There was a time when Kirsten Sweetland didn’t believe the saying “You get out of something what you put into it.” When the Victoria triathlete put a lot into training, she was often too injured to race, let alone win.
The former world junior triathlon champion and world under-23 silver medallist has emerged from a spiral of injuries to be a contender in Saturday’s TransCanada Corp. World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton.
Ranked No. 6 in the world in women’s triathlon, Sweetland won a Commonwealth Games silver medal in July and has finished in the top 10 in six International Triathlon Union races this year.
She was third in Hamburg, Germany, prior to the Commonwealth Games and is coming off a fourth-place finish in Stockholm last week.
“It’s pretty unbelievable. I kept saying all year I’m so surprised,” Sweetland said in a phone interview from Edmonton. “My coach Shaun kept saying ‘Why are you so surprised? You’ve done the work.’”
“It seems like it’s coming out of nowhere for me now when in reality, it’s not. I love what I do so this is just a bonus, but getting that gratification is definitely a good feeling compared to a couple years ago.”
The Grand Final caps an eight-race series that determines the year’s men’s and women’s world triathlon champions.
Sweetland will be joined in the women’s elite field Saturday by Quebec City’s Sarah Brault, ranked No. 11 in the world, and Edmonton’s Paula Findlay, who has also travelled a painful road of injuries since 2011.
Kyle Jones of Oakville, Ont., and Andrew Yorke of Caledon, Ont., will represent Canada in the men’s elite race Sunday.
Gwen Jorgensen of the U.S. is poised to take the women’s world crown as she has a healthy points lead heading into Edmonton. The men’s title is a tighter race between Javier Gomez of Spain and Britain’s Jonathan Brownlee.
But Sweetland is a threat to repeat as a medallist in Edmonton. The 25-year-old finished third in a World Cup race in the Alberta capital last year.
“It’s a relatively hilly course bike and run, which plays into my favour,” Sweetland said. “I do like more challenging courses.”
Sweetland won the world junior women’s title in 2008 and was second in the world under-23 race two years later. But injuries limited Sweetland to just eight ITU races over 2011 and 2012. She didn’t finish three of them.
Stress fractures in her legs and back were her primary ailments, but there was also a shoulder injury from a bike crash, plantar fasciitis in her feet and intestinal ailments.
Stress fractures halted her training in 2012 and meant no Olympic Games in London that summer. It was reported she nearly quit the sport then, but Sweetland said it was more a case of wondering whether her body would allow her to continue.
“Never in my heart did I want to quit, but I did at the end of 2012 start to wonder when I was getting fractures from running hardly at all, I started thinking ‘Am I asking too much of my body? Is it not going to do this for me anymore?’” she recalled.
“I gave myself a year and thought ‘If I do everything properly and I’m still breaking bones, my body is trying to tell me something and I’m going to have to respect it.’ Luckily, everything came around for me last year.”
Sweetland points to a pair of turning points that returned her to world contention. In January of 2013, Sweetland reunited with Shaun Stephens, who coached her in 2009 before he took a job at the Australian Institute of Sport.
“One of the first things he said to me is ‘Some athletes need training and some athletes tuning. You’re an athlete that needs tuning,’” Sweetland said. “For the last few years, I’ve been overcooking myself. He said we just needed to fine-tune what I already had.”
Her chiropractor also identified that the discrepancy in her shin bones – one tibia is a centimetre shorter than the other – was causing misalignment in her body and straining her legs and back.
Sweetland wears a lift in her racing shoe and sometimes shakes her head when she looks at.
“When I hold that little seven-millimetre lift in my hand I think ‘that was five years of my career right there,” Sweetland said. “If I do forget to put my lift in my shoe, it only takes a couple of runs and all those muscles start tightening up again.
“It’s a pattern that can start again if I don’t wear that lift.”
Sweetland can now concentrate on tactics when she races, instead of managing a malady. That’s made all the difference.
“This is so exciting to be able to focus on tactics and not ‘Am I going to break?,’” Sweetland said. “It takes so much less energy to race when you’re healthy.”