Timothy Carlson was writing and publishing this amazing article about what it means to go for gold and win gold. It’s the story of Nicola Spirig (Swiss Triathlon Gold Medalist at Olympic Games in 2012) preparing four years for the race of her life and one of the most spectacular sprints in the history of the Olympic Games. And it’s also about her Coach Brett Sutton, a very controversial personality and one of the most successful coaches of today. It’s a great weekend lecture. The article appeared on slowtwitch.com and the second part – the story about the race itself -, will follow later.
Spirig’s record was only slightly less glittering than Norden’s. The Swiss came to 2012 a two-time Olympian who had won the ITU Junior Worlds in 2001, the ITU Under 23 Worlds in 2005, 3 European championships, 2 World Cups, 2 World Championship Series races and the final 2 Olympic distance World Triathlon Series events before the London Olympics. Her coach Brett Sutton’s record is monumental. He coached five ITU Olympic distance World Champions and co-coached another. He coached one man to Olympic bronze and a woman to silver. He has coached 4 ITU long distance World Championship gold medalists, an Ironman 70.3 World Champion and, to top it off, he coached Chrissie Wellington to her first two Ironman World titles in 2007 and 2008.
While Sutton’s résumé might tempt people to think that he pumps out gold medalists like a machine, this road to Olympic gold was anything but a foregone conclusion. During their 6 year odyssey together, Sutton and Spirig weathered and made innovative adaptations to her training through three periods of injury and a debilitating asthma onslaught, overcame huge personality differences and communication barriers, honed and strengthened Spirig’s body, rewired her psychology and confidence, and fortified her competitive edge with a master’s understanding of her high-octane opponents and the tactics required to prevail on the day that mattered most.
This is their story.
The Four Year Plan
Two years after Spirig switched to Sutton, she was thrilled to finish 6th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While she had success before she joined with the legendary coach, she had been beset with leg injuries that limited her great potential. “We looked at her stress fractures and devised a different program – run one day and take one or two days off,” recalled Sutton. “It worked remarkably well. She thought it was the greatest race she ever had.”
While Spirig basked in the moment, Sutton had his eyes on the Olympics four years ahead — and how to conquer what lay in her way. “It’s pretty much like my days as a horse trainer,” said Sutton, who also trained racing greyhounds and spent some years as a boxer when he was young. “You have to know the form of everyone around you. After the Beijing Olympics, I spent three and a half years trying prepare Nicola to beat [2008 Olympic champion] Emma Snowsill,” who won with a dominating run that was nearly two minutes better than the rest of the world.
In Sutton’s mind, the key objective was “to prepare Nicola for the last 300 meters of the Olympic run. At that time, Nicola had to be making her move early on. Unless she got a little gap on the bike, I did not see taking her 2009 level run and holding on to the lead from Emma for the full 10k.”
The day after Beijing, says Sutton, he hatched a plan to train Spirig to negate Snowsill’s run – and the ace up his sleeve was that he had trained Snowsill for her first World championship in 2003. “I knew Emma’s abilities and non abilities,” he said. “The last 200 meters she does not have a kick. In that she is identical with 2008 ITU World Champion Helen Jenkins, who also does not have kick in my opinion.”
So what did they do with this insight? “Our goal was to get the first 3k of Nicola’s run [faster] to cope with the harsh realities of speed,” said Sutton. “She needed to take it out hard and then develop the strength and endurance to make sure she would have legs for the last 300 meters.”
The first step – away from the arena
While pursuing triathlon success, Spirig had finished the first year of a law degree in a Zurich university but kept taking time off for the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Sutton saw this protracted delay as a crucial road block to Spirig’s dream and his plan. “I thought that always nagged at her insecurity about not finishing what she started,” said Sutton. “To be a professional sportsman in Australia they will be proud of you. But in Switzerland the only sport that counts is skiing. Other than that – and Roger Federer in tennis — nobody cares about any other sport. If you say you are a professional athlete, you are treated like an ex convict. They believe you are trying to get away from working. Nicola absorbed this disapproval from a family point of view and the Swiss culture point of view. It would be a very, very black mark on her to think she chose sport over school.”
Sutton encouraged her to return to university and get her degree. “I was hoping that would be the first step in making her ready for 2012,” he said. “In her opinion and mine, we agreed — let’s get the University out of the way. Maybe another person would take 2 or 3 years. But Nicola’s intelligence is quite frightening when she puts her mind to it — and she was done by late 2009.”
While she maintained training fitness and did some racing in midsummer of 2009, taking 2nd at Kitzbuhel and winning London, she did not return to full time racing until May of 2010. Whereupon she had an excellent 2010 in the elite ITU World Championship Series, taking 4th at Seoul, 1st at Madrid, 2nd at London. At the Grand Final at Budapest, Spirig took what for most competitors would have been a satisfying bronze medal. But for Sutton, what happened there was a red flag that prompted a radical change of plan.
At Budapest, Snowsill ran 33:08 to win by 1:42 over runner-up Emma Moffatt and 1:45 over Spirig. Moffatt and Spirig had the next fastest run splits and both ran 35:05.
“Emma Snowsill destroyed everyone at the Grand Final at Budapest,” said Sutton. “We had another meeting and thought to ourselves, ‘As things stood, no way we can cope with that kind of performance.’ What we thought we needed to do wasn’t gonna be good enough. To go to the next level, we should at least test Olympic preparation. Most people come to the Olympic year and try to raise their game but they have no time to adjust if things go badly. I thought we will do a dress rehearsal for Olympic training at the end of 2010 and into 2011. Nicola had no stress fractures in 4 years, so maybe her legs were OK with an increased load.”
“When we got her in the gym, I thought she was joking,” said Sutton. “She was terrible. She could do pushups and one legged squats. But when she tried to lift the weights, I thought she was kidding. ‘OK, that was fun. But now let’s get serious.’ I came to realize that she has a large frame and looks really strong but she was not strong in that way. To be honest, Nicola is not a gym girl. As you can see, when she walks around she looks very strong – she has a perfect body for the sport. Still she is very self conscious about her big shoulders, arms and strong legs. Society drills the image of Barbies into the heads of girls.”
At that time, Sutton says he had Spirig working with weights with former Australian swimming colleague Dennis Cottrill’s swimmers “so she could feel she was still training when she was injured,” said Sutton. “But we only did it to keep her mind from going nuts. We built real strength with sports specific exercises in the pool and on the stationary bike. Once she was back running we stopped all the weight work.”
Forging a tougher psyche
During Spirig’s emotionally trying setback, Sutton did his most serious work on her mindset. He drew upon the example one of his triathletes, 1999 ITU World Champion and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Loretta Harrop of Australia. “I told Nicola she did not have Loretta Harrop’s head,” he recalled. “Loretta was hard as nails. Loretta could handle situations – like how she handled things after her brother Luke died [during a 2002 training ride, struck by hit by a hit and run driver]. She controlled the controllables around her better than any athlete I’ve ever seen. And when adversity knocked her down, Loretta roared back. She just had a different mindset.”
Meanwhile., it was taking some time for old horse trainer to find a way to communicate with the intelligent, reserved Swiss woman.
“I spent 2 or 3 years trying to find a way,” said Sutton. “She’d go awful in training and at first I would try to psych her up. But it never worked for her. She was so different. In person, she would never talk of triathlon. At the end of a workout she would say, ‘Thank you,’ and walk off. The other guys in the squad thought it was funny. You see, if I talked to Nicola like I talk to Xena [Ironman triathlete Caroline Steffen], she would not do anything. On the other hand, we found a way. Nicola and I communicate all the time via email and texts and I came to understand this was the way. It is not like communicating face to face. In person, Nicola never tells you the whole truth. But in emails or texts, she was happy to give it to the coach both barrels. One time we had 600 texts in a month.”
Spirig healed enough to run and bike again, and by mid-season 2011 she was far from peak fitness but good enough to finish 8th at the London World Championship Series Olympic preview event and nail down her Swiss Olympic berth. “She was not ready for the Olympics at all, but at that stage I thought it was fantastic,” said Sutton. “All she needed was work.”
After the high mileage, high frequency running experiment failed, Sutton put Spirig back on her 2008 regimen. “We went back to run one day and run hard. And then we do not run the next day or two in a row. Particularly, she never ran two days in a row on the ground. She would alternate one day on the ground and one on the treadmill.”
The treadmill, says Sutton, has been a key element of his elite training for years. “There is less impact and less resulting stress on the legs, the less she hits the ground. I used the treadmill with [ITU World champions] Loretta and Emma Snowsill and Siri Lindley.”
During training and racing after the London WCS event, Spirig suffered a series of sub-par performances – 6th at Hy-Vee in Des Moines that Norden won, 20th at the Beijing Grand Final, and 25th at the Yokohama World Triathlon Series.
“Through all this she got worse and worse,” recalled Sutton. “During that period, I discovered she was hindered by the lung problem – asthma. Looking back, the lung problem actually started three weeks before London and got progressively worse with all the long traveling. I had her take a month easy and at that point we just stopped doing any hard training.”
By December 2011, Spirig was rested and fully healthy when she went to a Sutton camp in the Grand Canaria Islands where the signs were good.. “As soon as her lung was fit, she was on fire, faster than ever in her life,” said Sutton. “The Canaria camp put her in the sun, she was bang on in training. She was so much quicker than before and I felt she had gone on to the next level. But I was scared she was pushing too hard.”
Early 2012 – The setup
Sutton saw Madrid as a key preparation for the Olympics. “I always knew that the Madrid bike and its hills kills speedy runners,” he said. “No matter how slow you go, the Madrid bike course takes it out of the legs.’” Sutton also saw Madrid as the end of Spirig’s strength work audition. “Nicola knew the bike ride was very hard in Madrid but I did not put pressure on her,” he said. “I told her, ‘If you get beat, don’t worry about it.’ I wasn’t interested in a podium at Madrid. I was interested in the Olympics. I told Nicola this was a BS race.”
The day before Madrid, he had her swim and bike the entire course. After those workouts, Spirig felt exhausted and told Sutton, “I’m tired, I’m dead. You killed me.”
But on race day, as each kilometer passed, she settled in. “Once I saw her smile and nodding to me all was OK,” Sutton said, “I knew she was totally in control. I told her, ‘Hold it up and then give it to ‘em,’ meaning wait and sprint at the end. She nodded and smiled and outsprinted Aileen Morrison by three seconds for the win. When Nicola breaks into a half smile – look out!”
A month later, Spirig went to Kitzbuhel and had a preview of her Olympic duel with Norden — no holds barred. They mirrored one another on the swim and the run. Then they uncorked the two best runs. Norden outran Spirig 34:55 to 34:57, but Norden’s tarrying T2 was 5 seconds slower and left Spirig in front at the finish by 3 seconds.
In the days before her final World Triathlon Series race at Kitzbuhel, Spirig had told Sutton that she wanted to podium. “She never thinks like that,” said Sutton. “At the same time, her training went berserk. She went harder, harder, harder every day. I thought things were getting worse and worse. ‘My God she hammers every session and cannot keep it up!’“
Sutton admitted that he could couldn’t fully control Spirig’s fiery workouts, so he improvised an outside-the-box solution. “I tried to slow her down, throw water on her but it didn’t work,” he said. “So I sent her to the Antwerp 70.3. Straight away people said, ‘You’re insane!’ It was a 10 hour transit by car and a 4 hour race and I knew that would keep her from going crazy.”
Sutton took some heat for his choice. “People thought ‘My God, the Olympics are two weeks!’ But the way she was training was ridiculous. And sending her to a short sprint race in Hamburg was also ridiculous. It would be an insane run — Erin Densham shows up and she is running a 15:50 5k. If Nicola went there she would leave full of lactic acid. So instead I sent her off to run 21k where it would be aerobic all the way. It was a long race and would settle her down and she would have 4 days not going crazy training. And then she would have 2-3 days to rest and that would get her ready her for the Olympics.” Spirig won Antwerp by a country mile, and calmed down as Sutton thought she would.