A triathlete since the age of 10, Nicola has conquered the world of triathlon. Two-time Olympic medallist. European Champion. Swiss Sportswoman of the Year. Her career speaks for itself, and her legend continues to be added to with each new year in the sport.
Nicola had been training to defend her title in the Olympics before her schedule was turned upside down. But even without the competition she was eagerly preparing for, she found a way to stay positive and motivated. In the video above, Nicola shares how she adapts to the toughest of circumstances, and makes the best of every situation.
"I’m a mother and an athlete – in that order. Sport is my passion. Family is my love."
Fierce competitor, loving mother, gold-winning Olympian, passionate patriot, perpetual overcomer, unapologetically defiant. Nicola Spirig is many things.
From humble beginnings training with her father, she has gone on to conquer the world of triathlon. Two-time Olympic medalist. Multiple-time European Champion. Swiss Sportswoman of the Year. Her achievements speak for themselves.
Now, Nicola is on the verge of qualifying for her fifth Olympic games.
“I never set out to make a statement or do anything radical,” she says.
"I set out to be the best at what I do."
Nicola enjoyed an active childhood in the hands of two physical education teachers. With parents who put a strong emphasis on exercise, she was always doing something.
“I have always loved to move. I discovered my passion for sport through my family,” she says.
“My parents gave me the opportunity to try out many different sports. I played basketball for a long time and, in winter, we went skiing and snowboarding as a family.
“My father took me on ski tours, or climbing or canoeing. I went to the swimming club and took part in a triathlon for the first time at the age of ten.”
Something hit home. Nicola had found her calling, and began her journey to the top of triathlon. Forever family-oriented, Nicola trained with her father Sepp. A man she says made her world class.
The years passed and, although she clearly had talent, Nicola was careful not to rest all her hopes on a successful sporting career. She made sure she had a back up plan, completing a law degree in Zurich should she ever be unable to compete.
Ever humble, she says the majority of her peers and professors had no idea she was an athlete – despite her attending two Olympic games before graduating in 2010. Finishing 19th in Athens and 6th in Beijing.
Many people struggle to find the discipline and commitment to complete a law degree at the best of times – never mind doing one while training for Olympic triathlons too. But this superfrau was determined to do both.
"I've made many decisions in my life. Becoming an athlete? A natural choice. Hard work and a lot of sacrifice, but not a hard decision," she said.
“Being a lawyer was a challenging one, more hard work – especially while training as a triathlete and studying as a backup plan.”
Perhaps the toll of living a double life had held her back but following graduation things really started to take off for Nicola.
After making the difficult decision to find a new coach and, by extension, part ways with Sepp, her father and coach of 15 years, she ramped up her training. Going into the 2012 Olympic games, she was in top condition.
She won gold.
“My father (…) made me world class,” she says. "Winning gold was a big moment for me, and you can imagine what it was for him.”
A year on from securing her first Olympic medal, Nicola’s first child was born. The year after that, she returned to sport and reasserted her dominance. Becoming European Champion (triathlon) for the fourth time (following 2009, 2010 and 2012) and Ironman Cozumel 2014 champion too.
Roll on 2015 and Nicola was showing no signs of slowing down. Once more emerging as European Champion in triathlon and winner at the European Games too. 2016 brought another Olympic opportunity and another medal – this time silver.
A pattern starts to emerge as, a year later, Nicola’s second child was born. True to form, she returned the year after that and was, again, named European Champion.
With Tokyo just around the corner, Nicola has all but secured her place on the Swiss team.
As it has been from day one, family comes first.
“Being a mother was the most obvious choice for me, and the most rewarding. It was my choice, I’ve made it three times and I’ve never looked backed,” she says.
“Time is always the problem. Three training sessions a day, three little children, it’s difficult. But by combining my passion and my love, I always find a way.
“I cannot give less than 100% to everything. Because I love both sides of my life, equally."
"My family is my superpower. An athlete, or a mother? You shouldn’t have to choose."
How did you start running? I guess I started running as a kid: I was six years old when my family planned a three-month holiday to the United States. We drove around in a motorhome. However, they all took a bike, my parents and my siblings – only there was no bike for me! Because of this, I had to run all the time while we were there. From then, back in Switzerland at around 10 years old I did my first running race and thought it was such fun. I did the same race every year from then on – you could qualify for a final race held at the end of the year. In the first few years I qualified but performed average in the final. In my last year, however, I won it and was very proud. From there, in 1999 and 2000 I won the silver medal at the junior cross country European Championships. I have always, and still do, love to run cross country races and track races over 3000m or 5000m to get myself ready for triathlons. My personal best over 3000m is 9:07min.
Why do you run now? I really like running. Mainly because it is so simple and efficient. You can run everywhere you want, just put your shoes on and start. I especially love it in the forest and in nature in general. If you are fit, running gives you the greatest feeling!
What has been the most important race you’ve run to date? This is a difficult question. I ran the marathon at the 2014 Athletic European Championships in Zurich. This was an exciting race for me. Also, the three junior cross country European Championships were all great experiences with two silver medals won. I won several Swiss Champion titles over 3km, 5km and 10km and I think track races were always important in my lead up to my big triathlons.
What is your pre-race ritual? I like to know the course in detail, and I always more or less have the same timetable before the race: a little run in the morning, breakfast, bike warm up, set up transition area, swim warm up, then – I’m ready. In important races I wear a little golden horse in my ear for good luck – at the Olympics I had them in both ears.
What do you think about while running? This completely depends on the mood and the session. In a lot of sessions, I have to concentrate on my intervals and have to focus on speed and times. In others I just enjoy nature, and in some, my thoughts drift completely away from running and I try to solve problems or come up with new ideas. In a lot of cases I listen to music to motivate me to run even a bit faster.
What is your go to training meal? It depends on the time of the day and the training. In the morning I like to just have a banana and then do my run session. Later in the day I am often eating some chocolate before the run session – it gives you energy and is easy to digest.
What song is your go to for the run? I have different songs and adapt my songs to the training – fast ones for intense sessions, slower ones for easy sessions.
What is your passion next to endurance sports? My family, other sports, nature.
Who would you be if you weren’t a professional athlete? Probably a lawyer. I finished my law studies in 2010.
What does no one tell you about being a professional athlete? You need to focus. I am very good in preparing for and focusing on a certain, big, main event like the Olympic Games. I think there are only very few athletes who know to prepare and focus and perform under such pressure like this and I think it is crucial for reaching your goal.
What was the best piece of running advice you ever received?
That I can only do my best.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps? Follow your dreams, believe in yourself and work hard for what you want to achieve, even in difficult times. It will be worth it.
Why On? A Swiss brand which is extremely innovative, supports me with specially made shoes for me, has a very good philosophy and a great young team.