‘She’s just the best in the world’
Flora Duffy said this was her last shot and she took it.
There may have been few spectators in Tokyo but all of Bermuda was cheering on Bermuda’s golden girl as she ran into the history books and smashed the Olympic record at the same time.
In the end, she didn’t just win the women’s triathlon gold medal at the Olympic Games, she seized it.
A family’s joy burst into national elation last night as Ms Duffy took the first ever gold medal for Bermuda, and the second medal ever after Clarence Hill won the bronze in boxing at Montreal in 1976.
For parents Charlie and Maria Duffy, it was a jubilant ending to a nerve-shredding hour and 55 minutes.
“It’s unreal – just unreal,” Ms Duffy said, embracing her son Joel with a bottle of champagne, eyes fixed on her daughter in triumph before the world.
For the thousands watching, the night was an agony of anticipation that gave way to 30 minutes of cheering euphoria.
Just before the crowd that joined the Duffy family at Docksiders on Front Street erupted into ecstatic final cheers, Mr Duffy watched his daughter beam as she approached the finish and exclaimed: “This is beyond our dreams.”
He added: “But it’s still not that unlikely – know what I mean? Given her ability. She’s just the best in the world.”
Both parents rode out their nerves with the rest of Bermuda, cheering for every gain as the island’s star athlete took and held her lead.
Asked if it was tough every time watching her daughter compete, Ms Duffy said: “You just get used to it.”
Then she said: “No, not really. We’ll see what happens on the run.”
For Flora’s family, with her brother Campbell watching from London, it was all about the final 10k run.
Mr Duffy admitted early in the night’s drama: “It’s absolutely nerve-wracking. Shattering. And it gets worse.”
As she took her place in the leading cyclists, a relieved father said: “I feel good now; she’s in the front pack. She can beat any of those.”
And as she took an instant lead in the 10k, Mr Duffy said: “She’s way, way ahead, and these are the best in the world. What she doesn’t always get credit for is, she wins races by a mile.”
At the end, with the family wearing matching “Go Flora Go” shirts, clutching Bermuda’s flag and surrounded by a rapturous crowd, it was simply an emotional celebration of a moment many Bermudians almost didn’t dare to hope for.
The epic win lit up social media in a flash, with tributes pouring in as the Premier and others echoed the island’s jubilation.
After taking the stage in Tokyo, Ms Duffy told The Royal Gazette: “This is Bermuda’s first gold medal and as the first woman to do it it’s an incredibly special moment and I feel as I crossed the line today, I did it for everyone in Bermuda.
“I’ve had an extra year with this pressure on me. Although it was difficult to manage and navigate all that pressure what a special moment to come down the finishing shoot and just to enjoy it and have my moments. It’s incredible.”
She added: “It was worth it; there’s been many tears, many heartbreaks. Many times I was like: ‘Am I ever going to be healthy again, can I ever race at the top’?
“I just kept believing and I have a really great support system around me.”
For someone who had overcome adversity and disappointment throughout her triathlon career – even briefly giving up the sport 13 years ago – she made it look easy, coming out of the one kilometre swim in sixth place, changing leads in the front pack through the 40 kilometre bike race and then taking the lead in the 10 kilometre run just seconds after the transition and never looking back.
Before the race she told triathlon.org: "This is a one-day event where everything matters, from the last four – or five – years of your life.
"It’s massive, and you don’t always get another shot. This will be my last Olympics, I’m at the top of my game and Tokyo is the day that matters for me."
It showed. She ran a technically perfect race, like she had been preparing for this day all of her life. Looking cool and intense, she bided her time and then ran away with it.
At the end, she ran through the tape and then dropped to the ground, lying as if she was completely alone – perhaps letting the meaning of being on top of the world at the sports world’s biggest stage sink in.
Asked after the race about winning the medal, she said: “It’s pretty heavy! First it’s a massive amount of pressure. I would never ever recommend being an Olympic favourite for five years!
“It’s so special. I just had my family on Face Time and they are going crazy! I think all of Bermuda is. 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 medallist and Bermuda’s first female medallist and hopefully just inspire everyone back home that this is possible.”
Discussing her sometimes aggressive race technique, Ms Duffy once said: “It’s what I need to do to be on the podium, so I just do it.” And at 8.43am on July 27 in Tokyo and at 8.43pm on July 26 in Bermuda, she did what she had to do.
The former world champion and Commonwealth Games gold medal-winner already knew what it took to overcome adversity and did it again yesterday, overcoming heavy rain, lower than expected 75 degree heat and 87 per cent humidity. More than 20 athletes in the 54-strong field did not make it to the end, but Flora Duffy was always at the front.
It was a long way from Clearwater Beach where Ms Duffy dreamt of being a pro triathlete with Bermuda’s Tri-Hedz junior triathletes, before going to a sports-oriented English boarding school with its own elite triathlete team.
Representing Bermuda in the Olympics for the first time in Beijing in 2008, Ms Duffy did not finish and then decided to give up the sport.
“It was a really, really rough time for me. I hit rock bottom in Beijing. My body had had enough,” she told triathlete.org. In fact she was diagnosed with an eating disorder, caused by her efforts to eat as healthily as possible.
But within a year, and after trying out life as a “regular” college student in Colorado, Ms Duffy realised she was destined to be a professional triathlete.
“It was a life epiphany,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is not me, who am I trying to be? You are a triathlete.’”
From there, despite disappointment at the 2012 London Olympics when she was involved in a bike crash, she continued to improve and was a medal contender in the Rio Olympics where she finished eighth.
Then she went on a tear, becoming the first and only athlete to earn three triathlon world titles in the same year, which included the World Triathlon Series, ITU Cross Triathlon and Xterra titles in close succession.
In 2017, Duffy was unbeatable as she went on a winning streak on the World Triathlon circuit and a year later captured the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
She went on to bring an ITO World Triathlon to Bermuda in 2018 and duly won it, but withdrew in 2019 due to an injury which could have hampered her Olympics preparations.
That and other injuries, along with Covid-19 enforced suspensions of events, meant Ms Duffy’s chances to compete were limited before going to Tokyo. Despite being one of the favourites in the race, it was not until it began that it was clear her day had arrived.
To learn more about Flora Duffy’s path to the top of the triathlon world, read this article in Triathlete.com by Kelly O’Mara.