Xena Warrior Princess

In 2009, Caroline Steffen, twenty-time national swimming champion and an ex-Raleigh-Lifeforce professional team rider, joined forces with Brett Sutton. The quest? To become a triathlon superstar.    

With such refined pedigree, many coaches would have swept Steffen up before they had seen her run a single step. Less easy to impress, it was not Steffen’s history in sport that impressed Sutton’s critical eye, but her presence. Sutton watched Steffen race at Ironman Zurich in 2009. It was not the way she led out the swim or destroyed the bike leg, which impressed him – it was her reaction to being passed by seven women after a catastrophic blow up on the run. “It was the way she suffered.” She finished only eighth that day, but that race could have been the most decisive result in her entire career.

FRIEND OR FOE: Caroline Steffen’s standoffishness was not a trait but merely a respect she had for her competition.

A year later Steffen had already commandeered the alpha female position in the Sutton group. With Chrissie Wellington gone and a position to fill, Steffen and Sutton had already begun their mission. Accumulating titles from around the world, improving her run, bike and swim, Steffen quickly became one of the most legitimate World Championship title contenders.

Sutton dubbed her ‘Xena Warrior Princess’, a name that Steffen still goes by today. The adopted nickname implies formidable strength and confidence, boldness and affluence. With each passing victory, the aura of Steffen morphed into that of her fictional namesake. It was that persona that I associated with Steffen when we trained within the same Sutton squad. 

For years Xena’s position, her presence and influence, was one I felt threatened by. Warriors are acclaimed for their heroism and inspiration, but they can also be cold and calculating.  There was no warmth between us – no familiarity and little attempt at friendship. It felt uncomfortable. 

“Yes, that was on purpose.”

I am speaking to Steffen on Skype from South Africa. She looks relaxed and natural resting on her bed on a Saturday evening in Australia. She is robust and strong, but her loose, long hair and beach style are far removed from her former more formal attire choices. She now gives off surfer-athletic not gym-chiseled warrior vibes.

I’m a little jarred by Steffen’s honesty, despite now being a friend who I tell secrets and problems too. So unidentifiable is this lady now with the idol who I attempted to know back then. Back then we passed like ships in the night, our voyages personal and direct. We were secluded on a mountain to get fast and focused. Xena took both tasks to the extreme.

“I didn’t see the benefit in making friends; we would have to race each other somewhere eventually, and that means we were rivals.”   

Hard-hitting and direct – that is some way to live. Self-esteem drawn only from success, and success only measurable by results. All enjoyment derived from achievement. Friendship put to the side, usurped by the potent persuasion of achievement. Many suffer similar sacrifices in their working life, perhaps even into their personal lives, but to live in that state for the majority of the year, for year upon year? That is something unique.

It was in 2014, a full four years after meeting, that our relationship dynamic finally evolved. It was in the unlikeliest of times and places – race day on the Queen K. Both away from the camp setup, both suffering like dogs we yo-yoed back and forth between fourth and fifth position for about 10km. We did not exchange a word or a glance. We met for coffee after that race and a wall was removed. Steffen seemed direct and open to me rather than abrupt and standoffish. I presumed she had finally gained some respect for me, which I was now worthy of her time investment. I assumed wrong. She now explains that it was her respect for me (or my potential) that had halted our friendship from the outset. We had both changed – we were both more mature and more experienced in life. Finally, we were both secure enough to lean on the other.

Back then our training life was all consuming. If Steffen’s standpoint seems unilateral, my opinions on others in the group were just as partisan. If I had stopped and listened properly, seen Steffen through kind eyes, not through the jealous blur that female hierarchy commonly invokes, I would have learnt more about her as a person, furthermore, about her as a competitor. The design of our scenario actively obscured that.   

SWEET JOY OF WINNING: Steffen takes victory in the inaugural Ironman Melbourne race in 2012.

Brett, not one for inaccuracy, had named Caroline ‘Xena Warrior Princess’ not just ‘Xena’ – she was a ‘warrior’ in racing but a ‘princess’ in life. Not the pretentious, diva-type princess but the kind sort. A Disney Princess saturated with character – quirky, disobedient, endearing, and slightly rebellious. She, of course, takes no shit. She can be bold and direct and sometimes even contrary, but she is also sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Vulnerable does not go with warrior.   

When Beyonce performs she channels her alter ego, ‘Sasha Fierce’. Steffen wasn’t able to just conjure Xena, her second self, on race day or in difficult training moments – she lived as her. For months, seasons and years Steffen had to be a strong, tough soldier. Did Xena really succeed in suppressing Steffen’s personality for three whole years?

        “That was the deal. I had to be Xena when I hit camp.”

“But you were on camp for the majority of the year?”

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t it difficult to sustain any personal relationships when you weren’t being completely your whole self?”

“Yes, Caroline didn’t come out then. I was never Caroline on camp.” 

We judge an athlete’s success on race results. What we often fail to see is the indefinable sacrifice, the penance that champions pay to pursue their goal. The golden years for ‘Xena Warrior Princess’ were 2009 to 2012. Results came fast and furiously. Steffen finished in the top five in Kona for five consecutive years – her best two years in 2010 and 2012, where she finished second to Mirinda Carfrae and Leanda Cave, respectively. She won her two ITU Long Distance World Titles, Challenge Roth and won Ironman Frankfurt twice in the Sutton years as well.

There have been prestigious wins since but not as frequently. Though results are far from sparse, there is a mellowing in Steffen’s intensity, especially when it comes to the iron distance and the pursuit of the Ironman World Championship title.   

In 2016 Caroline did not attempt qualification for the Ironman World Championships. Initially stated as a “break from the distance”, now she is not so sure anymore if it makes sense for her to return to Kona, convinced she cannot win there. I think she’s wrong, but that makes no difference. If I have learnt anything from a lengthy athletic career, if I know anything about elite performance, I know that while people may judge a champion on results, or on tactics, or decisions they made, they will never be able to fully appreciate the complexity of an individual’s perception of reality.

“You have to be all in, and I am not. I am different now.”

It isn’t with resentment or disappointment that Steffen talks of her restraint from the Big Island – it is with clarity and truth.   

Is it because of the intense disappointment she suffered in 2012?   

TAKING THE TAPE: Steffen is no stranger to breaking the tape and winning races around the globe. Ironman 70.3 Asia Pacific Championships in the Philippines.

That was the year that all three leaders were handed drafting penalties in a bizarre sequence of events – the mixing of back-marker male pros, the inconsistency of draft policing and the resultant equalising (yet not entirely fair) measure of the conveying of time penalties for Mary-Beth Ellis, Leanda Cave and Caroline Steffen. Few people will ever feel the sorrow of having the Ironman World Championship title so close and yet so far away.

“Yes, probably. I just felt a real injustice had been done. I’m not taking anything away from the winner, but that was my best chance, and it feels like it was taken away by that referee in a wrong decision.” 

The golden years for ‘Xena Warrior Princess’ were 2009 to 2012. Results came fast and furiously. — Jodie Cunnama

We can analyse athletic performance, scrutinise an athletes decisions and make judgements on their results, but it is often done without the privilege of truth. Each day’s experiences – good, bad and ugly – mould a person’s journey in sport. There is so much history – so much success stacked behind the Sutton/Steffen relationship one wonders, maybe for selfish reasons (there is no-one bar myself I would rather see win Kona than Steffen), if those days could be resurrected.

“I have a life here now – I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’d love to go back to those days in Leysin with the same people, the same setup. But times have changed – people have changed. I have definitely changed.”

Again, it is neither defiance or stubbornness that would stop her returning to Brett Sutton, the man who got Steffen closest to winning than any other – it is a nod to maturation and growth. She is right. We would be friends, not rivals now. There would be many babies, families besides – we would all be happy and feel loved and settled. But this is camp not the ‘Sound of Music’. In any case, I am sure there may be some objection to the hijacking of the current phenomenal setup of Sutton’s current Champions in St. Moritz. 

“Was/is it difficult to watch Daniela Ryf take over the alpha female role with Sutton?” 

“Yes, very.”

“You are very similar athletes.” 

“Yes exactly. Different in upbringing and such, but yes, he is replicating me and my training with her. It is very hard.” 

“Is she the best athlete you have encountered?”

“Yes, but only because I don’t immediately see the difference with her. Chrissie was outwardly brilliant, Rinny you could beat if you could get enough time on her to defend her killer run. With Daniela it puzzles me – she doesn’t seem that different to me and yet she wins.”

Indeed the parallels between Steffen and Ryf are so apparent that Steffen routinely gets mistaken for Ryf. They have similar strengths in the swim and the bike, both emerging with eventual talent in the run too. They weigh about the same, are of about the same height, both officially Swiss yet both versed in the more relaxed ways of, the wider world.   

Switzerland has played its role in shaping three of the most legendary, consistent female athletes in our sport. Caroline Steffen, Nicola Spirig and Daniela Ryf. All stoically Swiss German. Now residing in Port Macquarie NSW, I quiz Caroline on her choice to relocate and begin a new life in Australia – to fight for residency, to leave her family. Both of her homelands so beautiful and picturesque but so very, very different in culture.

       “They are so different – like opposite cultures.”

“Yet both the Swiss and Australian’s are so direct. Is that what you see?”

“Yes, that is the same.”   

HOME IN OZ: Caroline is well suited to live Down Under.

No wonder Caroline fits in Down-under. And no wonder I like her. She is as direct as she is honest but as far from straightforward as can be.   

Steffen has a lot of friends in the sport now – not just associates that respect her athletic prowess but real friends who like her as a person and want to spend time with her. She is happier in life, more liberated now having met her partner, Pete Murray, the voice of Ironman Asia-Pacific, early last year and having been able to open up to him and show him the contrasts between her public and private persona easily and freely. Steffen has spread her wings over the last few years. Never one to fear change in her life, she is now also not afraid of embracing her true self, be it a ‘Xena’ or a ‘Caroline’ day. Bracing to fly and soar in whichever direction she pleases in life and sport, the sport of triathlon should continue to salute this lady warrior.

Bravo ‘Xena Warrior Princess’.

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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