Bermuda’s Flora Duffy is the hot name on the tongues of experts heading into next week’s Rio Olympics women’s triathlon. She riffs on the Rio course, her rise this season, quality of life, training groups and her chances at medaling. Photos by Jay Prasuhn
A year or so ago, she was an outlier. A risk-taking cyclist who was often eaten up on the run. At the Bejing Olympic Games, Bermuda’s Flora Duffy was a DNF. In London she finished a dismal 45th… a few spots back of some American named “Jorgensenâ€ in 38th and some Swiss girl named “Ryfâ€ in 40th.
Flora Duffy is pack fill no longer. And certainly not this year. As if a veil had been lifted, Duffy—the reigning XTERRA World Champ and a bike specialist in the mold of the great Craig Walton—swims front back, then at her choosing, takes off on the bike. In the past, some from the bike pack would reel her in on the run. Lately, however, Duffy’s run has improved, increasing her chances of staying away to the finish.
This summer has been a windfall. While she’s come close to victory last year and finished 11th at the Rio test event last August, this year she’s broken through, in stepladder fashion; fourth at WTC Abu Dhabi and Gold Coast. Third at WTS Cape Town. Second at WTS Leeds. Then finally, her first WTS win at Stockholm. She polished that off with a victory this weekend at the ITU’s World Cup stop in Montreal.
If you wanted to write a textbook on how to peak for an apex event like the Olympics, there it is.
So the question becomes not if Duffy can go top 15, or even top 5. It’s become “what color hardware can she bring home for Bermuda?â€
Just days before she departed for her win at Montreal two weekends ago, LAVA chatted with Duffy at her in-season home in Boulder, Colo.
LAVA: First off, let’s look at the Rio course. You raced the trial event last summer there, finishing 11th. How does it suit you, and what did you learn from that race?
Flora Duffy: The course really suits me. It really wasn’t a race; it was a weird race. Obviously Gwen (Jorgensen) needed to win as the U.S. had qualification there, the British had qualification there. For some girls like me, it didn’t matter.
LAVA: Did that affect how you raced it?
Duffy: It did. I usually get out and take charge on the bike, but I just sort of sat in and watched everybody. Because I never get to see where it splits. People always tell me “oh, it was thiiis close to breaking these three people. So I thought I would sit in, sort of float around, track people and see what happens. And it wasn’t even a fast pace and some of the girls suffered on the run.
LAVA: Seems like it was a more of a test of what others could—or would—do. What else did you take away?
Duffy: Some girls are weaker the first few laps if they suffer in the swim, then they start come into their own. So that’s good to know, that if you punch it straight away early and get rid of 10 people immediately. The few you’d want to hang around will be able to hang around, and off you go.
LAVA: You’re know for your bike acumen, and in particular your handling skills. With a 17-percent pitch, run through eight times seems like might provide some opportunities.
Duffy: The course is great. That hill is gonna be really challenging. If it doesn’t play a huge role in the bike, it’ll play a huge role in the run. You can’t go up it spinning. You gotta go up it eight times, so it will fatigue you. And the second little riser hill, you hit that pretty fast and it’s right after the steep hill so you’re kinda not recovered. There’s lots of little areas that can get you.
LAVA: How do you like having the role as underdog, to let the favorites like the Americans take up the media pressure?
Duffy: I think I’m a bit of a darkhorse. At first I thought I was a longshot. I mean, going into this year, I thought that if I could finish top eight at the Olympics, I’d be “wow.â€ I’d be so happy. But as my season has progressed, my expectations have come up. If this works out the way I think it can work out, maybe I can get on the podium. But then, at the back of my mind, I know there’s so many great girls that perhaps make it so a top five is realistic. I’ll still take that underdog, darkhorse label. And I like it; I seem to go into a lot of races like that. I just try to make the race if the race suits my strengths, to not be afraid. If I blow up, I tried to win or get on the podium. If I did that, I can walk away happy, because I’ve done everything I can.
LAVA: Do you feel this year is a wild alignment of the stars? It seems if at any point in a four year span, that these last four or so months have come up roses… and could still be popping up more roses in a few weeks.
Duffy: It’s come as a huge surprise, and I hope I haven’t hit my rise too early! (laughs) When I won at Stockholm, I was like ‘ummm… uh-oh!’ It flowed so well there. I started the season fourth then leading to winning in July… and then to be leading the WTS series, I never thought that was a possibility, and I’ve led it since Cape Town in April. So yeah, I don’t know I got the timing right and what’s clicked, but it’s been many many years of hard work and working the details. And I think being more confident in my racing and my abilities, realizing that if I want to do anything in these races, I have to nail the bike.
And my running’s improved to where I’m confident I can run pretty well off a hard bike. Some days it works, some days it doesn’t. Stockholm it worked great, Leeds I blew up a little. But I’m also learning how hard I can ride. I can go a little crazy. A couple of my training partners joked that I’m a kamakazi. Now I’ve learned I can ride these numbers and I can run solid. Trial and error and enjoying it.
LAVA: Do you think there’s potential for one or two of the other strong cyclists, say a Nicola Spirig—to join you on a flyer?
Duffy: Yes. Definitely. No one has outrun Gwen starting the run with her. So if you want to win the gold or give yourself a good chance of being on the podium, you have to come off the bike at least a minute ahead of her. A lot of big federations have big pressure to win medals. Girls are definitely motivated. I think we say that at Gold Coast with Helen (Jenkins) Andrea (Hewitt) and myself. I’m secretly hoping Nicola swims well. If you look historically, she’s never swum front pack, so we’ve often coordinated against each other because I’m driving the front usually and she’s driving the back, and that’s frustrating for me. The fact that she hasn’t raced is a super wild card, so you have no idea what she’s gonna throw in there. But yes, definitely a possibility for a small group to get away.
LAVA: To what do you account for this rise? Any changes in your training?
Duffy: Neal Henderson is my coach with Apex Coaching is my training group. So I’ve been training with Cam Dye for years and years now. Joe Gambles is in the group now, and we have awesome cyclists with Evelyn Stevens so I get to do a few rides with her desperately trying to hang onto her wheel. We have a couple young ITU people who are eager and excited. It’s a fun, great group.
But I’m also spending six months of the year in South Africa, actually training and living like a professional. Triathlon is first, and social and everything else is second. We’re shutting all that out and focusing on triathlon. My running’s improved working with Ernie Gruhn, a great running coach from there. He has a great group there. Having good training partners helps. Having accountability on myself helps, too. Asking questions why I’m doing this or that and knowing why.
And I guess (boyfriend and former XTERRA pro) Dan (Hugo) helps too. (smiles). He was out on the bike with me today. He’s really supportive in this lifestyle of swim bike run.
LAVA: Dan’s job (global marketing at Specialized) keeps him on an airplane all the time. Does his job and his occasional ability to be at some of the races help, to have a support network?
Duffy: For the most part. For his job he has to be at some of the races. And he’s been able to base in Boulder with me straight through to Rio. So it’s been nice. Most of the races I go to alone. I have a great support network behind the scenes, but when I go to the races I’m by myself.
LAVA: Not that you need any hand-holding…
Duffy: No, it’s not like I need my “crew!â€ (laughs) It’s fine, I’m a big girl! Just to have Dan there, to have someone to talk to, to go to dinner with, things like that it makes it a bit more fun. And it makes me enjoy it more and just more comfortable.
LAVA: Being from a small island country, the support from Bermuda’s triathlon federation has to be every bit as passionate as those from the massively-funded nations… but on a smaller scale.
Duffy: They’re very supportive, as much as they can be. It’s a small place and federation, but I can’t expect as much as with some of the other federations. But then I look at the cons to that and….(smiles) I actually kinda like my little setup.
LAVA: So you don’t have to deal with too much federation politics. And you have your own local Boulder training group, which runs counter to many of the others off in places like Banyoles, or the Wollongong Wizards in Vitoria-Gastiez, or Flagstaff. Do you ever think you’re ever leaving anything on the table by missing out on these new training collectives?
Duffy: We all swim together, lots of swims together and I’ll do Julie Dibens’ group swims, and that’s great because I have a whole new mix of athletes. And it’s Boulder, so there’s millions of triathletes here. We have our own little “crew.â€ We’re not as public as the Wizards or the JFT Crew, but I like it. Here I can have a bit of a life outside triathlete. I go home and I’m not living with my training partners. I hang with Dan and can escape. If was in a training group isolated up in the mountains, I would go crazy. When you quality of life is no good, training and racing is gonna suffer at some point.
LAVA: I know that someone like Gwen has been dealing with an extraordinary amount of media pressure. And that comes with being the favorite. Are you happy to be, for the most part, skirting those responsibilities going into Rio?
Duffy: Definitely. Going into the Olympics as the standout ultimate favorite, I wouldn’t like that. I’m starting to feel the pressure and I’m still an underdog. It would be a hell of a thing to get on that pdoiu,
LAVA: When do you head into Rio?
Duffy: I take off the 14th, get there the 15th. I’ll watch most of the Games on TV.
LAVA: I guess you’re looking at it as a tactical strike…
Duffy: Oh, yeah. Even going five days before, I actually wish I was going four days. With the Olympics, there’s always one or two extra commitments you have. I’m trying to stay low key.
LAVA: What are your post-Games plans? I know the XTERRA side wants you back, but I imagine leading the WTS series has quite a bit of bearing on your plans, too.
Duffy: I didn’t execet to lead it this long. I was always planning on doing Cozumel, but slotted Edmonton in there. I already have five races that count, but if I could bump ’em up, that’d be great. Then I’ll go to Maui for XTERRA Worlds and go for number three. We’ll see. My mountain bike has been a bit hidden this year. I was actually riding it a lot until June, and then Island House Tri then ITU Cross Worlds in November. And then I’m going on holiday.