From 2010 to 2019 Caroline Steffen won 42 of the 85 races she entered, a streak that included 25 second-place finishes and eight third-place finishes as well. During her career she would finish second in Kona twice, take two Ironman European titles, two Ironman Asia-Pacific titles and also won Challenge Roth.
In 2018 Steffen and partner Pete Murray had son Xander and, in September, welcomed daughter Skylah to the family. Yesterday the popular Swiss triathlete, who has made Australia her home for over a decade, announced her retirement.
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In 2014 we published a feature on Steffen in Triathlon Magazine Canada. Steffen had travelled to Toronto to meet with long-time partner Cervelo, so we took the chance to interview her. Here’s that feature:
Caroline Steffen’s Quest to Win Kona
There’s a reason her nickname is “Xena, the warrior princess.” Caroline Steffen cuts an imposing figure in the pair of jeans and casual jacket she’s wearing for a visit to long-time sponsor Cervelo bicycles in the company’s Toronto offices. She cuts an even more imposing figure in lycra – sit next to her when she’s in her race gear and you feel like she could swat you across the room with casual fling of one of her incredible muscled arms. The huge shoulders are no-doubt the result of a 10-year swimming career, much of it spent on Switzerland’s national swim team where she claimed numerous national titles swimming 200 free, 200 individual medley (IM) or the grueling 400 IM. The imposing quads helped power her along for two years on a professional cycling team. Now in her third international sports career, Steffen’s imposing physique is powered by an iron will that makes her one of the most feared competitors in triathlon.
How tough is Xena? This is a woman who powered her way through a 4:34 bike split at the Asia-Pacific Ironman Championship Melbourne two years ago (riding with the second men’s pack, no less), on her way to an 8:35 finish time, making her the second fastest woman ever over the Ironman distance. At last year’s Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, Steffen was strongly favoured to win the race, but ended up getting sick.
“Your girl isn’t going to finish,” Craig Alexander told her boyfriend on the course. “I just saw her throwing her guts up on the Queen K.”
Xena warriored on, though, running an incredibly quick last 20 km of the marathon to move herself back to fifth.
As tough as she is in races, there’s also a reason why her former coach, Brett Sutton, used to emphasize the “princess” part of her nickname. Chat with her away from a race and she’s incredibly soft-spoken. Despite all the time in the spotlight, the 35-year-old is quiet, unassuming and shy. Sentences are punctuated with a smile or a soft laugh. Even if you’re a fan of one of her competitors, a few minutes with her and you can’t help but like her. Spend over an hour interviewing her and you start to realize that in addition to her quiet disposition before the gun goes off, Steffen is, at some levels, a hopeless romantic. How else do you describe a 31-year-old with barely any English getting on the phone to her employers at the road engineering firm in Switzerland, where she’d worked for a decade, to say she’s not coming back after a training camp in Australia because … she’s met a guy. (If you think that call was hard, picture the one to her parents.) Even a few years after the fact the passion has hardly subsided. At the finish line in Melbourne she and Australian David Dellow (the “guy”) embraced for so long that more than a few people were thinking the couple should find a room, then come back for the awards ceremony. When she met Dellow her English was so weak she could barely understand him, but it became pretty clear that he truly believed she had the ability to become one of the world’s best.
“Dave gave me this chance,” she says. “He said, ‘I believe in you and we’re going to stick together and do this.’”
Dellow saw talent that even Xena didn’t know she had. Even now, with four Ironman titles, a Challenge Roth win last summer along with two ITU long course titles, you won’t get her to admit that there’s any natural ability.
“I’m just fighting,” she says. “I keep pushing myself. I don’t give up. If I had more talent I’d be even better with the work that I do. I have to work really hard to get the results I have.”
She’s always excelled by outworking those around her. After chasing her older brother and sister around for years, as a child her mother put a motorcycle helmet on her head on the ski hill because she would go down the hills so fast without turning. Those years of outstanding swimming? Two-a-day workouts for 10 years. On the bike she was an aerobic machine, often being designated to work as a domestique for her team. One day when they told her she could go for it and not have to work for anyone, she took off halfway through the race and cruised to her first pro win.
Before that bike career, though, there was some multi-sport success. After waking up one day and realizing she didn’t want to swim any more, Steffen took a couple of years off sports. Then she entered a cross-Switzerland race that included swimming, mountain biking, inline skating, road biking and running. After leading through the swim, she found herself in dead last during the inline skating before moving herself up through the ranks on the bike and run to finish fifth. Realizing her strength was in the water, on two wheels and then running, she looked for a triathlon she could make as her next challenge.
“What’s the craziest thing I can do in triathlon,” she asked herself. The Ironman Switzerland race in nearby Zurich was the quick answer. Her 9:58 finishing time netted her second in her age group and qualified her for Kona, where she finished third and rode an impressive 5:12 bike split on a road bike without aero bars.
The next two years were spent on the cycling team before she decided once again it was time to head back to triathlon. She signed up for that fateful triathlon camp and hasn’t looked back since. Well, maybe for a while during her introduction to Sutton, who spent her first few days at their first training camp together in Subic Bay virtually ignoring her and just taking notes. When they finally started to talk, though, the results were impressive. Her professional debut in Kona included a runner-up finish to Chrissie Wellington. A year later, after dominating in Frankfurt, Steffen finished fifth in Kona despite to a foot injury that hampered her run training. Then came the 2012 disappointment, where Steffen lead for much of the run, only find herself passed by Leanda Cave in the last three miles.
“It was like giving a chocolate bar to a kid and then pulling it away and saying its not yours,” she said of the race, where she was passed by Leanda Cave with just three miles left in the marathon and would finish second by just 65 seconds. “It was hard to get over it.”
After an uncharacteristically slow start to the 2013 season, Steffen’s build to Kona seemed to be going perfectly. She won Challenge Roth and then, following a similar plan to that used for Wellington before her first win in 2007, cruised to a full-distance win in Bintan, Indonesia six weeks before Kona.
“In the lead up [to Kona] I felt really good,” she says. “All the times were better than before. I was really confident with all the work I did before the race.”
The day began perfectly, too. She swam with the large lead group, then found herself in a group of nine that flew through the first half of the bike, reaching the turnaround in Hawi at an average speed of 40 km/ hour. Not wanting to lose time to that group, Steffen missed her special needs bag and couldn’t get the two bottles she’d prepared with her own drinks, which might have been why she started to feel sick through the rest of the ride.
“I thought about stopping in T2,” she says, “then I stopped one km into the run. Leanda came by and encouraged me, so I started to run with her.”
She struggled through the first 22 km of the run, then had the epic “throw-up” session that Alexander witnessed. From there she felt better and ran well, finishing the last 10 km faster than she ever has in Kona.
“It was a lesson,” Steffen says. “I learned a lot about myself. I am still sure I can win this race.”
All of which provides some solace, but …
“I always picture myself winning [in Kona],” she says. “That’s what keeps you going.”
Then comes that smile and a bit of a laugh as she finishes the thought. “And I always picture myself looking back to make sure no one catches me.”
Welcome to the life of being a rabbit. When you’re amongst the strongest swim/bikers the sport has ever seen, you spend a lot of time running with a target on your back. When one of those chasers, like 2013 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae, is capable of a 2:50 marathon, you inevitably find yourself looking back a lot.
“If she’s going to run a 2:50, that means I have to ride a 4:40,” Steffen says. “She improved so much on the bike, too – she was so strong riding on her own. Her 2:50 was game changing. Even on my best day I would have been second again. I have to step up another level to beat her. It’s great for our sport.”
Moving up another level, though, won’t be easy in 2014. Steffen had decided that she was going to leave Team TBB in August, but planned on continuing to be coached by Sutton. In addition to the dramatic news last November that Sutton was also leaving Team TBB, he had some more news for Steffen: he wasn’t going to coach her any more, either.
The upside to that news is that Steffen and Dellow won’t have to live out of a suitcase chasing their coach from Asia to Switzerland to Mexico for six months of the year and can now enjoy some time in the house they recently bought on the Sunshine Coast. The downside is that she’s now in need of a coach. Even if she can’t find someone willing to take her on, though, she’s not overly worried.
“I know what I did the last four years,” she says. “It might be a good opportunity to take responsibility and get it done.”
“It” no-doubt means the win in Kona. She’s also like to finally take the win in Abu Dhabi, too, where she’s finished second, third and fourth over the years. Unlike countrywoman Natascha Badmann, a six-time Kona champion and the oldest Ironman champion ever, Steffen has no intention to stay in the sport for another 11 years.
“If I am 46 and still on my bike, please just pull me off,” she laughs. “I don’t know how she does it.”
So how long can we expect to see “Xena” racing? The answer comes from Caroline, the non-warrior.
“I’ll do it as long as possible. I like to swim, I like to ride my bike, I like to run. The racing is just a bonus. I don’t train to race, I train because I love it. If I wake up one morning and decide I want to stop, I’ll stop. I did the same when I swam, I did the same when I was on a cycling team. If I don’t like it anymore I’m not going to do it.”
Unfortunately for her competition, once the gun goes off a different Caroline Steffen seems to appear. One who takes no prisoners, who will do everything she can next October to come off the bike with a 12-minute cushion so that she can run a three-hour marathon and still have some time to enjoy the finish line as she runs down Ali’i Drive.
Will that be enough? Can all that happen without Sutton’s guidance? Stay tuned for this year’s season of “Xena.” During it’s four-year run it’s been quite a show. Season five promises to be every bit as exciting.
Cervelo founder Phil White on Caroline Steffen:
“Years ago Gerard (Vroomen) and I came up with a sponsorship strategy: basically we sponsor people we’d like to spend time with,” says Cervelo co-founder Phil White. “You forget that Caroline is a world-class athlete because we’ve been together for so long. She’s like one of the family.”
White remembers working with Steffen when she was on the Lifeforce cycling team and has been more than happy to continue the relationship through Steffen’s pro triathlon career.
“She’s a great spokesman,” he says. “She’s very personable. She’s got the chops, too, with that solid background as a cyclist. She can really talk about equipment.”