The weight of a nation | A Flora Duffy story

It was ten days before the Olympic triathlon in Tokyo that Flora Duffy knew. Her training partners knew it too. In fact, at that moment, her whole team knew. “I just had one of the best training sessions of my life,” she says. “I knew I had gotten myself into the best possible shape that I could win.”

Flora — both reflective and looking forward to a big 2022 | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

“That was cool because I knew, whatever happens on the day — if I have some uncontrollable event like a crash or a flat — I was in the shape needed to win Olympic gold.” If she pulled it off, it would be a historic first-ever gold medal for her tiny homeland, Bermuda. The pressure on her was immense, but that session and the realisation that she’d done everything to make it possible brought an inner serenity.

“It helped me be in a pretty calm and confident place going into the race — even with all this noise around me.”

Sixty-two thousand people. That’s the population living on the islands of the Bermuda archipelago. It’s no exaggeration to say that the gaze of each and every one focused on Flora Duffy — not just on race day, but for her entire Olympic build- up, which for Tokyo stretched to five years thanks to the global pandemic — an eternity for anyone to carry the burden of a whole nation. “I was very aware that I had the hope and pressures of an entire country on my shoulders. I had known that basically since I was world champion at the end of 2016 and again in 2017.”

Flora prepares for a pool session in Stellenbosch | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

The smaller the nation, the greater the burden — the Bermudian Olympic dreams, desires, and demands were not dispersed or diluted — they rested on a single individual. Flora, however, had served something of an apprenticeship in handling the attention. “I won the Commonwealth gold in 2018 — that too was massive for Bermuda because it doesn’t have many medals at Commonwealth level. So, it felt like a smaller dress rehearsal of what things would be like at the Olympics — going into it as the favorite with the sole goal of winning the race.”

Flora showing the running form that took her to gold in Tokyo | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

Flora was introduced to triathlon at a very young age — by seven, she already had all the fundamentals in place. “I was part of a swim club — The Sharks, and I ran in primary school and knew how to ride a bike. So my parents entered me into this local triathlon.” Success, too, came early — she won her age group on that introduction to the sport — and, most importantly, she was immediately smitten. “Right after that race, I joined the local triathlon club — Tri Heads — that’s still going today. I had a bunch of friends there, and I just loved it.”

“I was part of a swim club — the Sharks, and I ran in primary school and knew how to ride a bike. So my parents entered me into this local triathlon.”

As the Tokyo Olympics approached, the attention and expectations magnified, and the din intensified. Just like back in those blissful early years on the lush island of her youth, it was Flora’s passion for her sport and the joy of having her closest friends nearby that kept her sane and kept her smiling. “It’s not as if you can magically erase the pressure from your mind, but I definitely had a really good team around me. Like, I had two friends training with me, and they are two of the funnest people I know. They are great hard workers, but they kept it light and kept it fun.” The result was that one of the most important, intense periods of her life just felt, in retrospect, mostly fun. “Now, I look back on it as probably some of my favourite training weeks I’ve had or ever will have. But, in the final few weeks, I said multiple times that I’m never doing this again. I’m never going through an Olympic build as a favorite because it is just way too much stress for me to carry.”

In the off-season, Flora trains in the stunning area surrounding Stellenbosch, South Africa | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

Another advantage of being your country’s one shot at an elusive Olympic gold is that when you ask for something, things get done — pronto. “The red carpet was really rolled out for me! Anything I said I wanted or needed, they made it happen. No questions asked.” It was something she hadn’t experienced before in her previous Olympic games — Flora’s success, it seemed, was a matter of national importance. “Whatever assistance I needed to win and perform, I received — which was incredible. For example, I got to stay at a hotel — I don’t do well in villages, they just suck the life out of me. Me, Dan — my husband and coach, and my physio got to operate as a little unit and everything was super-smooth when we were there. I was not bugged by anybody and that helped a lot.”

Olympic gold demands dedication...and a good Zwift set-up | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

So no stone was left unturned in securing gold, and Flora was in the best shape of her life. It was, as they say, time to execute. Back in her homeland in the western North Atlantic Ocean, all eyes were on her. “I’ve heard accounts from different people — It just sounded like this quietness descended on Bermuda.” It was now or never.

Like all epics, this one also has a twist in its tale. With the race scheduled for 6 am Tokyo time, the athletes awoke to an unexpected tropical storm battering the race site and murmurs of postponement. But to witness Flora on the rain-soaked course that day was to witness an athlete in complete control of their own destiny — exuding almost zen-like energy and delivering a performance that appeared effortless. “Tokyo was one of those magical days that you always dream of having or hope to have in your career. When everything clicks on the right day at the right moment.”

For Flora, and many Maurten athletes, training is a way of life | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

Back in Bermuda, the silence that had enveloped the island disappeared. “People just erupted with joy and excitement. There were air horns going off, people beeping their horns in their cars. People said they could hear their neighbours shouting with excitement.”

It only really dawned on Flora after the Olympics. Not only that she’d won gold, but also how much she had been keeping in and bottling up. When she finally exhaled, she exhaled long and deep until she was completely empty inside.

“I was absolutely exhausted. I went into the race in the absolute best shape of my life and, afterwards, I was just so emotionally, mentally, and physically drained, that when I started to get back into training, I was just a shadow of myself.”

“I’ve raced in lots of massive races and won lots of massive races, but nothing has been of that magnitude. Nothing is even comparable. Everyone in Bermuda knows the Olympics and watches them every four years. It was amazing to see how meaningful it was.”

No pressure, no diamonds...or gold.

Another session in the bag, Stellenbosch, South Africa | Photo: © Kelvin Trautman

Words by Robbie Lawless | Photos by Kelvin Trautman