How An Ironman Champ Nabbed Olympic Silver

From Olympic gold to long-course titles, Nicola Spirig’s unconventional lead-up to Rio.

Photo: Delly Carr/World Triathlon

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

From Olympic gold to long-course titles, Nicola Spirig’s unconventional lead-up to Rio

It seems foolish to label a reigning gold medalist as “under the radar” going into the Olympic Games, but there was a lot left unknown about how Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig would perform in Rio. While Gwen Jorgensen had been crushing the World Triathlon Series circuit over the past three years, Spirig took a different path since London in 2012—which included getting married, having a son, racing marathons and long-course triathlons—and the pair had not raced each other since.

Spirig’s coach of a decade, Brett Sutton, knows her training better than anyone. If she wanted to come back for the 2016 Games, he demanded she become a different athlete than she was in London, changing her swim stroke entirely to that of an Australian surf swimmer, and focusing on her run. And she did. Her path may seem unconventional for an Olympic prep but, as Sutton explains, it was all with intention: In 2014, she ran a 2:37 at the European Marathon Championships; she also won Ironman Cozumel and secured her Olympic spot early at the European Games in Baku in 2015. In the past few months, she won both Ironman 70.3 Italy (with a 1:14:54 run split), and Ironman 70.3 Norway Haugesund.

A shattered wrist at the WTS Abu Dhabi race in March interrupted her Rio prep, but the tough-as-nails Swiss crawled her way back for an Olympic performance that left viewers at the edge of their seats, and proved to be the first person in a long time to truly challenge Jorgensen. (Read about Spirig’s Rio run battle with Jorgensen here.)

Triathlete sat down with Sutton to get the lowdown on Spirig’s unusual prep for her fourth Olympic Games.

Triathlete: What was Nicola’s original plan for the year and how did it change?
Sutton: It ended up getting broken up into three different plans. Unfortunately she had her accident in Abu Dhabi and it was worse than expected, so we had to change plans rather quickly when she shattered her hand. The most important thing for us at that stage was to get her back home, and she got on the 2 a.m. flight that day. Unfortunately she couldn’t have one plate—she had three and 23 screws. So, to be quite honest with you, we thought the plan was take the month and see if there’s any chance of going to the Games. So that was the first plan.

She had a standing surgeon and they did some very innovative work that they haven’t done before to the hand. They actually put a plate on each metatarsal because it was three that were snapped. We were told that if she hit her hand, she wouldn’t be able to do triathlon again. That really affected her, and we had a pretty morose three weeks. We kept training, very light of course, because she couldn’t do too much running because of the wrist.

Then we got back in the water, and you know I do things a bit crazy—strap people up with paddles and such—and we started maybe four weeks before she was supposed to. What we found was that her other shoulder in the water was aching. We thought it related to the hand, but then found out she had a fracture in the other shoulder as well. The one change that she did in her programming was that we didn’t do any paddles.

Then the next four weeks were terrific. The self-discipline…she couldn’t use her hand so she would swim with one arm. Then we said, you know what—you’re going to go to the Games. You’ll get there.

Because she already pre-qualified, plus the fact that we knew about the bike course [in Rio], and at that stage I was thinking she would be last out of the water, we did the long-distance races to strengthen the bike up. We thought if we were 1:30 down out of the water, the next month and a half the goal was to keep working the bike.

As we got closer to the Games, her hand started to straighten out in the water—until then, it was clawed. At that point, I said I don’t think you’re going to be competitive, I think you’re going to defend your title. So we should go for it.

We concentrated on catching the Flora Duffy pack. We weren’t concerned with Gwen because we knew she had to sit on there anyway. We knew her and Gwen would have to catch the front pack before there was any race. Of course the last six weeks were super, and then she ended up having the best swim of her life [Spirig exited with the main pack, right behind Jorgensen].

In an ideal world, would you have liked her to race Gwen throughout the last couple years?
What we’ve done the last few years, and you’ve seen it—she’s a mum’s mum [he points to Spirig, who is playing with her son while wrapping up an interview a few feet way]. This is her life, and as an Olympic champion she has a lot of commitments. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to the next Olympics, so we started doing some different stuff. I’ve always told her, “I don’t want you to be the same athlete that you were in London.” I think we’ve seen that people go to the Games, and then take the time off, then they try some different things to get back in the zone and the zone is gone—the girls have gone to a different level. I said “I don’t care what you do, but it’s going to better than what we’ve done before.”

She decided to go do the running—the marathon was in her hometown, so she said she’d like to run it. Then we won the 5000 meter Swiss Championships. So she was still going better. Her run was better. Her triathlon wasn’t better, but we had improved something.

You’ve said before that you had Nicola do 70.3 races to essentially “slow her down” in training. Was that a different thought process this time?
We did them because Nicola is a triathlete. She can do everything. So for us, it’s an advantage to do all that stuff and be as strong as possible because we knew it was going to be a hard course. I thought, wrongly, that there would be five or six girls up front and she would have to catch people. We really thought she would have to work her way up and drive to the Flora Duffy group. So we trained for that.

Someone said “Copacabana is going to be flat” in the swim but that’s not the Brazil I know—even on a flat day, it’s still going to be wavy. So we changed her swim stroke to be more like an Australian surf swimmer and it worked out.

What are the different technique elements of an Australian surf swimmer?
Well you don’t use your legs. She used to be a six-beat kicker and bilaterally breathe, and I taught her how to swim without her legs—and that’s one of the reasons her bike is so strong because she doesn’t kick very much at all. For the first 6 to 7 years of her career, I didn’t try to change much. But if you remember, she was 1:30 down from the girls with a wetsuit on in London. After she won the gold medal, I had her straight in the pool.

Were there a few key sessions that made you think, “wow, she’s going to be competitive”?
Yes, but it’s every day. We might do 45-minute sessions, but she’s so intense. Nicola, because of the way she is, runs every other day. If we ran her everyday, she gets stress fractures. We want to run her hard, but we might do three runs in the day, the next day she would do a long bike ride. We try to keep her off the bones and give her a good 36-hour rest afterwards. We found what works for her. We don’t swim every day either. She might do two swims or one really big one, just because of the shoulder, up until the last few weeks.

It seems your athletes are involved in community outreach, charity, etc.?
[Spirig] has kids races in Switzerland—10 races and it costs her, it doesn’t make her any money. Nicola, even in Team TBB days, was the most philanthropic in the squad and still is today. She’s got a great charity, gives lectures to schools. Triathlon is just a part of her life. It’s not just one thing—she has a holistic approach. We had a joke a couple days ago, she said, “I’m trying to be a professional athlete,” and I said, “You’ve never been a professional athlete.”

Can you talk about your coach-athlete dynamic?
We have a unique relationship that’s built up over the years. She came in hating me. Most of our relationship is on the internet. In sessions, she turns up and says, “How are you?” and I give her the session and we don’t talk. Then she says thank you and goes home and shoots me 15 emails.

We developed that because at first she was a very shy person—painfully shy—and was, I’d say, apprehensive of me and that’s how we carried on, even as we got closer. Anyone who shows up at the pool thought “those two are really weird” and thought we don’t get along, and the other girls will tell you I talk, but with her it’s different. She didn’t train with other girls because I thought she would need to be strong enough to ride up the field on her own. No disrespect to the other girls, but I knew in my mind that if she was back in the third pack, they would say, “Olympic champion? Bring us up.”

RELATED PHOTOS: 2016 Rio Olympic Triathlon – The Women

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.