Character Driven: American Olympian Sarah Groff

Striking the balance between outspoken and earnest, Sarah Groff has found success by racing hard while letting her personality shine.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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Striking the balance between outspoken and earnest, Olympian Sarah Groff has found success by racing hard while letting her candid personality shine.

The night Sarah Groff earned her spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 2011, she could be seen gallivanting through the streets of London dressed as Wonder Woman. She wasn’t wearing the superhero costume because she took her qualifying race performance lightly, but because she was taking a bet very seriously. She had bet her former manager, Mike O’Neil, that he couldn’t run under 63 seconds for 400 meters, and when he squeaked under the mark, she was forced to wear the shiny plastic outfit (winner’s choice) and pay for dinner. “I had just qualified for the Olympic team, so I didn’t mind that much,” Groff says. “However, I would have preferred seeing Mike walk around London in a wetsuit.”

Groff never takes herself too seriously, which serves as a perfect contrast to the gritty, competitive side that has helped the 31-year-old climb the ranks of the ITU circuit all the way to an impressive (albeit heartbreaking) fourth-place finish at the London Olympic Games last August. Outside of her game-face race photos, you’d be hard-pressed to find a picture void of a winking “gotcha” expression or a cross-eyed thumbs-up pose. “I don’t think she’s ever taken a serious photo in her life,” says her boyfriend, Ben True, laughing. “She’s a hoot. She has a great personality, a great sense of humor, and just a very vibrant and loving life.”

“To be honest, I love my sport, but a lot of triathletes are kind of boring,” Groff says. “If you have a big, boisterous personality, you should let it fly. You might put your foot in your mouth sometimes, but you can’t be afraid of that.”

“Groffy,” as she’s best known in the triathlon world, doesn’t seem afraid of much—of taking risks, of challenging things, and of unapologetically being her goofy, energetic self. She’s one of the few outspoken athletes who can liven up a sterile press conference by cracking jokes, or by being completely honest in post-race interviews instead of tiptoeing around a bad performance. (At the ITU San Diego race in April, she readily admitted her seventh-place finish was because “I took a big risk and just didn’t have the fitness to back it up.”)

“I feel like in some ways, I don’t have any secrets, I don’t have anything to hide,” Groff says. “I have strong opinions, but it comes out of love for the sport. I think I’m at the point in my life where I love what I do and I’m just happy. When you’re at a happy point, it’s easier to open up a bit.”

PHOTOS: Behind The Scenes With Sarah Groff

Refining A Talent

The self-proclaimed tomboy originally from Cooperstown, N.Y., has always expected a lot from herself. Even as a teenager, Groff recognized a need to be challenged both intellectually and athletically, so she enrolled in the Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts that “made college seem easy,” she says. (She went on to graduate from Middlebury College in Connecticut with a double major in conservation biology and studio art.) She swam and ran throughout high school and college, but always balanced athletics with extracurricular activities. “Part of the reason for the smaller [college] was to be able to do a lot of things,” Groff says. “I’m pretty good at dabbling in things.”

Her dabbling led to a couple of triathlons in college, but she never thought she would make a living out of it—she always assumed that once she graduated, she would work for a nonprofit, then eventually apply to law school and work in environmental law. Instead, she decided to see where triathlon could take her and moved to Boulder, Colo., to work under Siri Lindley, who took her from amateur to qualifying for the 2008 Olympic Trials (she just missed the team) in a matter of three years. She then switched to Darren Smith, who coached her within his “D-Squad” of high-level athletes for another three years leading up to her first Olympic bid.

Smith first spotted Groff dragging one of his athletes against the wind for practically an entire race. “I thought, ‘Holy shit, someone would be smart to get a hold of that,’” Smith says. “She was totally unsophisticated in terms of her racing strategy. And, technically, not good. I thought, ‘Geez, if we could fix that, we might be onto something.’”

Turns out he was. Despite fracturing her sacrum after a bike crash in 2010 (and then again later that year), Groff was able to bounce back from months off and achieve 10 top-10 performances in 2011, including a seventh-place finish at ITU WCS London, which earned her an Olympic team spot.

Her relentless determination and challenging stubbornness proved to be both useful and frustrating for Smith. “At times she was a pain in the ass and other times she was quirky and fun to work with,” Smith says affectionately. He has countless stories of her antics, including accidental flashings and many rounds of towel tug-of-war to get her back in the water. Once, Groff accused him of not paddling straight in a kayak during an open-water swim, which he insists was really her swimming off course. “In the end,” he says, “I hit her with the paddle a few times over the next weeks and eventually she began to swim straight!”

But, Smith says, the most challenging athletes are often the most talented. “You wouldn’t expect Alistair Brownlee to be easy. He’s not. Groffy, like some others, is challenging. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking for easy—I was looking for someone who was going to be special.”

He helped turn a girl whom he originally called a “meathead racer” into a dominant presence on the race course, working on everything from technical skills to coping under pressure and generally just training and racing “smarter not harder.”

“I’m more of a thinking athlete and I like to stay engaged with racing and training, but I’m not just one of those athletes who goes out there and goes hard,” Groff says. “That’s what I assumed you had to do. But that’s not what Darren wants and that’s not the way it works. If he were an athlete, he’d be more like me—hyper-analytical and engaged throughout the race. It’s easy to coach the athletes who don’t think and turn on a tunnel vision. It’s hard for an athlete who has trouble turning off his or her brain.”

Although she wasn’t thought of as a top contender heading into London, Groff surprised everyone when she found herself in the lead group on the run and still in contention with 1K to go. Ultimately the dark horse was outsprinted to the line by three women, but Smith calls her finish a “tremendous outcome” considering her race execution and everything she improved upon to get there.

“Being the first one out of the medals is always going to be bittersweet,” Groff admits. “It was the most important race of my career to date, and I had a great race and I’m really proud of it. But to come home with a medal—how much better would that have been?”

PHOTOS: Team USA Earns Bronze In Hamburg

The Four-Year Plan

With the hope of getting on the podium in Rio in 2016, Groff knows she has her work cut out for her in the next four years. For now, she’s adapting to a less-stressful post-Olympics year, taking a patient, more balanced approach to her training and personal life. Instead of spending eight months out of the country to train on Smith’s squad, she’s now working with coach Joel Filliol and mostly training in her new residence of Hanover, N.H., where she can be close to family and True, an elite American distance runner.

Last year the hope was for True to join her in London as an American team member for the 10K, but when Lyme disease struck the week before the Olympic Trials, he was unable to secure a spot. Groff recognizes that last year the focus was largely on her, and she wants to ensure that they live a pseudo-normal life for a while and give True’s career the attention it deserves so they can both get to Rio.

“I have to be patient,” Groff says of her next four years. “This is not the year to be throwing down to the best of my ability—it has to be a few years from now. I have to be OK with doing things a little more slowly than I want. The only way to get to Rio in four years is to pace the first couple years, and make every year a bit more of a build.”

Groff’s race schedule reflects her new approach: In March, she took second at the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon even though food poisoning and a self-inflicted head wound (she banged her head on a tunnel entrance) almost derailed her race; in April she won the Fearless Pro Triathlon super sprint in San Diego after finishing seventh at the ITU WTS race days before. This year she has her sights set on a few non-draft races, maybe a half-Ironman and some cyclo-cross races.

Meanwhile, the triathlon world is getting better acquainted with the real Groffy, who is following suit of another bold personality in the sport, Chris McCormack, in choosing to remain true to her authentic self in all aspects of her life.

“He gave me this whole long talk about being more professional,” she says of a recent conversation with the multiple Ironman world champ. “He said, ‘You have to be able to be OK with putting yourself out there and making yourself accessible to people, especially if you have a personality—don’t be afraid of showing it.’”

RELATED: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Sarah Groff

Super Fan

Groff loves to be a participant in her sport, but she also loves being a spectator (she says she’s the one screaming her head off over the barricades at men’s ITU races). Some of the athletes she looks up to:

“She doesn’t promote it, but Erin Densham’s heart condition almost took her out of the sport, and yet she rebuilt herself, and that’s really inspiring. [I admire] that love of what she does and the belief that she’s going to be OK.”

“Anyone who rebuilds their career how Jordan Rapp has—I mean, he was hit by a car on a bike ride and had to completely come back from scratch. Lukas [Verzbicas] is going to do the same thing.”

[Mirinda Carfrae] shows up to Kona and on a bad day she’s third. It’s amazing. She said the Olympics was never her dream, it was to win Kona. You want to be the athlete who picks certain things and can deliver on that day. “

“You look at the Brownlees and Javier Gomez and it doesn’t matter what the conditions are. They have such a broad range of abilities that they can adapt to whatever is happening. I want to get to that point.”

True Love

Groff and her boyfriend, Ben True, had both hoped to compete at the London Olympics, but when the accomplished distance runner got Lyme disease right before the trials, his dream was cut short. To ensure that they both get to Rio in 2016, Groff has decided to live, and mostly compete, in the U.S. this year for a more balanced lifestyle. True shares his thoughts on how they make the multisport/single-sport relationship work:

“The passion that we have in our individual sports carries over,” he says. “The sports are different, but the mentality and the training and the focus to compete at a high level is very similar. She comes home from a hard workout and she’s tired, she’s angry, and I understand when all she wants to do is rest and recover. We know each other well enough that we can relate to the other person. We get each other.”

RELATED: Groff Coping With “The Hardest Position”

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