Now this was True grit.
The last time most people saw Sarah True, she was vigorously massaging the quad muscle above her right knee before gamely getting back on her bike at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
True fought to catch the pack in the women’s triathlon, but cameras eventually captured her walking her bike off the course. She’d been lapped and was forced to withdraw from an event in which she was considered a medal contender.
“I haven’t watched it,” True said of the television footage. “I never will.”
She’s too busy looking ahead. True is kicking off the 2017 season at the ITU World Triathlon Series opener in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The women compete Friday and the men Saturday.
“I think I could have easily let last year defeat me and instead it’s invigorated me,” True told TeamUSA.org from Abu Dhabi. “It’s made me excited to continue racing. I’m just as hungry as I was before for good results. I think not having the pressure of the Olympics definitely makes it easier to just enjoy the racing without that hanging over you.”
Or as True said on Twitter: “2016 pretty much gave me a swirlie and stole my lunch money, but I’m ready to rumble this upcoming year. … It’s been years since I’ve been so excited for the competition season.”
True calls the Rio cramp “just a freak incidence,” that likely stemmed from a back injury that bothered her before the Games and for a few months afterward.
“Getting out of the water, my leg spasmed, and I just assumed that once I started riding, it would let up – and it didn’t,” she said. “The challenge is that you can show up to the biggest race of your career and you can be fit, you can be ready, you can be excited to race, but things can go wrong. It just makes it that much more special when everything does fall into place.”
She’s had those days, too. True (née Groff before marrying Team USA distance runner Ben True in 2014) was ranked in the top three in the world in 2011, 2014 and 2015 and was second in the 2014 ITU World Triathlon Series.
She placed fourth, 10 seconds off the podium, at the London 2012 Olympic Games, which she said, “opened my eyes to my potential as an athlete.
“I left London with two goals and that was in four year’s time to fight for a medal in Rio and to be able to have Ben there competing in his own right, and neither thing happened. That’s part of sport.”
With Sarah already a member of Team USA, Ben placed fifth in the 5,000-meter at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field. His time of 13 minutes, 36.40 seconds was .48 behind third-place finisher Paul Chelimo, the eventual Olympic silver medalist.
In Rio, Sarah was competing for both of them. And then, she said, “My body let me down.”
In the aftermath, however, True was able to process what happened.
“One of the benefits of being a more experienced, more veteran athlete is that you do have that perspective,” she said. “It’s not the end of the world. Do I feel unfulfilled professionally because this massive life goal didn’t come to fruition? Absolutely. But it doesn’t make the dream any less real.
“As you get older as an athlete, you realize the value of the process and how amazing it is we get to do what we do. The great results – those are fantastic, that validates the hard work – but it unfortunately doesn’t always happen when you want them to, or else we would all be walking around with medals around our necks.”
U.S. teammate Gwen Jorgensen had that golden day in Rio, becoming Olympic champion. She is skipping this season because she is pregnant, while ITU world champion Flora Duffy is delaying the start of her season.
That leaves the Abu Dhabi field wide open. Defending champion Jodie Stimpson of Great Britain will be at the starting line, while True will be joined by U.S. teammates Katie Zaferes, Kirsten Kasper, Renee Tomlin and Summer Cook on a new course that will include the famed Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit.
True, 35, is the oldest female competitor in Abu Dhabi. She’ll compete in one triathlon a month through November, but said it’s “too soon to tell” if she’ll aim for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“This past four years has taken a lot out of me to have such a disappointing and upsetting Olympic experience,” she said, “All I know is this year, I’m going to really just enjoy my sport, enjoy the process. Who’s to say either way? I would say it’s probably unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
True said the focus is more on Ben, 31, who was sixth in the 5,000 at the 2015 world championships in Beijing. She’s had two Olympic experiences – and even chatted with President Barack Obama during the White House visit about his favorite book of 2015, “Fates and Furies” by her sister Lauren Groff – while Ben hasn’t had one.
“One of the biggest challenges of a two-sport athlete couple is that we have to be apart so often because of our competition schedule,” True said, “so it’s the rare event where we get to see the other person compete.
“As far as 2020, it’s not the training, it’s not the racing – it’s the travel that makes it a real challenge, and the amount of time that I have to spend away from Ben. I think I could see myself physically and mentally be excited for four more years of competition, but it would come at possibly too great a cost to my personal life.”
They’re able to actually compete in the same event on Thanksgiving Day, the Manchester Road Race, which is near their home in Hanover, New Hampshire. Ben won the 2016 race, defeating a field that included Chelimo and Olympic medalist Galen Rupp, while Sarah was 90th overall and third in her age group.
However, Ben will have nothing to do with Sarah at the start. “I get very chatty and I like to socialize with people before a race, and he gets in the zone and will not speak to anyone including me,” True said.
She laughed. “A couple of years ago, we both ran that same road race. It was my birthday and he barely spoke to me all morning.”
True’s social nature has been getting more of a workout this season. She’s been training with a new coach and a group of younger athletes instead of alone.
“Their excitement and enthusiasm is completely infectious,” True said. “I would like to think that I’m helping them with some of the things I’ve learned over the years and in exchange they’re reminding me that this just can be a really fun process.”
While True has previously spent the winter as far away as New Zealand, Australia and Spain, she went to Tucson, Arizona, in January and February to allow Ben to visit and return easily to the East Coast for races.
Over the years, True has worked on becoming a good cook, both at home and on the road.
“As an athlete, that’s a huge factor – your ability to eat a good, nutritious diet,” she said. “If it were up to Ben we would alternate between pizza and pasta, and that’s far too limited for me.”
True is also smarter as an athlete because she knows her body better.
“If only I could put my head on the body I had at 25, it’d be a game changer,” True said. “In your 30s, it’s this nice cross section. You have the base, you have the endurance and the strength, but also you have the patience and the right mindset to be able to use it to its full potential.”
And on she goes, “just a small-town girl running (& swimming & biking) around foreign cities in my bathing suit,” she says in her Twitter profile. And True won’t stop believing that there’s a race without a bike crash or cramp or impediment of any kind.
“We know that ultimately the best race,” she said, “is the one in which every single person on the start line can demonstrate they put in a lot of hard work and have a race that’s reflective of that.”
Perhaps there will be one more Olympic Games in True’s future, but maybe not.
“After being so focused on the Olympics for four years,” she said, “it’s refreshing to just focus on this year and enjoy it for what it is.”