Triathlete Sarah Haskins — on a roll to London
Sarah Haskins ran alone to the finish line in the 90-degree heat in Monterrey, Mexico, her blonde braid swinging behind her. It was the American triathlete’s first World Cup race of the 2011 season, and in the final leg of the race, she was in the lead.
But Ai Ueda from Japan was closing fast. Haskins gave a quick look over her shoulder. Would she be able to hold off Ueda, who’s currently ranked seventh in the International Triathlon Union’s World Championship Series (WCS) standings?
Haskins reached the finish first, broke the tape with her hands, and burst into tears.
“I was getting so close to the wire, and I had so much adrenaline running through me at the end of the race, I didn’t realize that I won until the very moment I crossed the finish line,” she says. “Having that unknown factor and having to fight to the line made it more special.”
It was Haskins’ first World Cup win, but not her first win this season. With the first Olympic trials race in London on August 6, 2011, the 30-year-old triathlete from Colorado is looking like a favorite to qualify for her second Olympics.
As Flora Duffy, a 2008 Olympian (from Bermuda) who rode most of the bike leg off the front with Haskins at the Monterrey World Cup, tweeted: “[Haskins] is strong … like crazy strong.”
Haskins is not, however, taking the same path to London as some of her competitors. While many of the world’s top triathletes are competing in the WCS races — a seven-race series that includes the London qualifier — Haskins is staying closer to home and only plans on racing four WCS races this season.
It’s a schedule that she hopes will lead to the podium in London, both this August and in August 2012.
Like many triathletes, Haskins came to the sport after a high school and college running career. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Haskins attended Parkway South High School and was both a cross-country and swimming state champion. After graduating in 1999, she attended the University of Tulsa and competed in cross-country, indoor and outdoor track. Haskins still holds the fourth fastest 10,000-meter time in the Tulsa Hurricane’s record books, with a 35:18.57.
Then, during her sophomore year, Haskins saw the 2000 Olympic triathlon in Sydney, Australia, on TV.
She looked at the swim and run times and knew she was capable of competing at that level. Brigitte McMahon, who won the triathlon gold medal at the 2000 Games, ran the 10km in 35:13.64, just five seconds faster than Haskins’ college record at that distance.
But Haskins kept her thoughts to herself and focused on school.
“I thought people would think I was crazy,” she admits. “I hadn’t really biked ever, and I didn’t know open-water swimming.”
In 2003, Haskins graduated from the University of Tulsa with a degree in elementary education and a minor in math. A month later, she entered her first triathlon — just to stay in shape after college. She finished second.
While teaching health education to grades K-5 at Hanna Woods Elementary School in Missouri in 2003/2004, she dabbled in more triathlons. Then a fellow competitor mentioned USA Triathlon’s residency program in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Haskins applied, was accepted, and moved to Colorado Springs in 2004.
She quickly moved up the ranks, taking the U23 national title in 2004 and her first pro win a year later. By the end of 2007, she was ranked seventh in the world. But as of June 2008, she had yet to qualify for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Then, on a chilly day in Vancouver at the 2008 ITU World Championships (back then it was a single event, not a series), Haskins broke away on the bike leg with Helen Jenkins from Britain.
“I ended up running with [Jenkins] right to the very end, and I ended up finishing second,” Haskins recalls. “It was a really, really cold tough day. It was my best performance up to that point.”
Two weeks later, Haskins qualified for the 2008 Olympics. In Beijing, she finished 11th — a result she is pleased with given how hard the race was.
The road to the Beijing Games was not entirely smooth though. While racing a World Cup in Portugal in 2007, Haskins’ foot fell into a crack as she ran over a bridge. At first, it appeared as if she had only sprained her ankle. She raced the rest of the season. But over the next 18 months, she developed numbness in her foot and debilitating calf pain.
By 2009, the pain was so bad that she thought her triathlon career was over. The muscles in her shin were shutting down, and her big toe no longer functioned. Doctors at the Olympic Training Center finally diagnosed an entrapped nerve near her fibular head (by her knee). She had surgery to relieve the entrapment in February 2009. But her doctors warned that full recovery could take up to two years.
Still, she was successful in 2009 and 2010, taking the Race to the Toyota Cup series title in 2009 and winning four major domestic triathlons in 2010.
With her leg “feeling really good right now” — the best it has felt since before the injury in 2007 — Haskins has had a very consistent start to her 2011 season. She did a “great block” of training at home in Colorado in January and February, then moved to Florida to train in March and April.
“We decided to do a longer training block at sea level to see if we could make better gains in aerobic fitness and strength,” says Nate Kortuem, Haskins’ husband and coach. “She was able to train harder and recover faster [in Florida], as at altitude she would get really tired and broken down.”
Able to run and ride her bike outside every day — without having to fight the Colorado winter — Haskins found it easier to train in Florida.
By April, she was race ready. On April 10, Haskins won the Nautica South Beach Triathlon in Miami — an Olympic distance competition with a 1.5-kilometer open-water swim, 40km bike, and 10km run. Except unlike the Olympics, the race does not allow drafting in the bike leg. It was the first competition in the 2011 Race to the Toyota Cup Lifetime Fitness Triathlon Series. Haskins took home $10,000 for the win and earned points toward the overall Toyota Cup, which comes with keys to a new car.
At the end of April, she won again, this time at the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, a 5150 series race in St. Petersburg, Florida. She beat British triathlete Liz Blatchford, currently ranked eighth in the WCS standings.
A week later, Haskins won the World Cup in Monterrey, Mexico.
In addition to the extra sea level training, Haskins has one other secret to her winning form this year — less travel.
The seven WCS races are on four different continents this year. Add in the nine World Cups, plus lucrative events like the Race to the Toyota Cup Lifetime Fitness and 5150 series, and triathletes could be packing their gear every weekend and flying across one ocean or another.
“When you’re traveling with your bike and all your swim gear and all your run gear, and having to take the bike apart, lug the bike, put the bike together, that’s just a lot of added stress on the athlete,” Haskins explains.
Cyclists have similar travel schedules, she says. But they often stay in the same region for a stage race, traveling by car from stage to stage, not by plane.
“A triathlon is just one race on one day,” she says. “Then you’re off to the next place. It makes it tough.”
Haskins decided to pick races that would limit air travel. Her first three races this season were in Florida. Then the Monterrey World Cup was a short plane ride from Florida.
Haskins and Kortuem returned to their home in Colorado Springs after the World Cup, and Haskins won’t fly to Europe until mid-June to compete in a WCS race in Kitzbuhel, Austria.
With so many triathlons to choose from, Haskins has found that deciding which ones to compete in “becomes and art and science.” Competing in the WCS races — which attract the world’s best competitors — is key to preparing for London. But she does not want to follow the series around the world, and none of the WCS races are in North America.
“In order for my body to perform at its best, I feel I can’t travel to a different continent every couple of weeks,” she says. “I’ve tried it in the past, and it’s just too hard.”
Kortuem adds that the WCS races are not Haskins’ focus this year and that she is doing just four “to keep her points where we need them.”
The real focus is the London qualifier and “having the best race possible there,” he says.
Haskins says she needs to finish in the top nine there to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
Next year, she will stick with a similar plan — competing in a couple of WCS races, plus a few of her favorite domestic events, such as the St. Anthony’s Triathlon in Florida and the Race for the Toyota Cup Lifetime Fitness series events.
Unlike the Olympics and WCS races, these events do not allow drafting in the biking leg.
“The non-drafting races in the U.S. a are great way to get in a really good workout without long travel that really takes it out of your body,” she says.
Assuming she qualifies for the London 2012 Olympics, she also now knows how to handle the pressure and time commitments leading up to the Games.
“The Olympics is so much more than just the race,” she says. “All of a sudden, your hometown newspaper is contacting you. It can be overwhelming at times if you’re not prepared for it. So this go-round, as far as my development as a professional athlete, I feel like I’m more prepared in some of the aspects out of the swim-bike-run.”
The London course suits her too, even though it is flat. After the 1.5km swim in the Serpentine, the big lake in Hyde Park, the run and bike legs pass many of London’s famous landmarks.
“As far as I know, it will be flat and fast,” says Haskins. “That’s always what I’m hoping for — a hard swim, a hard bike and a hard run all the way around.”
For more information see TeamUSA.org