[Excerpts from this interview appear in the September 2014 issue of Triathlete.]
A native of the Czech Republic, 29 year-old Radka Vodickova has raced a winning swath around the world in both Olympic distance and half-iron distance triathlon. Thus far in 2014 she’s logged victories in Australia (Challenge Bateman’s Bay), Vietnam (Laguna Lang Co Triathlon), Malaysia (Ironman 70.3 Putrajaya), the U.S. Virgin Islands (Ironman 70.3 St. Croix) and mainland U.S. (Rev3 Knoxville and the overall Rev3 Series). And that suits Vodickova just fine–along with her taste for victory and frequent racing, the former Olympian (London 2012) enjoys the globetrotting lifestyle and the cultural experiences that are part and parcel of being an athlete nomad.
TM: Tell me about your childhood. What was little Radka like?
RV: A sick girl! I was born in a factory town with a lot of smoke in the air. Until age seven I was sick all the time, coughing and on antibiotics–a very weak child. My father was a tennis coach and he got a good job in Germany in a beautiful spot on the border with Switzerland and Austria, so he went there for one month and then wrote a message to my mom: It’s great here, pack the kids and come! I went to second grade with no German language, but it pushed me and my sister [three years younger] and we learned to speak German so fast. We loved it there, and I was not sick anymore. The fresh air helped a lot. I played tennis, of course, with my sister and I joined the cross-country ski club because everything was about skiing there. My sister did downhill skiing but I thought it was too dangerous so I did cross-country and I loved it. Then after two and a half years the job was not that good anymore, and our parents said we were going back to the Czech Republic. We cried because we had all our friends there. We almost forgot how to speak Czech because my father wanted us to speak only German, so going back to Czech school was hard. But we never went back to the ugly town. We did a drive through the whole Czech Republic and my sister and I could say which place we liked the most. We stopped in one place and I asked in the information office, “Is there a lot of snow in winter?” They said no, so we went somewhere else–to Jablonec. We stayed there because it’s a great town for cross-country skiing and very beautiful there. My mom still lives there and I have my permanent address there. I visit my hometown only for Christmas now.
My sister stayed with tennis, but I was very bad at tennis! I loved it but I didn’t do well–I cannot stay very long focused and concentrated [laughing]. But I stayed with cross-country skiing, and I did a little bit of swimming, some mountain biking (but I stopped because I was scared of downhill), road cycling and a little bit of track running and biathlon, which is cross country skiing and shooting. There was a little triathlon club in Jablonec and the coach asked me, “You are so good in cross-country skiing, you can run–maybe you can join our team?” On the team there were no girls, just boys, and as a teenage girl I was like, “Yeah, I’m joining!” This is why I decided to go this direction–because of the good-looking guys.
So I was kind of a triathlete but always with a bad swim. I was more like a duathlete. Then when I was 20 I met a good coach (he coached me until May 2014) and we took the triathlon training seriously. He decided to show me what it is to be a real triathlete, so he showed me how to swim. He had a lot of patience with me, doing a lot of technique and a lot of work in the water. Because to do the ITU style of racing you need to swim, otherwise you are lost. And then we started to travel the world. He took me to Malaysia for my first training camp abroad. I was so excited and this is how my love to travel started. I saw a new world and new possibilities. It was my first time away from Europe. It was like a total new world to me.
TM: And now you spend nearly all your time on the road, mostly in Asia, Australia, the U.S. and Spain, correct?
RV: Yes, in the last three years. Before that I still studied in the Czech Republic. I finished university two years ago, so I had to be in the Czech Republic more, but the university was very good to me because I was studying sports science. I told them I was at training camp in Asia and could only come certain times, and they were very nice to me. It helped to say I was in preparation for the Olympics! I think they were sometimes also a bit softer toward me when I was not as good in some sports we had to do in class. I had to promise I would never coach ice hockey, ice-skating or ballet [laughing]!
TM: I know there are a few other big names in terms of Czech triathletes, but it’s not the most widely known sport in your country. Is that a disadvantage for you at all, in terms of sponsorships or other opportunities?
RV: People there ask you, “What did you say? Triathlon? You mean biathlon, right?” You have to explain it. Even with Jan Rehula–in 2000 he took a bronze medal in Sydney–it’s still so small a sport. First, because people are lazy in the Czech Republic! And second, not many people can afford to do triathlon. It’s expensive to have all the equipment. Maybe 10 years ago was a time we called the Golden Age of Triathlon in the Czech Republic–you had good races and many good athletes doing the races and you could earn good money doing only the Czech Cup races. But that’s totally gone. Now it’s in such a bad condition. If I think how to best explain it, the winner of the Czech Cup last year–the whole year of Czech Cup racing–took less than $200 prize money! It’s a pity because we could have good athletes, but the politics of it is not good. And in terms of getting sponsorship it’s hard because it’s a small sport. Even if you can say you were in the Olympics or you are the European duathlon champion, they still say, “But what do you want?” You can maybe get material support, but for traveling you need mainly money. It’s definitely better to do what I do and live and race in other places. I have a bike sponsor now–Culprit–that makes custom bikes, so I was able to say how I want my bike to look–what color combinations, even pictures. So I am riding on a pink and black bike with flowers! This year is actually my first year with some sponsors (Culprit Bicycles) and supporters (BLK Tec wheels, Nimblewear, AirAsiaX, ISM saddles). I am still looking for nutrition, wetsuit and shoe sponsors. I have never had a manager, but it is time to get one.
TM: You were 20th in the London 2012 Olympics. Do you have aspirations of competing in another Olympic Games?
RV: Before the London Olympics I thought it would be good to go for the Olympics at least once in my life–it’s a nice experience. So I decided to do the whole ITU circuit and collect the points, even though I didn’t earn a lot of money. But then I went to the Olympics, and nobody cares. You don’t get rich from going to the Olympics. I was still OK because I did many races and I earned some money, but two Czech guys that also qualified for the Olympics, they had to borrow money from their parents to go. After London I thought: OK, I did the Olympics, now it’s time to do my job and earn some money. I decided to choose a different direction, so I left the federation because they didn’t give me any option. They said I had to either do what they told me or else I could go and do the racing I wanted, so I said, “OK, bye.” In terms of Rio , I would never say never–if the Czech federation would maybe change something and want to find some solution, then I would say, “Why not?” There is still time to do it, but I didn’t plan any ITU races this year and the collection points have already started. But if they came and said they wanted to talk, then I would talk to them.
TM: Any interest at this point in stepping up to iron-distance racing?
RV: I have never rode 180-km on the bike, and I have never run 42-km. I think I could do it in three days maybe, this whole thing, with a lot of rest and a lot of food in between! I think while I am able to do good at Olympic distance non-drafting and half Ironman distance non-drafting then I will stay with this. I love racing and I know I can do a race every week and look happy and have fun and go to the party afterwards, but after Ironman I think I would not be able to talk! But if one day I see that there are so many young girls beating me in the shorter distances, then maybe I will need to switch to longer stuff. Maybe then I will try it.
TM: You sure do love to race–I heard you say in an interview with Bob Babbitt that you did 31 races in 2013!
RV: Actually I was lying–I was embarrassed to say 33! I’m not sure why–I think because I did a few smaller races and I thought it was maybe too much, so I said only 31!
TM: Do you ever struggle with injuries, racing so much?
RV: The most serious injury I had was in 2009. I had a stress fracture in my foot. But this was when I was running much more. Every week I did almost 100-km, because to be competitive in ITU you have to just run and run and run. It was in 2009 just one week before the European championship, so I was very sad. But I was also stupid because I didn’t tell anyone that I had the pain. It was my first experience having a stress fracture. Since then I am much more careful. I don’t want to go back and have this injury again.
TM: Where do you get your competitive drive?
RV: I think I was born with it! Maybe from my father, because he is very competitive and he always wanted me and my sister to be good sportswomen.
TM: Who is someone in your life that has influenced you significantly?
RV: It’s strange to say it like this, but thanks to my father I’m doing sport, but I have a bad relationship with him now. He thought it was good when we were children to push us a little bit into sport, but then he kind of wanted it so much that he was too into it. It didn’t work how he wanted, and we kind of broke up the whole family. But even if I don’t figure out how to talk to him, even if I do not forgive him, I’m still very happy with what he did. I really appreciate what he did, because I could be just a normal Czech girl living in this ugly town and being sick my whole life, and just staying in the Czech Republic and not knowing anything about the rest of the world. He gave me the opportunity to be healthy, to do sports, to speak German and to see that there was more.
TM: You really have been all over the world to train and race. Do you have any funny stories from your travels?
RV: I have many funny stories about getting to know new cultures. Even coming to the U.S. the first time. I went to do the grocery shopping and I was waiting to pay the cashier and somebody started to take my stuff. I was like, “Excuse me, that’s mine!” I thought somebody was taking my food. But here in the U.S. they pack it for you. They laughed at me. My first time in Asia, when I told my mom I was going she was like, “Oh my god, don’t eat anything from the street!” So I went there and I thought I could eat only these packaged bagels from 7-11. And my coach ate only on the street. He had raced in Asia before, so he knew how it worked there and he was eating all this spicy food and I was just chewing my bagel. So I thought: OK, maybe I will try the rice. Two days later I was eating only on the street and trying all these fried worms and bugs. I think I tried everything they offered! When I described to my mom what I ate there she started to get a rash on her throat, just imagining eating all this stuff! And in Thailand and Malaysia I never had stomach problems eating on the street–only in China.
TM: Have you had any strange homestay experiences?
RV: Oh yeah! Once at a race I had a homestay with two other friends. After the second night sleeping there the lady told us there were bed bugs in her house. She said she was always fighting with them and we had to move out because the exterminator was coming, and we better throw away everything we have. We were shocked! Then she said maybe they were only in her room. So we washed everything and got another homestay. We didn’t get any bed bugs, none of us were bitten or anything, but that was the most shocking experience. Otherwise, I have to say getting a homestay is such a nice experience. When I can choose to get a hotel or a homestay I pick homestay. Because you get to know great people usually. And you are usually in a new town, so people can tell you where to grocery shop, where to swim or some interesting information about the town. And usually I stay in contact with all my homestays. I get postcards from all around the world and when I do the race again I just stay with them and don’t even need to contact the race organizer.
TM: Is it ever hard for you, being on the go so much of the time?
RV: The only hard thing is that you cannot do any real shopping. I bought new shoes, so now I have to throw something else away because I cannot pack it. I actually did some more shopping now, so I had to send one extra box to Boulder [where she spent two months over the summer] because I couldn’t carry it. And from my bike sponsor and wheel sponsor I got a new pair of wheels and a disc wheel, so now suddenly I have so many things. I’m not sure how I’m going to travel until December without going home early.
TM: I imagine you live out of your bike box and a few suitcases, right?
RV: I have just the bike box and one backpack for carry-on! My bike is very secure usually, because it is so stuffed with all the clothes. But it’s really heavy, so at the airline counter I have to lift it up a little bit so it’s not overweight [laughing].
TM: Aside from your race equipment, some basic clothing and other essentials, do you carry any comfort items?
RV: Yes. I have a little stuffed animal, a koala bear. It’s maybe the size of a bike bottle. I have a place for it, though. I would carry it in my pocket if there would be no other place [smiling]! This I got from Brad recently [fellow pro Brad Kahlefeldt, Vodickova’s boyfriend]. And before, I traveled with my stuffed hippopotamus. It was kind of like my child!
TM: Where’s the hippo now?
RV: Actually, the poor hippo is in the box shipping to Boulder. I feel so bad! But he’s on the top, so he should be OK. There’s no food in there, but I think there is some energy drink [laughing].
TM: You’re obviously an adventurous person to live like you do. But is there anything that you’re afraid of?
RV: Sharks! And I’m afraid of one day when I decide to have a child and raising the child. It scares me because it’s so tough nowadays. I want that, and it’s not that it scares me, but I have respect for that–for giving a child a good life and good direction.
TM: Do you think you want to wait until your triathlon career is finished to be a mom?
RV: I don’t know. I’m 30 almost, so I don’t know. It’s a tough one. When I see Sarah Haskins coming back after a child, it’s unbelievable. It’s so great. But also, I’m traveling with just one backpack. I would have to settle myself down. It would be totally different. So that’s the first thing to think about. We’ll see first how good I am with hippo and koala raising [laughing]!