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Nicola Spirig boasts one of the finest career records in international triathlon, having enjoyed particular success on the European stage. She is the only female triathlete to have won two Olympic medals: taking gold in a tight race at London 2012 and silver at Rio 2016, where she finished behind the USA’s Gwen Jorgensen.
Born in the canton of Zurich to two PE teachers, Spirig took part in her first triathlon at the age of 10, though it was in track and field that she excelled in her teenage years, winning the national junior 5,000m title and taking part in the European Cross Country Championships in her age group.
A European and world junior duathlon (running and cycling) champion in 1999 and 2000 respectively, the Swiss won the junior world triathlon crown in Edmonton in 2001. Spirig made her Olympic debut at Athens 2004, where she finished 19th. A bronze medallist at the 2007 European Championships, she came in sixth in her second Olympics in Beijing the following year.
Spirig claimed her first European triathlon title in 2009 and retained it the following year, while also winning a number of ITU World Cup events. A third European title came her way in Eilat (ISR) in the lead-up to London 2012, where she achieved the crowning moment of her career to date.
Part of a three-woman breakaway on the last of the four laps of the road running leg, Spirig pulled clear of the field with Norway’s Lisa Norden and Erin Densham of Australia for company, before contesting a sprint finish with the Norwegian.
Both athletes took the tape in a time of 1:59:48, though the officials eventually declared the Swiss the winner, ruling that her torso was just ahead of Norden’s on the line. It was her country’s second gold in the event, after Brigitte McMahon at Sydney 2000.
“It still hasn’t sunk in that I’m the Olympic champion, but it feels just amazing,” said an elated Spirig afterwards. “It was a huge, huge objective for me. I’ve worked very hard with the support of my partner Reto [Hug, a former triathlete himself], my family and my coach Brett. It means an awful lot. There are other things in my life, but as far as my sport’s concerned this is the greatest result I could have ever imagined. I feel so proud and I think I deserve it.
“I had to fight right to the end. I’ve come up with that kind of sprint hundreds of times in training and I knew I had a chance. I wanted the gold and I saw on the big screen that Lisa was really close. I had to give it everything and it turned out to be enough.”
Voted Swiss sportswoman of the year for 2012, Spirig married Hug and gave birth to a son on 21 March 2013. She won a fourth European title in 2014 and then ran a personal best of 2:37:12 in finishing fourth in the marathon at that year’s European Athletics Championships in Zurich. She then secured triathlon gold at the inaugural European Games in Baku in June 2015, a year in which she also took her tally of European titles to five in Geneva.
The Rio 2016 triathlon began with the USA’s Gwen Jorgensen, the two-time reigning world champion, as the clear favourite. Unbeaten in two years, the American lived up to pre-race expectations, though it was Spirig who pushed her closest of all, with the two pulling away from the field in the run leg.
They were side by side until the final lap, when Jorgensen broke clear to win by 40 seconds from the Swiss, the first female triathlete to win two Olympic medals since triathlon first appeared on the Olympic programme at Sydney 2000.
“That was not easy,” said Spirig. “I broke my hand in March and I’ve got three plates and 23 screws in it. Coming back wasn’t easy because I had obligations. I’m a model and an Olympic champion, which made my preparations pretty tough. Training went perfectly for me, though, and I’m thrilled with the silver.
“I feel more excited today than four years ago. I knew Gwen would be really strong. I had to give it my all and I think I’ve done all I can. I’m very happy. She deserves her gold.”