Flora Duffy shows us we can dream of greatness
Flora Duffy’s achievement in winning the gold medal in the women’s triathlon at the Tokyo Olympics produces innumerable superlatives.
The first gold medal for Bermuda.
The smallest country by population to win a gold medal.
Only the second medal Bermuda has ever won, following Clarence Hill’s bronze medal in boxing at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Biggest gap between the gold and silver-medal finishers in Olympic triathlon history.
On a personal level, Duffy’s achievement seems even greater.
Tired and with her head in the wrong place, she gave up the sport after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she did not finish. Back in the elite by 2012, her Olympic bid ended in a bike crash. At Rio in 2016, she finished eighth — an extraordinary achievement by almost any measure, but short of her own desire to be the very best.
Then she went on a tear, dominating the sport in three different categories, holding three world championships simultaneously followed by the Commonwealth Games gold medal.
As she commented on Monday, night, that made her the favourite for the gold medal in Tokyo in 2020, and when Covid-19 caused the postponement of those Games until this year, she was still the favourite — a heavy burden for anyone.
Injuries and Covid-19 made it difficult to compete in the past two years, and the disruptions of the pandemic could have changed everything. New athletes could have emerged from nowhere as they have in other sports, performing in front of almost no spectators would be an eery experience, especially in a sport where athletes draw inspiration and succour from those cheering them on. Normally athletes would have family and support groups around them, but all of this was pared down for Tokyo.
Duffy got this far without the kind of support networks that larger countries provide as a matter of course. She acknowledged that when she dismissed an interviewer’s suggestion she could have competed for Great Britain. First it was clear that this was not a possibility, but she also noted that Team GB likely would not have countenanced her 2008 decision to pull back from the sport. Nonetheless, in sport, Bermuda will always have to punch above its weight in terms of finance and resources.
The race was expected to be blisteringly hot and humid. After the men’s race, competitors lay prostrate on the ground. Instead there was the threat of a tropical storm, the spectre of thunderstorms and for much of the event, frequent downpours.
So much could go wrong, and yet on the day, nothing did. Duffy executed what looked to triathlon neophytes like a perfect race and when she made her move in the run, there was no one to challenge her. After facing so much adversity for so long, she looked unbeatable and so she turned out to be.
This is first and foremost Duffy’s triumph and that cannot and should not, be taken away from her. She did the hard miles, the early starts, the strict diets and endured the lifestyle restrictions that are part and parcel of an elite athlete’s life.
And she would have had to put up with the intrusions from the media and well-meaning fans, as well as the strange and often vicious assaults on social media and the like.
It speaks to her character that she would be the first to admit she could not have done this alone. Coaches, trainers, medical support people, her husband, parents and family have all been there for her. So have her competitors. There is a picture of Duffy at the finish line, her back to the camera, arms aloft, encouraging bronze medal-winner Katie Zaferes, of the United States, over the finish line. It says it all. These remarkable athletes may be competitors, but they are comrades as well.
There’s a temptation to claim this victory for all of Bermuda. Duffy acknowledged as much on Monday night when she said: “That’s what makes it so special for me. Yes, it’s my dream, but I also knew it was bigger than me. And I think when you’re in that sort of space it just makes everything that much more special and incredible.
“I am just so proud I could be Bermuda’s first gold medal-winner and Bermuda’s first female medal-winner and, hopefully, just inspire everyone back home that this is possible.”
Duffy can be the best kind of role model, not so much because she won a gold medal, as extraordinary as that is, but because she has shown what discipline, tenacity and resilience can achieve, not simply in triathlon or in sport generally, but in any endeavour.
Flora Duffy was a winner before she dived off the platform into the waters of Tokyo Bay at 6.45 in the morning. That was her true accomplishment and the one that all Bermudians, regardless of race or gender should heed. She took a journey which began as a small girl on Clearwater Beach and culminated on a medal podium on the other side of the world.
The journey does not end there, and in her success, it may spark many more journeys for many other children who now know that it is not just possible to dream of achieving great things, it can happen — no matter where you are from.
On Monday night, Bermudians came together with a shared sense of pride in seeing a Bermudian woman standing at the peak of greatness in sport.
It would be wonderful if that same spirit of pride, unity and togetherness continued into the other endeavours. It likely will not. The glow will fade and everyday differences will arise again, as they always do.
But Flora Duffy’s success and the glow we all feel from it does remind us that we can put our differences aside. We can try to find common ground and see what unites us rather than harping on what divides us. And in doing so, perhaps we, too, as a people, can continue on the Bermuda journey to a better society where we can celebrate remarkable achievements by we few people against enormous odds.
Flora Duffy did it. We can too.