Looking into 2023, pro triathlete Nikki Bartlett has big goals and a clear path. This coming season she’ll build on last year’s tremendous momentum to climb yet higher in the ranks at the World Championships. A year ago her eyes were set on the same race, but the outlook was decidedly darker. Largely bedridden and unable to train, she clung to a sliver of hope that she’d have a 2022 season at all.
After nearly 10 years in the pro ranks, Nikki has been through the highs and lows of an any athletic career. But 2022 was decidedly different. It was much, much harder.
In October of 2021 as her season wound to an end she came down with a bad case of Covid-19. Though she’s a famously hard-working athlete who struggles to take rest days and laughs about bouncing off the walls even after an Iron Man, the virus nailed her to the floor. Bed ridden for over 2 weeks, she struggled to even make it up or down her stairs. As the sickness let up hopes of quickly bouncing back evaporated when she woke one morning with a sudden and completely debilitating pain in her left leg. Even as her energy returned, she was unable to resume training. Four rounds of x-rays and CT scans later, she was diagnosed with a nerve impingement and started a course of medication that lasted over a month. The prognosis was uncertain.
What she’d hoped to be another break-through year building on her top 10 finish at 70.3 World Championships in 2021 turned into a game of patience and a test of mental fortitude. The memory of her coach gently suggesting they may have to call off 2022 entirely is seared in her memory. So is her response: She would have none of it. Nikki was determined to get back on her feet and show up at Ironman World Champs in May, qualify for 70.3 by the deadline in July and be ready to race in Saint George, UT by Fall.
She’d been fully unable to train for over 12 weeks in March when she finally laced up her shoes and ever so slowly moved back into training. She had just two months to go before the first big race and the pressure was on – if she was going to make IM70.3 worlds, she’d need good results to qualify before the July deadline. She had to take things slowly – delicately balancing building fitness with her still-limited energy levels and the risk of re-triggering long-covid.
Many of us would have lost hope, but Nikki doubled down. “It was the drive to make world’s that really got me though,” says Nikki “I was so dedicated to making that happen, so I focused on the small improvements I saw each day. That helped me stay on track and positive”
In April she was back to full training volume and feeling the first whispers of her old form. She had low expectations for IM (140.6) World’s, but was thankful to make it to the starting line at all. Race day came and went and though her finish time wasn’t what she would once have hoped for, finishing that race was a milestone unlike any other. She knew she was back in the game.
Her next race was Mirabella 70.3 and things clicked into gear. She raced her best Ironman to date, solidly winning the race. It was a huge win for any athlete, on any year, and a monumental come-back for Nikki. She followed up Mirabella with her best full Iron Man of her career, placing 2nd in Frankfurt and kept up the podium streak taking 2nd in both Dresden 70.3 and Portugal 70.3. Just a few months earlier she couldn’t walk. Now she was on a rampage!
As Ironman Saint George 70.3 – the World Championship race she’d been dreaming of –came into view, she knew once and for all she’d won her fight. The struggle, ill-health, searing nerve pain and anxiety of a potentially lost season were all just bad memories. It was time to race.
Saint George is many pros’ favorite race. The weather is great, crowds are famously enthusiastic, the scenery is beautiful and the course is varied. The collective stoke for the race reverberates off every red rock wall and high-country plateau. The race breathes and breeds season-best performances and many of our tri pros have excelled here with four taking top-ten spots in 2021. Nikki was 9th - her best World Championship result. She was there to repeat – and improve. Her season of focus, hard-work, self-belief and perseverance was coming to its climax. She’d never been racing faster or feeling stronger. Luck and momentum were on her side.
She raced her way into a strong 8th place ranking just 2 minutes off the top 5 after battling back and forth for podium slots all day. When the tape was down, Nikki was again standing where she belongs among the world’s best athletes, taking one more one step up since 2021 result.
When asked what accounts for such a hugely successful season, she quickly credits those around her. “It’s because of my amazing support network. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. Friends, family, sporting community and sponsors all showed up for me along the way. I’ve had such incredible opportunities in this life and my friends, family and sponsors have been with me through the highs and the lows – including sticking by me through the dark periods of last winter. That community spirit is what makes this sport what it is!”
We couldn’t be prouder to count ourselves among Nikki’s circle. The perseverance, dedication and unbridled enthusiasm she brings to this sport are simply echoes of her lust for life. Every year in our near-decade working together, she’s grown and advanced, step by step, smiling all the way. Next year looks even brighter. We’ll be cheering from here.