Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironmanlife: Catching up with Caroline Steffen

Caroline Steffen in the women's lead on Queen Kaahumanu Highway for the Ford Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona. Photo by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

Caroline Steffen in the women's lead on Queen Kaahumanu Highway for the 2011 Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona. Photo by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

(Kevin Mackinnon spends some time with the Swiss speedster)

Does this sound like anyone you know? She worked for the government; got into the sport from a swimming background; burst onto the scene with a podium finish in her first Ironman as a pro; quit her job to focus on the sport; started to work with Brett Sutton and has been a world-beater ever since.

OK, she might not be quite as outgoing or as well-known as Chrissie Wellington, but when it comes to racing, Caroline Steffen is the real deal.

Despite a foot injury that plagued her for the first six months of 2011, Steffen managed to win six races (including Ironman Australia, where she finished third to Chrissie Wellington and Rebekah Keat in 2009 and the Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championship) and put herself in a position to win in Kona before fading over the last 10 km.

After a runner-up Ironman World Championship finish in 2010, a fifth place finish might seem like a disappointment, but nothing could be further from the truth for Steffen. After struggling with the foot injury for so long, she went into Kona realizing her run training wasn’t perfect, but still went for the win. She led the race for over an hour before being passed by Wellington as the British star ran to her fourth world championship.

If Wellington chooses to make her year off from the sport a permanent retirement, Steffen might not ever have the chance to see how competitive she could be with the world champ, but she will have something to hang her hat on:

“At least I can say I was the last girl she passed in a race,” Steffen says in that awesome Swiss-English accent and with her wonderful laugh. “If she’s not coming back, I’m the last girl she had to beat.”

Over a year ago Steffen predicted that Wellington was raising the bar so high that even she would have trouble remaining ahead.

“She was the best over the last five years. All the girls wanted to beat her. I reckon that’s part of the reason she’s stopping now, because the girls are getting too close. I said that a year ago – someday there will be a girl who can beat her. She doesn’t have three legs or anything different, she’s just a really strong girl. I’m not saying that would be me, but one day there could be a girl who’s even stronger than her. Rinnie was really close this year … Chrissie had to go really hard to beat her.”

If there’s one thing Steffen could improve upon, it’s her own evaluation of her talent. In 2010, hours after she had narrowly been beaten to the finish line in Frankfurt by Sandra Wallenhorst, Steffen sat down in the bar of the Intercontinental hotel with me for a few minutes.

“So, what’s your goal for Kona?” I asked.

“I would love to stand on the stage,” she said. “Top 10 would be amazing.”

“You just forced one of the best Ironman athletes in the world to pretty much leave a lung on the side of the run course to beat you,” I said. “You better set your sites a lot higher than top 10.”

Later that year, Steffen finished second.

It turns out I’m not the first person who’s had a similar message for the 33-year-old. After meeting Australian pro David Dellow at the post-race party in Clearwater after the Ironman World Championship 70.3, Steffen ended up spending some time with him in Australia. He went to Port Macquarie to support her for that first pro Ironman race.

“After the race I was so happy,” Steffen remembers. “Chrissie won and Rebekah Keat came second and I was third. I was over the moon, I was so happy.

“You can do way more,” Dellow said. “You should be a pro.”

“I am a pro,” Steffen said.

“Maybe you have the license, but you don’t have the lifestyle,” was his come back. “There’s so much you can do. You’re still working and you can improve so many things. Why don’t you stay here in Australia and I can teach you.”

Steffen called back to Switzerland and quit her job – she had been working for the government as an engineer. A month later she returned to pack up her things and head back to Australia, explaining to her family that she was in love, and to everyone else that it was time to take a chance and pursue the athletic career she’d always dreamed of.

“This is my chance,” she told them. “It’s too late in a couple of years. I will be too old.”

Dellow became both her partner and coach initially. She approached Sutton about coaching her, but he turned her down – not once but three times. Then, in January 2010, he agreed to take her on. (Sutton now coaches Dellow, too – he joined Team TBB last year.)

“I started training with him and after one week I was so tired and emotional I was just crying all day,” she remembers. “I trained hard as a swimmer. I was on the Swiss national swim team for 10 years and I worked so hard as a cyclist (after competing successfully as an age group triathlete Steffen raced for a pro cycling team for two years), but it was completely different with Brett. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. Every day was so big. It was all day training and moving. It took me another week and then I started to improve and realized that this was for me. I reckon Brett and I fit perfectly together.”

You think? A month after she started working with Sutton she won Ironman 70.3 Geelong. Later that year she would lead for so much of the day in Frankfurt, and then force Mirinda Carfrae to run a course record marathon in Kona to beat her there.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that she would be in demand in Kona last October, but the ever-modest Steffen was.

“It was easy in 2010 (handling the pre-race obligations and commitments in Kona), to be honest. It was crazy last year. The pressure was all right, but all the obligations were too much. In 2010 I could walk through Kona and no one would care. I couldn’t do that in 2011.”

My guess is that it’ll be even harder in 2012. With Wellington’s hiatus, Steffen’s name suddenly becomes one to be mentioned as a potential Kona champ.

Like so many of those same contenders, Steffen would be a fantastic spokeswoman for our sport. We’ve been blessed with some pretty amazing Ironman world champions over the years – Steffen would easily fall into those shoes.

(Reach Kevin Mackinnon at

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