Olympics 2021: Flora Duffy on the 'surreal' feeling of winning Bermuda's first gold medal

When it came to winning her country's first gold medal in Olympic history, Bermuda triathlete Flora Duffy "always knew this was bigger than just me." Adam Pretty/Getty Images

TOKYO -- Flora Duffy sat on the bed in her hotel room on Tuesday afternoon, still wearing the same track suit she had been wearing for much of the day and her race-day signature braid still atop her head. She drank an espresso, with a touch of oat milk brought from home, as her phone continued to ping with notifications.

A few feet away sat her gold medal, glittering in the sunlight streaming through the window.

"Want to feel it?" she asked before adding, "It's heavier than I thought it would be."

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Hours earlier, the 33-year-old Duffy had made history, becoming the first Bermudian in Olympic history to stand atop the podium after she crossed the finish line in the women's triathlon a full minute ahead of the rest of her competition.

She had entered the race as a woman with a lifelong goal. By the time she sat in her hotel room that afternoon, she had achieved the hopes and dreams of an entire nation.

"I didn't let myself think too much about it before the race because it would be too overwhelming," Duffy said. "I always knew this was bigger than just me, but the reaction from home already has made me appreciate that so much more now. A gold medal is a huge deal for anyone, but for someone from the U.S. or Great Britain, those countries regularly win gold medals, so it ensures funding for them personally but doesn't mean much beyond that.

"For someone from Bermuda to win a gold medal, it changes everything. The entire island is watching one person with this chance, this hope, to win and when it happens, it's for everyone."

With a population of 64,000, Bermuda was already the smallest nation in the world to have won an Olympic medal. Clarence Hill, a heavyweight boxer, had earned bronze in 1976, and for years Duffy had been seen as the island's next best hope to add to the medal collection.

Duffy had competed in three previous Olympic Games and achieved her best result -- an eighth-place finish -- in Rio in 2016. Since then, she had gone from an Olympic medal hopeful to a legitimate favorite, having won world championship titles in 2016 and 2017 and a Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2018. She was also ranked No. 1 in the world for the first time.

Since her breakthrough, Bermudians had been eagerly awaiting the 2020 Games, knowing she had a chance to do the unprecedented.

It was Tuesday morning in Japan when Duffy lined up to start her swim, but it was Monday night in Bermuda. Wearing matching shirts that read "Go Flora Go!" her parents joined her brothers and scores of other friends and those who had supported her from the start at Docksider Pub on Front Street in Hamilton, the island's capital city. With no one except her husband Dan Hugo, who is also her coach, bicycle mechanic and de facto publicist, able to attend the race in person, they filled every ounce of the space, cheering throughout the race that was longer in distance than the entire length of Bermuda end-to-end.

Numerous Bermudians, some who have never met Duffy personally but still feel very much connected to her, screamed and cried with joy as she crossed the finish line. It's clear the moment is not just hers.

The island's premier, E. David Burt, sent her a congratulatory voice memo, his tone breaking with emotion as he told her what her victory meant to the country. Even Michael Douglas, whose mother was from Bermuda, shouted her out in an Instagram video.

The Royal Gazette, the island's lone daily newspaper, remains plastered in Duffy content days after her win, including a photo gallery of her early years and interviews with her first coach and several of the country's other prominent athletes.

"I'm so glad that Flora has fulfilled her dream," Katura Horton-Perinchief, who represented Bermuda in diving during the 2004 Olympics, told the Royal Gazette. "But of course, it's not just her dream - all our dreams have come true."

The newspaper released a 16-page special print section for its "Golden Girl" on Thursday. There have already been calls to rename Bermuda's National Sports Centre in her honor and for a Flora Duffy Day.

Duffy knew the entire island had frozen in place during her race in Rio in 2016. She had seen what felt like all of Bermuda come out during the inaugural running of a World Triathlon event in the country in 2018 to cheer her on. She won that race, while tens of thousands looked on, and her legend continued to grow.

Even though Duffy splits her time between Boulder, Colorado, and Hugo's native South Africa for an endless summer training regimen, she still was keenly aware of the island's expectations and the pressure at times became suffocating.

Combined with a string of setbacks -- including a serious foot injury that sidelined her for nearly a year and back pain as recently as May -- and the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic that had stranded her in South Africa with an expiring visa, it had been a long journey just to get to Tokyo and there had been many moments of self-doubt.

But on Tuesday, everything came together.

In a lead group of five from early in the race, Duffy took a commanding lead in the first of the four laps during the run portion and never relinquished it. Hugo often shouts her splits to her as she goes by, but there was no need on Tuesday. She was simply that far ahead.

Duffy said she knew the deficit she had created for much of the run but didn't allow herself to think about it until the final 800 meters. Then everything hit her. As she rounded the final turn, a smile spread across her face and she raised her arms triumphantly. When she crossed the finish line seconds later, she put her head into her hands and fell to the ground overwhelmed by her accomplishment.

"Over the past two to three years, I've hit such low points that I didn't know if I could do it," Duffy said. "There's been so much that's happened. And it felt like in that moment, the whole journey came to an end and I had done it. I was looking at some of those finishing photos and you can see all the emotions on my face -- I'm a hot mess.

"You know, you pick this crazy dream as a 10-year-old kid from Bermuda that you want to be an Olympic champion, and I think most people thought that was great but didn't think I could actually do it. They say, 'OK, go for it.' But then you actually do it, and it was just this surreal moment where I was thinking about so many of the little moments that brought me here."

After she won the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she was given a hero's welcome in Bermuda with a motorcade parade through the streets. Some on Twitter were hoping she would return home immediately after her Olympic victory -- in time for Cup Match, Bermuda's biggest public holiday -- and her celebration could be part of the island's most jovial weekend of the year. But Duffy was still in Japan fielding countless interview requests from news outlets all over the world and adjusting to her newfound global fame at the start of the holiday.

Any celebration will have to wait. Duffy won't be able to return back to Bermuda until late August at the earliest. She first has to compete in World triathlon races in Montreal and Edmonton.

But a champion's welcome awaits whenever she lands.