There’s a story former pro triathlete Belinda Granger likes to tell about the 2007 Ironman World Championship when an unknown competitor from Norfolk cycles passed the line of established pro’s at the front of the race.
“Well, there goes this year’s winner,” Granger calls out and is met with a collective ‘Who is she?’ “A new athlete I’ve been training with,” the Australian replies. “And her strength is the run.”
That was the last the pick of the Ironman women’s crop would see of Chrissie Wellington at close quarters that day, and it was also the first time she really announced herself on the world stage. When Wellington quit undefeated in 2011, it ended an era of dominance that seemed unlikely to be repeated for a generation. Yet we’ve not left the decade and it could be usurped.
If Daniela Ryf wins her fourth consecutive title in Hawaii in October, does the Swiss – nicknamed Angry Bird – actually become the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)? The acronym appears increasingly in sporting discussions from football to tennis to golf, and while it’s nugatory to compare generations, it won’t stop us trying.
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If triumphant, she’ll become the second triathlete to win four consecutive Kona titles, matching Paula Newby-Fraser’s feat from 1991 to 1994. Only Newby-Fraser (eight) and Natascha Badmann (six) will be ahead in total Ironman World Championship wins, and Ryf already leads the way at the half distance, with three world titles in the past four years.
If she continues her sub-nine hour streak at Hawaii it will also be her 11th time under the magical mark, even managing it twice in eight days in 2016. Only Yvonne van Vlerken has dipped under nine hours more times, although she’s been racing over the distance since 2007.
Yet it’s not just the number of victories, but the scale of domination. Ryf has tasted defeat just once at Ironman, on her Big Island debut to Mirinda Carfrae in 2014. Ryf avenged that loss in 2015, and in 2016 carved over five minutes off Carfrae’s course record to win in 8:46:46. When she took the tape, she looked fresh enough to do it all again.
“I’m not doing the sport for records or to try and compare myself against other athletes,” Ryf said when asked for this piece how much more she must achieve to be recognised as the greatest ever.
But while it speaks to a single-minded focus on her own performance, it doesn’t stop deliberate statements to rivals. When Carfrae flew to Poland for a relatively lowkey 70.3 recently, Ryf saw the opportunity, joined the Australian on the start line, beat her into second by 22:51mins and out-split her in all three disciplines.
Not a bad marker in the run-in to Kona, where one more title must put her top of the pantheon?
“Absolutely,” Granger agrees. “I’ve been in the sport 28 years and think she’ll go down as the best all-round long-distance athlete ever if she wins... yet again.