A few days before the August 4 Olympic women’s triathlon, Brett Sutton took stock of his long range strategy and how it changed with the shifting fates of Spirig’s toughest opponents. While he began Spirig’s Olympic campaign with a bull’s eye on Emma Snowsill, things had changed. But that early focus served Spirig well. While Snowsill, perhaps the greatest Olympic distance women’s triathlete of all time, was denied her chance to defend her Beijing gold amidst Triathlon Australia’s misbegotten Olympic selection process, Snowy’s ghost had waged a vivid race in Sutton’s mind, a theoretical race that played a big part in Spirig’s readiness to win. If anything, Snowy’s ghost served Sutton as the mechanical rabbit he set Spirig to chasing for the four years leading up to the London Olympics.
“If Emma Snowsill were in the race, and she was in the second pack on the bike, Nicola would go off the front of the bike and she would create another pack,” Sutton said of his early vision of the race. “We trained Nicola to attack the bike at some stage and pull a group and leave Emma a minute behind and having to catch us on the run.”
Back in 2008, Snowsill still would have won as she was 90 seconds to 2 minutes faster than everyone else on the run. As Sutton had envisioned a 2012 Snowsill-Spirig clash, he saw it unfolding thusly: “Nicola would then try to spend 5 or 6k running within herself to get ready for the attack to come when Emma Snowsill would come through at the 7k mark,” he said. His vision of that phantom race had a happy ending thanks to the last two years of training in which Spirig routinely ran under 34 minutes and had a sprint that could have taken down anyone in the final yards. Like an Aussie Al Michaels calling the finish line sprint, Sutton recounted his dream finish with flair: “Mentally, Nicola would hold her, go with her, and come over the top of her at the finish.”
The new reality
Despite all his efforts to have Spirig primed and ready to race, a nerve-wracking problem arose on the eve. “Nicola started to get sick 2-3 days before the Olympic triathlon,” said Sutton. “She rang me several times and said ‘I have severe stomach cramps.’ It was upsetting and potentially disastrous, so she had to be able to adapt. Back when we started, she would not have been able to cope. But by this time she had become confident and mentally strong and she was able to deal with anything.”
At 5 AM the day of the women’s triathlon, Spirig had already trained and at 6 AM she met Sutton for a talk. Spirig remembered Sutton’s most important advice before the race: “He told me I was ready, I had done everything I could to prepare that race, that I had the weapons to win – and that the Olympics are just another race.”
Sutton’s off-site perch
Sutton was in a position not unlike the professional coach of sprinter Harold Abrahams seen in the movie Chariots of Fire, effectively exiled from the premises, “as I was not given Olympic accreditation by the Swiss Federation,” he said. “When the gun went off I was out in the boonies sitting in gambling parlor watching the race on the TV. I could see all the tactics perfect on the television as the race goes on.”
Sutton says the betting shop was Coral, which along with Ladbrokes and William Hill, is one of the three major sports gambling parlors in London. “It was one that the Aussies ran, and I watched with a bunch of degenerate punters [bettors]. All the Brits, they backed their girl and wondered why I wasn’t rooting for one of the Australians. ‘Hey, he’s an Aussie and he backed the Swiss girl!?’ I told them ‘You’re on the wrong one,’ and we went back and forth a little. There were 15 guys there and they bet on the Brit and the Aussies and I backed Nicola and we had a ball.”
Sutton says he bet on “his horse” Nicola and made smaller insurance bets on Norden and Densham. “In triathlon, a puncture can’t be legislated against,” said Sutton. “So you need to protect your investment.”
Once the race started, Sutton was all business. His vision of the race was not Cinemascope wide like the TV announcers, but laser-focused on the true contenders and their interactions with Spirig as they arose. Surely, his vision of the race would be hotly disputed by other contenders and their coaches – but it is uniquely instructive as to his methods and strategic perspective. Not to forget that it was his athlete who was destined to play a leading role.
“When Emma Moffatt crashed, Nicola was ahead and untouched,” said Sutton. “At that time some other girls jumped down the road and Nicola went with them and covered. She continued with them and took a few turns to see if they could continue to work together and make a successful breakaway. But it was just a half-hearted attempt, so Nicola sat one or two wheels back and make sure no one got away and so the first chase group caught them.“
All in all, Sutton thought that Spirig’s attempt to cover and support the attempted break had become unnecessary once Jenkins missed her opportunity to break out on the swim. “Nicola was the dominant force in chasing down the front pack,” said Sutton. “But this was way too fast, in my view. She was on a mission and didn’t need to be once Jenkins did not break away in the swim and take off from the start of the bike. I thought Nicola burned a bit of fuel there.”
Of course, that is far more easily discerned from a seat in front of the Coral betting shop flat screens than in the midst of the struggle – and Spirig’s three years of intense training to cover all the breaks. But what Sutton did not know or did not guess was that this was Spirig’s first reaction to increasing gastrointestinal distress. “She told me after the race that she felt the cramps on the bike and was trying to ride them out,” said Sutton.
The next piece of luck that broke Spirig’s way was the mechanical trouble that afflicted Gwen Jorgensen, a dangerous runner who finished second at the 2011 London World Championship Series race. “When Jorgensen dropped back,” said Sutton, “I relayed a note to be presented to Nicola on one of the message boards. ‘Sit and cover the front pack for breaks.’ When Jorgensen came out of the swim well back, I didn’t think she was much of a danger. After she fell back with the mechanical, there was nobody left in the second pack to worry us.”
A delicate chess match with surprising twists
“When she charged up that little hill, I didn’t realize Nicola was in such a stressful state,” Sutton recalled. “I had told her to sit on Lisa and wait until 200 meters and let the Swede take first dig at the sprint. So when the break failed, I thought, ‘OK, she snapped under pressure.’ I thought it was insane to try that and I would lose all the money I’d bet on her. At that point, things looked ominous.”
Sitting in the betting shop, Sutton saw things through a gambler’s metaphor. “Nicola threw her cards on the table early and tried to drop them to guarantee a medal,” said Sutton. “She tried to drop them but they didn’t go. They all went with her. When you do a thing like that, the Australian saying is ‘Shit is trumps.’”
Sutton also knew better than to fully believe his warrior had simply cracked. “If you asked me then why she did it, I’m not out there racing and don’t have pain shooting through the body and thinking ‘My God! I might not have a sprint.’ Questions are popping swiftly through the head — ‘Is there nothing there?’ Or worse. The only people who can make a judgment call are the persons fighting for the medals.”
Knowing that last observation cuts both ways, Sutton could only watch the sprint unfold with a certain fatalism. “To me, Lisa had the sitting shot,” said Sutton. “Nicola pressured ‘em all to have a crack, but only one person saved pennies at all stages and waited to the final sprint as she was told to do — Lisa Norden. She ran her perfect race, exactly the race I wanted Nicola to run if there were no problems.”
As they approached the finish chute, Groff slipped back with about 300 meters to go, leaving Densham, Norden and Spirig to fight for the medals. “From where I sat, I thought Nicola would be left for dead in the last 300,” said Sutton. “I thought the other girls she was running with would run over top of her. Nobody knew how courageous Nicola’s run was. She was really hurting. Everybody thinks Nicola had a great race – but I was thinking, ‘OK Nicola panicked and went too early.’ I was thinking when I got hold of her, I was going to give it to her for that move. I’d tell her ‘You were insane. You were mad.’ I thought she did all the wrong things in the race. She’s been told ‘No surges. Sit back and do nothing.’ But because her stomach sickness she threw the game plan out the last 1500 meters. She really did not think she had the power in her legs.”
Back in the betting parlor, Sutton had his own jolt of adrenaline. “I thought Nicola found that extra gear! I had the whole betting parlor going berserk. Fun thing to talk about – the guy who ran the place was an Aussie and he backed Densham. Everyone had an opinion about the photo finish. But I never had a doubt and I bet someone $500 Nicola had won it.”
Spirig says that she and Norden “thought I was first — but we weren’t sure about it.”
Actually, while both were splayed in exhaustion on the carpet, Norden raised both arms above her head and bounced up first. When the results were first posted on the big scoreboard, Spirig did not celebrate. “I didn’t see that and when someone told me it didn’t impress me,” she said. “I wanted to hear it first from an official.”
After the judges examined the video, it was Spirig by a slender fragment of a second.
“That’s the beauty of this race,” said Sutton. “Nicola did it upside down and with 300 to go she was absolutely spent — but she would not let the other girl get by her. She was not going for the podium — she was going for gold.”
Sutton has the highest regard for Smith, a respect that went back a long way. “I selected Darren to be my sports scientist when I was head coach of Australian triathlon in the ‘90s. I’ve known Darren and mentored him for over 15 years.”
Had they been matching wits in the last races leading up to the Olympics? Not really, says Sutton. “Mate we had same tactics as Madrid and Kitzbuhel. Same for London. In my opinion, Darren always believed when 100 percent fit, Lisa can out kick Nicola. I’m sure he still does. But Lisa had the sitting shot in London and still couldn’t get by her. Nicola is quicker.”
Smith, on the other hand, could point to the fact that Norden did indeed pull back on Spirig the final 50 meters. “I would guess that my colleague Sutto would have been less than impressed [with our tactics],” said Smith. “I was delighted however because Spirig was getting nervous and went early and Lisa stuck to her plan, which was different to those she had employed at Kitzbuhel earlier this year where Spirig made her look pretty average.”
Neither of them looked remotely average on this fine day in London.
A few weeks after the race, Spirig thought back to that day in 2006 when she signed on with Brett Sutton. “I switched to Brett as a coach, after a lot of doubting…:-). I don’t doubt it was the right decision anymore:-)”
Weeks after the Olympics, Sutton was in a reflective mood back in Leysin, training his Team TBB athletes as well as Spirig. “Nicola would like to go back to being just another triathlete,” said Sutton. “But that’s not possible any more. She is no longer simply a triathlete. She is something much grander in people’s minds, in the minds of her country. Now and forever, she is an Olympic gold medalist.”
Far from urging his great ones to wring out every ounce of their prime, Sutton encourages his current and former athletes to find happiness first. “I know Emma Snowsill can come back, and maybe she can do well at Ironman,” he said. “But I think she has found the right guy [fellow 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jan Frodeno] and I think the best thing they could do now would be to get married and have kids.” Sutton, although he thinks Nicola Spirig could succeed at the Ironman, would advise his gold medalist to seize the day in a different way. “She and [fellow Swiss ITU star] Reto Hug seem to be good for each other,” he said. Sutton smiles at the thought and expresses his opinion that a happy family is more valuable than gold.
- Jenkins unable to reel in Spirig (thetimes.co.uk)
- Sports News: Triathlon: Helen Jenkins vows to end her Olympic hoodoo in Rio (walesonline.co.uk)
- Jenkins misses out in triathlon (bbc.co.uk)
- Swiss triathlete wins women’s Olympic gold medal (newsday.com)
- London 2012 Olympics: Helen Jenkins fifth in triathlon as Nicola Spirig gets gold (standard.co.uk)
- Spirig wins women’s triathlon gold at Olympics (nbcsports.msnbc.com)
- Spirig wins women’s triathlon gold at Olympics (kansascity.com)
- My Sport: Helen Jenkins races SunSport through the triathlon (thesun.co.uk)
- Spirig wins women’s triathlon gold at Olympics (miamiherald.com)
- The Anatomy of Gold (fightinnerweak.com)