WE CATCH UP WITH THE ITU WORLD CHAMP TO FIND OUT THE SECRETS OF HER SUCCESS
She’s the big talent from a small island and this year Flora Duffy has proved she fully deserves her place at the centre of the world stage of triathlon. She was crowned both ITU World Triathlon Series champion and ITU Cross Triathlon world champion this year alone and has plenty of other accolades under her belt. Not bad for someone who is yet to turn 30. Here she speaks exclusively to Triathlon Plus about her childhood, her boyfriend and how it feels to be one of the best triathletes in the world.
“I was born and raised in Bermuda. The climate is perfect for triathlon, so although to many it seems strange that triathlon is so popular in Bermuda, it actually makes a lot of sense once you visit the island. Throughout the summer, there are many triathlons, along with running races, bike races and, of course, plenty of swim meets. As I child I did a race nearly every weekend.
I did my first triathlon at the age of seven in Bermuda and was immediately hooked! I joined the local triathlon club, Tri Hedz, and every Saturday morning I woke up early and went to triathlon club. The head coach of the club, Neil de Ste Croix, was my first triathlon coach and he still coaches at Tri Hedz to this day. I was at home last week, and led a Tri Hedz training session. It was really cool to see the passion the kids have for the sport. I might be the only Bermudian racing on the ITU World Triathlon Series circuit but there are plenty of young triathletes in Bermuda.
During the late 90s, when I was a triathlon-mad 10-year-old, Bermuda hosted an ITU World Cup. That was my first exposure to high-level, professional triathlon and the dream was born. I had to do that one day. The best of the best were racing in Bermuda then – Emma Carney, Greg Welch, etc; so it was really cool to watch and be inspired. I can actually remember telling people I wanted to be a world champion one day and 17 years later it happened.
At 16, I decided I really wanted to make this triathlon thing work, so knew I had to get out of Bermuda and expose myself to a bigger pool of fish. I went to Mount Kelly in Tavistock, Devon. The school was recommended to me by none other than Steve Trew. Mount Kelly is known more as a swimming school, but at the time also had a small triathlon club. It was perfect and I loved my time at the school. I owe a big thank you to Robin Brew and Rich Brady for guiding my early days’ racing at an elite junior level.
During my time at Mount Kelly, I qualified for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia. I was 18, had never done a senior elite level race and was still doing my A-levels. It was a daunting entry into the elite level of sport. That was my debut into professional level racing – it was my dream starting to come true. The race was amazing and I loved racing alongside some of the best in the world. I finished eighth, a result I could never have imagined was possible before the race.
Later that year (2006), I did a few ITU World Cups, finishing in the top 10 in a few, and I also finished second at the Junior World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. I kind of blasted on to the scene. I was an 18-year-old from Bermuda finishing in the top 10 at major World Cups; that was just a little uncommon at the time. It was a lot for me to deal with as well: I was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in Bermuda and the triathlon world. I’d just finished high school and, all of a sudden, all the talk was about how to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
A lot happened in the two years between 2006 and 2008. Some good, some really bad and hard to deal with. At 20 I went to the Beijing Olympics. I didn’t finish and
“I remember telling people I wanted to be a world champion one day and 17 years later it happened”
retired from the sport. I moved back to Bermuda, got a job and tried to forget about triathlon, which is just about impossible on an island that small, especially as it was all anyone wanted to ask me about. It was a lot to deal with as a 20-year-old. But, looking back on it now, I am thankful I went through it. It helped me gain a new perspective about the sport and why I do it. It shaped me into the athlete and person I am now.
After a few months of working in Bermuda, I realised I needed to sort myself out. The first step was enrolling at the University of Colorado in Boulder. One of the best decisions I have ever made.
Everything got better once I arrived in Boulder. I started working with Neal Henderson (who is still my coach now) and he slowly but surely got me back into triathlon. Two years after the Beijing Olympics, I did my first one, which happened to be the Des Moines World Cup. I qualified for the London Olympics and started to find my feet again.
Training and Influences
My setup in Boulder is great. It has taken some time but I have managed to create a great team of people around me to help make the dream possible. My training group is a mix of long and short course triathletes and cyclists; a great balance.
One of the biggest, most recent influences on my life and triathlon career is my boyfriend, Dan Hugo. Dan used to race professionally, so understands what’s needed and totally gets the lifestyle. He now has a full-time job, but joins in on some training session when he can. I’m lucky to have him around to bounce ideas off, receive hugs when I need them, and share this journey with. Dan was able to join me at a few WTS races this year, which was a major help. If Dan is not with me, then I travel to races alone as I don’t have the federation support or structure like GB or the USA. In some senses it is hard not to have that federation support, but on the other hand I have the freedom to do what I like, race how I want and not deal with team politics.
Dan was one of the major influences of me racing Xterra as, if I wanted to see Dan, I had to race Xterra! I am simplifying things a little, but I did learn nearly everything I know about off-road racing from Dan. He was one of the best off-road racers during his time, so to have him to learn from was a huge help, and a reason I had success so quickly. To this day, Dan is the only person I pre-ride Xterra courses with. Line selection is so crucial and it helps so much to follow him and learn how to read a course.
Another bonus with Dan is that he is South African, so we spend half of the year in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Stellenbosch is a magical little town. A lot of athletes base themselves there from December to April, so there are always people to train with and the facilities are excellent. Like Boulder, I have a team of people there who I plug into when I arrive every summer. That has been one of the most important changes I have made; creating a complete training environment with a support network and reliable training partners. Solid training partners are key.
Evolution of Racing Style
Last year, 2016, was a dream year for me. I am still not sure how I pulled it off. Maybe countless years of work, attention to detail, racing with confidence, and two
“I needed to figure out how the bike could really make an impact”
amazing training environments. Whatever it was, it worked.
The bike has always been my strength, but recently in women’s ITU racing, the bike portion was just a means to get from swim to run, so I needed to figure out how the bike could really make an impact. The only way to do this was to ride hard, sometimes out of my comfort zone and just make the bike as aggressive as I could. If girls joined, that was great but, if not, I had to have the confidence that I could go solo off the front for 40km or 20km and still run well. I think my ability to push the bike hard (and ride technically well) caught a few people off guard this year, which is why I think I had such success. I’m sure next year will be a little different.
All in all, my goal for the year was to figure out how to get on a WTS podium, and maybe even win a race. I knew I had to put together a great swim/bike combination and learn exactly how hard I could ride to still run well off the bike. It was a big puzzle, with all the pieces there, it just took a few attempts to click all the pieces together.
WTS Leeds was the first time team tactics had severely impacted my race, and I believe cost me the win. But, hey, that’s racing, and team tactics are allowed, even if I don’t like them.
I had a great swim coming out of the water behind super swim and bikers Lucy Hall and Jess Learmonth. I had a quick transition and was off on the bike. I pushed the first few kilometres really hard because I knew Gwen and a few others were close out of the water, too. Jess, Lucy and I managed to ride away and worked really well together during the 14km from the swim into the city centre to begin the circuits. We had 90 seconds on the chase group as we entered the city. I was super excited to hear we had a big gap, however, I was quickly told by the girls that they were not allowed to work with me because of team orders. As you can imagine I was super frustrated hearing that. I had to ride the rest of the 40km on the front. I rode way too hard and came off the bike with nothing left for the run. I finished second, which is still a great result, but had a hard time comprehending what had happened in the race. It was hard to truly enjoy the podium finish. I still, to this day, don’t understand the point of that particular tactic against me.
Fast forward to Cozumel. I find myself in the most unlikely position. I’m leading the series with a chance of winning the overall title but, to do so, I have to finish at least second (assuming that Gwen Jorgensen wins). Gwen came into the final race something like 100 or so points behind me, which was a little too close for comfort. One of the biggest concerns of racing in Cozumel was dealing with the heat and humidity. Thankfully, I grew up in that sort of weather, so it was not a big deal for me. However, I was coming from Boulder, Colorado, so did a bit of sauna heat prep there before leaving.
Before the race, I had an ice vest on, cold towel around my neck and minimised my time in the direct sunlight. I saw a lot of other girls doing big warm ups and sweating so much before the start, which seemed like a mistake to me. My main aim was not to sweat until the race started. The race went exactly to plan and with a few things going my way (like being in a group of three off the front on the bike) I managed to win and secure the overall title, my first ITU World Triathlon Series title. It was a really cool and special moment.
After every Olympic cycle, a couple of the girls decide to stop racing or have children, or focus on long course, so it will be interesting to see who decides to do what. There are a lot of young girls coming up through the ranks which I am sure will impact the racing over the next four years. I still believe that the bike will play a major role in ITU racing between now and Tokyo, so being an all-rounder is important.
The next big goal is Tokyo Olympics 2020. The aim between now and then will be to figure out how I can go into the Games as a strong medal contender. The biggest thing is to keep developing my run. It came a long way this year, and that was mostly thanks to staying injury free, working on my technique and never missing a key session. I owe a lot of my run progression to a running coach that I work with in South Africa, Ernie Gruhn. The hardest part is keeping balance – bringing up my run without sacrificing my bike and swim.
The level of women’s ITU racing is so high at the moment, and I’ve really enjoyed racing alongside everyone this year. One of the most memorable moments was being in a breakaway with Helen [Jenkins] and Andrea [Hewitt] in the Gold Coast race. It was a moment that changed the way of women’s ITU racing, and showed that the bike can and does play a key role in the outcome of races. They are both incredible athletes and I look forward to more moments like that over the next four years.”
“It was a big puzzle, it just took a few attempts to click all the pieces together”