For Nicola Spirig and Hailey Danisewicz, the road to Rio could not have been more different, despite the results being the same: silver medals at the Games. Swiss born Spirig – a veteran of triathlon since starting at 10 years old – already was an Olympic champion from London in 2012, and so returned to the Games in Rio knowing what lay ahead. US athlete Danisewicz on the other hand, had only thought about the possibility of the Rio a few years prior, as 2016 marked the first-time triathlon was part of the Paralympics.
Incredibly, both are On athletes - so to celebrate a year on after their performance, we're releasing an interview conducted with the two of them together to hear about the similarities and differences of their silver medal stories.
All illustrations by Pinky Tan and Kota Matsuda - with detailing done in Ecridor Silver pencil.
Right from the get go, Nicola is the same as in race mode: she’s on track and of course, takes the lead over the interview with the question “Who starts? Hailey?”
From there, we launch in to it, talking with these two champions about their incredible journies.
Hailey: Sure, I'll start.
Well, I just got home yesterday from Rio – just getting back to reality – but I’m still very much riding the high. Now being home, being able to see all of the people that have helped me get to this point and really celebrate with them, I mean it's amazing! My first Paralympic experience, you know, so I'm just kind of… soaking it all in for the next couple weeks.
Hailey speaks with a bubbly, friendly enthusiasm. Every statement is genuine. Every answer fresh and unrehearsed.
HEAR IT IN HAILEY'S WORDS:
Nicola: Yeah, it has been a bit longer since I've been home - about four weeks since the race. We have been doing some holidays, just a few days in Rio, and then we went home and had a big…how do you call it? Like a big get together with everyone here in my hometown. Now I'm kind of enjoying training without a training plan and having a lot of time with my family. And, as Hailey said, seeing a lot of people that maybe I didn't have enough time for before the Olympics. I’m enjoying now having more time for those things.
We ask them both how their world has changed since their wins.
Hailey: I mean I think the biggest thing is just, “I spent all of my energy focused on this one race”.
Now, I think there is definitely a little bit of sadness to realize that this “thing” - the road - is over. So I'm just kinda redirecting my focus to all the things I've been neglecting. Taking a mental break. I guess my world has just gotten a little bit more relaxed.
Hailey trails off and we turn to Nicola for what after-the-Games-life has been like for her.
Nicola: Well, it didn't really change, results-wise. I was an Olympic champion before so extremely proud to get another medal now, and really, relieved that everything turned out well - and that everyone who worked with me wasn't disappointed.
But, similar to Hailey, I had an extremely sports-focused world before the Olympic Games. It was like three sessions every day, extremely intense, a lot of training camps, and moving to St. Moritz, a mountain town to get the high altitude effect, so not really “home” at all. And now, of course, that changed. We enjoy not having such a sports-focused set plan for all of every day, but getting out and playing with my son and having breakfast with my family and just… a bit more of a relaxed day. It was nice to come home.
We take the opportunity to jump into her past, and how she first started out in the world of triathlon.
Nicola: I grew up in a sports family: my grandfather was a sports teacher and my uncle was a sports teacher and both my father and my mother were sports teachers so I had the possibility to try out a lot of different sports when I was a kid. Gymnastics, I played basketball for quite a long time and I was in a swim school, and running, and skiing, and snowboarding in winters. So, I just loved sports in general.
When I was 10, I did my first triathlon.
My father and my uncle were doing some triathlons for fun, and that's basically how I got into it.
HEAR IT IN NICOLA'S WORDS:
Hailey: I also did a lot of sports growing up - loved all sports. Things kind of got derailed when I was 12.
I was diagnosed with bone cancer and…my leg, well, I had it amputated two years later.
So you know, basically through high school and the first part of college, I wasn't able to do any of the sports that I grew up playing. I missed it a lot and really wanted to get back into things but didn't really find the one thing that clicked with me…the one thing that I felt that I was able to do well.
When I was in college, I got an internship with a sports organization, and my boss was a triathlete, and was friends with a bunch of triathletes, so they kind of “peer pressured me” (laughs) into signing up for a race. I had no real background in any of the three disciplines (swimming, cycling, running), at the time. No formal background. So I picked up all three at once and did my first race a few months later! I fell in love right away and just over the course of the next couple of years, started taking it more and more seriously until I realized I could actually do something with it!
The first professional level wins of the two champions.
“Peer pressured” into Paralympic history – what a start. We ask Hailey when the possibility of the Games first entered her head.
Hailey: I guess Rio was always kind of…on the back burner. I got into triathlon when it was announced that paratriathlon was going to be making its debut in Rio, and so it was something that everyone always talked about, but it wasn’t on my radar. It didn't really become something that I took seriously until about 2014. That was when I started winning races…started to really grow as an athlete. I guess that was kind of the point where I realized this could actually be something that I could do.
Nicola: Triathlon was the same, and only became an Olympic sport in 2000 in Sydney.
I was only 18 at that stage but I knew some of the athletes, and these athletes, you know, I was already beating some of them! So from there it made me think, “Maybe it wouldn't be that hard to get to the Olympics so… let's try for the next one!”
The go-to energy boosts for before the race.
From imagining being there to the beginning of the race, we fast-forward to Nicola at the start line of the 2016 Olympics.
Nicola: Well, I'm actually always glad when I hear the start gun. Before that, I'm nervous. I worry about stuff, and I think about stuff and then, once the race has started, I'm just focused on the next step. So when the start gun goes off, I am focused on getting to start right - it was a beach start so it was important to get that right. And then, I’m focused on the first buoy, then focused on being in the right place in the swim pack, and so, I'm not nervous anymore with all of that. Just extremely focused, extremely concentrated…thinking about tactics, about being in the right place and just about being in my race mode.
This is something you can tell Nicola has thought about many times – a seasoned professional balancing instinct and focus.
HEAR IT IN NICOLA'S WORDS:
Hailey: For me, that race in particular it was very unique because all season long I'd really struggled to put a race together. Earlier in the season I remember being at a start and just struggling mentally or being more anxious than usual - I never really felt quite right. But in Rio, I just remember being so calm, so focused, like nothing could really throw me off.
We were on a pontoon out in the water, an in-water start, and I just remember looking back at the beach and being so grateful that I was there and so excited to race. It was the perfect way to start because I was just so appreciative of the moment and that really just carried over into the race itself.
True to Hailey’s character, we hear the honesty of her description reliving this incredible moment.
HEAR IT IN HAILEY'S WORDS:
Hailey then dives deeper into the race itself – the world’s first Paralympic triathlon.
Hailey: For me, what sticks out is that in every individual moment of the race, I was 100% focused. That’s something that I’ve been working on a lot in my training: being completely focused on the moment at hand. I felt like I was able to execute that really well in the race, and I think that's why I was able to have the race that I did.
I wasn't thinking about anything other than what I was doing in that moment, everything that I needed to be doing at that time.
The courses along the Fort Copacabana beach.
We ask what one moment stood out to them during the race.
Nicola: I don't think I have any one moment. I'm extremely proud of the whole race because my goal was to have an extremely active race. I think I had a great swim and I was the only one doing anything on the bike, so I was leading a lot. I was attacking on the corners so that the others had to ride hard as well. I was keeping the pace high and making the race interesting… I just wanted a really hard race and I think I succeeded to making the other ones tired.
Then on the run, I was the only one trying to stick with Gwen. I knew she would be extremely hard to beat…getting off the bike as the first athlete, I think she has been hard to beat for the last four years. I knew it was a difficult task but I'm proud of having tried everything - even trying to get her out of her rhythm by talking to her and trying to destabilize her mentally. I really left everything on the course and, on that day, she was stronger - but - I was very proud to win the Olympic silver medal.
Back to back Olympic medals that is. Just one of many reasons why Nicola Spirig is considered a legend of triathlon.
HEAR IT IN NICOLA'S WORDS:
Nicola: Both medals for me were extremely emotional. The first one, to become an Olympic champion, was just an amazing feeling. It's just hard to describe. And I felt relieved, of course, that the race was over but I felt extremely proud to have achieved my goal and extremely thankful to all the people who helped me get there, because without the huge team having my back, I would have had no chance to become Olympic champion.
Now in Rio, it was probably even more emotional because preparation was far from easy. First of all, it's always harder to win another medal after having one and having the obligations as an Olympic champion. But I also became a mom in the meantime so I have different obligations and my life changed a lot which is amazing, and I would never change it, but makes it harder to focus on training. Then I broke my hand in March and had to have surgery and three plates in the middle of the Olympic preparation.
Those months before the Olympics were very difficult and needed a lot of energy and a lot of effort from everyone.
But to win a silver medal and win a medal again, after four years, it was extremely nice.
Nice indeed. Incredible? Definitely.
We ask Hailey, having won her first medal, if she plans to back it up in Tokyo.
Hailey: That's the plan. That's the hope. I'm 25 and so I know I, at least, have one more Olympics in me. Yeah, that's certainly the plan. Right now the focus is to recover and have a little bit of fun. The next year is going to be a little bit more low-key but, you know, as long as I continue to love the sport and be as passionate as I am, I plan to do it as long as I possibly can. And then, just kind of reconnect with the fun side of the sport because the closer you get to the Olympics, the more serious things start to get.
It's easy to lose the fun side of things and so for me, the goal is just to reconnect to that whole side of racing.
We ask Nicola the same thing: what's next for her.
Nicola: I haven't decided on the next goals yet. I said I would continue with the sport but it's not decided yet what races I will do next. I have to sit down with my husband and discuss how our lives should look like the next few years, but I'm excited to discuss it all with him and also with my coach, and what our goals would be.
So finally, we ask Hailey and Nicola one last thing – the advice they have for people who want to achieve all that they have.
Hailey: My advice would be, and I guess it’s similar to what I said before, that I think it's so important to enjoy what you are doing.
This year I became a lot less concerned with goals and more concerned with the process, and all of my training became so much more process oriented. And it was down to finding joy in every single workout and accomplishing the intent of every workout even if I might have missed the numbers that day. I think to compete at the elite level that is the key… process.
And finally Nicola.
Nicola: Well, I would advise them to just follow their dreams. For them not to get scared of problems in their way and difficult times, but just always stick to their plan, follow their dream, set themselves high goals.
I'm convinced that even if, in the end, you don't reach your goal – you’ll learn such a lot of things on the way, that it's all worth it anyway.
And that's where we left it.
Two athletes. Two journeys. Two silver medal stories.
Worn by Olympic athlete Nicola Spirig
Worn by Olympic athlete Hailey Danisewicz