Living the life of Flora: the dream, the heartache, the gold
“Reflecting back on where I’ve come from to where I am now is very special and a little surreal.”
This summer Flora Duffy etched her name into the annals of not only Bermudian but world sporting history, cementing her status as one of short-course triathlon’s most dominant forces ever.
However, her incredible journey to Commonwealth champion, historic Olympic gold-medal glory and a record-equalling third world triathlon title is one that very nearly all but ended before it had really started, having almost quit the sport a little more than a decade ago.
“I was at a real crossroads in my career and had to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” said Duffy, reflecting on the devastating moment of being lapped and withdrawn from the race on her Olympic debut — in Beijing, China, in 2008 — admittedly the lowest point in her career.
“From there I actually didn’t race for two years, pretty much quit the sport and returned to Bermuda where I was working in a local shop.
“The Olympics is such a massive thing and I just think all of it was just too much at the time. I was only 20 years old and I needed a few more years of maturing and developing.”
Dejected and unsure what to do next, Duffy decided to apply to the University of Colorado in Boulder, moving away from the comforts of her island home for the second time, having previously left as a 16-year-old to attend Mount Kelly School, a boarding and day school in Devon, England.
While that previous decision was a conscious one in pursuit of furthering her triathlon career, the latter was intended to regain some sort of clarity in her life as well as a genuine intent on doing nothing related to triathlon and turning her attention away from being a serious athlete.
However, subconsciously the choice of destination was perhaps a little more intentional — with an eye on reigniting her passion for the sport — than first conceded. Living in a mecca of the sport, Duffy, then 21, quickly found herself back on her bike and competing with the university cycling team.
“I knew it was a great place to do my studies, but deep down I also knew that if I ever wanted to get back into triathlon, I could decide to because it was such a hotspot for the sport,” she added
Swimming and small intervals of running were soon added to the cycling and, with the support of Neal Henderson — who wound up coaching Duffy for nearly a decade — she had a life epiphany, triathlon was her true destiny.
However, the ensuing years proved challenging both mentally and physically, as the positive milestones, such as finishing inside the top 20 of the Hy-Vee World Cup in 2010 — her first competitive triathlon since Beijing — were met with further crushing lows.
“There have been so many highs and lows along the way,” she said. “Having worked my back into the sport, I managed to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012 but crashed out there, and so again it was another tough Olympic experience.”
However, in contrast to her first major setback on the world’s biggest sporting stage, she refused to turn away from the sport, instead dedicating herself to her craft, while honing her technical skills in the different variations of the sport, such as the Xterra Series.
Her perseverance began to pay off, with a bronze medal in the Xterra Triathlon World Championships in 2013, quickly being followed by four successive titles.
The reason behind one of the first major turning points in her sporting career?
“Meeting Dan was certainly a huge turning point,” said Duffy on her relationship with husband Dan Hugo, a former professional triathlete, whom she started dating in 2013.
“Winning Xterra races helped my confidence a lot, but getting into that came mostly through Dan. It wasn’t just a huge turning point in my sporting career, but also my life.
“He used to be a professional triathlete and so to meet someone I could train and race with really added another dimension to my racing. It can be quite lonely pursuing this career, so to have someone to do it with was really special.
“Xterra really boosted my confidence and helped me get more serious in the sport again because it showed I could compete at a high level and helped me regain my passion for the sport.”
It proved a significant catalyst as the upturn in her fortunes continued with an eighth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While Duffy, who was an outside favourite for a medal, was initially disappointed with her performance, she conceded it proved a valuable experience in shaping her future success at the highest level.
“Going into the Rio Olympics in 2016, things had really started to go to the next level,” she said. “I was one of the outside favourites for a medal, ranked No 1 the world, but I ended up finishing eighth. At the time I wasn’t happy at all and it took a couple of years for me to realise it was a good achievement; I was so silly not to think that.
“It was such a great learning experience going into an Olympic Games as one of the favourites because there is so much more pressure piled on top of you, and I just wasn’t ready to deal with that.
“Looking back, I think going through that experience set me up for Tokyo and, going in as the favourite, I could confidently deal with that pressure and expectations.”
At this point in time, Duffy was regarded as a strong ITU racer but far from the dominant force she would soon become. It was not until the end of that year, when she beat newly crowned Olympic champion Gwen Jorgensen, to claim her first world title at the ITU Grand Final in Cozumel, Mexico, that the triathlon world really took notice.
A successful world-title defence followed a year later before another big milestone was achieved in 2018, when she executed a perfect race to run away with the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia.
“Going into the event was in my mind a test run for the Tokyo Olympics,” Duffy added. “I was going into a major Games as the overwhelming favourite and all I wanted to do was win.
“I also had a lot of pressure from back home to win Bermuda a medal and that is a pretty tough way to go into a major race. Thankfully, I had a great race, won gold and in my mind it was like, tick, that’s done, next stop Tokyo.
“Winning that gold was an ambition of mine, but it was a stepping stone to the Olympics.”
That level of pressure paled in comparison with what was to follow in the build-up to Tokyo 2020, as the consequences of Covid-19 pandemic only prolonged and intensified the psychological challenge facing Duffy.
“The build-up to Tokyo was pretty crazy,” she said. “I don’t think there were many days that went by that I didn’t get told or asked about being the favourite heading into the Olympics in one aspect or another.
“It just felt like it was constantly there, a subtle reminder here and there of what I was carrying on my shoulders, and that was definitely a lot to have to deal with.
“I also don’t think anyone could have really prepared you for having to navigate the pandemic, the Olympics being delayed a year, not being able to race much and slight injury, eight weeks before the Games, which were not ideal and stressful, but I just had to roll with the punches.”
However, showing the same determination and resilience that have followed her throughout her career since first getting into the sport as a seven-year-old, what followed was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream as the 34-year-old stormed to victory, rewriting history to become Bermuda's first Olympic champion and second medal-winner, following in the footsteps of heavyweight boxer Clarence Hill, who won bronze at the Montreal Games in 1976.
“In the final stages, all I tried to do was not think too much that I was about to win the Olympics and try to focus on anything else if I’m honest,” Duffy added.
“With 800 metres to go, I tried to soak everything in heading to the finish line, but at the same time I just wanted it to be over because I just wanted that moment to happen already.
“To be an Olympic champion has been my dream since I was a little girl. It was just something I wanted to achieve for myself and also for my country.
"I was definitely overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do, what to think. It was just a really special moment.
“Beforehand, I knew it would be such an historic moment for Bermuda, with it being a first-ever gold medal, but I wasn’t quite aware just how big the response would be.”
While it will take time to fully appreciate the moment, Duffy was given a clear indication of the magnitude and significance of her incredible achievement in what proved a memorable homecoming after returning to the island for the first time last week.
It signified the culmination of her incredible journey.
“It’s just so special that my journey has come full circle,” said Duffy, reflecting on coming home as Olympic and three-times world champion, having left the island in pursuit of her dream all those years ago.
“I’m doing things like hosting clinics with Tri-Hedz, where I started as a seven-year-old and now going back as an Olympic and world champion, and that is really special.
“Even just driving down Front Street, I think back to the Front Street Mile days and that being the big event. Just reflecting back on where I’ve come from to where I am now is very special and a little surreal.
“I’m still trying to absorb it all. Only the other day I watched the race back in full for the first time and it was a surreal feeling of thinking that’s really me running down to the finish line. I think it is going to take some time to have some calm moments and reflect on everything because it is a lot to take in.”
It remains to be seen if Duffy will continue to dominate, whether it be a successful defence of her Olympic crown in Paris in three years’ time, further World Triathlon and Xterra Series titles, Ironman 70.3 or in the Super League Triathlon Series, but one thing for certain is that her legacy has already been cemented, with her crowning glory laying the foundation to inspire future generations of Bermudian athletes to follow in her footsteps.
“I think I’ve already seen the impact of what winning gold has had on everyone in Bermuda and it has started to settle in,” she said. “It has been really special to see those emotions. Just seeing so many people on the side of the roads, shouting, dancing, waving the Bermuda flag, it was just really special.
“It means a lot and is just such a privilege to have that platform to inspire people, and particularly the younger generation, to hopefully go and chase their dreams.
“What really makes me smile is to see the impact that it has had on the young people of Bermuda. The impact of winning this gold medal, it is special to me, but I think it is even more special to a young person to see that medal in Bermuda and be influenced.”