A surprising finish in London has Sarah (Groff) True seeing herself differently — and aiming for even higher goals.

By Aimee Berg
Photos by Chris Milliman

On an overcast August day in London, 30-year-old Sarah Groff made an unforgettable Olympic debut.

After a swim in Hyde Park, Groff began the cycling portion in eighth place. During the ride, a Polish cyclist crashed in front of her and Groff bunny hopped over the wreckage. Entering the run, Groff was seventh. The leaders dropped her early, but Groff closed the gap. With 700 meters to go, she was the lone Olympic rookie in a four-woman pack, hanging onto third place. Just then, her training partner Lisa Nordén of Sweden shot ahead and tried to outkick Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig, who was awarded the gold in a photo finish. Groff placed fourth, 12 seconds later.

It was the performance of her life.

But it would haunt her for more than a year.

It wasn’t the “almost.”

It was the “what if?”

“To be honest, I didn’t realize I was a world-class athlete until the 2012 Olympics,” Groff, who now goes by Sarah True, said last month.

Sarah’s résumé contradicted her assessment, but “every athlete sees themselves differently,” explained her husband, Ben True, a professional track athlete in 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

Yet Sarah could only wonder: what if she had believed in herself more all those years since 2005, when her career began? 

The regret plagued her until January 2014. And when she finally figured out how to cope, she produced her best season to date.


Leading up to London, Sarah may have ranked third in the world in 2011, but she had very little quantifiable data to gauge her fitness.

“A lot of her workouts were: pick a field and run around it in a random amount of time,” Ben said, “so the only thing she had were her training partners, who were some of the best in the world.

“It was tough to have that confidence, because the people around her were just as good as she was,” Ben said.
Also, Sarah didn’t spend her childhood planning to become a professional athlete like True did.

Growing up in Maine, Ben would read Sports Illustrated for Kids in the bathtub while trying to map out his pro career, maybe in hockey or baseball, until he discovered his talent in endurance sports. In college, True was the first Dartmouth runner to break a four-minute mile and in 2007, in Nordic skiing, he helped the Green win its first NCAA ski title in 31 years.

Meanwhile, Sarah grew up in Cooperstown, New York, dreaming of becoming an ornithologist. Later, at Middlebury College, she studied conservation biology while earning All-America honors in swimming.

Pro sports career?

“No way!” she said. “I thought I’d be in the woods, picking data points, doing field research.”

But Sarah had also run high school track and cross country at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and she decided to give triathlon a shot after graduating from Middlebury in 2004. 

“I’ll give myself a couple years,” she said, “and if I’m not good, go to grad school.”

In 2005, she started working with 2001 world champion Siri Lindley in Boulder, Colorado.

“Her physical potential was huge,” Lindley recalled. “And she had a very high pain threshold.”

But Sarah also had doubts. Lindley had been the same way.

To weed them out, Lindley said, “You need to talk to me about everything that scares you and makes you feel insecure because those are the things that are limiting your ability.

“And don’t feel weak doing that!  You’re actually doing the strong thing, because [it’s] going to allow you to reach a new level.”

By her third year with Lindley, Sarah was in a position to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team. It came down to the last qualifier. She needed to be the top American at the Hy-Vee Triathlon in Des Moines, Iowa. Otherwise, the slot would go to Sarah Haskins.

Groff faded in the run, and Haskins was Beijing-bound.

“I did not honestly think I’d get on that team,” Sarah said. “There was no clear sign to me that I could be an Olympian.”


In 2010, seeking structure, Sarah joined Darren Smith’s training group.

For the next three years, she spent nine months per year on the road, training, racing and learning how to break down and compartmentalize each part of the race.

At first, Sarah was tactically error-prone and “unbelievably raw” said Smith, an Australian who has coached 10 Olympians since 2000.

In running, he changed Sarah’s arm position to improve her rhythm. He worked on her foot strike and hip strength to be more efficient.

On the bike, Smith said, “She was terrified, not very skillful at cornering and not very astute in gear selection at the right time. She was OK in a straight line, but that was about it.”

So Smith rode next to her, barking instructions, forcing Sarah into situations with other good riders, and used videos, drills, and all he could think of to desensitize her to the trauma of what could happen.

In the swim, Smith felt Sarah’s first 100 meters needed to be much quicker.

She shared his assessment — to a degree.

“I started to think about how to run more effectively. I certainly got better at bike handling,” Sarah said. But the swim? “I won’t let him take credit for that! I swam worse under Darren, and he will never admit it!”

Apparently, there was a fourth discipline at camp: debate. And Sarah wasn’t afraid to question Smith’s advice.
“I like the challenging ones,” Smith said.

He also tried to get Sarah to stop worrying about results, Smith said, “in a menu-driven way, like baking a cake: what goes first, what goes next? In a year’s time, we can find better ingredients, but the process is not an emotional thing.”

Their first year was rough. In 2010, Sarahbroke her sacrum twice while falling off the bike — once riding to the pool with Nordén in Australia (yet she still finished fifth in an ITU World Cup in Mooloolaba without realizing it was broken) and once on a dirt road in Kenya.

That year in New Hampshire, she also met Ben for the first time. Sarah was staying with her older brother, Adam, a doctor who, like Ben, had been a cross-country skier at Dartmouth. Ben had just broken his toe doing running drills, and he and Sarah went on a ride.

“He was pushing the pace the entire time,” Sarah said. “I asked him tons of questions to slow him down.”

From there, Ben learned that “her end-all goal was just to make the Olympic team.”

By 2011, Sarah was on her way.

In June, she became the first American woman to capture a podium spot in an ITU World Championship Series race, placing third in Kitzbühel, Austria — four seconds ahead of the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Emma Moffatt of Australia.

“For the first time,” Sarah said, “I felt incredibly relaxed.”

That August she earned her Olympic berth at the London test event, and by the end of the year Sarah ranked third in the ITU World Triathlon Series standings.


Then: August 2012.

Ben met up with Sarah at her pre-Olympic training camp in Davos, Switzerland.

“I was shocked at how fit she was,” he said. “She kept thinking she needed another month of training. She worried that she was going to embarrass herself out there. She really needed more time, more time, more time. I kept telling her: you’re more than ready.”

On race day, coach Smith had five women in the field. He instructed Sarah, “Just do a good job.”

And Ben told her, in the run, to go all-out with one kilometer to go, to avoid being out-kicked by a sprinter.

Ben was in the bleachers with the family of Laura Bennett, Sarah’s Olympic teammate, when Sarah got dropped from the lead run pack. He pulled his hoodie tight and clenched his knees into a fetal position.

Eventually, though, Sarah started gaining. With one kilometer to go, Sarah was third. And she was still third 1 hour, 58 minutes into the race — until Nordén hit the gas and Spirig and Erin Densham of Australia answered.

“That moment of pause is what cost her,” Ben said.

But no one could argue: It was the performance of her life because she fought instead of folding.

Sarah finally believed.

Finally, she could see in herself what others had seen all along. But the epiphany had a flip side: deep regret.

“I realized that if I had believed in myself — and believed that I belonged in that front group — not just that day, but for a year leading into it, or even more …”

Her voice trailed off as she considered the even greater success she might have had.

“I had let myself down by not believing in myself,” she said one day this fall.  “I had only me to blame. It’s incredibly hard to accept.”

She didn’t regain her momentum until January 2014.

A new coach, Joel Filliol, and a new approach (where Sarah can be home six months of the year instead of three and have more input about her regimen) led to five major top-10 finishes last season (including a redemptive second place in a London sprint-distance event), as well as her first ITU World Triathlon Series victory (in Stockholm) and a second-place ranking in the year-end standings behind only Gwen Jorgensen, her Olympic suite-mate. And Sarah achieved all that despite an overuse injury in her right foot that caused her to miss the midseason WTS race in Chicago.


Last year was about taking pressure off, having fun, changing the routine. Now, Sarah has a stable base and is ramping up to Rio. Last May, she bought a house with Ben (sight-unseen because Sarah was on the road). She also planned her Oct. 18 wedding on the road, via the Internet, and bought her dress without even trying it on.

After a mini-honeymoon in Maine this fall, Sarah was still keeping it fun — doing a phone interview on the way home from a cyclocross race in Massachusetts, and gearing up for the famous Manchester Road Race in Connecticut on Thanksgiving, her 33rd birthday. (Ben won, and Sarah placed 15th among the women, just eight seconds behind three-time U.S. track and field Olympian Jen Rhines.)

While Sarah True would love to be ranked No. 1 this year, she doesn’t plan to chase the series ranking. Her primary aim is to peak for the Olympic qualifier (which has yet to be announced by USA Triathlon). And make the team for Rio — preferably with True.

She will choose her races strategically and, under Filliol’s tutelage, focus on making an impact in each race — changing the way it plays out — instead of reacting to circumstances, and finding more than one way to win.

Mentally, Sarah is already wiser because of her long post-Olympic battle to assess which ran deeper: the confidence from believing in herself, or regret.

“It’s so easy to believe that athletes have preternatural self-confidence,” she said. “I thought that you had to go to the start line thinking you were going to win and if you’re not that person, you’re never going to win. The truth is: every athlete has doubts. I realized you can be world class even if you don’t have this innate confidence.

“Things you perceived as shortcomings, you realize are just you. You accept [your] flaws and you stop fighting yourself.
“Some of my internal battles push me forward to be a better athlete, no question.

“It just took a while to keep them from holding me back and [instead] give me fuel.”