Road to Kona: Catching up with 3x Kona Finisher – Ophelie Saussus

Take a look through Ophelie Saussus’ Instagram account and you’ll quickly realize that swimming, biking, and running are a huge part of her life, and have been since she entered her first Olympic Distance triathlon on her 18th birthday. 

But it’s not her whole life. 

When Ophelie isn’t training for her eighth full distance Ironman, the PhD student is studying how brain-computer interface technology can be used to give paralyzed individuals more autonomy. It’s pretty impressive stuff for a 26 year old, but then again, Ophelie has the air of someone much wiser than her years.

We caught up with Ophelie to find out how she’s approaching her fourth time racing in Kona Triathlon and her biggest learnings and tips from the course. And while she provides heaps of valuable tips for first time and seasoned racers alike, many of these tips reach far beyond triathlon. Let’s dive in:

What inspired you to get into triathlon?

Ophelie: My dad is my inspiration. When he was 50, he decided he wanted to do an Ironman. He couldn’t swim, and hadn’t run in 20 years, so he trained for a year and did it. Now he’s done 22 Ironmans and is also a three time Kona finisher.

When I was 13, he did Challenge Roth and at that time, you could still run with your children to the finish line, so I was that child running with my dad to the finish line. I remember him saying “don’t run that fast, I can’t run that fast!” [laughs].

He had already had kind of a big day!

Ophelie: I don’t think I realized that at the time, but yes.

And that’s when you decided you wanted to give triathlon a go?

Ophelie: I was always doing a lot of activities, whether than was football or ballet, but I always got bored. So triathlon was kind of the perfect sport for me, because if I get bored of running, I’ll get on my bike or I’ll go for a swim. 

I wasn’t really interested in doing short distances, but you’re not allowed to do an Olympic Distance Triathlon until you’re 18, so I did my first Olympic distance on my 18th birthday. 

And since then you’ve done seven full Ironmans?

Ophelie: Yeah, Kona this year will be my eighth.

3x Kona Finisher – Ophelie Saussus

Tell us about your first time racing in Kona.

Ophelie: When I was training for the World Champs the first time, one of the best things I did was watch Kona videos on my trainer. So I think by the time I got there, I knew the course by heart. 

When I was racing, I kept recognizing points from the videos but was like “now it’s me doing it!”. In every picture of me from that first race I have a huge smile on my face. I just remember thinking the whole time how lucky I was to be there. 

The first time was very exciting. It’s still very exciting, but now I know how hard the course is, so maybe there’s a bit more worrying happening!

I don’t think you’re alone in worrying about the challenging conditions in Kona. How do you overcome those?

Ophelie: I think it’s less about overcoming and more about accepting that it’s going to be hard.  You can be prepared as you want, but it’s not like any other Ironman. When I’m suffering, I tell myself that it’s going to be hard but I’ve done the work, and I’ll get through it. 

I’ve also seen some amazing moments in Kona. I saw a video of one athlete using their wheelchair to push another athlete in a wheelchair up Palani Road [one of the steepest climbs on the course] and that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Those are the moments I think of when things feel tough.

That’s really good perspective. Is your approach to this race different from how you’d prepare for another Ironman?

Ophelie: I think for a lot of people, the goal is to get to Kona. So you’re here, you’ve done it! The pressure is off in a way, because you’ve made it to the race and now your job is to enjoy it. 

Because of the wind, it’s also a hard race to put a time based goal on. If there’s wind, that’s going to slow you down tremendously. But that’s true for everyone. 

What advice do you have for someone racing in Kona for the first time?

Ophelie: Enjoy everything! Do all the pre-race activities: the Underpants Run, the Parade of Nations, the Coffee Boat swim – these are experiences that you’ll only have in Kona, so enjoy them! 

I think it’s also really important to just be happy to be there. The island is so beautiful, so I like to take a couple of days where I train a little less and go sightseeing – it helps take the pressure off a bit also.

3x Kona Finisher – Ophelie Saussus

Have you made any mistakes on the course that you want others to know about so they can avoid?

Ophelie: The first year I did it, it was really hot and I didn’t have a plan to cool down during the run. I was drinking a lot, but not enough. I had seen this video of Jan Frodeno dunking his head in a bucket full of water and ice cubes. I’ve done it at every race since. It’s really, really important to stay cool, and drinking water isn’t always enough to cool down your whole body. 

Dunk your head in cold water, noted!

Ophelie: It really works! Actually funny story, last year I did it at the aid station on Palani Road and this big volunteer guy said to me “I know who you learned that trick from.” My sunglasses were all foggy from the water so I didn’t realize until I took them off that it was Jan Frodeno. 


Ophelie: Yeah, it was pretty special. 

You said you weren’t drinking enough water. How much water is enough? 

Ophelie: you need to be drinking 750ml to a litre of water per hour, even if you feel like you don’t need it. You won’t feel the heat as much on the bike, but you will feel the dehydration once you get off if you haven’t drunk enough. 

Moving onto recovery. You’ve got a really full schedule – how do you make sure you’re giving yourself time to restore before the big race?

Ophelie: It's not going to sound that special, but going to bed early. I’m in bed every night by 10:00pm and that’s really how I recover the best, just by sleeping a lot!

What does it mean to you to be a multiple Ironman World Champs finisher? 

Ophelie: It proves to myself that I can do hard things. Every time I’ve raced there, I’ve said during the run “never again, never again”, and yet I come back every year. Even though I know it’s hard, I keep putting myself through it because I know I can do it. 

What do you love most about triathlon?

Ophelie: There’s so much! The sense of community in this sport – I get to do it with my dad and my boyfriend, but it’s also about getting to know people from all around the world. And seeing those people year after year at races all over the world and talking with people who also do Ironman is a really special experience.

Also, the challenge, the variety, and the sense of accomplishment. I think like a lot of people that do sports, I can be really hard on myself, but once you cross that finish line, you have to be proud. You can’t be anything else in that moment other than proud. 

We can’t wait to watch Ophelie take on the Ironman World Championships on October 14th in Kailua-Kona. Go get ‘em, Ophelie!


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