Road To The Olympic Games

Kirsten Sweetland, Canadian triathlete, alters training before Olympic push

Choosing happiness over warmth, Canadian triathlete Kirsten Sweetland is training alongside skiers and snowboarders in Whistler, B.C., rather rather than prepartng for a gruelling season and final Olympic push in a hotter climate.

Victoria native trains alongside skiers, snowboarders, bobsledders

Canadian triathlete Kirsten Sweetland rides a bicycle while training in Whistler, B.C. She usually spends the winter in warm climates preparing for the gruelling season ahead, but the Victoria native believed she would be happier on home soil as she gears up for a third and final crack at the Olympics after a career marred by injuries, illness and heartbreak. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Kirsten Sweetland knows it seems a bit odd.

Like most triathletes, she usually spends the winter in warm climates preparing for the gruelling season ahead, not beside snow-covered British Columbia mountains.

But as the Victoria native was contemplating how to go about taking a third and final crack at the Olympics after a career marred by injuries, illness and heartbreak, she decided it would be on her terms.

"Being up here makes me really happy," Sweetland said recently of relocating to Whistler. "I've always found when I'm healthy and happy I perform the best, not necessarily when I've done the most training.

"I've been living out of a suitcase for a lot of years and I just find that maybe it's not necessary. I can try things my own way and see what happens."

A former junior world champion and world under-23 silver medallist, Sweetland was an alternate for Canada at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She missed out on London 2012 because of a series of injuries related to one of her legs being slightly longer than the other.

With those physical setbacks behind her thanks to a lift in her shoe, she finished third in a World Triathlon Series event in the summer of 2014. She won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow less than two weeks later.

"It was a comeback from five years of disappointment and that makes any accomplishment feel so much better," said Sweetland. "I had some extreme scenarios."

Major setback

Believing the tough times were finally behind her, she was looking forward to representing Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and then again at the Rio Olympics this August when she suffered another major setback.

"A couple weeks [after Glasgow] we swam in some dirty water for a race and I ended up with a bacterial infection," said Sweetland. "It's almost comical.

"What else can happen?"

[2015] was probably the hardest year of my career. ... When I was trying to race, my body just wouldn't do it for me. I was in bed 18 hours a day.- Canadian triathlete Kirsten Sweetland on dealing with bacterial infection last summer

It took some time for doctors to figure out what was wrong before eventually prescribing her with antibiotics she'd have to take for 10 months.

"That [2015] was probably the hardest year of my career," said Sweetland, who missed the Pan Ams. "I just wasn't getting better and was feeling worse and worse. When I was trying to race my body just wouldn't do it for me.

 "I was in bed 18 hours a day. I was really unwell and thinking: 'Really? Another Olympics? How is this possible?' "

But as she has so often, Sweetland rebounded. And she largely credits the environment around her for helping to bring a certain level of comfort and peace.

The 27-year-old is back to full health and has been running in the snow -- she said it's like training in sand and makes road courses much easier -- while also biking the steep roads around Whistler and swimming at an indoor pool.

Sweetland does make the short drive to Vancouver for workouts in a climate-controlled facility from time to time, but is confident the Canadian winter will pay off.

'Long season'

"When it's warm weather out there, it's great for training, but I tend to peak a little bit early," she said. "It's a long season.

"The Olympics is towards the end and you don't want to be on fire in March and April and be on the descent come Olympic time."

Sweetland, who's aiming for a return to the World Triathlon Series in April -- is currently the top-ranked Canadian woman in Olympic qualifying. She earned a spot for her country at the Games before getting sick, but that doesn't necessarily mean she'll make the start list in Rio.

Canada will get two or three places and it will likely be up to team officials to pick the competitors after the cutoff in mid-May.

"With my past performances from 2014 before I was ill, I want to show them I'm on the way back," said Sweetland. "Whatever happens, happens. I've just got to do my best."

The site for many events during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler has provided Sweetland with a unique opportunity to gain new perspectives as she trains alongside skiers, snowboarders and bobsledders.

"It's been really amazing because it is a sporting community," said Sweetland. "I can take advantage of that without being close to direct competition."

After going through so much in her career, she's hoping that change of scenery will be key to helping her finally realize the Olympic dream.

"From the outside it sounds so difficult and it's not really at all," said Sweetland. "I get everything done I need to and I don't really compromise in any way."

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