Meet World Champions 2015: power couple Staffan Björklund and Marika Wagner
By Josefine Ås
Staffan Björklund and Marika Wagner
TITLE: Swimrun World Champion Mixed Category 2015
TEAM NAME: Apollo Sports/HEAD Swimming
HOME: Sandhamn, Sweden
JA: You made an absolutely amazing comeback at the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship 2017. In the final two hours, you gained 15 minutes on Eva Nyström and Adriel Young, the leading Mixed Team and finished 38 seconds behind them. Tell us about this dramatic finish.
SB: We had a good start of the race, excited yet relaxed as we had changed our strategy and tactics slightly for this year and made solid preparations. Somehow we lost more time than we thought in the middle of the race. When we realised we’d lost ground we had to go faster, knowing we’d have to have a strong finish on the last 15km from Ornö Kyrka to Utö. We were feeling happy and tired, but we didn’t know how close we were until we saw Eva and Adriel in the last hill. But there was nothing we could do by that time. When you look back there is always the question “if only…”. If we had done this differently, or, if we had just gone faster there, and it’s easy to find those seconds out on the course. But this time Eva and Adriel were simply faster.
JA: How was the race for you in terms of the rough conditions this year?
SB: Every year we hope for weather just like this. Since we’re not as strong swimmers as many other teams are when the water is flat, we like to think it benefits us if the weather and water are rough and choppy.
JA: You’re both professional adventure racers, and race together. Are you full-time athletes and how big a part of your life is swimrun?
SB: Well, we have a dream! A dream of being full-time athletes and we’re doing our best to achieve that dream. However, not to say it’s impossible but it is hard to survive as an athlete in adventure racing and swimrun. Lets say we’re semi-pro, working part-time and training/racing part-time. Adventure racing takes a lot of time and has a completely different training structure than swimrun. So we dedicate half of our time to swimrun and the other half to adventure racing.
JA: Does adventure racing give you an advantage in swimrun?
MW: The longer the better, is a standard phrase we use a lot. Through adventure racing you face a lot of mental obstacles, and a flexible mind is key. Strategy and understanding what you can actually achieve are also important ingredients. Applying this to swimrun is absolutely a strength we have.
JA: Marika, you were the first woman in ÖTILLÖ’s history to finish under nine hours in 2015 (08.55.39) when you won the mixed class with Staffan. Since then, only Eva Nyström has managed to be faster (2016 – 08:49:58). How did you push yourself so hard and what was the magic in 2015 for your team?
MW: Sometimes you just have those magic days all athletes long for. When you can push harder than you have ever done before but your body still copes, at every level, no matter what you do, no matter hard you go or how much you suffer, it still feels like there is more. I don’t know if that was one of the days, but in 2015 it felt easy all the way. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but a combination of hard work, focus is a big part of it but maybe even bigger is a relaxed attitude. This is something I’m still really proud of, breaking ground for women in our sport and it’s still a great motivation knowing I still have the potential to break new ground in the future.
JA: Staffan, in 2016 you had a tough year. Tell us what you went through and how you managed to came back so strong!
SB: After the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship 2015, we went for a training camp on Tenerife to prepare for the Adventure Racing World Championship a few weeks later. That was the first time I had experienced fibrillation. I have a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, meaning sometimes I have a rapid or irregular heartbeat. I’ve learned a lot the last two years, especially how to handle this mentally, which has been the greatest challenge so far.
JA: With Staffan’s heart condition behind you, I bet you will take that win again, maybe 2018? What does it mean to win ÖTILLÖ?
SB: The sport is developing fast and teams are getting better and better each year. Nowadays we see teams training solely in swimrun. We’ll have another shot for 2018 and who knows, maybe we can win. Winning is proof of something you have achieved, proof of something that you put a lot of energy into, one specific goal, and gave it your all. ÖTILLÖ is one of those things, there are so many things that can go wrong and you have to be well prepared. Since it is the original swimrun race, already legendary, it is very special to win.
JA: How is it to race as a couple?
MW: For all our years racing, we always enjoyed racing together. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and share the same view of racing. On the course, it’s easy since we have a mutual plan that we’re following through out the race.
JA: You guys live part of the year on Sandhamn, the start of the WC, and you even organised a swimrun race there in 2016. What is so unique about Sandhamn?
MW: Yes, Staffan has some history back on Sandhamn, where he’s been working and living on and off over the past 12 years. Sandhamn is a unique footprint of the Stockholm archipelago, and everything feels very authentic, the buildings, locals and nature. The raw environment (from time-to-time) has something attractive to it, every piece of growing life, buildings and people are marked by weather in one way or another. The extensive culture and history is also mind blowing. For swimrun, Sandhamn is located together with a bunch of gnarly islands where you easily can spend a couple of hours and there is always rough sea at some side of the island.
Unfortunately we did not put on the Sandhamn Swimrun in 2017. We needed to cut back on things to free time and so Sandhamn Swimrun had to go. But who knows, maybe it will come back!
JA: How have you guys seen the sport of swimrun evolve?
SB: I think this was my 7th or 8th ÖTILLÖ, I’ve lost count. However, I’ve participated in every ÖTILLÖ WC in one way or another. The only year I was not around was 2014. I have one win, two 2nd places in mixed category with Marika and I’ve been 5th and 6th a few times in the Men’s category.
MW: This was my 5th consecutive ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship. All of them have been special in their own way, with 1 Gold and 4 Silver. I started my ÖTILLÖ journey through Jesper Mars (one of the original 4) as we worked together as firefighters. He was persuasive about me racing, saying this would really suit me. In 2012, I was a safety swimmer for the ÖTILLÖ organisation and since then I’ve been racing.
JA: How do you see the future of the sport?
SB: I hope we let this sport grow the way it deserves. I’d like to see more professional teams and swimrun races in fantastic and suitable locations. Tight and personal racing with profiles is fun for the audience, so the more live coverage and media we can supply the bigger the start fields we’ll see.
JA: What does your schedule look like the coming months?
MW: Soon we’ll have some time off, taking a well-deserved break. As of now we’re in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) for another two weeks. We just started to look at next year and planning for a bunch of swimrun and adventure races.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #4 (October 2017)