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If you try to draw correlations among the five U.S. triathletes going to the Olympics this year, good luck. There are some parallels, like their willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, as well as a few stories of overcoming adversity. But their journeys to where they are now are all over the map. Each day this week we’ll introduce you to a different member of the U.S. Olympic triathlon team. First up, it’s 30-year-old Sarah Groff, who earned a podium spot at yesterday’s final Olympic tuneup race in Hamburg.
When you can’t even walk without pain, how are you supposed to race among the world’s best triathletes? In late 2010, that was the dilemma Sarah Groff faced. The year started with an ominous bike crash in which she suffered a fractured sacrum. Stubbornly, she pushed through, and lived out of a suitcase for eight months to race all over the world. Her reward? A dwindling bank account and nagging injury “I was completely at a low point in 2010,” Groff explains. “My parents had a talk with me asking if I wanted to continue on with triathlon because they said, ‘It seems to make you really miserable.’ They saw how hard it was, how much money was going into the program, and how little was coming into my bank account. I was draining my savings, emotionally exhausted from living overseas, physically exhausted.” And her results weren’t great enough to really justify it.
To top things off, she re-fractured her sacrum in the fall. That was the wake-up call she needed. It was time to turn it around. “The second time, I realized I didn’t have time to do things wrong if I had any chance of qualifying [for the Olympics],” she said. “I had done things wrong the first time by still training and racing.”
Groff had to dig deep and make big decisions. She took 10 weeks off of running, honed in on other skills and when she finally got back to it she was a new person. “When I was running without pain again I was so grateful,” she said. “I approached it like I was a kid.”
The results followed. With the help of her coach, Darren Smith, her 2011 season included 10 top-10 finishes, many in the ITU WCS circuit, with the sweetest being a seventh place in ITU London WCS to secure her Olympic spot. She also finished the year ranked third (first American) in the WCS World Rankings. Groff had arrived. “[When I was still injured], my brother said, ‘Once you get back from this you’re going to have the best year you’ve ever had.’ I thought he was absolutely insane,” said Groff. “Turns out he was right.”
In addition to her family, Groff’s support system grew by one in late 2010 when she started dating elite runner Ben True. The two now live together—when they’re not away traveling for sport—and he’s one of the few guys who can keep her grounded. “Skype keeps our relationship intact,” she laughs. “But when we’re both home we get to spend a lot of time together.” True was also seeking a spot on the Olympic Team for the 10K, which meant he and Groff would have both competed on Aug. 4. It wasn’t his year, and True failed to qualify at trials in June. Groff undoubtedly wanted to see him succeed, but True not qualifying has its perk too.
“It’s a win-win situation for me,” Groff said before True’s race at Trials. “Professionally and personally I want him to make it, but then, very selfishly, if he doesn’t make it I know I can have him there as a supporter. He’s good at keeping me calm. I’m a bit of a high-strung racer, and he helps diffuse my nerves.”
Groff doesn’t come across as “high-strung” as she claims, but you know she’s firing on all cylinders at the situation she’s gotten herself into—Olympic dreams were never her thing growing up, yet, now it’s something she’s embracing to the fullest. “I grew up in a town of 2,000 people where the biggest sports stars were college basketball players; that was about it,” she said. “This is another world. Hopefully a kid in Cooperstown, [N.H.], can say, ‘Well if Sarah can go, I can go.’”
In her lead-up to London she said it’d be all about maintaining her health—something she’s had a few lessons in—and strong prep. She spent a lot of summer training in Switzerland—a place her coach discovered that’s since attracted many other triathletes—using a tracking system called Restwise to further analyze her recovery. She and her coach use it daily to decide if more rest is needed or if she has to suck it up and go. “It’s nice to have objective measures,” she said.
Part of Groff’s prep also included leaning up. Groff isn’t your traditional super-tiny triathlete, and her muscular build works well for her. But she admits she’d still like to be “pretty veiny” by August. “If you look a little veiny, that’s how you can tell you’re doing well,” she laughs. But, more seriously, she gets that weight issues among endurance athletes are no joking matter. With her history of injury, the last thing she’d do is compromise her chances at London based on a number on a scale. “There will be many very skinny girls at that race briefing, and some have gotten it wrong—they’re skinny, yes, but they’re sick and injured,” she said. “Others have it right and have the perfect power-to-weight ratio. The goal is to be the latter. It’s really about getting that body fat percentage down. I’ll still be my ‘muscely’ self because that’s what works for me. I’ll never have a build like Laura Bennett.”
Groff and 54 other women will compete in the 2012 London Olympics on Aug. 4. Check out our Olympic page for complete coverage from London.