Lisa Nordén: a new balance

THE WORLD CHAMPION AND OLYMPIC SILVER MEDALLIST TELLS US HOW SHE FELT SHE NEEDED A CHANGE IN ORDER TO CONTINUE PERFORMING AT HER LEVEL WITHOUT COMPLETELY SACRIFICING HER PERSONAL LIFE.

By Alberto Trillo | Photos: Catarina Axelsson


Her calf tore. She felt it. But there were only a few metres left on the blue carpet to be crowned champion of the world for the first time. She crossed the finishing line in fourth place and claimed the points she needed to end a dream 2012 with Olympic silver. Lisa knew at that moment that it was a turning point in her life.

Behind the smiles for the cameras, “I’d had enough of living on the road. I just wanted to go back home,” Lisa admits earnestly from the other end of the telephone line in Gold Coast, Australia.

I’d had enough of living on the road. I just wanted to go back home

Since 2007, she had been living from a suitcase, travelling back and forth without a place to return to in Sweden. “My life was just training camps”. She had joined Darren Smith’s prestigious training group and the results were immediate. A month and a half later she was crowned U-23 world champion in Hamburg.

Her achievement was followed by three more years on the World Series podium... but still nowhere to call home. “It’s fine when you start your career, you’re young and everything is a big adventure, it’s fantastic.” She lived in Australia until March and in Europe until the end of the season. That was her annual routine.

At that time, Darren decided that it was what was best for her performance and returning to Stockholm was not an option. Lisa was aware that she did not have the means to do so without sacrificing her training. Gradually, she began to feel that it was a life that did not fulfil her.

“When things go great and you get champagne on the podium, everyone calls and wants to do interviews, it’s great but then when difficult times come everything suddenly disappears. If you’re living on the road and you don’t have anyone else in your life telling you you’re a good person, then life is really empty.” Triathlon had taken over her life. To perform at her level, there was no room for anything else.

However, “I didn’t want to go through another Olympic cycle being 32 years old and having no friends outside of the sport, no place to call home, no coffee machine, wardrobe, key or door of my own somewhere.” But the time had not yet come.

Months before the final in Auckland, she had won her Olympic medal, after a period of intense stress. “2012 was a very, very challenging year with lots of pressure, lots of injuries and having the least optimal lead-up to the London Olympics.”

Another way

After speaking to Darren, they decided that a change was needed. Lisa left the training group and decided to devote 2013 to trying out non-drafting and Half Ironman racing, while she changed her life.

It was not about having a quieter or easier year: the aim to get a second wind and build a new life, with new motivations

It was not about having a quieter or easier year: the aim to get a second wind and build a new life, with new motivations. That would be the most important thing that year. To build an optimum environment in Stockholm to which she could always return. “I saw the Brownlees or Helen Jenkins having created a good environment to train at home. I felt I also needed this”.

Lisa began a long process based on “trial and error” to build this environment. “Too many people wanted to help and so many doors were open”, which made the process difficult. This, along with the physical and mental exhaustion that 2012 had inflicted on her, led her unconsciously to separate herself a little from competition. Her body was crying out for rest. But she did not want to listen.

Two tough years

The injuries soon appeared in 2013. “I had pushed too hard [in 2012] and I should have allowed myself more time to recover”. And the year grew harder when she competed in some races carrying an injury in order to quality for Hy-Vee and Vegas, which would go on to embody her renewed ambition in 2013. Lisa continued full steam ahead and her body protested: a very uncomfortable plantar fascitis gave no respite.

But to be competitive and earn another medal in Rio, she needed something more than just being on her own in Stockholm. She spent three months in Boulder, Colorado, to learn from three-times world Ironman champion Craig Alexander, albeit training a lot by herself. At that time she realised that “I had to be back in the races, I needed to have training partners.”

After seeing the good results achieved by Darren’s girls in the London final, Lisa decided she had to return to the group, “but not exactly in the same way”. This time it would be without needing to empty out her life in exchange for performance.

In 2014 she rejoined Darren’s group. Her body would not respond. The balance she had found in her life was no longer present in her body. “My lack of running in 2013 made me lose my base strength.”

The balance she had found in her life was no longer present in her body

Every time she came close to being competitive again, there was another setback. Before Cape Town, she was hospitalised for a week with a viral infection in a nerve root that affected the mobility of her arms and hands. Shortly before Stockholm, she suffered a stress fracture.

“You enter a downward spiral, one thing leads to another, and it’s very difficult to get out and be strong again”. In a sport that is an endless pursuit of balance, when a card from the castle falls, it is difficult to keep the structure standing without the other cards coming down. “Besides, your confidence goes down and you wonder how you will get back”.

The light at the end of the tunnel

At least, during this time, she was able to build a place she could call home. “Now I know I always have a key in my bag”. A restaurant even offered to sponsor her and cooks for her while she is in Stockholm. At 30 years of age and with a partner, she no longer has to go back to the spare room in her mother’s house.

After a dry spell of two years, with a different structure to her life, Lisa got back to being competitive again and showed her quality, particularly in the water and on the bike. She started 2015 with some continental cups in New Zealand after a period of training in San Diego with Darren’s group.

The points she earned took her to Abu Dhabi, where she finished 21st. She could have been in the “top 5 or top 10” had she not been racing with a swollen Achilles tendon, which has also affected her preparation for Auckland, where her starting place on the pontoon remains uncertain. “At this time I can’t afford to be set back by another two or three weeks”.

After the Oceanic triathlons, she will return to Stockholm, to her home, from where she will look ahead to the next races on the way to another medal at the Rio 2016 games. “I can’t wait until the day I have done enough training to be able to do myself justice out on the run course”.

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