Behind Caroline Steffen’s Tough Girl Persona

  • By Holly Bennett
  • Published Jul 15, 2013
  • Updated Jul 21, 2015 at 3:36 PM UTC
Photo: Jeff Clark

Recognizing that her inline skating was on par with her ballet skill, Steffen turned her focus to the sports disciplines where she showed promise. Triathlon’s swim-bike-run trifecta seemed a perfect fit, especially the extreme version known as the Ironman. “I always want to do something a little bit more, a little bit crazier than someone else. I found out there’s something called Ironman so I thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting,’” she says.

Steffen’s debut at the “interesting” distance—the 2006 Ironman Switzerland, one year into her amateur triathlon career—yielded promising results: a 9:58:08 finish, sixth overall (pro women included), second in her age group and a ticket to Kona. Steffen knew nothing of the Ironman World Championship’s allure—she simply knew that a trip to Hawaii “sounded great.” Her finish there later that year was equally impressive: 9:59:22 and third on her age-group podium. Her 5:15:40 bike split caught the eye of the Lifeforce Pro Cycling Team, resulting in an offer of employment. She accepted, tailoring her full-time job as a draftswoman designing roadways (Steffen designed some of the Swiss roads she would later ride) to a part-time position and spent two years cycling at the professional level. And while Steffen’s single-sport time on the bike was surely the foundation for her cycling dominance today, serving as team rookie and domestique was less than satisfying.

“I missed having the windows open—I wanted to do my own thing. I worked my ass off every single day in training, but then in the race I was just working for the team,” says Steffen. “Once in the race they said, ‘OK, today you get a chance. You go.’ I won the race. From that point on I knew I was able to win road races, but I wasn’t allowed all the time.” An endurance workhorse, she couldn’t quite match the speed of the sprint specialists. She also lacked the ability to earn a sustainable salary through under-funded women’s cycling, making zero progress toward her goal of quitting her day job to live solely off of sport. Thus, in late 2008 she called it quits and turned back to triathlon.

Shortly thereafter, a friend convinced Steffen to accompany him overseas for a three-month training stint. She arranged a temporary leave from work and booked a flight to Australia, the country she’s called home ever since. Early on she met Dellow, who provided Steffen a pivotal kick in the pants. “I was saying my dream was to be a professional triathlete,” says Steffen. “But I never had the guts to really have a go. David was the person to say, ‘If you want to do it, you have to do it right now. You have to quit your job. You have to eat, sleep and train like a professional. And I believe you can be really good.’ And I said, ‘OK.’”

Dellow, already experiencing success on Australia’s national triathlon team, understood that Steffen needed a push. “I had to really encourage her in the beginning,” he says, “because people from Switzerland have a different attitude than Australians toward being a professional sportsperson. They consider career to be the No. 1 priority in life, so for Caroline to quit her well-paid job and do triathlon full-time was a big step.”

But a few phone calls later, Steffen was unemployed, fielding mixed reactions from her family and friends (you try telling your traditional Swiss father, “I’m in love, I quit my job and I’m staying in Australia to be a triathlete”) and missing more than a few nights’ sleep. She allowed herself a one-year window in which to succeed enough to make a living from the sport. And then she went to work in a local coffee shop. “It was good fun actually and really hard work—but I quit after two months because it was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do,” she says. “I mean I quit my job, I left my family, I left everything back in Switzerland to be a professional athlete, and then I went to work in a coffee shop.”

She relied on Dellow for short-term financial support before targeting her next paycheck: the prize purse at the Gold Coast Half Ironman. Being hit by a car one week before the race did not deter her; she rocked up to the start with scrapes and bruises on her hip, hand, shoulder and knee, where gravel can be seen to this day. “I told myself, ‘I don’t care if I got hit by a car. I have to do this race. I have to win this race. Otherwise I’m out,’” says Steffen. “I won and it saved me for the next month. And I did another race and got a little bit of cash and it saved me for the next month. And then I started working with Team TBB.”

Steffen wasn’t exactly a shoo-in for Sutton’s squad, though. She asked three times before he finally agreed to give her a chance. “The environment she was training in had athletes that had opinions different to mine,” says Sutton, explaining his initial reluctance to train Steffen. “I needed to be sure she would listen to me over others.”

She started working with Sutton online, winning her first high-profile race (Ironman 70.3 Geelong) just one month into the program. A week later she flew to Team TBB’s training camp in Thailand and met her new mentor in person for the first time. “I was so nervous,” Steffen says. “I was really afraid. I remember my hand was just shaking. But he was really relaxed and nearly ignoring me the first couple of days. He didn’t say much. For one or two weeks he was just watching me and making little notes.” After a few weeks of this unnerving observation, Sutton finally began to engage with the fledgling pro. Though odd at the onset, their coach/athlete partnership has obviously evolved into one that works. She attributes this to her absolute trust in his tactics. “His ideas of triathlon and training are completely different to other people,” she says. “If you want to work with him and you want to be good, then you have to believe in what he’s doing. I reckon it works because I trust him 100 percent.”

Steffen quickly ratcheted up to top dog on the team, but it’s a role she does not relish. “I don’t see myself as the leader,” she says. “And I actually don’t want to be the leader. I like to be a role model—that’s OK. But I’m not someone who likes leading a group. I’m more quiet and a little bit shy actually. That’s another reason I got this nickname,” she continues. “Brett realized that I’m strong and a fighter in the race, but he always calls me ‘Xena Princess,’ because out of the race I’m absolutely not a warrior.”

Indeed, it’s Steffen’s normalcy and down-to-earth vibe that her longtime friends laud. Says childhood classmate Criblez-Meyer, “What impresses me is that she didn’t change with her success; she is still the natural and honest girl from before. She was a great girl and she is a great woman now, just because she is what she is.” Another close friend, professional triathlete Aaron Farlow, one of Steffen’s key training partners, echoes that sentiment. “I don’t think I have seen her angry or pessimistic since I have known her,” he says. “She’s a great training partner. She’s tough, always positive, smart and eager to get something out of every session. Though,” he adds, “the boys have become weary of training with her as she is more than happy to ride away from them with a little grin on her face.”

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