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Daniela Ryf: Million Dollar Baby?

Daniela Ryf is in Phuket preparing for her last race of the year … a chance to win $1 million at the last event in the Nasser bin Hamad Triple Crown. Lisa Pringle, from the Bahrain Endurance Team, caught up with the Ironman world champion as she prepares to finish her season.

Story courtesy Bahrain Endurance Team. Photo: Delly Carr/ Bahrain Endurance Team 

Daniela Ryf takes the Ironman World Championship title. Photo: Delly Carr
Daniela Ryf takes the Ironman World Championship title. Photo: Delly Carr

BET You’ve been training in Phuket for about four weeks now for a pretty major event in two weeks’ time: the last race of the Nasser bin Hamad Triple Crown. What are your thoughts?

DR I think the major event was Kona for me. It was a huge goal and to be able to get the world champion title was amazing so I’m very happy with what I’ve achieved this year already. It’s been a great season. I think my goal now is to show my best performance of the year. I had some really great races but I’m still looking for the perfect race and of course I hope I can do that in two weeks’ time in Bahrain.

BET You’re the Ironman European Champion, Ironman 70.3 World Champion, and Ironman World Champion, but there was this overarching storyline this year that you could potentially win a million dollars.

DR Yeah it’s very exciting. When I started the season this year in Dubai I never thought it was possible to win two major races [of the series] because they were all very competitive and now I’m in this position to be the one-million dollar baby. It’s very crazy and also very surprising to me. It’s a great opportunity. Of course I don’t race for the money, it’s never been my goal and it’s never gotten me out of bed in the morning to train hard, but still as a triathlete it’s a one-time opportunity and of course I hope I can achieve it and show a great race and then also deserve the prize.

BET What did you change in training to be more 70.3-specific, after training for Kona’s full distance?

DR To me 70.3 is still my favorite distance because I feel like I can go from start ‘til finish just pretty much all out. I was quite excited to go back to 70.3 training and racing because it’s definitely a bit more intense. We’ve done some very hard rides and also very hard runs … Fast runs on the treadmill which I really enjoy. I was excited to sharpen the knife. After Kona I was in very good shape and the last four weeks we really tried to get that little extra in power and speed. So far it’s been going great and now two weeks left and it’s gonna be all about sharpening the knife.

BET You’ve been in triathlon for a while, a two-time Olympian for Switzerland. What do you think your coach Brett Sutton understands about you as an athlete that helped you break through?

DR He definitely had a huge impact on my performance and my racing, but also on how I think. He’s not only a great coach, he’s also a great person who understands the athletes. He definitely helped me to not overthink the training and he’s had a lot of success and a lot of athletes but every athlete he treats different depending on the character, on how the athlete likes to train. Also the environment around the athlete, he makes it good for the specific athlete. For me for example he helped me find a good balance. I used to always train hard before and sometimes maybe too hard. I enjoy training hard and of course that’s needed but it’s also the other part, the resting part which is important. Depending on what day and what time, also to hold back. He definitely holds me back at the right time and pushes me hard when I need to be pushed. I think that’s one of the biggest secrets. Also when I go to the races now I really like to go out there and push the pace and try not to be afraid of anything. He really understands the type of racing I like and he gives me the plan which I pretty much so far could execute. As a coach to be able to know what’s gonna happen in the race can help an athlete a lot. He gives me pretty good plans which you can see in the results I’m going pretty well. I’m very happy with the situation.

BET What does your regular training week look like? Do you prefer group or solo training sessions?

DR I don’t mind to train alone. I think it’s something also which is needed in triathlon because especially on the bike and on the run you’re out there by yourself anyway and you gotta focus on yourself and that is something in training you need to practice. I ride quite often by myself. Here in Thailand my coach was on the scooter a few times on the back checking out if I go fast enough. I think there’s positives and negatives with the group. Sometimes it’s also a lot of fun, especially swim squad which I really enjoy. At home I also train with a swim squad and sometimes I miss that when I’m away. In St. Moritz we always have the swim squad so we train normally together in the morning and everyone does their own training and that gives you times where you actually meet up for training. It’s a good mix. Here I’ve done a few sessions by myself and also joined the swim squad of young athletes who are most likely going to race in Rio next year. It’s great fun to see such motivated young athletes training really hard.

BET How many hours would you train in a “heavy” week?

DR I stopped writing a [training] diary. I don’t write down anything anymore. The positive thing about it is you forget how much you’ve trained so you don’t complain how it’s been so hard. I think it’s definitely not a huge amount of hours. It’s definitely more quality than quantity. It’s hard to say, could be around 25 to 30 hours. Nothing really special. It’s not the hours which defines if you’re going to race well, it’s really the quality and so we often do short sessions as well like three runs in a day where you just go hard every session and I think that’s training which I also enjoy more than just putting a lot of hours in there.

BET How much do you travel for training and racing, and how do you pick races?

DR This year was a bit special because I was on the road quite a long time. I haven’t really been home since June so it’s a long time but I try not to travel too much. The whole summer I was in St. Moritz. We were based there because my coach lives there and from there I just did the races in Europe. That was something really good because I didn’t have to fly around the whole time. I could even go to most of the races by car which is much easier on the body. After that we went to Jeju. It was always four or five weeks in a place so it never felt rushed or stressed but it’s still a long way on the road. I think it’s really important to not fly around too much. I choose the races with Brett, he often chooses them for me. He’s pretty good with deciding which races we’re doing and fitting them into the training program.

BET From last year’s breakout performances, this year people expected you to win. Did that change the dynamics or the pressures you felt going into racing?

DR For me when people say they expect me to win — no one expects you to win, they think you might win – I try to see it as a compliment because it gives you feedback that things are going well otherwise people wouldn’t think this. My goal is often to really just show a good performance, try to be fast and that’s what I focus on in the race. If I always do this, then the results come from itself. Definitely there’s more tension before the races than last year, but it didn’t affect me too much. Even in Kona people were talking that I could win it or that I should win it. They sometimes forget that you still have to do it, you gotta get out there  and actually do it because all the preparation and the results you’ve got before are not gonna make you win it.  You have to actually execute and go out there and do it and that’s why it’s so important to focus on the plan and the effort and not the result.

BET Who are your support crew who keep you grounded, focused, and motivated?

DR I think it’s definitely my coach and also the training group I’m with. I train also with Nicola Spirig and she’s been Olympic champion. For us after a good race you come back to the pool deck on Monday and you just train again. Of course the squad is happy for you when you have a great race, but you’re still the same person. My coach if I start to say stupid things about training – so far it didn’t happen yet – but I’m pretty sure he would give me an honest answer if I’m starting to get lazy. For me my friends are also really important. At home I’m not very triathlon focused, I study, I’ve still got university so when I get home from Bahrain on Monday I go back to university on Tuesday! So that’s something that helps me get back to reality pretty quickly because you walk into university and it’s like now I have to study for that module. Most of my friends from school and earlier on are not triathletes and it’s nice to have topics other than triathlon and it helps to see the life as not only a triathlon life.

BET Can you tell us a bit more about university and going to school?

DR It’s a bachelor’s degree. I haven’t finished yet. Normally it would take three years and I’ve done three now but since one-and-a-half year ago I started studying part-time. Of course this sport has been quite busy and time-consuming. I have two more semesters and then I should be writing my thesis. Eventually I’d really like to do the Master in Food, Nutrition, and Health. I’m really interested in food and one day I’d like to combine it with this sport. I’d really like to work with a food company as a product manager and even creating a food line, who knows. I think there’s not enough healthy convenience foods yet. There’s a lot of health stuff but I think there’s still… I always have some funny ideas and so maybe one day I can make something by myself or maybe with a company. I haven’t planned my future yet but I’m open for many things.

BET Many elite age groupers believe if they didn’t need to work, they could train hard enough to go pro, but as a top-level pro you juggle school with training.

DR It’s definitely a balance thing. If you work and do triathlon as a hobby, it’s very hard because working 100% and then training pretty much the same amount as the pros do is very intense. I think that’s something which needs a lot of respect. And then you have the opposite where the professionals have more time and everyone thinks that’s so great because you have so much time to train and to rest, but then it’s a problem with the head. If you’re not going so well the whole pressure is on your performance. I had that when I was sick in 2011 to 2012. I really struggled because you don’t really have many things to think about. If you’re sick, that’s your job and the whole time if you can’t train that’s your problem. I find since I studied I could be much more balanced. Of course sometimes you get a bit less rest, but your head is also a bit more free. I think that helped me get better. I train in the morning and then go to uni so whatever session we have in the morning we just do it and you don’t think about it anymore. As a pro, you go home and you might have had a setback session and you think about it much more. Both sides is hard. I don’t know if someone who’s working 50% and then stopped working would be much better off because he would have the same problem. He would then have too much time to train and then train too much. Triathletes are in general quite motivated to train and that’s something dangerous and I also learned that so it’s not always more is better.

BET Have you thought about your goals for 2016?

DR Not really, to be honest. I definitely focused on this year and I have the luxury from my coach that I’ll have a bit more to say next year in terms of racing and what we’re gonna do. This year’s been very intense and I followed everything we decided to make it the best possible. I didn’t make any compromises, I went to every camp which was needed to make the best out of it. Next year I might start a bit later with racing because this year’s been very long. I’ve never had such a long season because it started in February and it’s December now. I’ll definitely have a bit of a break and then build it up.  I think my goal in general is still to find out how fast I can get. Over the Ironman I think I can still get a little bit faster and that’s why I’m motivated to keep training.

BET What does offseason for Daniela Ryf look like?

DR I haven’t really planned a big holiday. I get bored on holidays. When I go home, see my friends, that’s pretty much what I want to do, see my family and friends. I don’t need to go somewhere else because I’ve been away so long so my holidays will be at home. We’re just gonna go to some Christmas markets with my friends which was not possible during the season. And then some studying and just enjoying home, that’s my holiday. I still keep training a little bit, just one little session, like thirty minutes a day doesn’t hurt your body. It’s just gonna make you feel better and that’s normally what I do, keep it rolling. I feel not very good if I stop from 5 hours to zero