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Daniela Ryf is a paradox… A pretty woman with an enchanting and ingenuous smile, a world champion in the triathlon, a fan of strict diets for athletes, and someone whose dream is to develop food products. The triathlon is not just work for her, but also a form of rest. Strange? Well, such things can happen when you are doing what you love.
How did you get in the triathlon? Often, people get into it from other sports.
– I started to swim when I was 9, and joined an athletic club at the age of 10. When I was 14 years old I went to a triathlon camp and met my long-term coach, who asked me to join the Wildcats triathlon team in Basel. From then on I trained every day, during the week at home, next to school, and on the weekend in Basel with the team.
– Are your parents also athletes? Who pushed you into the sport?
– My mum used to do marathons and my dad used to be a mountain climber. My mum took me on runs when I was a kid and then opened me up to the possibility of joining the swimming and athletic clubs. After that, I started to like the sports and wanted to do them of my own accord.
– An Ironman victory is the highest achievement in triathlon. For you personally, what does it mean to win in this competition?
– Yes. For me, winning the Ironman world championship was a huge goal, and to achieve that was very special. It is the biggest race in triathlon and comes with huge challenges. When you have to perform at your best on one day each year, it makes it even more satisfying when you actually better your own personal best on that one day.
– All three disciplines included in the triathlon – running, cycling and swimming – are mass-appeal sports in Switzerland nowadays. Did you feel much competition in the country or was it not very difficult for you to be the first?
– Yes, we have many good athletes in Switzerland and as a junior I had lots of competition. This is very important, because once you think you’re better than all the others you start to get lazy. As a young athlete I also competed and trained with older athletes, which always made me compare myself with better athletes than myself, and this was also the reason why I always wanted to improve. I was lucky to be in a great triathlon team when growing up. We were training very hard, but we also had lots of fun. When I arrived there at 14, I trained with some athletes who were 18. And I went out with them too, so I was taking full advantage of the situation!
– The cost of success is always a sacrifice. Did you have to sacrifice something for the sake of sporting achievements?
– I never felt like I had to sacrifice anything, because I did what I loved and I had great people around me who did the same. Many of them became my friends and thus it felt normal to train 3 times a day. Of course, there are things you can’t do when you want to be a good athlete. But I did things like going out, staying out late, not watching what I was eating when I had a break. But after 3 or 4 weeks of a break, I always realized that being fit is better than a lifestyle in which you do whatever you want. So my athletic lifestyle slowly became my daily lifestyle, and I enjoy every day of it.
– What qualities are essential for triathlon athletes? How did you develop them?
– I believe the drive to improve and a willingness to work hard are two of them. Anyone can become a triathlete. It’s a sport where hard work always pays off and everyone can improve themselves. If you like to challenge yourself, a triathlon is a good way to do it. And it helps to get fit, as the 3 sport are a great balance for the body.
– Running, swimming and cycling – is it just a job or something else for you?
– It is my passion, my daily habit and my means of getting fitter every day. I am very grateful I could turn my passion into a job. But I don’t see it as a job: I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to. I will keep doing it as long I enjoy it, and then look for a new challenge.
– How is the professional sports system in Switzerland? Does the life of a teen sportsman strongly differ from his or her friends’ lives?
– In Switzerland, sport is still not seen as a profession by many people. So when you are young, it is all about finishing school and then studying or getting a real job. When I was 21 I turned professional after finishing my degree. When people asked me what I do for a living and I said: «Triathlon”, they would ask: «And what else do you do?» It is hard to combine sport and school when young, but I am happy I finished school and didn’t see sport as my number 1 priority when I was 16. It kept me balanced and gave me a normal life when growing up and going to school. Also, it taught me to be efficient, as I used to train before school, at lunchtime and in the evening after school.
– Some people believe that professional sport is far from being a healthy lifestyle due to its excessive loads. Do you share this opinion?
– No I don’t. Of course we ask a lot from our body and I always thought an ironman contender had to be crazy and willing to destroy his body. The difference between a hobby athlete and a professional is that we augment our rest and recovery with massages and quick naps during the day. This helps the body to balance the hard work. Triathlon training gives the body a hard load to bear, but I also take care of my body with serious recovery. I have not been injured for many years because of this. I have no intention of breaking my body and not being able to walk any more at the age of 50. So I think it is a fine line to walk, to challenge the body but not to break it. With a broken body, you cannot perform well.
– You have twice been declared the best athlete of the year in Switzerland. What did you feel when you received the award?
– It was once. This year I have been nominated again. We will find out this Sunday if I’m going to win. It was a huge honour to win it one time in my life. For me it was an amazing feeling, as the public and the media and the other athletes voted for me and it showed me that my hard work and its results were recognized in Switzerland. For a sport like triathlon, which is still a small sport in Switzerland, it was a huge honour.
– What can common people borrow from your lifestyle for their own health care: treatment, food, etc.?
– Our body is a machine, one that is used regularly. It is amazing what our body can achieve, when we prepare it.
– You travel a lot around the world. Are you able to get acquainted with new cultures and to enjoy your journeys, or do you just see the world from the window of a bus or plane?
– I am lucky that our sport takes place in nature, and therefore I see quite a lot when travelling. I don’t really do sightseeing if I am at a place for training or racing, but I like to explore when cycling or running. You see things you wouldn’t see as a tourist, as in some training sessions you end up on roads where tourist don’t go. When I had a team week in Bahrain we got to meet some locals who took us on rides through the desert. I appreciate these moments, as you find out so much more about places when you actually do things with the locals.
– What are your favorite places in Switzerland? How much time do you spend in nature? What country would you like to visit more often, after Switzerland of course?
– My favorite place is my home town of Feldbrunnen. It’s the neighborhood I was born in and all my friends and family live there. To me, it’s my ‘nest’, and it’s where I feel comfortable. I know all the trails and roads there. I like to run in the forest and along the river, and I have both there. As a city, I really like Bern. It’s a quiet town with a positive vibe. And St. Moritz is great for training in summer and winter if you like nature, mountains and lakes. Outside of Switzerland I like Vienna and Rome for a weekend trip and some time off. They offer all that you need.
– You are a student at Bern University. What do you study? What are your plans after finishing your sports career?
– I studied Food Science and Management. I have finished all my modules and just have to do my bachelor thesis now. After my sports carreer I would like to do something in the product management of a food company if I don’t start something myself. I would like to combine my knowledge of sport and health in product development.
– How do you like to spend your free time? Do you have time for a personal life?
– As I do so many active things with my job, I like to be calm and lazy in my free time. Having a nice dinner and a glass of wine with friends or going for coffee is on my list of favorites. Otherwise I like to be in nature, going out on a lake or in the mountains. To me, this is very satisfying and relaxing. the fresh air on a mountain top gives me an energy boost.
– Do you have any hobbies?
– I like skiing and cross country skiing. In winter I normally take a few days off and have an active holiday with friends. Otherwise, I prefer the spa or going to movies, where I don’t need to exercise, as I train for between 3 and 7 hours each day. Also, I like baking a lot. So Christmas time is always a good time for that.
– Do you listen to music while exercising? For example, while jogging? What kind of music do you like?
– Yes, I listen to music when running and riding. For me, music gives me energy and I can forget everything. When I train hard I get into a flow and I don’t feel the pain any more, and forget about time. This feeling I like the most, as it gives you so much adrenaline. To me, a good session on the treadmill is like a good dancing party. You set endorphins free.
– What are your plans for 2017?
– My goal is to win Kona again and try to see how fast I can go over the long distance. the world record also fascinates me.
– You are called ‘angry bird’. Why? Are you a fan of this game?
– My coach started to call me ‘angry bird’, as I have this serious face when I train hard or when I am focused. I reminded him of the birds in the game. After a while, the training group all started to call me ‘angry bird’ or now just ‘bird’, depending on my mood: maybe I’m an angry, flying or happy bird! I eat a lot of seeds, like sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, so when they saw that the name stuck even more!
– Do you have a role model in your life? Do you have idols in sport and in life?
– Yes I do. I have lots of role models. I believe you can learn from many people from your surroundings and pick certain character and behavioural patterns which you find admirable. I don’t have one specific role model. It can be the patience of a friend, which is admirable, the kindness of another friend and the determination of someone else.
– You have an amazingly open and beautiful smile. Looking at you, a person wants to smile too. Who or what inspires you in life? What is the inspiration for your good mood and positive attitude to life?
– I don’t smile 24 hours a day, but I have to say I am very happy with my life. I have created a life I don’t need vacations from, and I enjoy each day. When I am on vacation I want my daily life back, as I enjoy this lifestyle the most. My hard work has not always been rewarded as much it is now, but I always believed that all you do will one day be rewarded. My hobby became my job, without me even wanting it to be my job. It just happened, because I focused on doing the best I could each day and because I enjoyed what I did. I am grateful for that. I was lucky at certain points, and when a new door with a new opportunity opened, I took it and I was not afraid to see what would happen.
– What would you like to wish to Swiss Health readers around the world?
– I wish everyone to be able to do what they enjoy. Fitness is a priceless luxury, which shoud be pursued endlessly. I wish them the passion to follow up on any activity which they enjoy.