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Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby is equally admired for her athletic skill and for her vivacious personality. Spend five minutes with her and you’ll wind up smiling ear to ear—her positivity is simply contagious. After a breakthrough performance last year in Kona where she finished fourth, Vesterby is more passionate than ever about full distance racing. She’s eager to put herself to the test on Sunday at Challenge Roth, and comes to the race feeling in the best form of her life. Here’s what she had to say about her approach to the race—and to life in general.
Triathlete.com: One of the most obvious things about you is that you’re nearly always smiling. Where does this positivity come from?
MV: I think that I really found my passion in triathlon. I think a lot of people can say that, but after I changed to the Ironman distance I really feel it. I feel privileged to be in this sport and have the lifestyle that I’m living and the opportunity to do what I love to do. And I really find joy in telling that to people and making people realize how lucky they are with the options they have. Sometimes I see people being grumpy—maybe it’s raining and it’s hard to train—but I feel like, hey, it’s your own choice. If you don’t feel like it, then stay home.
I always tell the story about my big brother Mark who couldn’t swim, bike or run. He was multi-handicapped and he was definitely one of my big motivations. He was just smiling all the time. He couldn’t talk, but his way to express himself was through his smile. He died at 26, but that’s also why we say it wasn’t a sad story when he died. He was starting to get sick and he wouldn’t have been Mark, so instead he was happy every day until he died.
Out there when it hurts the most—or just in life, because life is not always worth smiling about—that’s what motivates me. And also when things go really good, you just have to pinch yourself and keep present in where you are. Every time I start a race I feel I’m lucky to be able to race and do what I love to do, so I try to get the most out of it.
Triathlete.com: A friend of mine once told me that if you’re struggling on the run, try smiling a little. It really does physically give you a slight upward lift, plus it plays a reverse psychology trick: spectators see you smiling and think you’re feeling good, thus they encourage you, which in turn makes you feel like you are doing well. Is this true in your experience?
MV: I have to admit that in some races it is really difficult for me to smile, but the races I’ve been doing the best are the races where I do put the smile on my face. You get so much benefit from the audience and from the other competitors. I did this small race in Denmark just a few weeks ago and I did it just to do a training race, but there were 1500 Danish people in this race and my one goal was to smile and cheer for the rest of them. And I never raced better. My times were really good and it was so easy to do my Ironman pace and to do my run pace. I just had a party. And I got so many comments afterward saying: It was so inspiring seeing you out there! How can you just continue smiling? I want to do this one more time! So you get so much more out of it if you can put a smile on your face. And it’s not only true in racing; it’s also in real life. If you meet people with a smile, you get so much positivity back.
Triathlete.com: As such a nice and happy person, is it ever hard for you to kick into fight mode and find the desire to crush your competitors?
MV: I think as soon as the gun goes off we are all competitors. We are friends outside the course, and I have lots of friends in the sport, which I feel really privileged about, but when the gun goes off everyone is against each other. Still, maybe sometimes it has been difficult for me to reach the very top, because sometimes I maybe miss that killer instinct. So I’ve been working on that as well! Put on half the smile, but still be the fighter inside. And of course I hate losing. I did Challenge Denmark this year as a training race for me, and that was on my home soil and I won it last year and I really wanted to win it again. But I was racing it as training toward Roth, so I knew coming into it that it could go both ways. It was actually one of my really good friends that beat me by about 30 seconds, catching me on the run after I was leading the whole day. That was not fun at all! I had to take 10 minutes away from her before I went and congratulated her! It was just a training race and it should just be fun, but still I’m super competitive because this is my lifestyle.
Triathlete.com: Speaking of competition, how does the late entry of Daniela Ryf affect you? Does it alter your race strategy at all?
MV: OK, I will be totally honest with this question. Monday of race week, hearing that a girl like Daniela is entering the race is of course not fun. So at first I was really pissed! I actually wrote a message to Challenge on social media, like: Am I the only one not happy for this decision? Just made my life so much harder! #keepsmiling
I thought that could be seen as a positive, or it could be seen as really negative! But after a few hours on Monday morning, after getting my first training done, I saw that it is really good for the sport that we have two world champions at this race. Daniela is an outstanding athlete and an outstanding person, so she will do really well for sure. It makes the race dynamic a little bit different, but also we’re missing some good top girls who didn’t come because of injury, so it will also probably push me a little bit more. I see it like, I have a girl now I can swim with, and also I have a girl now I will stick with on the bike as long as I possibly can. And it’s a full distance and anything can happen. I’m in the greatest shape of my life right now and I know it can go both ways. Mentally I just have to go out there and focus on my own race and being in the best position I can be in.
Triathlete.com: It also gives you an opportunity to race her outside of Kona.
MV: Yeah but as I said, I don’t need that! (Laughing). I don’t need that.
Triathlete.com: Last year was a big year for you—you won Ironman Copenhagen, breaking nine hours, and you were fourth in Kona, plus you had a win at Challenge Denmark and a handful of other top five finishes. So what are your goals for the race on Sunday and for the rest of this season?
MV: The good thing about finishing fourth in Kona is that I was more or less already qualified for this year. Last year I wasn’t qualified in August and this year I was already the first girl qualified in the field in November with my race at Ironman Arizona. So the whole year we’ve just been focusing on Hawaii and Roth—building up and making me stronger and faster. The whole season has really been building up around these two goals, working on my running and my biking and the power. So it’s really important to me to do well here. These are my two goals; I really don’t have more than this. Coming off of fourth place last year when I got my breakthrough, I don’t know where I can take it this year, but I feel better and my conditions are better. My shape is better. My head is better. So there are lots of things really in balance right now. The smile is even bigger. So it will be interesting to see where I can take it!