Flora Duffy appears on the screen for our Teams video interview in a halo of light. It’s simply the Stellenbosch sun breaking through into the room where she’s sitting for our call, but it’s a fitting entrance for this most remarkable of athletes.
A multisporting legend who has collected every major short-course title going, often repeatedly, in her 17-year career on the global sporting stage. Now, with that much-longed for Olympic gold in her possession, we find a very contented Duffy in South Africa.
Back on well-trodden training ground, and finally able to let the last, whirlwind of a year sink in. Let’s get chatting…
Flora Duffy’s 2021 race season
220: Well, first of all, huge congratulations. What a year. Looking back on 2021, is there anything you wish had gone differently? Or was it really the perfect season?
Flora Duffy: Well, jeez, it feels like just such a blur, that whole year. But it’s funny. My husband [former Xterra pro Dan Hugo] says there was multiple times he thought I was right on the knife’s edge of doing a bit too much. But somehow I managed to just stay right in that place of extreme fitness without going over.
If I had to change one thing… I hurt my back in April, as I flew from South Africa over to Boulder. It lingered for about eight weeks, which at that point was really very stressful because that was very close to the Olympics. So it would have been nice not to have had that stress. But I can’t really complain. It wasn’t easy, but it all went mostly to plan.
220: You mentioned being on the knife’s edge. The elite racing schedule is now so jam-packed, with the average season finishing a lot than it used to. How do you avoid that burnout?
FD: Oh my gosh, it’s really hard. You have the World Triathlon schedule, then you’ve got Super League thrown in there now. And then for me, I’m interested in racing 70.3. So you add in trying to do one or two of those and it’s quite a lot to manage.
So for me, last year, the Olympics was my big goal and I ticked that off. And then I kind of was like, right, well, what do I want to do for the rest of the year? And what I didn’t realise was that the Olympics was absolutely going to kill me.
There was a lot of pressure and expectation on my shoulders for quite a few years going into it. And then I won, and then there’s this media frenzy, managing so many different things, but also trying to come to terms with what just happened.
I just achieved the greatest goal of my life. But I had to prioritise my health and wellbeing. I needed to take a little step back so that I could continue racing in the World Triathlon series.
It’s very hard to do both. And some people do and I don’t know how they do it, but for me, it’s, ‘Okay. What do I want to achieve for the rest of my career?’ You have to make a few sacrifices here and there. Cause it’s really great fun, doing all the races, but it’s definitely a tricky balance and I’m getting older.
Flora Duffy’s racing plans for the future
220: What’s it like coming off an Olympic year straight into a Commonwealth one?
FD: It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s almost exactly a year from when we raced in Tokyo to racing in Birmingham. But to me, now that I’ve gone through an Olympic cycle as one of the favourites, nothing will ever feel like that again.
I think what’s nice is that I’ve [already] won the Commonwealth Games [in 2018]. So in a way, I’ve ticked that box, so I’m in a really nice space where I’m racing because I want to and I really enjoy it.
And so that definitely helps take the pressure off. I mean, of course I’m still a competitive person, so I’m going to try and win a medal.
But the craziest thing is people keep telling me how many days it is to the Paris 2024 Olympics. Please stop! I’m still trying to celebrate this Olympic medal from Tokyo.
220: So my next question was obviously going to be about Paris… do you think you’ve got another Olympic cycle in you?
FD: Ha! It’s interesting. For Tokyo, in those final, like six weeks, I said, I’m never doing this again. Like this is too much stress for me to handle. Then you fast forward after the Olympics, and maybe I could do it.
It is only three years away. The door’s definitely open. I’m just going to take it year by year.
But I definitely have some aspirations for the 70.3 distance this year. Ironman doesn’t interest me at all at the moment. But with my racing style, 70.3 and the World Triathlon racing could work quite nicely. My main focus is on the WTCS and Commonwealths, but I’d like to qualify for the 70.3 Worlds at the end of October in St. George.
I’m looking at the calendar now, and it’s actually really difficult to fit a qualification race in by the cut-off, given my world triathlon schedule. But it’s still a goal, and something that excites me. It’s important for me to do that stuff right now, just because it’s different, gets me out of my comfort zone, learning new skills.
Flora Duffy on her fellow athletes
220: So your fellow Tokyo gold medallist, Kristian Blummenfelt, also had quite a 2021. What do you make of his achievements?
FD: I don’t know how he does it. After the Olympics, I was definitely running on fumes. So how he managed to do what he did… I don’t know. But you know, that’s Kristian. Our personalities are very different. But yeah, that Ironman debut, it’s pretty ridiculous. I don’t even have words for it. Mind-blowing.
220: And the Norwegians might only just be beginning to scratch the surface of what they can achieve. So are you keeping an eye on the women’s team?
FD: Yeah, I was going to say. I’m very grateful that the women’s team may be taking a little bit longer to develop! But I’m sure it’s coming. It’s terrifying but also very, very exciting.
It’s just pretty wonderful to see a country like Norway that you don’t necessarily associate with triathlon and they’re flipping the sport on its head. It’s really incredible to see the level that they’re racing at.
220: How have you seen the women’s racing change over the years?
FD: It’s just so strong now. You really can’t have a weakness to win these races. In the past, the swim-bikers weren’t strong runners, but now the swim-bikers can run a ridiculously fast five or 10k off the bike.
If you miss that swim, you’ve definitely put yourself in a hole and made it a lot harder.
And not to mention the amount of British women that are just lining up. It’s just incredible to see the strength and depth in that team.
220: Let’s just talk quickly about Jess Learmonth. Knowing how she controls the swim, how did that change your approach to the Olympic race?
FD: Jess is incredible. But yeah I knew that the swim was going to make or break my race. So my swimming definitely got a very high priority going into Tokyo. I was nervous for that portion of the race, because I knew so much hinged on it.
When I worked out who the girls were in front of me and whose feet I was on, I was like, ‘okay, this is a perfect situation. You just need to stay here now, Flora.’ And then when we got onto the bike and I heard what the gap was, that was it. That was the race. I knew the medals were coming from our group.
Flora Duffy on her home country Bermuda
220: So you’re now basically a deity in Bermuda.
FD: My return home in the October was absolutely crazy. The reception was… really difficult for me to put into words actually. But just seeing how much meaning it had to everyone was special.
After the Xterra Worlds I had six weeks off and I really tried to take that off, no interviews or media, just to let myself decompress. But now, coming back here to Stellenbosch, for the last few years I’ve started my season training here and the goal has been building up to win an Olympic medal.
So now this is the first time I’ve come back and I’ve done that. And yes, I might go to Paris, but I’ve got the gold. And it’s a nice moment of, ‘oh yeah, it happened. I did it.’
Top image credit: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for 2XU Malibu Triathlon