In her new book, Surfacing: From the Depths of Self-Doubt to Winning Big and Living Fearlessly, elite triathlon coach and world champion Siri Lindley shares her daring journey that proves it’s never too late to rewrite your own story and change the thoughts, habits, and behaviors that hold you back.
Chapter 9: Believe
IN 2005, LORETTA HARROP WAS TRAINING with me in Boulder when a 24-year-old basketball player turned ITU racer named Mirinda Carfrae came to a couple of her track sessions and swim workouts. I had done a few of the same races as “Rinny” and was always impressed by her work ethic, and seeing her again only reinforced my opinion that she was intensely focused and a tremendously hard worker. At 5 feet 3 inches and 115 pounds, she had the lean but powerful physique of an incredible athlete. When Rinny, who had represented Australia at the ITU world championships every year since 2001 (she captured silver in 2002 and 2003), left her coach of five years and was looking for someone new to work with, Loretta thought we would be a fantastic fit and encouraged me to recruit her. But it wasn’t my style to go chasing after an athlete, no matter how much I wanted to work with her. If she was interested in joining up with me, then she could reach out.
But Loretta persisted, saying Rinny wouldn’t come to me—I’d have to extend myself to her. In early January 2006 I was in Australia visiting Loretta and decided to contact Mirinda. I knew I would have a hard time being very forward in person, so I decided to send her an e-mail describing my training philosophy and making a case for what we could achieve together:
“I believe that you have what it takes to be a true champion Mirinda, a force to be reckoned with in every race you line up at. I know that I have what it takes to bring that out of you, and to help you get to a point where every race you do, whether you feel crappy or great, you can dominate . . . yeah, this requires an incredible amount of hard work and commitment, but so worth it in the end.
I don’t coach just to have a job, I don’t coach for the hell of it. I coach like I raced . . . wanting to be the very best that I can be and achieve incredible success in every “project” I take on. Your dreams become my dreams . . . my heart and soul goes into wanting to make my athletes the best that they can possibly be. In your case, you have the ability, in my opinion, to be one of the best in the world, but it will take a magic combination and a hell of a lot of hard work, but I know it can be yours.”
Rinny responded and said she was interested in talking more.
I suggested we meet at Loretta’s house. I knew she looked up to Loretta and that it couldn’t hurt to have Loretta in her ear saying, “You need Siri as your coach!” The morning of our meeting, I wrote a second impassioned email to Mirinda. I didn’t want to miss anything. There was a lot I wanted to say.
From the beginning, I saw in Rinny an athlete who could stand out from all the rest in both long-distance and short-distance races. I was convinced that my programs could make Rinny a long-distance world champion and a consistent winner on the short-course circuit. I also believed I knew what it would take to get to the Olympics. Having trained under Brett, who has produced multiple world champions and studying what has worked for myself and the athletes around me, I possessed an unwavering confidence required to coach a champion. I made a bold promise: I would help Rinny win the long-distance world championship, get her on the Olympic team, and make her into a dominant triathlete at every distance. It came with a guarantee:
“I want you to win for me as much as you want to win for yourself. Give me 3 months of your total commitment, your complete dedication. If after 3 months you are not happy . . . you move on. No questions asked. I won’t twist your arm, but if you want to win a world championship and race at the Olympics, come with me now.
We had our meeting, and I was beyond thrilled when Rinny asked how soon we could start. (She later said that the words in my e-mail jumped off the page at her.) I had a strong feeling that we were going to accomplish something special. I had no idea what it would be or how we were going to do it, but I just knew it was the start of something extraordinary. I spent an entire weekend working on her training plan for the following week, poring over every detail. My adrenaline was racing as I anticipated what came next.
My goal was to build up Rinny’s strength by training her to race the half-Ironman like a back-to-back Olympic race. She had to learn how to go fast for a longer period of time. The approach was very much trial and error, and I adjusted her training to get us closer and closer to her being able to hold that same Olympic pace effort over 70.3 miles. I always took into consideration what she thought about the program and made adjustments based on her feedback. She came to Boulder for six weeks to train with the squad, which included American ITU racer Sarah True (formerly Groff ), US pro Mary Beth Ellis, Canadian Lauren Groves (formerly Campbell), and aspiring pro Mary Miller. (Mary is the reason I call Rinny “Vincent,” a nickname that has stuck through the years. The first time Mary and Rinny were at the same workout, Mary thought I was calling Rinny by the name Vinnie. We all had a good laugh, and Vinnie morphed into Vincent.) I attended every workout and focused on building up her self-belief. When she nailed a hard run session, I made sure to emphasize that what she’d just accomplished was world class. She needed to believe that she belonged among the best. I knew we were just scratching the surface of her ability, and it was my job to keep chipping away to let the champion emerge. I began to earn her trust by proving that time and again, I had her best interests in mind, even when she didn’t understand my reasoning or agree on the course of action. There was good reason why I structured her workouts a certain way and why we targeted specific races. Her full confidence that I knew what was best for her wasn’t automatic or immediate, but it wasn’t long before it began to take root.
Rinny did a few World Cup races that season (2006), but the real focus was her 70.3 debut in St. Croix. She was completely unknown on the half-Iron circuit but stormed in and ran a 1:22 half-marathon on a hot and hard course to set a new St. Croix record of 4:30:13. We were both blown away. To this day, we look back at that race in amazement at what a remarkable debut it was. She displayed her mental toughness and ability to sit right at the upper limit of her pain threshold for hours—two qualities that distinguish long-course stars. It was an immense confidence booster, and two weeks later, she won a 70.3 in Baja, Mexico, and then placed third at the Ironman 70.3 world championship in Clearwater, Florida.
After she started winning 70.3 races, Rinny began talking about Ironman. I was adamant that she was too young and that Ironman racing would take too much out of her both physically and mentally. I also needed the time to learn and prepare—I had to be ready for that huge step, too. Certainly, there were a lot of valuable lessons from our shared Olympic and 70.3 experience that we could transfer to Ironman training, but neither of us wanted to rush the process. There would be plenty of time to solve that particular puzzle.
A month before the 2007 Ironman 70.3 world championship, I held a two-week training camp in Kona. I watched the Hawaii Ironman, and I was able to pick the brains of Ironman legends like Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser, and Wendy Ingraham. I had so many questions.
Rinny arrived in Clearwater for 70.3 world’s ready to prove that her podium finish in 2006 wasn’t a fluke. She didn’t have a single sponsor, and when her new manager approached one well-known triathlon brand, he was quickly rebuffed. In a flawless performance, Rinny captured her first world title in 4:07:25, a new women’s record at the distance. As the champion, she was awarded entry into the 2008 Ironman world championship, and we decided to defer it to the 2009 race. We needed more time. Triathlete magazine named Rinny the 2007 Ironman 70.3 Triathlete of the Year. In 2008, she would win four more 70.3s all around the world.
I had been carrying on a long-distance relationship with a woman who lived in Los Angeles, and, completely lovestruck, I decided in 2008 to move to California. I set everything up to train there and presented my plan to my squad of 15 athletes. I assured them that I was as committed as ever to the team and that they would love the camp environment in Los Angeles, but only two were willing to leave Boulder: Rinny and a Mexican triathlete named Marcela Miramontes. I was disappointed because I’d always been loyal and kept the faith in my athletes through the good times and the rough patches, and I expected the same in return. We were supposed to be equally invested. Brett had been right: Maybe I didn’t have the stomach for coaching. It was a great test of resiliency.
I quickly sold my house on Wonderland Lake, gave much of my furniture and other belongings away, put my two dogs—Whoopi and my beloved St. Bernard, Billy—and cat, Gracie, in the back of the car, and drove to West Hollywood. Leaving M was hard, especially because she was skeptical of my new relationship. I moved into a tiny apartment with my girlfriend, and our lives began to merge, including financially when I added a second name to my credit cards and the title of the house I later bought.
I could have told Rinny I was moving to the moon and she would have been okay with it because she trusted that I was fully committed to her. There was no reason to think otherwise. In 2009, our goal was a strong 70.3 season, and she won five of the six half-Ironman races she started (she finished second at St. Croix). She was successfully building the mileage on her rides and runs and logging more double-run days. The progression was steady and methodical. When July arrived, we started ramping up her Ironman-specific training. I didn’t want to train Rinny the way everyone else was approaching Ironman—it had to feel instinctively right to me. There was much work to be done with her swim. She needed to increase her efficiency and strength on the bike. She lacked an efficient pedal stroke and wasn’t as strong as she should be on the climbs, so we addressed both weaknesses. I asked her to do things differently and really took her out of her comfort zone.
We went to Kona in October 2009, cautiously confident, and approached the race as a massive learning opportunity. Rinny had never run a marathon before, but we trusted the work we’d done. She swam a 58:45, biked a 5:14:18—nowhere near her actual ability because she was nervous about simply going the distance—and ran a 2:56:51. In her very first Ironman, she clocked 9:13:59, finishing in second place and establishing a new run course record, which had been set by winner Chrissie Wellington of Britain the previous year. (Chrissie, who was coached by Brett Sutton, would go on to win a total of four Ironman world titles and retire undefeated in the Ironman distance. She still owns the Iron-distance world record.) We couldn’t be happier about a Kona podium in Rinny’s Ironman debut, but we also knew she could go even faster there. After Hawaii, we were confident we were on the right track.
The training in Los Angeles wasn’t ideal—you had to drive to all the good riding and running routes—so I decided to set up a training compound in Borrego Springs in the Southern California desert, about two hours southeast of LA. It had been my dream to create my own triathlon training facility, and the woman I was living with owned a piece of land in Borrego Springs that I could use for such a purpose. I bought a prefabricated home and put it on the property, along with an aboveground 25-meter pool that we dubbed “the Fish Tank.” I bought two used camper trailers, put bunk beds in one for athlete housing, and set up the other as a hangout space with a computer and spotty Wi-Fi (aka “the Internet café”). I rented space in town and created a minigym with two treadmills and some weights. I had promised Yoli that I would pay it forward after she’d helped me, and now I was in a position to do that by hosting and training deserving athletes at my new camp. I announced an application process and ended up inviting six South American athletes who couldn’t afford to have me coach them. They just had to make it to camp, and from there I would take care of them.
Rinny was not a fan of our Borrego setup. It was desolate and could get hot as hell out there. She was roommates with Marcela, who spoke very little English, and outside of training, there was very little to do. She was lonely much of the time; she’d recently started dating her now husband, Tim O’Donnell, and it was hard being separated from him. But she hung tight with me. The target was the 2010 Ironman world championship, and we were laser focused. We were 100 percent committed to racing Ironman at the highest level, and we had to strike a balance of shared ideas that we both believed in. I wanted to use my knowledge and experience to put together an original plan that resonated with me—I wanted to take a chance. Rinny could have easily doubted it, but instead she was all in.
We arrived in Kona in 2010 fresh off a 70.3 winning streak (she won a total of five 70.3s that year), and we were optimistic and excited. On race morning, I slipped away to quickly use the restroom, and Shannon, Rinny’s manager, came looking for me. The race announcer had just informed the crowd that the three-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington would not be starting the race. (She had come down with an illness overnight.) The news threw Rinny into a bit of a tailspin. For a year, she’d known that Chrissie was the one to beat that day, and her race plan included the defending champion as an important reference point. She knew where she’d have to be in relation to Chrissie throughout the race to be in striking distance on the marathon. The possibility that she wouldn’t be there to help drive the race dynamic had never occurred to her, and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath her. Sitting by the pool at the King Kamehameha Hotel, I did my best to refocus her. “This changes nothing,” I told her. “You will go out there and race your own race.”
And that’s exactly what she did. At 29 years old, Rinny posted the fourth-fastest time in the 32-year history of the race—8:58:36— and bettered her 2009 run course record with a 2:53:32 marathon. I could have burst with pride. I was proud of myself for taking that chance with her training plan and proud of her for believing in it and rising to the challenge so phenomenally. I had proven that a so-called short-course specialist could help Rinny win the world’s most competitive long-course race. The fact that I was the first female coach to achieve this win was the icing on the cake.
On the heels of Rinny’s 2010 success, Brett was quoted in an Inside Triathlon article about my squad: “She will be the best triathlon coach in America.” I was officially living my dream.
While my professional life was soaring to new heights, my personal life was in absolute turmoil. Some very obvious red flags had been present since day one of my relationship, but now it had reached new depths of dysfunction. Yoli had tried to alert me early on, but I was wearing blinders and didn’t want to see or hear it. So I’d cut her out of my life and dumped all my other detractor friends. But things had become so negative and toxic that I knew I needed to get out— I just didn’t know how. Back in LA or at training camp in Borrego, I would go to work and be totally focused and engaged, and then I would go home and sleep because I was so depressed and couldn’t deal with my imploding relationship. I wasn’t exercising, which was out of character. I was disappointed in myself because I knew I was a strong and resilient person, but I had let myself feel weak and victimized. When I looked in the mirror, that lost, wounded little girl in the big Greenwich house stared back.
Rinny couldn’t help but notice how miserable I was, and she told me that she was there for me if I needed her. I’d never shared details of my personal life with any of my athletes, and I felt that it was unprofessional to cross that line. But she said she knew something was very wrong; she cared about my well-being and happiness, and I should feel comfortable confiding in her. She had witnessed enough to understand the severity of the situation. I walked away from our conversation feeling supported and empowered to make a change. The next day, having made the decision to leave the relationship, I went for a run. I felt the cool air wash over me, and it felt like it was God saying, “Yep, that is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you.” And when I got home from work, I didn’t take a long nap.
As part of our agreement to get my ex’s name off the title of my home, I had to relinquish my training camp in Borrego for $1. In my estimation, I had built it up to a value of at least $350,000. But I just wanted to move on with my life. Financially, that meant starting over. Part of me wondered what the hell was going to happen to me, and another part of me knew I’d be okay. I stayed in California because I loved it there, and we were seeing some great results.
In 2011, Rinny finished on the podium in every race she entered (eight times) and won two 70.3s, but the outcome that carried the most weight that year for her was Kona. Chrissie was back, and Rinny wanted to prove she could win that race with her there. So when Rinny finished second to Chrissie at the 2011 Ironman world championship, it was a brutal pill to swallow. Rinny felt like she was at a crossroads and needed to really shake things up. She wanted to focus more on the bike and thought I wasn’t using metrics enough in training. So in early 2012, she told me she was leaving. We were in Australia, and it was a very respectful discussion, but both of us walked away with heavy hearts. I was hurt, a bit ruffled, and disoriented. She was my North Star, and I had thought I was hers. How do you navigate in utter darkness?
Rinny linked up with another Boulder coach to help with her bike program, and she wrote her own swim and run plans. Meanwhile, Leanda Cave, who had finished third in Kona in 2011, had come to train with me the previous year, and she motivated the hell out of me. Of course I wanted to do well for Leanda, but I also wanted to show Rinny that I was an essential part of the winning recipe. I was going to prove it by helping Leanda win in Kona.
Leanda was a swift swimmer and strong cyclist; her weakness was her run at longer distances. We focused on improving her run mechanics and efficiency. She carried an electronic metronome during training runs in an effort to increase her stride rate. We did a lot of drills, hill repeats, and strength training to improve her power, speed, and endurance. Leanda was motivated to follow in Rinny’s footsteps as far as her run progression, and she was relentless in training. She is tough as nails, and it was a matter of channeling her tenacity and drive for the most productive outcome, and maybe even a shot at the double world title—70.3 and Kona—which had never been done by a woman.
Except for a win at Escape from Alcatraz in 2012, Leanda’s season had a fairly quiet start. She had raced the 70.3 world championship more than any other athlete, so experience was on her side, but the priority in her training had been Ironman. So we were more than pleasantly surprised when she put together a winning performance on that day. Leanda told finish-line reporters that she hadn’t expected to win because many of her competitors had treated the race as their season goal. “This is not going to get in my head going to Kona,” she said. “The Ironman is my goal, and I can’t let this change the way I feel about going into Kona as my A race this year.”
The preparation we did for Kona 2012 was vastly different than the training Rinny did for the same race. We had to zero in on the perfect recipe for Leanda, which again required taking a chance. I was on a mission.
I came up with every single possible scenario that could happen in Kona, and Leanda and I had a plan for all of them. Leanda swam in the front pack and rode toward the front of the entire bike leg until she was issued a drafting penalty. Caroline Steffen of Switzerland (one of Brett’s athletes) was first onto the marathon, with American Mary Beth Ellis and Leanda 4 minutes in arrears. Leanda broke away from Mary Beth by the half-marathon mark for second place, but Rinny was closing fast as they entered the notoriously barren and hot Natural Energy Lab (the road temperature can get up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit) at about mile 15. Leanda and I had prepared for the moment when Rinny would catch her on the run. I was standing right there when Rinny came up behind Leanda, and I didn’t know what to do with all the emotion I was feeling. I looked right into Leanda’s face and gave her the look that said, Don’t you dare assume it’s over. They ran into the Energy Lab side by side, and because only the racers are allowed on this 3-mile section of the course, I stood there waiting for what felt like an eternity to see who would be the first to emerge back onto the Queen Kamehameha Highway. And then I saw a tall, lanky figure coming into sharper focus the closer it got. It was Leanda, and she was alone. I lost my mind and started screaming my head off. “I knew you could fucking do it!” I yelled. When Leanda got to me, she took off her fuel belt and tossed it at me. I read it as a sign that she was feeling so good, she didn’t need it for the remaining 10K. The pass on Rinny gave Leanda the momentum and confidence she needed to take the lead from Caroline Steffen with about 3 miles to go. She won in 9:15:54 and became the first-ever female to win the world-title double in the same year.
It was one of the greatest days of my life. I was overjoyed for Leanda, and it was incredibly vindicating. Rinny had lost one of her water bottles on the bike and suffered a nutritional meltdown as a result but still held on for third place behind Caroline. After Kona, Rinny realized she needed a coach who could keep her from overtraining. She started working with a coach known for training ITU racers but soon realized what she was lacking had less to do with the program and more to do with the coach-athlete relationship.
In 2013, I decided to move back to Boulder. It’s where my heart is, and I wanted to be near M again. Rinny heard that I was back in town, and she sent me an e-mail asking if we could talk. I was nervous but excited, wondering if she would ask to come back. She is a proud person, and I knew it took courage and humility on her part to reach out to me. I had made it known to the squad that when anyone left, they couldn’t come back. But I couldn’t completely close the door on Rinny. She came over to my house, and before we even started talking, we just cried. We acknowledged how hard the past couple of years had been, and Rinny said she knew that whatever we had was special and we had some unfinished business.
Before I could give her a definite yes, I had to talk to Leanda to make sure she was on board. I didn’t think there would be a problem, and Leanda was supportive of Rinny rejoining the squad. She said they’d both won the world championship and understood the pressure. They’d gone through tough times, and they could still learn a lot from one another. It was a best-case scenario. I had great respect for Leanda for being so accepting, and I was happy to have Rinny back. In the end, her leaving was a positive thing because when she came back, she was more committed than ever. We both were.
Leanda had a hard road in 2013 as she grappled with a hamstring injury that she carried into Kona. I know it was tough finishing 13th after winning the previous year, especially because Rinny won Kona ’13 in course-record fashion (she posted an astounding 8:52:14). At the finish line, Rinny credited her victory partly to me and said, “I just had one of those days where you don’t hurt—I didn’t know I had a performance like that in me.” We had reclaimed our old magic.
Leanda ended up leaving the squad right after Kona, which I struggled with for some time. She never became any less important to me, but because she’d had a tougher year, I’m sure it must have felt like I had given Rinny more. I know deep down that I gave Leanda everything I had.
Rinny is far from a diva and has never expected special treatment. She knows that she has me in the important times, so I just have to organize my schedule so that I can be there for everyone as much as possible. If Rinny has a key session that I want to attend, I won’t schedule a similar session for another athlete. Some athletes expect to be treated like the star, but Rinny doesn’t. To be fair, if I’ve had an athlete for 10 years who’s a four-time world champion, she has earned the right to get the best training time if I do have to juggle athletes’ sessions. But it doesn’t mean that she’s getting more energy from me or that she’s getting the special sauce while the others get leftovers.
Rinny and I have built a level of trust and communication that allows us to be completely transparent with one another. If she’s traveling or I can’t make it to a key session for some reason, she knows exactly what I’d be saying to her throughout a workout. If I say “Good job” to her and she doesn’t think it’s warranted, she’ll tell me she doesn’t want to hear it. We get through uncomfortable moments and become stronger as a team for it. Complete honesty isn’t always easy, but God, it’s powerful. We have an alchemy that comes from fully trusting, believing, and respecting one another. We are equally invested and put our entire lives into making our shared goals happen. That kind of commitment creates magic.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received as a coach came from Brett after Kona 2014, when Rinny won for the third time and a few other women on my squad turned in breakthrough performances. “As I’ve said before,” he wrote in his blog, “while Siri may gush ‘you’re awesome’ a lot more than her previous coach, it’s a cover for one of the deepest thinkers in our sport with an intellect equal to anyone in it.”
I didn’t need Brett to express that to believe it for myself, but the endorsement by my greatest mentor was gratifying beyond words. I’d proven that I could get results by doing things my way, in a singular style that reflected my unique values and insights.
I could be me, and it was more than enough.