Born to Race

There aren’t many famous people from Bermuda. There are Bermuda shorts of course. Certainly, no other 53km2 territory can claim responsibility for such an influential neon movement in the 90s. There’s a Miss World (of 1979), a few authors, some painters and some decent sportspeople – mainly cricketers. There’s Tyler Butterfield. The lists definitely need an update. Maybe fibre-optic Internet speed hasn’t reached the isolated island yet. Maybe they are just on island time. But a golden lady is vying for the title of the most famous Bermudian alive.

Humbly spreading the name of her homeland, flying its flag high on the world stage, she demonstrates impeccable class and inspires thousands of fans with displays of courage, determination and endeavour each weekend. Flora Duffy is big time.

I first met Flora in 2008. I was in her country, racing (what turned out to be the final edition of) the famous Bermudian export ‘Escape to Bermuda’. Flora was on holiday from university and had come to support the race, which drew athletes from across the world to the island.

“I realised I race because I love it and want to do it. Not to please others or prove I am good enough. I do it for myself.” – Flora Duffy 

After presentations, we rode home together.  I was struck by her approachability and the ease of intelligent conversation that flowed. She was candid and definite. She was taking time out from the sport – she needed space from the pressure. Evaluation. Change. What representing Bermuda had given Flora – opportunity, pride and success, had also led to a demise in her mental and physical health. A DNF at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Triathlon, an eating disorder, injury and illness are all sadly far too common side effects of pressure and expectation in young sportspeople.

Seeing the island during that time, it is easy to understand how this tiny country managed to create athletes like Flora and Tyler. It is a playground for sport, both warm in weather and in temperament. Its scenery could be part of an advertising campaign for outdoor life.

‘During my childhood, if I was not at the beach then I was riding whatever bike I had at the time along the railway trails with my friends exploring the island. We’d stop and pick loquats (a local fruit) from trees – often climbing to the very top to find the best fruit. Bermuda is a great place to grow up as a kid.’

An ‘island girl’ perhaps by nature, an ambitious sportswoman by nurture, Flora left the paradise island at the age of 16. Already a sporting prodigy in her country in both cycling and in running, plus being a competitive swimmer, she enjoyed great prominence in the local press, racing and performing most weekends in school, club and regional meets. Driven by her ambition and backed by her results, she applied for and won a scholarship to the famous Kelly College (now Mount Kelly) sports specialist private boarding school in Devon, England.

From 2002, she continued her sporting development on a new island, albeit, four thousand times as big…

‘It was both exciting and terrifying. It was the first time I experienced culture shock! Here I am this island girl at a posh British boarding school. The uniform itself took me a few months to get over! Thankfully, the swimming and triathlon team helped me find my feet quickly.’

Being 16, away from home, achieving much, and aspiring to more, is an exciting but potentially tough situation to be in. While most teenagers are learning about life and are alien to too much responsibility or expectation, sporting prodigies are testing their physical and mental limits daily, in gruelling hours split between the pool, the field, the road and the classroom.

There is a very delicate balance of energy, dedication, achievement and maturity that must be maintained. It is easy to tip the balance too far in all directions.

The school training program embraced Flora and quickly produced both promising and impressive results. Second place at World Juniors, an eighth place in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and multiple top tens in World Cups accumulated on her résumé. Flora was flourishing in the training regime away from home, but that success was hiding a growing issue – alongside this exponential triathlon progression, an eating disorder was quietly manifesting itself.

‘I slowly developed an eating disorder. It started by just simply trying to eat a little healthier, but that then led to eating less and less. Before I knew I was not in a good place. As a result, I was racing very well or should I say running very well. It is a weird situation to be in – on the one hand you receive a lot of positive reinforcement for the behaviour from the outside because of great race results, but on the inside, I was destroying my body.’

A common affliction affecting talent worldwide in youth sport, eating disorders often begin as innocent, seemingly productive nutritional analysis, nutrition being a valuable area of focus for improvement within a progressive training regime. Too often, weight limitation – calorie restriction and dieting, ends as the sole focal point for success and athletic prowess.

Ironically, though detrimental to sustained improvement and long-term goal accomplishment, weight loss in weight bearing sports often provides immediate short-term gains. This propulsion to success is addictive and feeds its own prophecy – sickness.

Like many, within two years of the eating problems infection, twenty-year-old Flora’s body began to give out. Results floundered. She wasn’t even able to complete the course in the Beijing Olympics, just two years after achieving the best results of her young life.

Flora describes the period as ‘a really tough time in my life’, a premise easily recited and overlooked, and yet that resonates poignantly with those of us who have suffered similar disappointment at the hands of mental afflictions. ‘Tough’ to one such as Flora, it is no surprise that similar scenarios have permanently broken, disillusioned and wrecked other young females psyches.

“I looked at the racing and thought if I am ever going to finish on a podium, something needs to happen on the bike.” – Flora Duffy 

For Flora, it was time to opt out. With her now familiar cavalier courage, she quietly removed herself from the pressure of racing, of body image and the associated expectation. She won a place at university. She studied, partied and she rode her bike if and when she wanted.

While the race and build up to the Beijing Olympics signify the lowest point of Flora’s career, a twist of fate on her return journey from the Games has significantly guided her to the best of her athletic future. On the plane home, Neal Henderson, Boulder based coach to cyclist Taylor Phinney, sat in front of Duffy. Relatively unaware previously of his coaching accolades or training approach, this random, chance meeting eventually persuaded Flora to reach out to him when she began her degree at the University of Colorado a year later.

Revived and recovered from torrid times, her health improving and life more balanced, Flora found the strength to begin her lifelong passion once more. Aided by the nurturing expertise of Henderson, this time it was on solely their terms. She joined the CU cycling team – for fun, ‘exercising’ alongside normal university life. She took nothing too seriously or with any huge expectation.

The vastness of USA living and the relative anonymity that racing in a collegiate environment provides suited ‘that Bermudian triathlete’ very well. Flora could explore her talent unpressurised, untimed and without judgement.

A new athlete emerged. Child prodigy no more, but mature, adult racer – the same physical prowess but now armed with a new racing philosophy. She honoured a new set of values with different markers for success.

‘I realised I race because I love it and want to do it. Not to please others or prove I am good enough. I do it
for myself.’

It is that mindset that set Flora back to racing triathlon in 2010.

Racing didn’t come back suddenly or dramatically but self-focus and a constant endeavour to develop skills correctly – to be healthy, patient and to trust in her own journey of progress. Four years of practice led to her first world title – the ‘XTERRA World Champion’ of 2014.

Currently the ‘World Triathlon Series Champion’, it is the same philosophy that is on display each and every time Flora attacks a bike pack, orchestrates a breakaway or dictates a risky corner line. She sets out her purpose in a race from the gun. She dictates the race.

‘I sometimes think I race with a little more recklessness than purpose, but I am trying to increase the amount of purpose in each race. I think last year my racing style took a few athletes by surprise. I looked at the racing and thought if I am ever going to finish on a podium, something needs to happen on the bike.’

Now, ‘something’ always happens on the bike. From the WTS Gold Coast breakaway of 2016 (Duffy, Hewitt and Jenkins) that saw Jenkins qualify the final spot on the GBR Olympic team; to WTS Leeds 2016 (Learmouth, Hall, Duffy)
– a breakaway of three, WTS Leeds 2017 – a breakaway of four, WTS Ishigaki 2017 – with Sophie Coldwel, and WTS Hamburg 2017 – a breakaway of four and a further solo break.

Flora’s influence is consistent and has changed women’s ITU racing in similar ways that the Brownlee’s tactics have changed the men’s.  It is no longer a ‘wet run race’ – if racers want to win, they have to play with Flora – they have to swim with her and bike with her. If they don’t, she will win. If they do, she may still win by out-running them anyway – like she did Gwen Jorgensen in the WTS final in 2016. For it is often forgotten that – like the Brownlee’s – Flora is also a world-class runner.

I have come to know Flora well over the South African summer. Each year I see and watch her early season preparations.
She trains hard year round, like many other athletes, she is dedicated, talented and committed – all athletes of this calibre are.

What makes Flora unique is the complete dichotomy of personality she balances.

Normally, aside from training, she is ultra relaxed, a laid back and calm islander, last into the water when the water is cold, last out of the water when the sun shines. Sporadically though, there are isolated, unparalleled sparks of competitiveness, toughness and focus. She is ultra-intense when she needs to be, aggressive even. This is someone who fights for position. Absolutely born to race.

Despite her successes, an un-doubtable increase of pressure from her country and from her own reputation, Flora ‘Version 2.0’ still makes sensible decisions. Whether it is Henderson’s guidance, the hard life-lessons of the journey, or something else entirely, Flora concentrates solely on how Flora can improve.

It is easy to list Flora’s successes as her results mount upon one another. It is easy to simply label somebody talented, or fortunate, or ‘better’.

She is bulletproof in terms of bike skill and aptitude, reliable to be a front pack swimmer and a consistent sub 35-minute 10km runner off the bike. If it rains – Flora gains an advantage. If the swim is hard – Flora prospers.She is thrice XTERRA World Champion. She beats mountain bike champions in off-road terrain challenges.  She’s in love, engaged to her dream man.  She is fun but not cavalier, balanced but not boring. Every risk she takes seems to work out. Everything Flora touches at the moment appears to turn to gold.

It is the art of illusion – a champion’s skill, if ever there was one – to make the hard look easy, the impossible routine. Nothing has, in fact, come to Flora Duffy without the price of experience. Nothing.

“Next year, in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she will attempt to race (medal) in both triathlon and mountain biking.” – Jodie Cunnama 

Each action she takes is a consequence of a hard lesson prior. A loss in a wet run race; an injury due to poor nutrition; misery due to a crash; a fall; a failure.

Flora has been a triathlete since the age of seven. Twenty-four years and only champion status in the last three. For each year enjoyed at the top, there have been four years struggling and scraping together top 20s, failed bike breaks and minor prize monies to fund the next chapter.

And setbacks do not cease with success either. Only at the start of 2017 had Flora suffered a potentially serious problem – an injury that forced her withdrawal from the first three WTS races of the year, a symptom that would throw other athletes’ seasons onto the junk pile.

‘I started the year with a bad injury – a stress reaction in my hip. There were weeks when walking was painful. That was hard to overcome and process but I realised dealing with injuries is part of the journey so rather than be negative, I made the most of an unfortunate situation.

So, to combat the negative situation, I:

  1. Made the most of the training I could do. Once I was allowed to swim and ride again, I did everything I could to improve both.
  2. Worked on the imbalances and weaknesses, which caused the injury.
    I have come out the other side stronger and more efficient.
  3. And most importantly, remembered that everyone goes through this, it is part of the process. And some extra, forced rest isn’t a bad thing – even though it seems like your little world is ending.’

It is not that Flora feels less desperate or pressurised to return to racing when injured. It is her ability to withdraw emotional struggle temporarily, and temper that anxiety into a renewed perseverance to remain rational and logical in her decision-making. She trusts the right people to help her mindset and relies on a few key team members to aid her in making the right decisions for her athletic career. For there is no ‘Team Bermuda’ nationally-funded entourage travelling with Flora. There is no team manager, physio, nutritionist, sports scientist, or mechanic like the many other nations competing at the top level of triathlon.

‘I would say it is very different going to a race in my shoes compared to those in big federations such as the British and the USA. They have so many staff at each event; I often wonder what they all do! I am lucky if one person comes with me. When I first started racing on the ITU circuit, it was very difficult’

One wonders if the self-sufficiency of Flora that has actually enhanced her ability to make Flora-based decisions without the pressure of funding cuts or team orders to compromise her goal of personal integrity. She is not forced to race to validate selections nor dictated to by selection criteria and performance staff. Her career is her own, not obscured by the agendas of others. Her esteem is self-fulfilling and not reliant on the approval of others.

“Can Bermuda really put together a viable team to race the big nations of the world for Olympic medals? ‘Never say never’ when Flora, Bermuda and triathlon are involved.” – Jodie Cunnama 

Flora continues to write her own maps to her future. She took on XTERRA in the midst of her ITU career with such success that her involvement now is hardly questioned nor remarked upon.

Next year, in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she will attempt to race (medal) in both triathlon and mountain biking.

‘I think it would be really cool to go to a Games for two different sports. Not many get the opportunity to do so. I have the ability to ride at a level that is competitive, so why not try! That is one of the privileges of being from Bermuda. We do not have anyone else going to race the mountain bike event, so all I have to do is qualify, and I am eligible.’

One of the downsides of racing as a Bermudian may have increased just lately with the announcement of the inclusion of the relay type format to be included in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Can Bermuda really put together a viable team to race the big nations of the world for Olympic medals? ‘Never say never’ when Flora, Bermuda and triathlon are involved.

‘Currently, there are two juniors competing at a really high level – Tyler Smith and Erica Hawley. Erica actually goes to the University of Colorado and Tyler is currently in Leeds at uni, and also training with a squad there. I am hoping they will qualify for Commonwealth Games so we can take part in the mixed team relay.’

The Bermudian passion for triathlon of the 90s seems to have been thoroughly revived not least due to the success of their singular female star. With the announcement of a World Series Race in 2018 and the impending influx of triathlon royalty back to these shores, Flora can hold the flag of her country high and proud.

2017 is building towards a landmark year for Duffy – she flies high on the World Triathlon Series rankings, her Xterra World title looks unchallengeable, inclusion in the inaugural Women’s ‘Super League Triathlon’ in September and of course her impending marriage to Xterra-star, Dan Hugo. There is no doubt more to come.

Good Luck Flora, our favourite, fearless Bermudian.

 

Images: ITU Media

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jodie Swallow

Jodie Swallow is a world champion, Ironman champion and Olympian. Not one to shy away from an uncomfortable but necessary conversation, Jodie Swallow is guaranteed to keep you thinking.
Follow Jodie at www.ifollowtheswallow.co.uk
Twitter: @jodieswallow
Instagram: @jodiestar

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