European Championships 2014 in Kitzbühel - an Amazing Weekend

I’m not going to lie, I am not really sure on how to start on this one… I had one of the most amazing weekends of my life, laughed, cried (tears of joy) and smiled a lot… And at the same time, only a week ago today, I was sitting in the penultimate exam of my bachelor degree – it just feels such a long time ago now. But let me start at the beginning ;)

When I woke up on Thursday morning, June 19, it started sinking in that there was only one exam left until summer, until my flight to Kitzbühel! The last out of eight exams in 18 days – during which it often felt like they were never going to end, and I think that was the worst part about them (the days between exams, spent revising and waiting for the next one). I often felt like then training was the only thing that kept me sane, that kept me going. But then when I woke up that Thursday it all suddenly seemed so close – finally!

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When I got out of the exam a few friends were waiting to “trash” me and the others that finished with me (trashing is an Oxford tradition and really just means throwing confetti and all sorts of things at the people finishing their exams) – I managed to get away with just a party hat (I didn’t really have time to have a shower before having to head off to the airport). At the airport, my mum met me with my bike box and off I went… and when I sat there at the airport waiting to board, that was the first time in a while (probably since October) that I was a little bit bored … and I didn’t enjoy it too much, but luckily it only lasted for 30min.

And then it all went really quickly – my dad picked me up from the airport, drove me to Kitzbühel (with a pasta stop at a service station on the way). I squeezed a little run in before it got dark and tried to sleep (and I wasn’t very successful at it at first, too much had happened that day). And the next day wasn’t really the late start that everyone else seemed to have – up at 6.30 (which is 5.30 British time, so it felt even earlier than it was) to look at the bike course with my coach Roland (a massive thank you to him for being crazy enough to agree to it!) before the Age Groupers started. The rest of the morning was spent finding all my stuff and preparing my race bag, and some relaxing and talking to the others and my dad.

And then it was finally time to race! I’ve been excited to do this race since I was first told that I will be allowed to do it – and that was a while ago.  Luckily, the weather seemed reasonable, as it was cold, but not raining. So we were hoping it would stay that way. But with warm up done and everything set to race, the rain started…

I had no real idea what to expect in the swim … I’ve had Sprint races where I was really glad that the swim was over after 750m, so swimming double the distance could either end up being torture or quite fun with it being less brutal and fast. It turned out to be quite enjoyable! The first lap was still quite brutal (I ended up with a few bruises on my hand), but the second lap was actually just fun … I had found my place and pace and was just enjoying the ride – when I then realised that I was towards the end of the chase pack with only a few people out at the front, I lifted the pace a little and ended up coming out of the water and onto the bike in that pack! I couldn’t quite believe it myself, but thought hey, I’ll just go with it!

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The first third of the bike was really good fun. Nicola Spirig and Rachel Klamer kept pushing the pace and kept us on our toes with a few attempts to break away. There was only one time where I already saw myself on the ground – at the end of the first downhill bit, my carbon brakes didn’t want to work (with all the water on them) and only just before it would have been too late they decided to pull and I ended up getting around the corner just about ok! I don’t think I need to say that after that I was VERY careful when it came to braking before corners and made sure I braked a little well in advance to dry them off. At some point we finally ended up catching the lead group, but there were still the group chasing us to be held off. But then, about half way through the bike, the rain picked up even more… It was starting to get cold, really cold! I was literally shivering on my bike and hoping I would still be able to get around corners without stable hands. I had really enjoyed the race so far and still just wanted to enjoy the moment, but I was just sooo cold! I ended up taking an extra gel on the last lap – and that seemed to make it a little bit better, but I was just so glad when I finally got off the bike! Time to warm up!

But first it was time to get off the bike and into the running shoes … and that turned out to be more complicated than it sounds. It took me what felt like ages to get into my shoes! Somehow I ended up getting in though – and off I went! My legs felt a little all over the place at the start, and I also wasn’t really sure what pace to start off with - so I was being careful at the start. I could see all the girls in front of me and was told I was in the top 7! I was more than happy with that – I had expected top 15 on a good day! But Roland shouted at me saying there’s more in it for me if I run well, and it seemed like he was right, I kept running and suddenly found myself in fourth place – what the hell had happened there? But I just kept running, and somehow the gap to Hanna Philippin and Annamaria Mazzetti was getting smaller and smaller – and then I was running with them! By that point we had also reached the 5k mark – so only 5k to go, and I’ve done plenty of 5k races before, I knew how long that is. So I went to the front of our little group and picked up the pace a little – I never turned around, but could hear their breathing and saw at the next turnaround point that Hanna had dropped off the pace, and there was a tiny gap to Annamaria. There might even be a medal in this for me I thought! (Not just yet daring to believe it could be silver) – but another 2.5k later, I was running on my own in second place! And I managed to stick to my pace and finish in second… only 16s behind the reigning Olympic Champion Nicola Spirig. I wanted to sit down in a corner and cry.

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But there wasn’t really time for that… Not much later Hanna finished fourth and I was so happy for her as well (she was in the pack behind me on the bike and had worked really hard to catch us on the last bike lap – so to run into fourth after that, well impressive!) and we just stood there hugging for a bit and enjoyed the moment. Then the madness started … Running from one photo to interviews and getting ready for the flower ceremony – it took a while until I found a minute to get food and put clothes on. And then I spotted my dad and coach nearby – and just had to run to them, hug them and have a minute of calmness in all the madness.

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The flower ceremony was amazing – I loved every second of it (but I was so cold, I just wanted it to end on the other hand). When all I really wanted was a boiling hot shower, I had to head over to doping control. And after a quick hot shower in the hotel later, I was already back on the podium in the city centre for the Award Ceremony. But even at that point it hadn’t even started to sink in properly. What the hell had even happened? I’m just a little girl that loves what she’s doing and I don’t think anyone (not even me) saw me ending up anywhere near that podium.

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But that wasn’t it – the weekend wasn’t over yet! Saturday was spend with a bit of easy swimming, cycling and running to try to convince the legs to be ready to race again on Sunday. And watching the guys race – it was a beautiful day for it as well (the chance of rain went from 100% on Friday, to 1% on Saturday). On Sunday it was then time to hit the lake and roads again – time for the mixed team relay! The Juniors won their race just before we started – so Germany had another good start to the day! I was off first, slightly scared of the swim because I knew if it went badly, that will be it for the entire team. But luckily it didn’t. I got out of the water in third place (yes, I was surprised too!) and was in a pack of eight on the bike – but no one really pushed the pace very much on there, so it came down to the run – 2k of pure pain! But I survived and handed over to Max just behind the Austrian team! And then the cheering began – we were up there all the way. After my run and Max’s swim we had narrowed it down to a pack of two, then Hanna was alone with the Italian – and even broke away on the bike! But they were back together after the run – so it all came down to Justus who gave his everything and only just had to give in to the Italian. But massive well done to the three – it was so much fun to race and watch, I can’t even put it into words. And the champagne shower on the podium and just the entire team podium experience was just amazing (even though we all felt a bit disgusting and sticky once the champagne had dried off).

So looking back on the weekend I can still only shake my head at what happened. All I can say is a massive thank you to all the people who are believing and supporting me – especially to my partners and sponsors - Deutsche Sporthilfe, Oxford University Sport, RedVenom, Funkita, Sailfish, FastForward, GU and last but not least Rachel Hallam from back2motion in Oxford for all their support. Also all the support and well done messages have been so overwhelming, even though I still haven’t found the time to read them all. Big thank you also to every single one of you cheering for me on the course – I know how cold and horrible the weather was, which made it even more amazing that you stayed to watch and cheer! And the biggest thank you has to go to my boyfriend, parents and coach Roland without whom I wouldn’t even have made it to the start line on Friday! And a well done to everyone who raced – and obviously in particular my team mates – always a great pleasure to watch and cheer for.

Pictures © DTU / JK 2014 and © Sophia Saller 2014

© Sophia Saller 2016. All rights reserved. Impressum