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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.
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Recognizing that her inline skating was on par with her ballet skill, Steffen turned her focus to the sports disciplines where she showed promise. Triathlon’s swim-bike-run trifecta seemed a perfect fit, especially the extreme version known as the Ironman. “I always want to do something a little bit more, a little bit crazier than someone else. I found out there’s something called Ironman so I thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting,’” she says.
Steffen’s debut at the “interesting” distance—the 2006 Ironman Switzerland, one year into her amateur triathlon career—yielded promising results: a 9:58:08 finish, sixth overall (pro women included), second in her age group and a ticket to Kona. Steffen knew nothing of the Ironman World Championship’s allure—she simply knew that a trip to Hawaii “sounded great.” Her finish there later that year was equally impressive: 9:59:22 and third on her age-group podium. Her 5:15:40 bike split caught the eye of the Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team, resulting in an offer of employment. She accepted, tailoring her full-time job as a draftswoman designing roadways (Steffen designed some of the Swiss roads she would later ride) to a part-time position and spent two years cycling at the professional level. And while Steffen’s single-sport time on the bike was surely the foundation for her cycling dominance today, serving as team rookie and domestique was less than satisfying.
“I missed having the windows open—I wanted to do my own thing. I worked my ass off every single day in training, but then in the race I was just working for the team,” says Steffen. “Once in the race they said, ‘OK, today you get a chance. You go.’ I won the race. From that point on I knew I was able to win road races, but I wasn’t allowed all the time.” An endurance workhorse, she couldn’t quite match the speed of the sprint specialists. She also lacked the ability to earn a sustainable salary through under-funded women’s cycling, making zero progress toward her goal of quitting her day job to live solely off of sport. Thus, in late 2008 she called it quits and turned back to triathlon.
Shortly thereafter, a friend convinced Steffen to accompany him overseas for a three-month training stint. She arranged a temporary leave from work and booked a flight to Australia, the country she’s called home ever since. Early on she met Dellow, who provided Steffen a pivotal kick in the pants. “I was saying my dream was to be a professional triathlete,” says Steffen. “But I never had the guts to really have a go. David was the person to say, ‘If you want to do it, you have to do it right now. You have to quit your job. You have to eat, sleep and train like a professional. And I believe you can be really good.’ And I said, ‘OK.’”
Dellow, already experiencing success on Australia’s national triathlon team, understood that Steffen needed a push. “I had to really encourage her in the beginning,” he says, “because people from Switzerland have a different attitude than Australians toward being a professional sportsperson. They consider career to be the No. 1 priority in life, so for Caroline to quit her well-paid job and do triathlon full-time was a big step.”
But a few phone calls later, Steffen was unemployed, fielding mixed reactions from her family and friends (you try telling your traditional Swiss father, “I’m in love, I quit my job and I’m staying in Australia to be a triathlete”) and missing more than a few nights’ sleep. She allowed herself a one-year window in which to succeed enough to make a living from the sport. And then she went to work in a local coffee shop. “It was good fun actually and really hard work—but I quit after two months because it was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do,” she says. “I mean I quit my job, I left my family, I left everything back in Switzerland to be a professional athlete, and then I went to work in a coffee shop.”
She relied on Dellow for short-term financial support before targeting her next paycheck: the prize purse at the Gold Coast Half Ironman. Being hit by a car one week before the race did not deter her; she rocked up to the start with scrapes and bruises on her hip, hand, shoulder and knee, where gravel can be seen to this day. “I told myself, ‘I don’t care if I got hit by a car. I have to do this race. I have to win this race. Otherwise I’m out,’” says Steffen. “I won and it saved me for the next month. And I did another race and got a little bit of cash and it saved me for the next month. And then I started working with Team TBB.”
Steffen wasn’t exactly a shoo-in for Sutton’s squad, though. She asked three times before he finally agreed to give her a chance. “The environment she was training in had athletes that had opinions different to mine,” says Sutton, explaining his initial reluctance to train Steffen. “I needed to be sure she would listen to me over others.”
She started working with Sutton online, winning her first high-profile race (Ironman 70.3 Geelong) just one month into the program. A week later she flew to Team TBB’s training camp in Thailand and met her new mentor in person for the first time. “I was so nervous,” Steffen says. “I was really afraid. I remember my hand was just shaking. But he was really relaxed and nearly ignoring me the first couple of days. He didn’t say much. For one or two weeks he was just watching me and making little notes.” After a few weeks of this unnerving observation, Sutton finally began to engage with the fledgling pro. Though odd at the onset, their coach/athlete partnership has obviously evolved into one that works. She attributes this to her absolute trust in his tactics. “His ideas of triathlon and training are completely different to other people,” she says. “If you want to work with him and you want to be good, then you have to believe in what he’s doing. I reckon it works because I trust him 100 percent.”
Steffen quickly ratcheted up to top dog on the team, but it’s a role she does not relish. “I don’t see myself as the leader,” she says. “And I actually don’t want to be the leader. I like to be a role model—that’s OK. But I’m not someone who likes leading a group. I’m more quiet and a little bit shy actually. That’s another reason I got this nickname,” she continues. “Brett realized that I’m strong and a fighter in the race, but he always calls me ‘Xena Princess,’ because out of the race I’m absolutely not a warrior.”
Indeed, it’s Steffen’s normalcy and down-to-earth vibe that her longtime friends laud. Says childhood classmate Criblez-Meyer, “What impresses me is that she didn’t change with her success; she is still the natural and honest girl from before. She was a great girl and she is a great woman now, just because she is what she is.” Another close friend, professional triathlete Aaron Farlow, one of Steffen’s key training partners, echoes that sentiment. “I don’t think I have seen her angry or pessimistic since I have known her,” he says. “She’s a great training partner. She’s tough, always positive, smart and eager to get something out of every session. Though,” he adds, “the boys have become weary of training with her as she is more than happy to ride away from them with a little grin on her face.”
PHOTOS: 2013 Challenge Roth
According to coach Sutton, Steffen’s sensitive side can at times be extreme. “Caroline is a very emotional girl who has a very strong will. Nice mix, but serves to drive me mad at times. In moments she makes emotional decisions when best served not making any; at other times she’s way too hard on herself.”
She was clearly in the throes of emotion when she won Ironman Melbourne and promptly locked lips with Dellow, a drawn-out display of finish line affection for all to see. “Actually some people complained because he was grabbing my ass!” Steffen laughs, remembering their celebratory make-out session. “The only thing I have to say—we both worked so hard for this race. We really trained hard. He was new to Ironman and his dream was to qualify for Kona. When I saw him waiting for me behind the finish line I just knew. I traveled alone to Kona the first two years, and I knew when I saw him he was qualified and we could travel together to Hawaii and race together. People don’t know—they don’t have to know—but for us, Melbourne was a huge step. And it was the first race we did together. For David and me it was a really big moment. So we didn’t care what people thought.”
An even deeper sensitivity is evident when Steffen describes what it means to race beside her man. “I feel safer and not that alone. Even though you have 2,000 other people around you, if I know he is racing or even just watching the race it gives me a lot of safety. It’s just easier for me if I know he’s around.”
Surely, Steffen relied on Dellow’s support following Kona 2012, when her second-place finish proved deeply disappointing. Two years earlier she earned an identical result, but the 2010 race was her first Kona appearance as a pro and as such, an unexpected success. “It was unbelievable. It was probably the race of my life,” says Steffen. 2011 showed a hitch in Steffen’s progress; an injury affected her ability to run throughout the season, so her subsequent fifth-place Kona finish was more than satisfactory. But in 2012, injury-free and an odds-on favorite, Steffen was dead-set on the win.
Unfortunately for Steffen, the race didn’t unfold as she hoped. First, a four-minute penalty on the bike—which she feels was unjust—set her back. Along with Leanda Cave and TBB teammate Mary Beth Ellis, Steffen was leading the women’s race, each athlete spread the legal distance apart, taking turns at the front and benefitting from the group momentum. A male pro was sucked into the mix, and Steffen was riding behind him when he began to fall off the pace. “I overtook him and went back to the group,” she explains, “I reckon the problem was the gap between this guy and the last girl wasn’t big enough. I got in and I’m pretty sure I had 12 meters to the next girl, but the marshal said I did not.”
Post-penalty tent, Steffen pushed hard to regain contact with the lead group, burning precious energy. Yet soon Cave and Ellis suffered similar bike violations, the infractions all but canceling one another out, and Steffen powered on to earn an advantage on the run. The effort seemed to pay off—Steffen maintained the lead in the marathon until the 23-mile mark, fending off threats from a number of fleet-footed rivals. But finally, with only three miles to go, Cave caught her, making a pass that Steffen could not match. “I tried to go with her, but my body didn’t respond,” she says. “Like I was sticking in fourth gear and couldn’t get into fifth. I wasn’t collapsing; there was just no more left.” She crossed the line defeated, 64 seconds after an exalted Cave.
Sutton’s reaction to the race was succinct. In fact, he and Steffen didn’t discuss her performance until almost two months later. “He was really disappointed, big time,” Steffen says matter-of-factly. “Because I knew and he knew I could win.” To my query, Sutton responded with unmasked irritation toward the race organization: “Women start ahead of the men, she wins the race. She still wins if officials knew how to read a race.” As for what he’ll do differently to better prepare Steffen for the 2013 world championship? “Nothing.”
Steffen can’t help but muse about one thing she might like to change. “Sometimes I would prefer to be a little bit less strong on the bike but a better runner,” she says. “I’m always the rabbit. The other girls are always chasing me. If you are like a rabbit at the front and you know they’re getting close to shooting you, it’s a totally different tactic than if you’re in fifth position and you start to catch up. I reckon it’s easier to pass people than to run scared. But how—I mean I can improve my run and I can improve my swim, but I can’t get any weaker on the bike.”
Steffen remains forward-focused and training with fervor. “I’m training pretty much like never before. I feel a huge motivation. Because I’m not happy with what happened last year,” she says. She does find it funny—maybe even a little frustrating—that triathlon fans are so quick to pick pre-race favorites. “Even when Kona is just over, people already say, ‘But you will win next year!’ It’s not like I don’t want to win, you know! It’s not like I’m just happy with second,” says Steffen. “I really do my best to win this race. But it’s not that easy! It’s not just like: OK, next year I will do it.”
Maybe people’s expectations stem from something Farlow sees in his friend. “Every successful person that I have ever met makes hard things look easy,” he says. “Caroline does exactly that with triathlon.” Maybe people are jumping the gun, eager to pinpoint the next world champion. Or maybe they sense the warrior in Steffen, even when she fails to find it in herself. Because behind that sweet, somewhat shy smile, beyond the normal-girlishness, the warrior is irrefutably within Steffen. And all she needs is a start line for it to kick in.
Xena’s Top Tips:
—“After a down, there’s always an up. Don’t let yourself go if you have a bad patch during a race. 180 kilometers is a long way.”
—“Race like you train. Don’t change anything just because you’re wearing a number on your bike.”
—“Maybe try once at home changing a tire. It is a pity to travel around the world and pull out of an Ironman because of a mechanical.”
Xena’s Favorite TT Bike Session:
This session is a two-hour workout including warm-up and cool-down. Start with an easy 15-minute warm-up followed by 3×30 minutes in the aerobars (on the road or on a trainer) and a 15-minute cool-down.
“The 3×30 minutes is a build ride. I always ride the first 30 minutes at Ironman race pace, the second 30 minutes at Ironman 70.3 race pace and the last 30 minutes at Olympic-distance race pace. If you’re in great shape, you can do the set on a double ride day twice. Or, like me, up to three times a day. Two hours’ work, two hours’ rest and repeat that three times. You will feel your legs when you hit the bed!”
RELATED VIDEO: Caroline Steffen Chats About 2nd Place Kona Finish
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