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Go, Flora, go

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Youngsters participating in the Steve's Sports and Science Camp send a message to Flora Duffy at the Olympics through a "Go Flora" sign made of hibiscus flowers at the Botanical Gardens. With them is Steve Burgess, who runs the camp (Photograph by Tony Bean)

It has come to this. Twenty-three years of hard graft since age 10, full of thrills and spills —and the occasional heartbreak — have brought Flora Duffy to the brink of joining the pantheon of greats.

Flora Duffy takes to the Olympic start line tonight as one of the clear medal favourites (File photograph by Wagner Araujo/ITU Media)

Not only in the Bermuda context, but globally. For there reside the best of the best — Olympic champions.

For a country that has won only one medal in 85 years of trying, that may seem a bit ambitious, a bit boastful.

But Flora Duffy is that good. And while she may be perennially bashful about her place among the best to have splashed through the water, ground through the bike and hammered through the run, the world of triathlon and endurance sport knows what she is about.

Japan does, too.

Two thumping wins in Yokohama in 2017 and 2018 are testament to Duffy’s strengths and ability to dominate in that part of the world.

She had the year of years in 2017 with six victories on the World Triathlon Series circuit and followed that up by capturing Bermuda’s first gold medal for 28 years at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.

The country was rightly over the moon that high jumper Clarance “Nicky” Saunders could be joined in the annals of history.

But she did not have everyone in her corner.

With triathlon long seen as a White and expatriate sport, Black Bermudians at large seemed unconvinced — some still are — until they got to see Flora’s brilliance right up close and personal a few months later when the WTS visited the City of Hamilton.

That virtuoso performance when Bermuda’s finest showed a clean pair of heels to the rest of the world’s best is when Flora got everyone on board willing her to sweep all before her.

April 28, 2018 remains one of the greatest sporting occasions of modern local sports history. Yes, for the athletic prowess that Flora Duffy brought to the day, but also for power of unification — when Bermudians and residents of all hue could come together for a single purpose.

It is that same sense of purpose that is driving the well wishers to respond so voluminously to The Royal Gazette’s call to action for the Flora Duffy cause.

We hope she hears us and will put her best foot forward as of 6.30pm tonight Bermuda time. But we know this is sport.

The term “Football, bloody hell” exists for a reason because nothing is ever so simple as putting it down on paper and hoping all goes to form.

“It’s why we play the game,” say others when scripts get ripped up and tossed in the dustbin.

Flora went to the Rio Games in 2016 as one of the favourites, too, but who knew that Nicola Spirig, of Switzerland, would blow up the field with such a daring breakaway on the most punishing of bike courses?

While Spirig did come back to the field, Flora not getting the chance to get away from the front on the bike in customary fashion meant the race ultimately boiled down to who were the best runners.

Duffy would finish eighth, with the gold going to the peerless Gwen Jorgensen, whose running ability set her apart from the field during her dominant years.

That is where Duffy most improved, as in the water and on the bike, she is what one would call a stud.

To then add a compellingly metronomic cadence in her least favourite discipline resulted in dominance on the WTS circuit in 2017, and Commonwealth gold and full Bermudian acceptance in 2018.

Opportunities for competitive racing since she recovered from a nagging foot problem that cost her the second half of 2018 and much of 2019 have been few — which has been the same for everyone owing to Covid-19. But she showed in successive starts in Italy and the Czech Republic last year that when fit she is to be feared.

That is not to say there is no one else in the field of 56 for Duffy to be concerned about. There are some triathletes of repute and no doubt a handful of others capable of disturbing the equilibrium and giving Bermuda fans a few queasy moments.

Central to that theme will be Great Britain’s finest — now is a good time as any to abandon loyalty to Queen and country.

In Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown, Team GB possesses a pair who could put a dent in Duffy’s ambitions — not to mention Vicky Holland, the bronze medal-winner from 2016.

Remember that Learmonth and Taylor-Brown finished ahead of Duffy at the 2019 Olympic test event in Tokyo before being disqualified for attempting to cross the line together, handing the “win” to the Bermudian.

The other notable takeaway from that event was that the run was shortened from ten kilometres to 5km because of the hot and humid conditions.

It was reported to be 95F in Tokyo last week and Flora commented after the test event on how much she likes it hot. Don’t we all?

The others in the field who merit mention are Katie Zaferes, the American who most profited on the circuit when Duffy went on the injured list in 2018, Ashleigh Gentle, of Australia, Barbara Riveros, of Chile, and that same Swiss miss, Nicola Spirig, who remains a threat at 39.

Bermuda has not won a medal since 1976 when heavyweight boxer Clarence Hill had bronze draped around his neck. There have been a few who have come close since — sailors Alan Burland and Christopher Nash in 1984 (fifth), Clarance Saunders in 1988 (fifth), triple jumper Brian Wellman in 1992 (fifth), Wellman again in 1996 (sixth), and sailors Peter Bromby and Lee White in 2000 (fourth).

We are due to have another name in bright lights. Not to replace Clarence Hill, as sadly some in our community would like to see, but to join him.

Maybe then the Bermuda Olympic Association will do the right thing and commission two separate plinths for Hill and Duffy to set them apart, rather than the nondescript present offering at the National Sports Centre whose existence is more reminiscent of the St George’s Cricket Club noticeboard on Saturday night where the names of the Cup Match challengers became more undecipherable the farther you went down the list.

Memorably and shamefully, we recall that Hill came back from Montreal and had to make his own way home from the airport. Such a scene is unthinkable today. We have come too far.

And while many, too many, for reasons known and unknown, may wish to airbrush Clarence Hill out of Bermuda’s Olympic history or diminish his accomplishment, Flora Duffy crossing the line in first, second or third tonight should serve only to embellish it.

And then there were two.

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Published July 26, 2021 at 8:21 am (Updated July 27, 2021 at 9:09 am)

Go, Flora, go

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