As Canadian women swept the podium at the International Triathlon Union World Cup event in Edmonton last month, former world No. 1 Paula Findlay could only watch and wonder "what if."
Findlay, the toast of the women’s triathlon world in 2011, is still recovering from an injury that began two years ago in the lead-up to the event in Edmonton, her hometown. Her story is one of triumph and tragedy, with the 24-year-old waiting patiently to write the next chapter in this long and difficult tale.
Findlay broke through in 2008, winning her first national championship, and followed up the next year with a bronze medal in the ITU World Championship under-23 race in Australia. At age 20, she had arrived on the world stage.
In 2010, Findlay scored her first wins in the top-level ITU World Triathlon Series in back-to-back events in London and Kitzbuehel, Austria. In 2011 she won the first three events, vaulting her to No. 1 in the world.
"I definitely had a faster rise than I ever imagined I would," she says. "I think it appeared that way to most Canadians and the triathlon world, and it was cool for me."
As Findlay prepared for the Edmonton race that year, she injured her hip. Heartbroken, she was forced to skip her home event, but continued to train even as the hip hampered her into the 2012 season.
"I tried so many things to try and fix it, but it was a tough thing to kick," Findlay says.
The injury could not have happened at a worse time. With the Olympics on the horizon, and Findlay’s new fame and sponsors, there was a lot of pressure to perform in London.
So despite the painful injury, she entered the London Olympics and suffered a crushing defeat, finishing dead last on the world’s biggest stage. The result was devastating.
"I had a rough fall in a lot of different ways," she says. "Not just the physical aspect of my injury, but mentally dealing with everything."
Findlay has competed this season, but only in the swim and biking portions in top-level ITU events. She will not run in those until she has gone through more rehabilitation.
Realizing that Findlay may have been rushed into the London Games, Libby Burrell, the High Performance Director of Triathlon Canada, wants to make sure Findlay is allowed to recover fully from her injury this time.
"Paula has had to cope with stuff none of us will understand," Burrell says. "All she needs is solid rehab time. I see it as my role to protect Paula so, when she comes back, she’s going to be really strong."
The biggest question, though, may not be Findlay’s physical ability to compete, but the mental ability to get back to the podium.
"The confidence issue is the biggest thing," Findlay says. "How am I supposed to go out and win races again when my confidence is this low right now?"