For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
After she decided to race her first Ironman in Cozumel this weekend, 2012 gold medalist Nicola Spirig’s coach Brett Sutton saw plenty of reactions that led him to respond in a blog post on Trisutto.com. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, Sutton’s words don’t just apply to his star athlete, they contain sound advice for age groupers everywhere and why to take on a challenge.
Nicola Spirig’s recent announcement to compete in Ironman, while welcomed by many, has caused my inbox to start overflowing with panicked emails from Swiss heavies questioning such a dubious ‘Olympic compromising’ decision at the end of an already, as she puts it, ‘crazy’ season.
But this IM debut is not about racing. It’s about staying true to a philosophy that has taken her to highest peaks of our sport and encapsulates everything that old-school triathletes stand for. Taking on a challenge simply because you can.
Like the majority of participants in our sport, Nicola competes in triathlon primarily because it is a passion and a hobby. Triathlon is part of her life, not all of it. Yes, she may be the Olympic Champion, but I can name no other professional triathlete who has kept their sport their passion and hobby while still managing to get on with real life like Nicola.
Strip away the results and you’ll see that Nicola is the ultimate age-group athlete. Just look at the career without the wins.
Nicola started competing in triathlons at the age of 10. She went on to represent her country at Junior level, but unlike others didn’t then move straight to the pro ranks. Instead, it was university for Ms Spirig, who continued doing all kinds of races on the side because racing was fun.
It was only with an Olympic opportunity beckoning she committed to being a full-time athlete, secured her spot and soon after found it wasn’t so fun any more. The grind of following the circuit proved less than stimulating and her form year on year went into a spiral.
When Nicola first joined the Sutton squad, I used every old coaching trick in the book to get her prodigious athletic talent to fire. All to little avail. Until one day I realised she wasn’t like any of my other pro athletes, she’s a throwback to a previous triathlon generation. Nicola needs a life away from triathlon in order to enjoy her hobby and not be consumed by it.
So back to university for Nicola, who is now a fully-fledged lawyer and legal eagle. Upon her return to triathlon she started doing non-drafting races along with a few half Ironmans along the way. Why? To put the spark back into her sporting life we had to go back to why she enjoyed doing triathlons in the first place. It worked. Approaching races the same way as any age group athlete with a full life to consider she caught fire. Absolutely caught wildfire. Back came the smile and by 2012 she was standing on top of the Olympic dais.
With the Olympics over did she keep racing to cash in on being Switzerland’s only gold medalist from the Games? No. Like many age-groupers whose passions have taken up more time than sometimes is fair, 2013 was family time. Married in 2013 and baby Yannis soon after. When felt she was ready to come back she did. A stunning victory at the World Cup.
‘Wow. She’s back!’ ‘Look out for her on the ITU circuit.’ No need. 2014 was about doing the things she loved in sport, non-drafting races, athletics, and a shot at achieving a lifelong goal of representing her country as a runner, which she did at the European Championships in her home town of Zurich. In 2014 she also established a Kids Cup triathlon series in Switzerland that bears her name. To cap it off and show 2013 was no fluke last month she came back and won two ITU World Cups in two weeks.
So why is she competing in her debut Ironman now? Easy. Because she can. Because it’s a challenge. Because it’s fun and all her training partners are going to be there. Should she, or any other competitor on the start line need any more reason? Absolutely not.
As for the heavies who want to put the pressure on about how ‘you need to start to get serious now because you’ll miss your qualifying points’, they are completely missing the point. You’re talking to someone who had not just the courage, but freedom of thought to compete in a half Ironman 13 days before winning the Olympics. If you think she’s going to blink over this you’re sadly mistaken.
As for the race in Cozumel itself. Is she ready? Training-wise not even close. She’s spent the year running, not riding. But that’s also beside the point. Like most other age-group athletes Nicola goes into this race under-prepared but with a smile on her face and an apprehension in her heart about whether she’s got what it takes to complete an Ironman. We will see the answer to that [this weekend].