Born in Spiez, a lakeside village 30 miles south of Bern in Switzerland, Steffen spent much of her early childhood swimming, walking in the mountains and cross-country skiing. Unlike most great swimmers, Steffen had no formal swim coaching until the age of 12 and, even then, only joined a weekly swim club as it meant she could leave a religious education class fifteen minutes early in order to catch the bus to training. Improvements quickly followed and within two-years Steffen was on the national junior team and at the age of 16 made the step up to the senior team.
Steffen won several national titles but suffered a big disappointment when she missed out on the 200-metre freestyle relay team for the Sydney Olympics – she placed fifth in the trials with only four girls making the team. In 2002 shoulder surgery meant an enforced break from training and racing. On her return to the pool her motivation had disappeared and soon retired from competitive swimming.
The urge to live a little saw her backpacking around Australia for three months. When she returned to Switzerland she continued the fun and spent several months partying and enjoying a social life that had been nonexistent during her time on the national swim squad.
It wasn’t long, though, before a desire to get fit again persuaded her to look for a new challenge and she entered the Gigathlon. This was a two-day Swiss multisport event comprising road cycling, mountain biking, swimming, inline skating and running. The training for the race and the event itself rekindled her enthusiasm for sport, and although she sold her inline skates the day after the race, she continued cycling and running. Steffen, meanwhile, continued to work part-time as a road engineer with the company where she had served an apprenticeship after leaving school.
They continued to be supportive of her sporting ambitions and in 2006, having completed a few Olympic distance triathlons she entered Ironman Switzerland. A sub-10 hour race saw her finish second in her age group and qualification for Hawaii was secured.
A second sub-10 hour performance was good enough for third place in the 25-29 age group and a trip onstage at the Kona awards party. Still not enjoying her swim training and feeling that her running was too much of a weakness, Steffen made the decision to concentrate on cycling and within a few months had been invited to join the Raleigh Lifeforce professional team alongside Nicole Cooke and Karin Thürig.
Shortly after joining, the team became the Cervelo Test Team and too big to be a climber and not fast enough to be a sprinter, her role within the team was to close gaps and set the sprinters up for the finish. Again, she showed good improvement but her life as a professional cyclist was not providing her with the satisfaction she had hoped for. In May 2008 Steffen decided to leave the team and try her luck as a pro triathlete.
Within two months she was bacK on the start line in Zurich for Ironman Switzerland. Steffen finished the race in third place. This result persuaded her to move to Australia and train full-time in the lead up to Ironman Australia with the goal of Kona qualification at the front of her mind. Another third place finish, behind Chrissie Wellington and Bek Keat, entitled her to a pro slot to the 2009 World Championships, but Steffen was having a leisurely breakfast whilst the Kona slots were handed out having assumed the roll down was in the afternoon.
That disappointment was tempered by having recently met her boyfriend, Australian pro triathlete David Dellow, who told her at the finish line: “now you need to become a pro”. He went on to explain that although she entered races as a professional, her lifestyle was far from that required to win races. The next day, Steffen phoned her employer and quit her job before calling her parents to say she was staying in Australia.
Based in Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast her training and nutrition became more structured. Some mixed results at middle distance races culminated in a fourth place finish at the 2009 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater. This was the result that persuaded Brett Sutton to take a chance on Steffen. After just one month of being coached by email she won her first big title at Ironman 70.3 Geelong in February 2010.
The day after the race Steffen flew to Krabi, Thailand to meet Sutton for the first time. Steffen’s initial apprehensions about the meeting soon gave way to a mutual respect and over the course of a month of supervised training big improvements in all three disciplines were evident. Further wins in 2010 at the 70.3 distance followed in Singapore and Switzerland along with second place finishes at Ironman South Africa and Ironman Germany. Sutton started to realise he had a special talent on the squad.
“Day after day she has just got better and better and better. Caroline is 12 to 18 months ahead of where I thought she would be.”
With her imposing stature and willingness to “go to war” on the course, Sutton and the rest of the TeamTBB squad know her simply as Xena the Warrior Princess. Feeling stronger with every race the next event on the calendar was the Ironman World Championships in Kona, a performance that Steffen describes as her perfect race. A comfortable swim in a good group and a steady bike with no low points saw her head out onto the run in second place behind Julie Dibens.
The first few kilometers on the run Steffen was battling an overwhelming desire to curl up and sleep on the side of the road, but from the turnaround at the far end of Ali’I Drive she could see all the girls running behind her looking just as tired – except Mirinda Carfrae.
Knowing that Carfrae was running much faster than her, Steffen was able to focus on catching Dibens who she suspected may have a bad patch in the Energy Lab. Inevitably Carfrae passed both Dibens and Steffen to take the lead. Soon after this the sight of Dibens walking reassured Steffen that her race would pan out as planned. Running into the finish line with the Swiss flag held high above her head, Steffen finished second –a dream result at her first Ironman Hawaii as a pro.
For most athletes Kona signals the end of the season but not Steffen. Although she barely trained for the race the Swiss speedster went on to win her local event, the legendary Noosa Olympic-distance triathlon. If that wasn’t enough for one year in late November she still found the energy to win the Asia Pacific Ironman 70.3 championships in Phuket, Thailand taking her fourth win over the distance during 2010.
How far can she go? Sutton is not making predictions but he is certain of one thing, there is a lot of improvement still to come from Xena. After the season she has had in 2010 that must be very worrying news for her competition.