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On dealing with performance, pressure and taking a break.
Flora Duffy is a boss. She capped off 2016 by taking the ITU world champ title in a surprise win over Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen—and then won her third-straight XTERRA World Championship. And she did all this after racing in Rio, her third Olympic games. But it hasn’t always been fun and gold medals for this hard-charging racer. ¶ Duffy grew up on the small Atlantic island of Bermuda where she started swimming and running at a young age. Bermuda’s thriving triathlon scene, particularly among children, led her to jump into her first triathlon at the age of 7 and join the local kids’ tri club. Bermuda didn’t have a national team, however, so Duffy headed to a sports-oriented boarding school in England at 16 to hone her skills among fierce competition. She did exactly that, qualifying for her first Olympic Games in 2008 at the age of 20.
But the intense pressure of professional racing eventually caught up to her, causing her to burn out and quit the sport entirely after that race. She turned her attention to getting an education, pursuing a degree in sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. During that time, she joined the CU cycling team and eventually found her way back to triathlon under the guidance of her coach, Neal Henderson, while juggling a full college schedule. Only after graduating in 2013 did she finally turn all of her attention to triathlon, and she’s been crushing it ever since.
After the 2008 Olympics I was 20 and I stopped racing for two years. I had quite a bit of success when I burst on the scene at 18, but I struggled with pressure and intensity of racing at that level and had a lot of expectations placed on me.
I had this break, and I gained a new perspective of why I’m doing the sport. I realized this is what I love to do and I’ve always wanted to do it and I’m doing it for myself and not others. It’s more of a personal journey.
If I hadn’t gone through my college experience and getting out a bit of my wild side and being normal for a bit, it wouldn’t be possible to do what I’m doing now.
It was a big moment in London. Four years ago I didn’t think I was going to be doing triathlon again and then suddenly I got myself to London with a chance of being competitive and in the mix and possibly finishing in the top 20 [she finished in 45th place]. For me, it was a pretty special moment.
I learned a lot from Dan [Hugo, her boyfriend and former XTERRA pro]. He’d been racing full time for quite a few years. For me it had always been I’d go to class then I’d swim, then another class and then I’d go and study. Resting, recovery is not something you have the opportunity to do. I learned a lot from him.
I felt the pressure was always on Gwen. No matter what she did, she had to perform well because if she didn’t, she wasn’t going to win the gold medal. I felt like I flew under the radar a little bit. I never went into a race like, “I have to win this.” It was more like, “Let’s try to execute your best race and we’ll see what that outcome is.”
In 2016 from the Bermuda side, I was the first medal hope in 40 years. That was another level of pressure put on me. It’s the Olympics, and suddenly everyone cares. The amount of people who say they are going to be watching you and wishing you good luck—all of a sudden it’s a lot to deal with.
Leading up to the [2016 ITU WTS Grand Final], people were like, “If you get second in the series you can still be very happy with that,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s not how I race. I’m going to race to try to win this series.”
Race course: Stockholm (ITU), South Africa (XTERRA)
Pre-race meal: Avocados, rice and bananas
Coffee beverage: 8-ounce latte
Class in college: Criminology
TV show: “Orange is the New Black”
Ritual: Wearing a French braid, parted to the left.