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For Once, Flora Duffy is the Underdog

Bermuda's own Flora Duffy has won just about every race in the sport, from the Olympics and Commonwealth Games to XTERRA World Championships. A wild card spot to 70.3 Worlds gives her the chance to take on a new challenge - racing as the underdog in a star-studded field of middle-distance specialists.

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For the first time in history the two reigning Olympic champions are heading to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

One is out for revenge. Kristian Blummenfelt, having lost his Ironman world title in Hawaii wants to reinstate his position as the No 1 non-drafting triathlete in Norway, which right now equates to being the No 1 non-drafting triathlete in the world.

The other is something of an enigma.

For all her triumphs at short course, it’s not clear cut whether Bermuda’s Flora Duffy should even be listed among the favorites for the final Ironman crown of 2022. Not that she minds. It has been something of a wild ride – made possible by a wild card entry from Ironman –  for the Boulder-based triathlete to get here. Having not completed a 70.3 race since January 2020, she arrives as the least experienced in this style of racing in the entire field – a rarity for an athlete who has won just about every race in the sport, from the Olympics and Commonwealth Games to the XTERRA World Championship (six times, mind you).

RELATED: 2022 Ironman 70.3 World Championships: The Women’s Contenders

Third time’s a charm (and a wild card spot at Worlds)

Flora Duffy races as she prepares for 70.3 Worlds in St. George
(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

A post-Olympic year often gives triathletes a chance to try something new and after winning in Tokyo, putting a focus on qualifying for and then competing in St George became a priority for Duffy. A first opportunity was spiked when she contracted COVID ahead of Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga in May; a second was missed when she flew to Montreal to race 70.3 Mont Tremblant in June, and her bike – despite also being on a direct flight from Denver – didn’t follow.

“I didn’t have time to organize another option and to be honest I was nervous about riding a different setup for 90km and then running afterwards,” the 35-year-old explained. “The injury risk is too high.”

This time, Duffy and her husband, former XTERRA pro Dan Hugo, are taking no chances.

“Dan will drive to make sure all the equipment arrives and I’ll fly,” she said. “This’ll be my third time trying to start a 70.3 this year – so fingers crossed it’s third time lucky.”

Duffy has the opportunity because on learning of her 2022 travails, Ironman stepped up and offered a wild card spot at 70.3 Worlds. While rare, it isn’t unprecedented. Both Duffy and Blummenfelt were offered slots to Hawaii last year (before the race was postponed), and we’ve seen it with other pro triathletes such as Andreas Dreitz and Matt Russell. who were innocent parties in crashes during Ironman World Championships. Yet Duffy’s offer still came as a pleasant surprise.

“I was not expecting it at all,” Duffy added. “It was the [qualification] cutoff after Tremblant so I’d turned my head to give the World Series my full focus and give myself a chance to win it.”

This reaction is very on brand for Flora Duffy. A Swiss Army Knife of a triathlete, she’s not only the Olympic champion, but a six-time XTERRA world champion, a two-time Commonwealth Games champion (the most recent coming in Birmingham in the UK in July) and a three-time World Triathlon world champion.

The latter includes the title she sealed in Edmonton last year, to make history as the first woman to win the Olympics and world short course title in the same year. Blummenfelt repeated the trick for the men. With that title to defend, there were almost too many options, particularly after Duffy worked out her frustration over the Mont Tremblant debacle by crushing the field in Hamburg to leave the World Series effectively poised as a two-way scrap between her and Britain’s Georgia Taylor-Brown. The 70.3 format still offered something different though – a new challenge away from a world she’d conquered many times.

“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” Duffy explained. “The disappointment of not qualifying, the excitement of getting back into the series, and then getting the wildcard. I don’t really know the reasons as to why, but I’m very grateful that they [Ironman] did, and I’m excited for my opportunity to race at the 70.3 world champs.”

RELATED: The 2022 Ironman 70.3 World Championship Start List

Out of her comfort zone

Flora Duffy races a triathlon in preparation for 70.3 Worlds St. George
(Photo: Professional Triathletes Organization)

Duffy’s inclusion adds an extra dimension to an already enthralling women’s race. A front-pack swimmer in short course racing, the opening leg in Sand Hollow Reservoir will hold few concerns; she might not tickle Lucy Charles-Barclay’s toes for the 1.2 miles, but she’s unlikely to be too far back.

The 56-mile time-trial to follow is where new ground will be broken. “I’m putting myself somewhere where I’m not very comfortable, and learning a whole new side of triathlon,” she said. “The TT bike has definitely been a massive change and something I’ve mostly enjoyed the process of. My training had already changed quite a lot, partly due to having COVID twice this year. Both times it was pretty tough on me. The first time it took my body a long time to come around. The second time was just after Yokohama WTCS [in May] and it also knocked me more than I thought it would. I had to back off the volume and adjust the required intensity for racing the Commonwealth Games and the demands of a sprint distance. Then once I was notified that I had the 70.3 slot, my training shifted. I rode my TT bike a lot more, got comfortable in that position, and beefed up my sessions.”

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But Duffy isn’t deterred: “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been nice to do something different and it’s kept me refreshed through a pretty long season.”

Free live coverage of the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in St. George will air exclusively on Outside Watch October 28 and 29. Outside+ Members will also be able to watch the race coverage on demand after the conclusion of the event. (Not an Outside+ member? Become one now for only $2.49 per month!)

I’m putting myself somewhere where I’m not very comfortable, and learning a whole new side of triathlon.

The racing style of the 70.3 worlds won’t be completely alien. As well as ekeing out a 70.3 win in South Africa at the start of 2020 – albeit with more drama as her glutes locking up on the bike before running down GB’s Emma Pallant-Browne – Duffy has also found time to squeeze in two PTO events in 2022, the Collins Cup in August and the PTO US Open in Dallas last month. Both were raced over the slightly shorter 100km distance, starting with a flat, fast course in Slovakia where she went head-to-head with Daniela Ryf in the opening USA v Europe v Internationals match-up and came off second best by 7 minutes – most of the time ceded on the bike. A sixth place in Dallas wasn’t disastrous, but it was a reminder of the level of performance she’ll need to compete with Taylor Knibb on the bike, the young U.S. powerhouse leaving a world-class field for dust on two wheels.

“I went to the Collins Cup and PTO Dallas mostly because I wanted experience and exposure to learn as much as I could before the 70.3 worlds,” Duffy explains. “Did I enjoy it? I’d say mixed reviews on both. At the Collins Cup, I loved the experience of the athletes being together and getting to see so many people I hadn’t seen for years. But being brutally honest, the racing format, venue and race course I didn’t particularly enjoy, and it definitely wasn’t because I got beaten – it was an honor to race Daniela. Going into PTO Dallas was definitely a bit of a humbling experience, but I learned what I needed to learn and have hopefully implemented it into my training and nutrition going into 70.3 worlds. They were both very valuable experiences, even if they weren’t that much fun.”

Ready for St. George…

Duffy suffered on the pan-flat terrain of Samorin and Dallas, but St. George should be more to her liking. “I’ve never raced there, but my coach [Nate Wilson]  has done a lot of studying of the course online. It’s very rolly, a big climb up Snow Canyon which I think will be great for me as I’m definitely not a pure time trialist. It’s also a tough course and I tend to do better on tough courses.”

Preparation for St. George has gone well for Duffy. Injuries have been a recurring issue in the past few years resulting in lengthy spells on the sidelines, but a recent troublesome knee has cleared up heading into the event. Other challenges though come from many angles.

“I think the women’s field is really strong. I’m not entirely sure which women that raced Kona will be racing, but if you look at Taylor Knibb, [defending champion] Lucy Charles-Barclay, Holly Lawrence, Paula Findlay, Emma Pallant-Browne… to name just a few, I definitely expect them to be firing on race day.”

If the paycheck – a total $350k purse with the winner taking home $50k – isn’t on the level of Kona or the PTO Tour, there are other financial incentives in addition to the prestige of another world title. While Duffy is likely to have sponsor bonuses based on position, a solid finish will also give her a third race of 2022 to count towards the end-of-year PTO rankings where even a performance on par with Slovakia and Dallas would catapult her from 74th into the top 15 and a minimum extra $15,000.

…Then on to Bermuda

Flora Duffy prepares for Ironman 70.3 World Championship Sr. George
(Photo: Professional Triathletes Organization)

Not that there will be much time to count the greenbacks. Just nine days on from St George, Duffy will be back in action, climbing the renamed Flora Duffy Hill multiple times as the World Triathlon Series heads for Bermuda. Having won there in 2018 on World Triathlon’s first visit to the island, and becoming Bermuda’s first ever Olympic champion in Tokyo, she is a national treasure. October 18 is ‘Flora Duffy Day’ and a national holiday on the island. It was a 2022 date that had to be on the schedule even if she wasn’t gunning for the series title.

“I believe I can recover in time and perform well,” she added. “I had to shift my training a lot to suit the demands of a 70.3 and thankfully both Bermuda and Abu Dhabi [the World Series grand finale that follows] are tough Olympic distances and there’s definitely some parallels.”

It might be a big ask, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s about having a new experience before I fully commit myself for the build to Paris, which is my big priority over the next couple of years,” she said. “I would love to go back there and defend my Olympic title.”

Finally, with mixed-up racing, COVID, bikes lost in transit, and wildcards handed out, what would constitute success in the Duffy camp for 2022?

“That’s a great question and my view has changed throughout the year. I joked with my husband and coach that not walking on the run in St. George would be a massive success, but if I’m honest it’s putting together a solid race, executing my nutrition plan and coming off the bike and being able to really run to my capacity,  which I’ve failed at previously. But everyone goes into a world champs wanting to win so it would be foolish of me to say it isn’t my goal, but it’s my first experience so I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.”

And what about after St. George? “I wasn’t going to put a ton of focus on the World Series and just race and enjoy it and see where I ended up. Yet here I am, battling Georgia,” Duffy laughs about racing in Bermuda for the WTS title. “But if I don’t win it still wouldn’t be a failure, it’s more about  putting together solid races that I’m happy with versus the outcome.”