Juggling stethoscopes with bikes and swim goggles, Olivia Thornbury and partner, Janus Staufenberg, are Otago med students travelling the world as rising elite triathletes, Merryn Anderson writes.
First it was lockdowns, then a long-term achilles injury. But after years of setbacks, Olivia Thornbury is finally ready to make her mark on the international triathlon racing scene.
All while she’s training to become a doctor.
The 24-year-old Otago medicine student managed to balance full-time study with her first year of racing on the world stage last year, and had to quickly learn how to adapt to different environments.
“I went into it not knowing what to expect,” Thornbury says. “I was pretty excited for that first trip – then I got there and got to experience the jet lag.
“You hear all about it and think ‘Oh it can’t be that bad’. But when you get there, it can be pretty horrendous.”
But it helps that her partner is also a promising triathlete – and a medical student – who travels and competes with her around the world.
It hasn’t been a smooth start to Thornbury’s international tri career. Travel restrictions and lockdowns in New Zealand meant she missed out on competing at U23 World Cup events offshore.
And then when she got back to full training, she suffered tenosynovitis - or inflammation of the achilles tendon sheath.
Thornbury concludes the injury was from too much training - coming out of lockdown and going too hard. “That probably put me out for a year, a year and a half,” she says.
“Rehabbing that injury was really challenging, too. I would be back into running and doing walk-runs, and then I’d take two steps back because it had flared up again.
“It was just one of those injuries which was really hard to rehab. And mentally, it was really tough too, because it was my first proper injury. I’ve obviously had niggles and whatnot throughout my career, but that injury really set me back.”
Lots of physio sessions and working with a strength and conditioning coach got Thornbury back on track, and helped her learn about herself, physically and mentally.
“It was bad at the time and frustrating, but looking back now, I’ve learnt a lot from it,” she says.
Thornbury grew up competing in gymnastics at a national level, and also played in South Island tournaments for netball.
“All through school I was one of those people who just did every single sport pretty much - so gymnastics, swimming, athletics, netball,” she laughs.
A strong swimmer, Thornbury entered her first New Zealand secondary schools triathlon championship when she was in Year 8 at Verdon College in Invercargill, and never looked back.
She had a lot of friends involved in the Southland Triathlon and Multisport Club, and they scouted her after seeing her swimming ability.
Thornbury isn’t sure if swimming is still her strongest leg in triathlon, but getting to train with some of the top swimmers in Otago, including Olympian and New Zealand record-holder Erika Fairweather, definitely helps.
Having grown up in the deep south, Thornbury jokes that training gets tough in winter, but the support around her keeps her going.
A major player in her support system is her partner, Janus Staufenberg, who she’s been with for four years.
A fellow triathlete, Staufenberg also studies medicine at the University of Otago, so the couple have a lot in common.
Thornbury is in her third year of her degree, having previously studied anatomy and physiology as part of a Bachelor of Science.
Balancing the last three years of full-time study with international triathlon racing is a challenge, but she keeps on top of it.
“Some good time management goes a long way when it comes to balancing study and training,” she says.
“If I could do it part-time, that would be the ideal world,” she says. “But I think I need something to take my mind off study as well, so bringing in the training there works really well.
“I think I’ve got a good balance and it keeps me motivated in both areas of life.”
Being able to travel with Staufenberg for racing is an added bonus for Thornbury, especially being new to the international scene.
“We try plan out most of our trips together. Last year was our first year fully committing to going to World Cups and overseas races,” says Thornbury, who competed in Great Britain, Mexico, Japan and Malaysia last year.
“Before that, I hadn’t really travelled any further than Australia for racing so I was pretty new to that scene.
“But travelling together and experiencing it all together is quite a relief in a way, it makes things a lot easier when you’ve got someone there doing it with you.”
Back home in Dunedin, Thornbury’s little spare time is filled with small activities to keep her happy - going out for coffee, shopping and reading.
Right now, Thornbury is working on improving her run leg, and finishing her races strong.
“I’ve definitely seen a huge progression in it coming back from injury but just to develop that a little bit further so I can be a bit more competitive amongst the front girls in say a World Cup,” she says.
She hopes to compete in more World Cups this year, to lift her ranking - she currently sits at 104th in the world. But after some good results in international races – including ninth in the World Cup in New Plymouth last month - she’s slowly climbing the ranks.
She’s had a few more top 10 finishes in races at home lately and is using that momentum to look towards more pinnacle events.
Thornbury has been selected as part of the six-strong New Zealand mixed triathlon team to compete in the world triathlon championship series in Montreal in June, one of the key races on the journey to the Paris Olympics.
“We’ve got Paris [Olympics] next year, which has come round very quickly,” Thornbury says.
“Whether that works out for me, we will see, but there’s always the long game looking ahead to LA 2028, so I’m not too concerned about that.
“I’ll just stick to my plan and see what I can do and if that works out, it works out.”