record as a competitor. In 2004 she guided Susan Williams to bronze and Loretta Harrop (in the final eight months before the race) to silver at the Athens Olympics. Lindley coached Mirinda Carfrae to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2007 and wins at the Ironman World Championship in 2010, 2013 (a women’s course record) and 2014. She also coached Leanda Cave to a unique double - the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and Ironman World Championship titles in 2012. Lindley athletes – also including Yvonne Van Vlerken, Jodie Swallow, Mary Beth Ellis, Rebekah Keat, Amanda Stevens and Ellie Salthouse - won 43 other half-Iron distance races and 11 non-championship Ironman events.

But, as her autobiography Surfacing: From the Depths of Self-Doubt to Winning Big & Living Fearlessly makes clear, résumé highlights are not the story. It’s about how she arrived at these peaks and what drove her. This book chronicles her personal journey from an insecure and unhappy child who lashed out against the loneliness of her life after her parents’ divorce and the alienation she felt at mother’s subsequent marriage to mega-celebrity and NFL Hall of Famer Frank Gifford. And it chronicles her long struggle to follow her dreams in sport and to find and accept her true sexual identity.

Lindley’s writes about her family’s turmoil and an escape into team sports in high school and college that led up to her post-college discovery of her bliss, triathlon, at age 25.

Lindley certainly had the motor. She had a strong family background in sports. Her uncle Royce was a 1964 U.S. Olympic gold medalist in eight man crew. Her father Peter Lindley was a star baseball, football and hockey player at Yale. Her mother Astrid was an energetic aerobics teacher with a hunger for skiing, swimming, cycling and running. And Siri was a sports-mad tomboy who played baseball, ice hockey and field hockey. And, at Brown University, Lindley was a star lacrosse player who just missed making the national team after graduation.

Stunned and depressed, she reignited her passion for sport a few years later when a friend invited Lindley to watch her do a local triathlon. Lindley was entranced. Thanks to a series of kindly mentors and the unwavering support of her mother Astrid, Lindley progressed from a comically inept beginner to a national contender. Getting serious about triathlon, Lindley worked with Boulder, Colorado local coach, Yoli Casas, and then moved to work with internationally recognized Jack Ralston of New Zealand. After rising to 3rd in the ITU World Cup series in 1999, Lindley became obsessed with making the 2000 U.S. women’s Olympic triathlon team but was shattered when her self-induced pressure and misbegotten notion to prepare for the Olympic trials in isolation led to failure.

While her physical potential was clear, her biggest foe was a debilitating lack of self-confidence and a fear of failure.

Right after she missed the final qualifying spot for U.S. women’s Olympic Triathlon team at Dallas, she got an email from Australian Loretta Harrop, who became Lindley’s fiercely loyal best friend, training partner, altruistic competitive rival, confidant and supporter. When Lindley crashed out of the 1999 ITU World Championship, Harrop won the World title that day. In the Southern hemisphere summer that followed, they met on the Australian Grand Prix circuit and hit it off. After her Olympic disappointment Loretta emailed Siri with encouragement and invited her to train with her controversial coach Brett Sutton and their squad in Switzerland.

Sutton was and is famous as a molder of women triathlon world champions. His initial impression is as an old school drill sergeant and his methods are tough love. Through nights of tears after killer workouts which were carefully calibrated to bring her to the brink – but not over - of quitting, Lindley blossomed. In a few months Lindley won her first World Cup at Lausanne. On that day she beat Brigitte McMahon, Michellie Jones and Magali Messmer, who would fill the Olympic podium a month later while Lindley, a U.S. alternate, sat on the sidelines wondering what might have been.

While Sutton designed the workouts that sculpted Lindley’s speed and endurance, the key to unlocking her greatness was his work on her mind. Case study: Sutton’s sometimes scathing and decidedly non-PC critiques to get her to lose weight (Describing her ample rear end as “rabbits in a sack” and telling her squad mates to watch out when she jumped in the pool because they would be hit by a tsunami) stung. Lindley came to realize that Sutton’s daunting regimen and tough talk served a purpose. She wrote: “He helped me let go of some of the self-defeating tendencies that were holding me back. He taught me I needed to get out of my own way to be the best athlete – and person – I could be.”

Beyond the hard training, Lindley’s parallel quest to become her own person provided the fuel to surmount her limitations and win the 2001 ITU World Championship in Edmonton.

But just getting to the start line, Lindley fought another battle. In the lead up to Edmonton, Lindley won a World Cup in France despite tearing her plantar fascia stepping on a rock at the swim exit. But to qualify for Worlds, she had to compete at the USA Triathlon nationals in Shreveport the next weekend. After fighting through pain on the swim and the bike, her foot was unable to support her weight on the run and Lindley fell and did not finish. After recuperation, Lindley won the final World Cup before Edmonton, solidifying her number two ranking. Just before Edmonton, Lindley learned that the USA Triathlon officials would not nominate her for a start because she did not fulfill their qualifying criteria with a finish at Shreveport. Fortunately, the ITU let Lindley in.

After a second straight year at Number 1, she closed out 2002 with a dispiriting failure to repeat her World Championship title at Cancun.

By then, Lindley found the strength of purpose to follow her instincts. Against advice from Sutton and expectations that her best days were ahead of her, she retired from competition to reinvent herself. Filled with gratitude to all her mentors who helped her fulfill her dream, Lindley decided to pay it forward as a coach. While she included principles she learned from Ralston and Sutton, Lindley created something unique and more powerful by alloying those lessons with her natural positivity which she experienced with Yoli Casas and Harrop.

“I accept that [Sutton’s] unsparing critiques were intended to get my attention and that ultimately he was trying to help me – and he did,” she wrote. “But as a coach I know there is a better way.”

Underlining her resolve to stay on her new path, Lindley wrote that she was flattered but declined an offer from Sutton to coach her if she would come out of retirement for the 2008 Olympics. It was couched in some flattery: “I have no doubt that now you can fail and not be in fear of it. Then it is totally achievable.”

Sutton saw Lindley rise to become one of the sport’s great coaches and eventually tipped his cap to Lindley’s hybrid approach: “While Siri may gush ‘you’re awesome’ a lot more than her previous coach, it’s a cover for one of the deepest thinkers in our sport with an intellect equal to anyone in it.”

Given that this book was intended and carefully crafted to be Lindley’s own personal story rather than case studies on coaching strategies, she felt duty bound not to reveal the inside details of some of her athletes’ victories. Foremost of these reasons for this discretion is the high wire act she has to walk when coaching several stars at once. She feels rightly that her role is as a kind of priest who owes a vow of secrecy to the athlete.

For example, this reader is left wanting to know more how Lindley groomed Susan Williams to take advantage of her dominant cycling skills on the brutal hill on the bike leg at the final U.S. Olympic Trials and at the steep grade at the Athens Olympic course where Williams earned bronze. We are left to accept on faith that Lindley’s many collaborations were filled with insights and strategies but the curtain on those remains closed.

Lindley ultimately realized that her greatest triumph was finally, after years of battling social pressures, her original people-pleasing inclination and fears of ostracism, her decision to fully embrace her identity as a gay woman.

Throughout this book, Lindley recounts how she was wracked with fear and uncertainty about her gradual realization that she was gay. This battle with expectations began early. Lindley told of a teen boyfriend, a meeting with a television soap star she adored that Gifford arranged only to be crushed when the actor patted her on the back and said “Nice to meet you, son.” While finding affinity with several women athletes, coaches and fellow employees at her first jobs who were gay, Lindley tried hard to fit in with the heterosexual expectation. Her first sexual encounter was with much older baseball star, a friend of her stepfather. Her second time was with a college boyfriend who treated her with consideration. A third was a nice swim coach in Boulder to whom she was briefly engaged before she broke it off. No spark with all three.

When Lindley got the courage to come out to her mother, she found absolute acceptance. Not so with her father. Afraid that Harrop might reject her if she came out, Harrop responded like a champion: “I know you’re gay Siri and I don’t care. But seriously it’s pretty shitty that you’re just talking to be about it now. I’m supposed to be your best friend.” When Siri worried that people might think she and Harrop were more than friends if they discovered she was gay, Harrop “couldn’t care less” and said, “They’ll just have to get a grip.’”

In a chapter called “Gratitude,” Lindley bid farewell to her fearful self which ended with her 2015 marriage to fellow triathlete Rebekah Keat: “Dismantling my fears, while building up self-belief, allowed me to achieve great things in triathlon. But world titles – earned as either an athlete or a coach – are not what defines me. Not until I was married did I feel whole. The ability to love and be loved through a singular bond is not something I was ever certain I’d have in my life and it satisfies my soul like nothing else. My relationship is deeply meaningful not just because of the extraordinary gifts it affords me every moment of the day. But also because it is the ultimate reward after a long, zig-zagging, and wearisome road to true self-acceptance. It is the reward that trumps all awards.”

Surfacing: From the Depths of Self-Doubt to Winning Big & Living Fearlessly
By Siri Lindley with Julia Beeson Polloreno
224 pages Velo Press. Boulder, Colorado USA $24.95