There’s more to the tough girl persona than 2012 Kona runner-up and 2013 Challenge Roth champion Caroline Steffen lets on.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Oct. 9, 2010, the night of the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. I step into a ladies’ room near the finish line at the same time that Caroline Steffen, who finished second in the women’s professional field a few hours earlier, steps out. One word immediately fills my mind: Amazon. At 5 feet, 10 inches, Steffen is only two inches taller than me. And she’s far leaner. But behind her sweet and somewhat shy smile, something in her physical presence screams, “badass.” Note to self: Don’t piss her off.
Fast-forward to Kona 2012 and Steffen is closing in on the win, using her powerful body to ride away from the competition and leading for most of the marathon. But in the final miles of the run she is passed by eventual winner Leanda Cave, losing by a little more than a minute–a result she aims to rectify this year.
Steffen’s fit yet formidable physique, along with her undeniable power on the race course, make it easy to understand why she’s earned the nickname “Xena,” a nod to television’s super-heroine “Xena: Warrior Princess,” a bold bombshell hell-bent on battling evil. It’s a badge Steffen wears with honor, the name emblazoned on her race kit just below her shoulders and above her brick-like abdominal wall. But Amazonian strength is only part of her character—the part she stockpiles for competition. Otherwise, she describes herself as “just a normal girl—very emotional, very sensitive. But when I have the chip on my ankle and the gun goes off,” she says, “I’m different. I feel that. It’s like two totally different people.”
Still, there’s no denying that Steffen is a true triathlon warrior, proving her prowess with two second-place finishes in Kona, victories at Ironman Melbourne (2012), Ironman Frankfurt (2011) and Ironman Australia (2011), two ITU Long Distance world titles (2012, 2010) and a slew of Ironman 70.3 wins. And as she continues to toil as the unofficial alpha female of coach Brett Sutton’s notoriously tough Team TBB, using her exceptional bike strength to cut a swath of insecurity in her rivals, she inches ever closer to capturing Kona’s crown.
“Most people that see Caroline race think she must be a bit of a maniac off the course,” says Steffen’s boyfriend of four years, Australia-born fellow pro David Dellow. “But that’s definitely not true. She’s a bit of a softie, really. She cries in movies all the time, and she’s a really funny and relaxed person. I don’t have to race her, so I never get to see the warrior side. I just know her as a laid-back Swiss Miss.”
Despite having plenty of girly-girl tendencies, there were early signs that she was tougher than most. Growing up in the tiny village of Spiez, Switzerland, she had a few scrappy moments in the schoolyard. “I had a couple fights at school, mostly with the boys,” she admits, laughing. “I reckon I was the one the boys in the class had the biggest fear of. We also did some arm wrestling—there was only one boy stronger than me.”
Steffen’s will was equally tough. “If I wanted to do something, I just went for it,” she says, with her heavy Swiss-German accent. At first listen, Steffen’s to-the-point locution calls to mind a stereotypical sternness; but listen a minute longer and you hear how she softens her speech with Australian slang and plenty of laughter, a sure sign she’s adapted to the casual ethos of her home away from home.
Her childhood best friend Barbara Criblez-Meyer, a classmate from age 6 with whom Steffen remains close, acknowledges Steffen’s stubbornness as well as her penchant for fun. “Spending time with Caroline was a happening. It was never boring. She always went her way straight on, no matter what other people thought. She just did what she wanted to do in a very natural and self-confident way.”
Despite Steffen’s physical strength and her independent streak, it wasn’t until age 12 that she stumbled upon the sporting path that began to shape her future. First, there was simply a lot of stumbling, following in the footsteps of her elder sister and brother, whom she was always eager to emulate. She trailed behind her sister to ballet, although she hated the class and claimed “absolutely no talent.” Likewise with gymnastics—it took her two years to earn a standard one-year progress award. When her siblings turned to music, Steffen took up the drums. “Maybe three or four years I played and took lessons once a week. Still no talent,” she laments.
Finally, something inspired 12-year-old Steffen to pursue a sport on her own. Initially, it wasn’t so much the desire to swim as the opportunity to ditch out of school early. “I started swim lessons once a week, every Tuesday. I was allowed to leave school 15 minutes early to catch the bus and I remember thinking, ‘That’s a pretty good deal!’” says Steffen. “I improved really quickly, just from one day a week. It was the first time I actually felt that maybe I have a talent at this one!”
She began to compete and rapidly excelled through the club’s ranks, earning the organization’s first ever championship medal and eventually qualifying for the Swiss National Team (her first of three—Steffen went on to represent Switzerland in cycling and triathlon). “That’s when I started realizing if you spend time doing something you like and you work hard, you actually get something back,” she says. “You get success and you get results. It’s just step-by-step, but I reckon that’s what started to make a racer out of me.”
Steffen spent a decade swimming under the Swiss flag, earning 17 national champion gold medals in some of the sport’s toughest events, including the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley. But in 2002, a shoulder surgery followed by black-line burnout led to her retirement from the pool and a few years away from sports. Instead, she shouldered a backpack for a three-month adventure traveling in Australia, during which her love for the land Down Under was ignited. Her athletic drive remained intact, however, and soon Steffen sought a new avenue to regain fitness. The answer was the 2005 Gigathlon, a two-day race across Switzerland combining swimming, running, mountain biking, road cycling and inline skating. Steffen’s performance proved an early predictor of her endurance sports stamina.
“I did it to find my limit. To find how far I could push myself. And to do something really ridiculous. I saw this race and I said, ‘Yep, I’m doing that,’” she recalls. Steffen spent her entire savings on equipment—running shoes, inline skates, a mountain bike and a road bike (“I had nothing at home except swim togs”) and spent six months training. After the first race leg—the swim—she was the leader. After the inline skating, she was dead last. Over the bike and run courses she caught several competitors, and nearly 30 hours later she finished in fifth place.