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This Sunday, Dec. 4, Olympic gold medalist Flora Duffy will for her sixth XTERRA world title—which would add yet another feather in her rather full cap. Her first world championship came in 2014 when the then 27-year-old took a break from ITU racing and entered her first off-road triathlon as she was looking to try something new. After a few fits and starts in her initial attempts at the more rugged form of racing, Duffy ultimately excelled—and then some. Here’s a closer look at that first big win.
Flora Duffy was on a roll. After stepping into off-road triathlon in 2013, she had gradually gained her footing and began to show the steadfast grit and impressive strength that had made her a standout on the ITU scene (now called World Triathlon). Already a two-time Olympian for her home country of Bermuda by the time she turned 25, there was little doubt about Duffy’s talent in multisport. But the fact that she was able to gamely shift from draft-legal road racing to the unpredictable bumps and dips of the trails (not to mention handling the technical difficulty of mountain biking) was something simply out of the ordinary.
Duffy’s nonstop 2014 season included a slate of ITU races as well as a torrent of wins on the XTERRA circuit: She took home victories by large margins in every off-road race she entered that year, save for one—XTERRA Germany, which doubled as the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships in the town of Zittau. There, she struggled some on the twisty bike course (which featured an ominous 1,000-meter climb) and lost ground to eventual champ Kathrin Müller. But that loss was just one small imperfection on an otherwise sparkling build-up, including XTERRA wins in South Africa, Las Vegas, Alabama, Virginia, Utah, and Australia. So, by the time Duffy arrived on Maui in preparation for the World Championships in October, all eyes were on the Bermudian.
Still, she had to get through the notoriously tough course in one piece. Staged now on the lush grounds of the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, the race takes athletes through a one-mile swim in the often unrelenting Pacific Ocean, a 20-mile mountain bike and a six-mile trail run, the latter two featuring narrow dirt paths and ridges and gnarly descents and climbs. To finish it off? A grueling beach run, where athletes, exhausted by the rigors of the rough terrain, often struggle to stay upright.
Admitting that the beach run “broke her” in 2013 (when she was outsprinted by Lesley Paterson to claim third) Duffy entered the 2014 race steeled with respect for what was laid out before her. (“The course is so hard that you really have to have a perfect day,” she said of the chances of winning.) She also had more experience: Duffy had spent the better part of the year in Stellenbosch, South Africa training alongside her now-husband and XTERRA Hall of Famer Dan Hugo and current XTERRA World Champion Bradley Weiss. “Training with those two everyday inspired me to ride my mountain bike and pursue XTERRA,” she said.
While Duffy did wind up winning in 2014, her race wasn’t perfect. After a solid swim (“the choppy Pacific suits my choppy stroke,” she said later), she charged hard onto the bike course and wound up crashing upon hitting a root around mile seven. “I went over my bars into the trees, and ripped my suit,” she recalled post-race. “Luckily, my bike was sort of OK, I was OK, and I got back on. Five minutes later, I got a mechanical and had to stop and fix that. It really tested me, physically and mentally, but I just kept pedaling.”
Perhaps it is that kind of grit and mental and physical fortitude that sets Duffy apart from other athletes—and set her on the path to do what no other female triathlete has done before. That “it” factor her husband noticed back in 2010 when they first met as pros training in Boulder. “It was clear right away that she was gifted with this incredible engine and has an amazing work ethic, but what really stood out was how she was able to respond and react in challenging situations,” Hugo told ESPN in 2019. “She just is able to rise in those moments and stay calm and focused and execute what she needs to do.”
Duffy certainly kept her focus to execute a convincing win on that warm, sunny morning in late October of 2014, beating runner-up Barbara Riveros of Chile by two minutes (and crossing nearly nine minutes ahead of 2013 World Champ Nicky Samuels). As she grabbed the Bermuda flag in the finish chute, Duffy celebrated her country’s very first XTERRA world championship—and basked in the glow of realizing a dream she had held onto since childhood.
Duffy’s first world championship in triathlon was special, for sure. But as we now know, it wouldn’t be an isolated experience. And at the XTERRA World Championships, it would be a scene repeated for the next three years and then again in 2019 (an injured Duffy sat out the 2018 race)—making her the only athlete, male or female, to claim five world titles. And, quite possibly, it is a scene that will play out again in just days for a record #6.