After injury put her on the back foot last year, Olympic triathlete Nicole van der Kaay is on a stirring winning streak to start her journey to the 2024 Paris Olympics. Suzanne McFadden writes.
In the days since Nicole van der Kaay won the first World Cup gold medal of her triathlon career, flashbacks suddenly leave her overcome with emotion.
They’re not only of the Kiwi Olympian’s outstanding start to 2023 – with four wins from four races, the latest being at the World Triathlon Cup in New Plymouth last weekend.
But also the grim memories of a year ago, when van der Kaay could barely walk, let alone run.
A foot injury plagued the start of van der Kaay’s 2022 season. It was a major setback that left her in a moonboot, and kept her back in the New Zealand winter to rehabilitate while her team-mates headed to the Northern Hemisphere. Among them her partner, fellow Olympian and mixed relay team-mate, Tayler Reid.
For three months, van der Kaay couldn’t run on land – sticking to the pool and bungy cords on a treadmill to reduce the weight on her foot.
She “lost faith and hope, many times”. But she’s grateful to the supportive team she had around her, who kept her focused on her recovery and running down the international blue carpet again.
“It wasn’t fun,” she admits. “I had a very short amount of time to prepare when I started running again. I had maybe one land run before my first World Triathlon Series race of the year, and I was very, very anxious.
“Then I went into every race after that very underdone. But I just wanted to race, and still have a year of competition.”
Despite the disappointment and frustration, van der Kaay had “some very special moments” last year.
In her first event back, she helped New Zealand to finish fourth at the mixed relay world championships in Montreal; a month later, she was ninth in the women’s race and fourth again in the mixed relay at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games – admirable, when there were moments she’d doubted even making it to the start-line.
The NZ mixed relay team – Hayden Wilde, Andrea Hansen, Nicole van der Kaay and Tayler Reid – hug at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
That’s why this season has been about being fitter and better prepared – as the 27-year-old van der Kaay puts the “shocker” year behind her, and aims for more victories on her road to the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
And that began on the black sand of Ngāmotu Beach last Sunday.
They call it the ‘NVDK Race Switch’.
It’s been described as van der Kaay’s uncanny ability on race day to quietly get into the zone, block out all the noise and step up a level or two from her training.
“Someone named it after me as, notoriously, my training wasn’t the flashest compared to everyone else,” she laughs. “I guess I’m basically average in training, but when it comes to racing, I just flick a switch, get in the zone and just really turn it on. I love to race.
“But I’ve just fallen in love with training more and more. As an athlete you go through different patches, different phases and you can lose the love. But I’ve really loved it this summer.”
Van der Kaay knew she needed a strong start to the year to get back on track in the world rankings. She was slipping out of the top 100 after her bumpy 2022 season – so this Kiwi summer was about building up points again. “Then later in the year I can choose the races I go to, to qualify for Paris,” she explains. “Every small goal links into that big goal of Paris.”
The girl who grew up swimming in Lake Taupō and was a keen surf lifesaver admits she’s been unhappy with her swim legs on the world triathlon circuit. So she’s poured more effort into swim training this summer.
“Both me and my coach [Stephen Sheldrake] knew my swimming wasn’t up to standard, as simple as that. The Europeans and Americans are very very strong at swimming,” van der Kaay says. “So I was pretty motivated after having some really poor swims last year to put in the hard yards.”
That meant long hours in the pool, most of it on her own, and wherever racing took her around the country. And she’s really happy it’s paying off.
She started her streak of four victories in February, winning the Oceania Cup races in Wanaka then Taupō, before taking out the Oceania sprint championships in Tasmania earlier this month, powering away on the 5km run from Australian Kira Hedgeland.
When she lined up on the black sand at the start of the New Plymouth World Triathlon Cup on Sunday, van der Kaay had stood on a World Cup podium only once before – winning silver, also in New Plymouth, in 2018.
In a stacked international field of 54, the Kiwi was “hoping for the best, but I knew it would be hard work with a lot of fast girls there,” she says.
Showing the benefits of her extra hours alone in the pool, van der Kaay was among the first four swimmers out of the Tasman Sea – with her friend and fellow Olympian Ainsley Thorpe 2s behind her.
Thorpe stuck with van der Kaay on the hilly 20km bike ride around the streets of New Plymouth, and was on her shoulder at the front of the field as they began the 5km run. Renowned for her superior running, van der Kaay thrived off the cheering home crowd to cross the finishline first, 9s ahead of Thorpe.
“It was really wicked to get the win,” van der Kaay says, on the drive home to Taupō. “It’s still a bit surreal, like did that actually happen? But it’s been a really cool summer, ticking off my four goals.”
Van der Kaay was thrilled to share the World Cup podium with Thorpe, and then watch the men’s race, to see her partner, Reid, win silver in a sprint finish – behind another of their team-mates, Olympic bronze medallist Hayden Wilde.
“Tayler and I are there for each other at the finish line, and on training days week in and week out, so we’re very much each other’s top supporters,” says van der Kaay. “We’ve both been through ups and downs together, we see all the behind the scenes together, and how hard we are on ourselves.
“Mostly our race plans align, which I’m really grateful for. It would be really hard to be in a relationship with a partner who doesn’t understand or isn’t in the same place. We’re so lucky to travel the world together.”
Reid has headed home to his family in Gisborne, while van der Kaay spends time with hers in Taupō. Then they’ll be back together this weekend to start putting in more hours of training before heading to Australia and the next event, the Olympic standard distance championships in Port Douglas at the end of May.
“I link in with some awesome girls over there and we train in good weather. It just makes it easier to get those hard sessions in when you’re not dodging the rain and cold,” van der Kaay says.
Then it’s to Montreal for the world triathlon championship series, and on to Europe.
Van der Kaay hopes to be part of Super League Triathlon again this year – after her Team Sharks (including Reid and Wilde) finished second last season, and she finished ninth overall in the women’s championship. It’s a short, sharp, modern take on the sport.
“I had so much fun last year – it brought a lot of joy back into my training and racing,” she says.
“It was six weeks on the road with a bunch of awesome people having fun, training hard and racing hard. And even though it was high intensity racing with big money on the line, I felt relaxed. Everyone enjoyed meals together and having laughs.
“It brought a lot of love back for the sport for me, especially after the hard start to the season.”