The months since the London Olympics have been an endurance event in and of themselves for triathlete Sarah Groff, the 2011 world championships series bronze medalist who just missed placing in the top three at the Summer Games.
She struggled for equilibrium after finishing an achingly close fourth and decided to make some changes for this season, and beyond, to try to put herself in podium contention for Rio 2016. Groff, a 31-year-old native of Cooperstown, N.Y. and graduate of Middlebury (Vt.) College, is currently training with an international group under the aegis of Canadian coach Joel Filliol.
She opened 2013 by entering a race she had always yearned to do -- the punishing Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, rescheduled this year from June back to March to accommodate the upcoming America's Cup sailing competition. Fighting through a self-inflicted head injury and the aftereffects of food poisoning, Groff was overtaken by eventual winner Heather Jackson in the late going and finished second.
Groff is based outside Hanover, N.H., with her boyfriend, distance runner Ben True, but spoke to ESPN.com by telephone this week from Clermont, Fla., where she is getting in some warm-weather training. These are excerpts from that conversation:
Question from Bonnie D. Ford: How did you go about processing that fourth-place finish at the Olympics and structuring the rest of your season?
Answer from Groff: What I didn't expect -- other athletes always talk about how amazing the experience of going to the Olympics is, the whole village experience and the cool swag and meeting all the other athletes, but they don't really warn you about what happens after the Games. There's this tremendous buildup where for years we're focused on one thing, and then I finished fourth, which adds a whole other level to it. It's probably pretty common; I got pretty severely depressed for a while. I went through the motions, did a couple more races. I would say I'm just starting to gain momentum back. But, for whatever reason, athletes just don't talk about it.
I did [turn to] a fellow triathlete, Greg Bennett, who was on the Australian Olympic team in 2004, and his wife Laura was on the U.S. team in 2008, and they both finished fourth. So if anybody's going to know what it's like after that, it's going to be them. Greg told me pretty much right after the race, "Listen, Sarah, even now to this day, I'll be lying in bed, replaying the race, thinking about what I could have done differently."
He's absolutely right. It's going to stay with me for a while. It's both the best achievement of my life and also one of those moments where you can't help but wonder what could have been if you'd approached things differently, and I think it has the potential to make me a better athlete. There's so much that can go wrong at the Games, and I've just been trying to turn it around and think about everything I did right to finish fourth, because obviously it's a great result.
Q: When you realized you were in a tailspin, what did you do about it?
A: Part of it is just realizing it's part of the process. As athletes, we get this tunnel vision where for the four years leading up, it's all about going to the Olympics and putting myself in contention for a medal, and that's exactly what I did, but I didn't set a goal beyond that point. I've realized in hindsight that's a major problem, but it's common. You almost need that time to -- grieve is the wrong word -- but to go through it all and come to a place of acceptance of who you are as an athlete and, more importantly, who you are as a person and what I need to keep on growing for the next four to five years as a pro triathlete.
Q: Had you intended all along to keep competing after London?
A: I feel grateful for every year I get to race. I have one of the best jobs in the world and as long as I can keep doing it, I will.
Q: What are your plans for 2013?
A: Trying to find the structure that's going to be a little bit more sustainable for me for the next four years, trying to find a little more life balance while not sacrificing anything from the sporting side of things. In the past, I'd be basing myself out of Australia in the winter. Now, I'm in Florida. It's a compromise to have more of a personal life. I'm with a new coach and new training group. This is just kind of a rebuilding year to work on some things I didn't work on in the last quad[rennial]. Just try to keep on moving forward, have some fun. Alcatraz is a race I always wanted to do but never fit the schedule. I'll have a couple more like that.
Q: Such as?
A: It's been a few years since I've done a Half Ironman and I think I'd like to do one in the fall. I've always wanted to do some cyclocross and I think maybe I'd like to do some of that, especially after Louisville [the site of last month's cyclocross world championships]; it's just going to explode in the country. I followed it like a hawk, but I didn't go. The cyclocross scene is only going to get cooler and cooler. I need to work on some of my bike-handling skills, and you've got to have good skills in cyclocross, that's for sure. And the fantastic lactic acid-producing nature of the event, I think I'll really like it. I think I'll see white spots a lot, which is kind of fun.
Q: What was it like to race Alcatraz for the first time?
A: Worked out this year, thanks to the America's Cup. It's probably the second triathlon I ever heard of, the first being Kona [Ironman] because of the NBC coverage growing up. It just seemed like it would be the best short-course race to possibly do -- a complete test of toughness, skills and conditions.
Q: I saw on your Twitter feed you cut your head?
A: I split my scalp open. You know, it's a tough enough race as it is, and I kind of made it a lot harder on myself. There's a 20-meter-long tunnel [near the start of the running leg] that's probably five feet [high]. You crouch down and run through it. I stood up a hair too quickly and hit it really hard, ended up on the ground. The woman who was stapling my head together after the race said, "Maybe you should have left your helmet on," and "I guess you really, really wanted to win," because I kept on going. Character-building moment, I guess. The next six miles were pretty miserable, I'm not going to lie. Needless to say, when I went back the second time, I was really, really cautious.
I was my own worst enemy or biggest competitor on that day, but I was going to finish no matter what. ... I wanted to win. I'm pretty sure all of my races this season after this one are going to feel much less challenging by comparison. The first one's always the worst, but this one set the bar at a whole other level.