Behind The Photo: Caroline Steffen’s Triumphant Return To Long Course
After nearly three years away from iron-distance racing, one of the toughest competitors in long-course smashed the Ironman Western Australia course record. We look at the story behind the iconic shot.
In the early ‘10s, Swiss long-course star, Caroline “Xena” Steffen was on fire. In 2010, she won ITU long-course world championships—the same year she stormed the lava fields of Kona and took second at Ironman World Championships to Mirinda Carfrae. She backed up those performances with identical finishes in 2012 by taking gold at ITU LC worlds and silver in Kona again. In 2013, she won Challenge Roth and took fifth at Kona.
Results continued to pile up until she stepped away from iron-distance racing after Kona in 2015. At the beginning of 2018, she gave birth to her son Xander, and less than a year after that, she toed the line at her first iron-distance race in nearly three years at Ironman Western Australia on Dec. 2, 2018. In a nearly made-for-TV moment, Steffen ran away from the field to win the event by nearly 20 minutes.
In the image below, Steffen strides past two kids cheering her on, en route to a course record-smashing finish in her first, emotional race back. Read on for the inside story behind the image from those who were there:
Stef Hanson is a triathlete, photographer, and owner/EIC of witsup.com—a Australia-based triathlon media outlet that focuses on women in the sport. She has covered all aspects of the sport for decades.
Hanson describes the moment in her own words:
“This is hands down, my favourite photo that I’ve taken at an event. Caroline Steffen, one of my favourite athletes (and people), returned to the full iron-distance for the first time in years, and, after giving birth to Xander. Look how strong and in control she looks in this image – both feet are off the ground, shoulders are relaxed, she is in full flight, and on her way to smashing the course record at Ironman Western Australia by almost five minutes in a time of 8:49:45.”
“At this event, my little mate, Frankie Flo, was three and a half months old. I travelled solo with her from Melbourne to Busselton—that’s a four-and-a-half-hour flight, and a three-hour drive (plus all the boob feed stops along the way). I arrived in Busselton quite late, checked into the accommodation, set up the cot, fed her, got her to sleep, started charging all of my camera gear, and flopped into the couch that was set up as the milking station to pump for the next day. I realised that I had no food for myself, and was exhausted from the travel and timezone changes, when there was a quiet rat-a-tat-tat at the door. Caroline dropped off a plate of food she had set aside from their barbecue, knowing that I wouldn’t have organised anything for myself – tears welled. It’s a gesture that I’ll never forget, but she will probably never remember. I didn’t ask her to pop over, she just knew. Caroline Steffen, making a return to iron-distance racing in just days, her own kid to worry about, but she thought to look out for me. I cried into my medium-to-well-done steak and vegetables.”
“Race day came and I had to be out the door before Frankie Flo woke – I hate that part. I never like leaving the house without seeing her first, but that’s the nature of triathlon. My friend Nic and kids looked after Frankie while I hung off the back of a moto all day. I missed Frankie and wanted to see her, so I managed to track them down. Not long after getting my Frankie Flo fix, the girls yelled ‘CAROLINE IS COMING!’ So, I told them to jump on the other side of the footpath and cheer from there. Caroline recognised them immediately and through the sea of fans on course, I managed to grab this snap. My worlds collided beautifully in this moment.”
“I stayed away from full Iron-distance racing for so many years (think it was four) because I didn’t believe I still had the determination and drive to push my body and mind as far as I was known for. But after becoming a mum my focus and priorities in life changed—so did my way of racing. I simply wanted to see what was possible with a different mindset.”
“It was a tough journey back to the top with a lot of tears and struggles in the daily training leading up to the big race, and I definitely wouldn’t have made it without the belief from my team. I hope one day Xander can watch the little finish line video I got from the race and be inspired and proud of his mum.”
“This photo was on the second lap. I was focused on the first lap to run past the T2 exit before [second-place finisher] Barbara Riveros entered the run course—just a little mind game. I felt like superwoman all day—so strong, confident and unbeatable. I love my fans and especially the little ones—they are a big motivation for me. We’re not just athletes racing for show—we inspire and motivate others to reach their dreams and goals. That’s what I believe in, and that’s what this photo represents. I remember this exact moment very well. After getting to know the girls over the weekend, I recognised them straight away—they were so excited. I gave them a little wave and smile, and I could hear them cheering as I kept running. I love this photo a lot—I use it on my laptop as my screen background.”
“We were looking after Frankie Flo. She’s our friend’s daughter, but we call her our cousin, and wanted to watch Caroline race—obviously! When we saw Caroline on the run my sister and I ran down to beach to cheer her on. I like that she was very nice to Sienna and I during the triathlon, and afterwards she signed my hat, and we played with her son, Xander!”
“I loved that weekend, and racing at the triathlon too. I love how you can go into the deep water without getting stung by anything, can ride really fast, I get to do it with my sister, and my brother even got a medal as well for supporting.”
Sienna (right): “I remember cheering on Caroline at that race. We were getting ready for her to come past, and were cheering as loud as we could to give her support. After the race we played in the playground and watched triathletes as they crossed the finish line. We went back to our apartment later and caught up with Caroline—she also signed our hat! When we were just hanging out with her we found out that she has a great sense of humor.”
“We also did the kids race that weekend, and my favourite part is that feeling you get when you cross the finish line. I am so happy that I got to go and be a part of that experience. It was the best weekend ever.”