In the midst of her preparations for a record fifth Olympic Games at Tokyo in 2020, Switzerland’s double Olympic triathlon medallist and mother-of-two Nicola Spirig discusses how she approaches big competitions and how she balances her gruelling training routine with a busy family life.


Race-day mindset

When I get to the start line I know I’ve done everything in my power to be as ready as possible for race day. This gives me confidence that I can handle the unique pressure of competitions like the Olympic Games. My preparations always factor in the specific demands of the course and the strengths and weaknesses of my opponents. This means I’ve rehearsed many of the race scenarios so I’m able to respond positively to each one.

Specific training and race-day simulation

I am fortunate to work with a very innovative coach and the training plan he sets is specifically tailored to each race. The best example of this came after I won the gold medal at the Olympic Games London 2012. After offering his congratulations he pointed out the need to adapt my swimming technique to better cope with the ocean currents we would be facing in Rio de Janeiro for the next Games. So the preparations for Rio began a day after my London victory. We also try to incorporate a sprint finish workout after each hard session to prepare my body for that scenario on race day.

Breaking down the challenge

An Olympic triathlon event takes roughly two hours to complete so it is important to mentally section off each part of the race. During the swim my plan is to first focus on each buoy. In the run component I think water station to water station, or I look at the heels of each athlete. The pain is bearable when you try to deal with each moment as it comes.

Staying present, adapting and not yielding

I have strong memories of the final stages of my Olympic gold medal effort in London. At the end of my bike ride I was getting cramps in my quads. So with 1km to go in the run I decided to change my tactics. I usually like to finish races with a sharp sprint, but because of the cramp I decided a more gradual build-up run would be better. With 500m to go my cramp had reduced, but my opponent, Lisa Nordén from Sweden, was getting closer. I knew how much work I’d put into that race. I knew I had one chance to get a gold medal. I knew I had to finish first.

A shift in perspective

Having a family has changed my priorities. Sport isn’t my most pressing concern anymore. Sport is still important, of course, but I have learned that it isn’t everything. If I have a bad session it used to bother me a bit. But now I get home and see my children’s smiling faces and it always makes me feel better. It reminds me that there are more important things in life than sport.

Balance and support

I have always tried to combine different pursuits. I have a law degree and obviously a family now. The demands of competing in sport at an elite level mean that you always feel like there is not enough time. I wish I had a clone so I could train while also being there for my family. Of course this isn’t possible, so I just aim to be as present as I can in whatever activity I’m engaged with at that moment. If I do something, I do it properly. I give everything to my sport, but I really cherish the time I spend with my loved ones: my husband Rito, who has been very supportive, my coach, as well as my parents, who help with the kids sometimes. My manager and sponsors are also a great support for me.

Follow your dream but it’s not the ‘be-all and end-all’

I would encourage any athlete trying to make a breakthrough at the highest level to aim high and follow their dreams. But it’s also important to put things in perspective. If things don’t work out then it’s not the end of the world. There are always more important things in life and our aspirations in sport don’t define who we are.

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