After spending her first few seasons as a pro triathlete struggling to compete on the ITU circuit, Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby has found her niche at the Ironman distance. She competed in her first Ironman race in Arizona in 2011 and then raced the distance five times in 2012, culminating with a 12th-place finish in her Kona debut. This year she’s had a more conservative race schedule, finishing second at Ironman Los Cabos and third at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, and she’s looking forward to taking on the sport’s biggest challenge with fresh legs.

LAVA: You had a great debut here last year, finishing 12th. How much of a motivation was that going into the off-season and the start of this year?

Michelle Vesterby: I was really motivated after the end of last season. I started off this year very busy, racing Ironman Los Cabos and Abu Dhabi, but I didn’t really take a break after the end of last season. So after Los Cabos I really cut back on the racing and started focusing on my preparation for Kona.

Was last year’s result a surprise or did you come into your first race thinking you could do that well?

MV: I think I expected to be about there. My goal was really to be in the top-15 because that way you get good points for the following year. I knew that doing that would allow me to relax a little more this year and totally focus on Hawaii—and that’s what I’ve been doing.

LAVA: You gave ITU racing a couple of years and then went right to Ironman. Why the decision to race long-course only a few years into your professional career?

Because I’m much too slow at the shorter stuff! I think shorter races are very hard. It’s much more my style to go a steady pace for a long time. I think I get more powerful as the race goes on—especially on the bike—so it really suits me to do the longer stuff.

LAVA: What lessons did you take away from this year’s race that you can apply to your second race here in Kona?

MV: It’s good for me to know the route so I know what to expect and it was good to realize just how hot it is here, but luckily not much went wrong last year. The one thing was that I lost my goggles 300 meters into the swim. I’m definitely not going to let that happen this year! So there are small things like that I know I can do better this year. And also relaxing a bit more leading up to the race. Last year everything was new and I wasn’t used to all the sponsor events and things like that.

LAVA: So what’s the key for you in these last few days before the race when it comes to staying relaxed?

I try to have fun and surround myself with the right people. I like to be around people who give me positive energy and avoid people who don’t. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Rachel Joyce—both in Boulder, where I was before here—and also since we’ve been in Kona. I think we help keep each other calm.

How much has triathlon grown in Denmark since you’ve started racing and what is it about the Danish culture that has made the country really embrace the sport?

MV: It seems like it’s only been in the last few years that Ironman has become a big deal in Denmark. I think having the race in Copenhagen has really helped. Every triathlon now sells out in only a few minutes. That wasn’t normal just a few years ago. Right now it’s really motivating to be a triathlete in Denmark because everyone is paying attention. Ironman is the new marathon in Denmark. I’m sure that’s true in other places around the world too. A few years ago ITU racing was all that mattered. If you wanted to be a good triathlete, you had to try to go to the Olympics. I pushed hard to do well at the European Cup and World Cup races, but I never felt the spirit in my stomach. I could finish fifth at a European Cup race and nobody would notice. After I switched to long-distance races my results got much more attention.

LAVA: You have legends of the sport like Rasmus Henning and Torbjorn Sindballe hailing from Denmark. Have you sought either of them out for advice on this race?

MV: Denmark is a small country so we all know each other. I know them both well and have spent a lot of time talking with Rasmus especially. I think one of the best things has been reading their books. They’re two of the best books on this sport. I read Torbjorn’s before racing here last year. It’s just great to have their support and we have a lot of the same sponsors so we’ve done a lot of events together.

LAVA: It seems like all the big Danish athletes run in ECCO shoes and they’ve been very good when it comes to supporting Danish triathletes. What’s it been like watching this once-little Danish company become a big global brand?

MV: It’s cool to see how that brand has grown. When I was growing up, it was something that only schoolteachers wore. They didn’t make running shoes. Now they’ve become a big running brand and everyone knows their shoes. They’re a great company to work with and they’ve been so good to all the Danish athletes.

LAVA: Speaking of Danish athletes, your teammate Camilla Pedersen was in a horrific accident last month and has made a tremendous recovery. What was your reaction when you first heard about it?

MV: Camilla and I are fierce competitors and we’re also very good friends. We’re so much alike. She’s someone who makes me push myself so much harder and I know I do the same for her. When I heard what happened it was so scary. That was too close. I was in Boulder and I wanted to be there for here but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t want to put something on Facebook or Twitter because that didn’t seem personal enough. I was texting her—even when she was in a coma—I just wanted to do something. It’s so good to hear how well she’s going now and she’s recovering so fast.