2012 Hawaii Ironman runner-up Caroline Steffen has always been an athlete of few words, and while she might not express it, the woman teammates call “Xena” enters this season with more fire than ever before. The full-version of this profile, written by Jay Prasuhn, appeared in the April 2013 issue of LAVA Magazine.
The rest of the world’s top Ironwomen have certainly studied Caroline Steffen, hoping to get something—anything—to grasp onto: a weakness, a motivation, something about how she operates with quintessential Swiss precision. They know that the quiet ones are often the most dangerous. But she never gives them much to go on.
A thin smile edges her lips. “The other girls don’t know me that well,” Steffen says. “So maybe it’s a plus for me if I don’t talk too much.”
Only a few years ago, Steffen was an uncut diamond that Sutton was turning over in the sunlight. Like one of Sutton’s former athletes—four-time Kona champ Chrissie Wellington—Steffen was a development project from the ground up.
Sutton discovered her in 2009 at Ironman Switzerland. The event was just one of many on the slate for Sutton as he traveled from the team’s European training base in Leysin, Switzerland, north to Zurich to monitor the progress of some of his athletes during the race.
As he kept tabs on his squad through the day, he noticed a woman who blasted the field on the bike. As she launched fearlessly into the Swiss countryside with the race lead to try to distance herself from eventual race winner and favorite Sybille Matter, Sutton could see that while she was clearly strong, this neophyte would eventually have a tithe to pay on the run. After a 5:05 bike split, he was about to see if he was right.
“She led off the front by a long way on the bike, and I told my athletes, ‘Don’t panic—she’s gonna fall apart,’” Sutton recounts. “Of course, she did fall apart. I was out there on the run course, and here she comes, struggling so badly but courageously. She was crawling along, walking, jogging—but she had the look in her eye of someone looking to win the race.”
On paper, Steffen finished in an unimpressive eighth place. But Sutton saw the raw potential—something visceral, intangible. “It affected me to see someone working so hard. The other girls had passed her early on the run, and 90 out of 100 pros would’ve given up and said, ‘It’s not my day.’ I was surprised to see her still battling away.”
Perhaps Steffen’s stoic shell gave Sutton some off-target feedback when he asked more about her. “I contacted a few people, and they knew she’d been a national-level swimmer and biker and they said, ‘You don’t want to work with her; she’s difficult and hard to get on with: not a team person.’ That was the initial feedback,” Sutton says. “But I’m not frightened by a strong woman.” She was brought on board TeamTBB and immediately gelled with the group.
Steffen found quick success in the span of just two years. In 2010 she won the ITU Long Distance World Championships, the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific title, and then in her Kona pro debut she finished second to Mirinda Carfrae. In 2011 she won Ironman Port Macquarie, Ironman Germany, Challenge Aarhus in Denmark and finished the season by taking fifth in Hawaii.
For Sutton, the fifth-place result was a sophomore vacuum he was intent on ensuring Steffen didn’t fall deeper into. “At the end of 2011—after walking to fifth—I entered her into a race straight away and was on her for six months. I was hard on her and I had to be. I think you see it over the history of racing: the year after a good race, they go terrible with all the expectations, and they’re forever to the scrap heap—never heard from again.”
Steffen concurs. “I really surprised myself with that second place in 2010, and I put too much pressure on myself that year.”
Last season, Sutton’s dogging paid off with an Asia-Pacific Championship at Ironman Melbourne and her second runner-up finish in Kona, this time after a late-race pass by Cave. By Sutton’s estimation, it was a rousing success. “She turned it around magnificently. Hats off to her professionalism,” he says. “She did a lot less press and we focused on the race and she came out firing.”
And that race—specifically Steffen’s performance on the bike—brings about a huge “what if” for Sutton. What would have happened had a few age-group men not inserted themselves within the trio of Steffen, Ellis and Cave at the 80-mile mark of the bike, disrupting their legal pace line? While each of the three received a penalty, it no doubt disrupted pre-arranged plans of attack.
“The way the race was about to go, Caroline was going to kill them,” Sutton says. “Even Mary Beth said, ‘Me and the bird [Cave] said, “When she goes, we’re done.”’ But when [Steffen] went, she got the card.”
After being left on the side of the road for her four-minute stand-down, Steffen went into chase mode. “She made up four minutes in 40 km. Four minutes! That maybe hurt her, too, but it did show you how superior she was on the bike. We were just biding our time. She was going to let fly after the 90 km mark, but because of that penalty, that never happened. She ran second in Kona, but in my mind, she would’ve gotten off the bike with an eight-minute lead. I couldn’t be more proud of her. If that was a failure, that was a magnificent failure.”
And we all saw how it sorted out: Cave and Ellis served penalties at the run transition, and Steffen, legs loaded from her chase, headed into the marathon with two minutes of buffer. With a greatly improved run carrying her forward, she clung to the lead as Cave slowly crept closer and closer. Inside the final two and a half miles of the marathon along the Queen K Highway, Cave passed to assume the lead, relegating Steffen to second at the biggest race of the year. “When I passed her, I felt a bit of guilt,” Cave says. “I was the one who stole her dream.”
Taking second, Steffen smiled for the cameras. Within, she was conflicted. In 2013, there is no chance for complacency; it has been replaced by frustrated anger. “Before the race, I wasn’t nervous at all; I knew I put in all the work, I was healthy and fit and knew I could do it. Then I got this penalty, and I’d never gotten one before in a race and had never been in that situation. I was really down after the race, and I still haven’t watched any coverage.”
“Y’know, a race like that can be a kick in the gut,” Sutton says. “I’m not sure she’s over it or whether she thinks an official cost her the race. That’s my biggest worry: that she hasn’t forgotten it and gotten on with it.”
The plan for 2013 is very much the same as last year, with an early target of Ironman Melbourne and a big training buildup to Kona. But will she be over the memory of last year? “It still hurts, but I’m more motivated than ever; I want to win this race,” she says. “I was close, but close is not good enough. I want to be first. I was really down and I still am a bit, but it definitely doesn’t mean I’m not absolutely committed. I think it just made me more motivated.”
The reigning champ takes her seriously. “I tell you, those last four kilometers of the run were incredibly painful. Caroline really made me work for it,” Cave says about last year. “She’s tough as nails and a true fighter, so her dream is still within reach, maybe this year. I love a real race, and like Chrissie [Wellington], Caroline knows how to deliver.”
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