Exclusive Interview with Professional Ironman Triathlete Stef Puszka

The Stef Puszka Interview by Kevin Coyle. August 2, 2015

So this past Tuesday Stef Puszka and I shook hands for the first time before a 6AM swim. She met members of our Busney Crew (Busso + Sydney). We saw her in her wetsuit putting in some strong efforts and doing a nice long swim. Only later did it click that Stef was “the pro” from Darwin. Once I realized that I had to make it known to our club. I put on a post on FB and even included another pro into the great conversation Derek Cross. This post reached well over 1,000 people across Australia and was tweeted and retweeted as well. Without any further adieu here we have it.

KPC: So you clearly knew about our pool here. What have you heard about ASTC before coming down here? Have you been able to race in Alice Springs before?

SP: I haven’t had the opportunity to race in Alice Springs before but would love to, it sounds like you’re an enthusiastic and committed bunch of people! I take my hat off to anyone training consistently in sub-zero temperatures!

ASTC: Stef, you are always welcome here. Our long course, the Tavis is in April but I know you’ll be back in September. Maybe you’ll be able to join us for a training session or even feature in our Hatt Rd Duathlon.

KPC: Your first ever triathlon was in 2010. What was the distance? Did you come from a sporting background?

SP: Yes, it was a Darwin Tri Club ‘splash and dash’ event (if an aquathon counts, that is). I was hooked and went and bought my first road bike straight away. As a teenager, I had done a lot of middle distance running (track and cross country) but had never been a swimmer or cyclist.

ASTC: Well an aquathon is nearly there. It seems that immediate success lies with the run so that is a solid background. But to know you weren’t a swimmer is a good thing as it relates to ASTC members and the Elders Womens Only Triathletes. Many fear the swim but to know that you started in this later could be a positive for many just giving it a go.

KPC: I see on your website http://www.stefpuszka.com that you went 1st in F25-29 at Ironman Cairns in 2013 setting a course record of 10:21:29 in your first Ironman. It’s a great course. I had done my first there the year before in 10:08:24 but was far off the winner of 9:22:25. What was it like to have such success in your first Ironman?

SP: It was an incredible experience and one I like to remind myself of in tough times – finishing my first Ironman, winning my age group and qualifying for Kona. My parents and partner Billy were there, as were my coach and many other members of our squad, and as you say, it is a stunning course, which all made for a fantastic experience. Although I’ve improved a lot and learnt a lot since then, in one sense I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to top that experience.

KPC: I completely understand. For me it was my first marathon, the Boston Marathon. No one can ever take that away from you. You can go on to amazing things but the first of anything is always special.

KPC: Tim Smith was the guy who went 9:22. I’m friends with him and he has gone on to be the first amateur athlete overall at Ironman Texas with an 8:48. So I’m interested in what you think about the caliber of athletes these days. It seems that even amateurs are as competitive as the pros. Do you think as a professional you have different expectations out of your performance? What would some of those be?

SP: I think the age group field is just getting more and more competitive. There are some athletes out there posting amazing performances while working full time and juggling all of life’s other complications. I think the line between the top age groupers and pros is becoming a bit blurred. Many companies are now sponsoring age groupers as well as pros and age groupers have available to them all of the same gear on the market as pros (and are increasingly prepared to pay for it!) On the other hand many pros (myself included) are forced to keep their day jobs or at least work part time.

I’d say for me, the biggest difference between my days as an age grouper and becoming professional is mindset. I know there are many age groupers out there who channel every aspect of their being into their performances and are constantly looking for ways they can improve every bit as much as pros do, but for me, the difference is in adopting a ‘professional’ attitude in every facet of the sport. Getting to this stage of my career has been quite a journey and I think I know I expect the best of myself in every race, and I feel like I have let myself and others around me down if I don’t achieve that, regardless of whether I’m happy with the race outcome or not.

The race experience can be a little different as a pro. In a race situation, even though age groupers and pros are competing on the same course, they are not really competing in the same race and as a female pro I’m typically up against only 10 or so other women. We are lucky we don’t face the problem of getting tangled up in mass wave swim starts and the race leaders will sometimes be given a personal guide. When you know most of your competitors and there are not so many of them, there is a lot more potential for race strategy to play a role.

KPC: I love that insight! Very interesting! I agree as well about where you stand. I mean, you know your competition, you are truly racing against them. For the most part, I am racing against the clock, even when I try to put on estimate of what it is going to take.

KPC: While there are a couple of athletes in ASTC with big goals most of the 77 athletes are looking for fitness, fun, and friendship. Nearly 70% are women as well from 4yrs old to over 60yrs old. What do you say to those women about what you have so far taken from the sport in only 5 years?

SP: That is an impressive statistic in what usually tends to be a male-dominated sport! It is great to see more women entering the sport, and great to see that the powers that be are starting to take more notice of female athletes, and that there are dedicated women-specific resources out there such as WITSUP and campaigns like #50womentokona to improve equality and recognition of issues pertinent to female athletes.

I don’t think your female members need any particular advice from me, they have already worked out that societal myths about women being the weaker gender are not true! What I would say is that you may not realise it, but your achievements and commitment to such a challenging sport will make you an inspiration for other women around you and the goals they have in their lives – daughters, friends, colleagues, training buddies. You can draw further strength and motivation from that.

Chelsea: One of our most passionate women and soon to be mother Chelsea would like to know your favourite brick workout? And what you do when you “hit the wall” with training and how you get over it?

SP: I’m not sure ‘favourite workout’ and ‘brick’ belong in the same sentence! But I agree they are important sessions to allow your muscles to adapt from swimming to cycling to running in the shortest space of time and avoid the ‘jelly legs’ feeling. I really think the most appropriate brick really depends on what you’re training for and what you hope to achieve though.

I guess ‘hitting the wall’ doesn’t happen to me too much as I try to keep an eye on my nutrition (before, during and after sessions). As an endurance athlete, carbs are your friend, but I have also learnt that including some good fats in your diet is important so that when you have burnt through your carb (glycogen) stores, your body starts burning stored fat. I find knowing your early warning signs can be helpful to avoid hitting the wall – I find I start to get a bit moody and negative thoughts start to creep in when I’m running low on glycogen during training. I think I also manage to avoid hitting the wall because I’m lucky to have a coach (Daryl Stanley) who is pretty good at designing sessions that push me to my limit, but not beyond (well, most of the time!)

Lynn: A triathlete for 10 years who has taken it to a completely new level with Busney this year. Lynn Treis would like to know what is your weakness (weakest leg in triathlon)? And how have you adapted or modified training to improve this?

SP: Definitely the swim. I wasn’t one of those fortunate people who swam in a squad in their younger days and I’m not a natural swimmer. I find swimming an extremely technical sport compared to cycling and running. I’ve tried to address this by getting some specialised advice on my stroke and spending one session a week (usually a recovery session) where I just think about one aspect of my stroke, and pay no attention to times or distances whatsoever. We do some group open water sessions in Darwin when we can, practicing open water skills (although you could possibly also do this in a pool if you don’t have access to open water). I’ve also been working with my physio to improve the flexibility of my lats.

Jordyn: Junior member, rising star, with big goals Jordy Kindness who frequents Darwin with the junior squad would like to know what was the hardest thing you encountered becoming a pro athlete?

SP: I’d say the hardest part in the road to qualifying for a pro license was the pressure to perform. With Daryl (my coach) I set myself some goals and a roadmap, but they were fairly ambitious and they were time limited. Around that time, I had a few races where I felt I had performed poorly and was disappointed in myself. I started to doubt myself. Retrospectively, I was digging myself into a mental black hole where what I really needed to do was analyse what went wrong, what I could do better in future and move on.

Fiona: A triathlete for 15 years and my wife Fiona Coyle would like to know do you do any specific mental training to prepare for half and full ironman races?

SP: Great question! Every training session is mental preparation for my next race. Much has been written about the emotional intelligence involved in being ‘in the zone’ for any given activity, whether doing a triathlon or writing an essay. This is a state of being so completely absorbed in a particular task that every piece of your mental energy is channelled into that task, to the point of losing track of time and space around you. Your mental and physical energies basically merge to create the best possible performance. In particular, my hardest sessions are a perfect chance to practice getting into and staying in ‘the zone’, especially if done solo. The more you practice, the better you get at it, and I think you learn little things about yourself in terms of how you respond to certain thought patterns or mantras designed to get you into that headspace – what works will probably be different for each person. I find that ‘being in the zone’ also makes these sessions very enjoyable, despite the high degree of difficulty – you are not just counting down the minutes until they are over.

Most of you probably do some research into the course and conditions of your next away race (hills, wind, climate, water conditions, etc) and try to mimic those conditions in some of your training sessions where possible. When doing some specific race preparation like this I like to visualise what my next race will feel like and the possible scenarios that will play out on the day. I usually have some performance-based goals for each race, as well as outcomes-based goals (eg: maintaining a certain speed on the bike, as opposed to finishing in a certain place), and I like to visualise achieving those performance-based goals and the way that they will feel.

Triathlon is notorious for attracting type-A personalities (the stereotypical perfectionists, but people who can also be their own harshest critics). Anxiety is a common affliction amongst such people. Recently, I have been experimenting with some mindfulness meditation as part of my overall recovery to calm and clear the mind, reduce the resting heart rate and help get better quality sleep.

KPC: Well this has been quite special for me. To receive such thoughtful responses I know will not only inspire ASTC members but it has also fired me up for continued training sessions. So again, thank you for joining me today, thank you for your time, and please let us know when you are in Alice Springs again. You certainly have friends in the Red Center with a free room and free race entry into ASTC event and that’s on me!

One response to “Exclusive Interview with Professional Ironman Triathlete Stef Puszka

  1. Without any further “ado”, as in hassle, stuffing around: think, Shakespeare’s “Much ado about nothing”. Adieu is French for goodbye.


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