Behind Caroline Steffen’s Tough Girl Persona

  • By Holly Bennett
  • Published Jul 15, 2013
  • Updated Jul 21, 2015 at 3:36 PM UTC
Steffen is pictured here with TeamTbb teammate Mary Beth Ellis. Photo: Jeff Clark

According to coach Sutton, Steffen’s sensitive side can at times be extreme. “Caroline is a very emotional girl who has a very strong will. Nice mix, but serves to drive me mad at times. In moments she makes emotional decisions when best served not making any; at other times she’s way too hard on herself.”

She was clearly in the throes of emotion when she won Ironman Melbourne and promptly locked lips with Dellow, a drawn-out display of finish line affection for all to see. “Actually some people complained because he was grabbing my ass!” Steffen laughs, remembering their celebratory make-out session. “The only thing I have to say—we both worked so hard for this race. We really trained hard. He was new to Ironman and his dream was to qualify for Kona. When I saw him waiting for me behind the finish line I just knew. I traveled alone to Kona the first two years, and I knew when I saw him he was qualified and we could travel together to Hawaii and race together. People don’t know—they don’t have to know—but for us, Melbourne was a huge step. And it was the first race we did together. For David and me it was a really big moment. So we didn’t care what people thought.”

An even deeper sensitivity is evident when Steffen describes what it means to race beside her man. “I feel safer and not that alone. Even though you have 2,000 other people around you, if I know he is racing or even just watching the race it gives me a lot of safety. It’s just easier for me if I know he’s around.”

Surely, Steffen relied on Dellow’s support following Kona 2012, when her second-place finish proved deeply disappointing. Two years earlier she earned an identical result, but the 2010 race was her first Kona appearance as a pro and as such, an unexpected success. “It was unbelievable. It was probably the race of my life,” says Steffen. 2011 showed a hitch in Steffen’s progress; an injury affected her ability to run throughout the season, so her subsequent fifth-place Kona finish was more than satisfactory. But in 2012, injury-free and an odds-on favorite, Steffen was dead-set on the win.

Unfortunately for Steffen, the race didn’t unfold as she hoped. First, a four-minute penalty on the bike—which she feels was unjust—set her back. Along with Leanda Cave and TBB teammate Mary Beth Ellis, Steffen was leading the women’s race, each athlete spread the legal distance apart, taking turns at the front and benefitting from the group momentum. A male pro was sucked into the mix, and Steffen was riding behind him when he began to fall off the pace. “I overtook him and went back to the group,” she explains, “I reckon the problem was the gap between this guy and the last girl wasn’t big enough. I got in and I’m pretty sure I had 12 meters to the next girl, but the marshal said I did not.”

Post-penalty tent, Steffen pushed hard to regain contact with the lead group, burning precious energy. Yet soon Cave and Ellis suffered similar bike violations, the infractions all but canceling one another out, and Steffen powered on to earn an advantage on the run. The effort seemed to pay off—Steffen maintained the lead in the marathon until the 23-mile mark, fending off threats from a number of fleet-footed rivals. But finally, with only three miles to go, Cave caught her, making a pass that Steffen could not match. “I tried to go with her, but my body didn’t respond,” she says. “Like I was sticking in fourth gear and couldn’t get into fifth. I wasn’t collapsing; there was just no more left.” She crossed the line defeated, 64 seconds after an exalted Cave.

Sutton’s reaction to the race was succinct. In fact, he and Steffen didn’t discuss her performance until almost two months later. “He was really disappointed, big time,” Steffen says matter-of-factly. “Because I knew and he knew I could win.” To my query, Sutton responded with unmasked irritation toward the race organization: “Women start ahead of the men, she wins the race. She still wins if officials knew how to read a race.” As for what he’ll do differently to better prepare Steffen for the 2013 world championship? “Nothing.”

Steffen can’t help but muse about one thing she might like to change. “Sometimes I would prefer to be a little bit less strong on the bike but a better runner,” she says. “I’m always the rabbit. The other girls are always chasing me. If you are like a rabbit at the front and you know they’re getting close to shooting you, it’s a totally different tactic than if you’re in fifth position and you start to catch up. I reckon it’s easier to pass people than to run scared. But how—I mean I can improve my run and I can improve my swim, but I can’t get any weaker on the bike.”

Steffen remains forward-focused and training with fervor. “I’m training pretty much like never before. I feel a huge motivation. Because I’m not happy with what happened last year,” she says. She does find it funny—maybe even a little frustrating—that triathlon fans are so quick to pick pre-race favorites. “Even when Kona is just over, people already say, ‘But you will win next year!’ It’s not like I don’t want to win, you know! It’s not like I’m just happy with second,” says Steffen. “I really do my best to win this race. But it’s not that easy! It’s not just like: OK, next year I will do it.”

Maybe people’s expectations stem from something Farlow sees in his friend. “Every successful person that I have ever met makes hard things look easy,” he says. “Caroline does exactly that with triathlon.” Maybe people are jumping the gun, eager to pinpoint the next world champion. Or maybe they sense the warrior in Steffen, even when she fails to find it in herself. Because behind that sweet, somewhat shy smile, beyond the normal-girlishness, the warrior is irrefutably within Steffen. And all she needs is a start line for it to kick in.

Xena’s Top Tips:

—“After a down, there’s always an up. Don’t let yourself go if you have a bad patch during a race. 180 kilometers is a long way.”

—“Race like you train. Don’t change anything just because you’re wearing a number on your bike.”

—“Maybe try once at home changing a tire. It is a pity to travel around the world and pull out of an Ironman because of a mechanical.”

Xena’s Favorite TT Bike Session:

This session is a two-hour workout including warm-up and cool-down. Start with an easy 15-minute warm-up followed by 3×30 minutes in the aerobars (on the road or on a trainer) and a 15-minute cool-down.

“The 3×30 minutes is a build ride. I always ride the first 30 minutes at Ironman race pace, the second 30 minutes at Ironman 70.3 race pace and the last 30 minutes at Olympic-distance race pace. If you’re in great shape, you can do the set on a double ride day twice. Or, like me, up to three times a day. Two hours’ work, two hours’ rest and repeat that three times. You will feel your legs when you hit the bed!”

RELATED VIDEO: Caroline Steffen Chats About 2nd Place Kona Finish

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