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Before Flora Duffty was an Olympic gold medalist, she was a world champ–several times over. In fact, she is the only person to win three triathlon world titles in the same year, capturing the 2016 World Triathlon championship race, the Xterra world championships, and the ITU Cross world championships, all within a three-month span. Here’s a look at her historic dominance in the sport during that unstoppable time five years ago.
As we all know by now, Flora Duffy’s longtime dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist came true on Monday with a resounding victory in Tokyo. But, for a talented triathlete who competed in her first race at the age of seven, there was some delayed gratification in that quest. Her first Olympics, in Beijing, ended in a DNF as she was lapped out by the leaders. In London, she finished 45th after crashing on the bike. And in Rio, she looked primed to challenge for a medal up until the run, ultimately finishing eighth.
While nabbing Olympic glory took some time, Duffy experienced success in several other international events, beginning on the junior circuit at 18. But she was never more dominant than in 2016 when she went on a tear, finishing on the podium seven out of 10 starts in International Triathlon Union (ITU) races. Not only that, she won the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Cozumel in September of that year, the XTERRA World Championships in Maui 36 days later, and the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships 27 days after that.
Yes, that’s three world titles in a matter of nine weeks. A feat no triathlete had ever done before–or has done since. So, how did Duffy do it? To start, she went off-road. While many of her competitors or their coaches on the ITU circuit (now known as World Triathlon) likely consider single-track mountain biking and trail running far too risky, Duffy dove right in, competing in her first XTERRA event in 2013.
“I was taking a bit of a break from ITU racing and was looking for something new to try. I knew how to ride a mountain bike, so thought I would try XTERRA,” Duffy told Triathlete in 2017. “I actually got my butt kicked in my first race. It was so hard! So XTERRA then became something I wanted to figure out.”
And figure it out she did. Guided by South African XTERRA star Dan Hugo, whom she married in 2017, Duffy made a meteoric rise in a version of the sport that was more of a side hustle (she only entered a few off-road races per season). In 2014, Duffy took home her first of five XTERRA world titles on the notoriously tough Maui course, featuring a 1.5K swim, a 30K mountain bike, and an 11K trail run. That year, she also finished second in the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship–an event with slightly different distances and set in different places around the world each year. By 2015, she picked up a pair of off-road tri wins at the respective world champs (one in Maui, the other in Sardegna, Italy), but struggled at the ITU World Championship Final in Chicago and finished 17th.
So, by the time fall of 2016 rolled around, Duffy was in position for the trifecta, having dominated the ITU races all season and establishing a number one world ranking. But she still had to put it all together. First, she headed to Cozumel, where she’d face race favorite Gwen Jorgensen, fresh off her historic gold medal performance in Rio (as well as a host of other Olympians). On that day, Duffy gamely staged a breakaway on the bike alongside Great Britain’s Jessica Learmoth and Lucy Hall. By T2, the trio put a 1 minute, 17 second gap on the chasers. And, just as she would do in Tokyo five years later, Duffy took off on the run and never looked back, holding off a hard-charging Jorgensen to win by more than a minute.
Next, Duffy traveled to Maui, where her competition wasn’t as stiff as in Cozumel, but the conditions were far tougher. On a windy, rainy day, Duffy battled choppy water and slick, muddy trails in her wire-to-wire victory, which she sealed up some 10 minutes ahead of runner-up Lesley Paterson of Scotland.
“I crashed on the bike, went over the handlebars and [flew] into the bushes. My gears weren’t working,” she said after the race. “There’s a lot of on your bike, off your bike, hike a bike. You’re riding along and next thing you know you lose a front wheel, you’re down, just mud caking my bike.”
Maui’s treacherous conditions did nothing to deter Duffy from then heading to the Snowy Mountains in the Australian bushland about a month later for the 2016 ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships. Once again, Duffy put on a clinic during the race, swimming nearly a minute faster than her closest competitors and posting a bike split that was another five-and-a-half minutes ahead of the rest of the field. She cruised to a win over Chile’s Barbara Riveros, 2:54:11 to 2:58:05.
That day, Duffy recognized the enormity of winning three world championships in such a short span, saying she only came up with the plan after her victory in Cozumel. “It was kind of a crazy idea,” she said. “I thought there’s two more world titles this year, maybe I can win them. To keep it together for this long under this much pressure and attention to detail, and you really have to race at a high level if you want to win. I managed to pull it off and hold it together.”
Duffy would go on to win XTERRA worlds in 2017 and 2019, the event’s only five-time winner male or female, at the same time she continued to star in World Triathlon races in the build-up to Tokyo. While she hasn’t again attempted the three-peat in a single season, there’s still a chance for 2021: This year’s world champs have a more spaced-out schedule, slated for Aug. 21 (Edmonton World Triathlon Championship Finals), late October (World Triathlon Cross Triathlon World Championships in Spain) and Dec. 5 (XTERRA World Championships). Or she could even try to pick up a new one: the 70.3 World Championships in St. George, Utah on Sept. 17—for which she’s already qualfied.