Ironman World Championship 2021: Who will win the women’s race?

Daniela Ryf and Anne Haug have the experience, but there’s a chance the Union flag could be flying high at the 2021 Ironman World Championship says Tim Heming...

Triathlete Daniela Ryf

The state of Utah and the city of St George replaces the Big Island of Hawaii as the destination for next month’s Ironman World Championship as the delayed 2021 event finally gets underway.

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With the exception of 2019 – when Germany’s Anne Haug triumphed – it’s a race that has been dominated and dictated by Daniela Ryf since 2015. But while the Swiss will return as a favourite, it’s without the aura of recent years, and there’s a different feel over how it might unfold this time around.

Part of that is due to a new, hillier course and less humid conditions, but it’s chiefly that a new cast of contenders are stepping up to challenge the four-time champion.

There are some notable omissions, and chief among the absentees in Lucy Charles-Barclay. The Brit was in the form of her life in September as she swept to victory in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship at the same venue.

A stress fracture of the hip has side-lined the three-time Kona runner-up who will hope to make a full recovery for another assault on Hawaii in October.

Also missing is three-time champion Mirinda Carfrae, now aged 41, but who hasn’t completed a full distance event since 2018, and Sarah Crowley, who finished third in Kona in 2017 and 2019, but has opted to remain in Australia and also focus on the Big Island later in the year.

With Ryf, Haug and USA’s Heather Jackson the only names on the start-list to have stood on an Ironman World Championship professional podium, it opens the door for some fresh contenders, among them eight Brits all hoping to leave their mark. Let’s take a look at five of the leading names.

Who will win the women’s Ironman World Championship in Utah?

Daniela Ryf, 34, Switzerland

Daniela Ryf competes on the bike leg of the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St George, Utah, where she’ll eventually finish 11th (Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images for Ironman)

Ryf has set the standard in Ironman racing for the past seven years, so even the slightest dip in form is seized upon as the end being nigh. That may be premature. The supremacy of the Swiss at long distance from the end of 2014 through to losing the Ironman title in 2019 saw 11 wins from 12 iron distance races, including four Kona victories and the only defeat being a DNF in Germany in 2015.

That said, more recently she has looked fallible and the last three races have not gone to plan. She was beaten into 11th in the Ironman 70.3 world champs in September, into second by Laura Philipp in Dubai 70.3 in March, and was then disqualified in Oceanside 70.3 in April, but was already well off the pace of runaway leader Taylor Knibb.

Of course, none of these were at the iron distance she has made her own and, as shown yet again in Tulsa and Switzerland last year, to be in with a chance of beating a fit and healthy Ryf, you need to stay in touch on the bike. Few triathletes have been able to do that.

Anne Haug, 39, Germany

A year after finishing third, Haug claims the win at the 2019 Ironman World Championships (Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Ironman)

At 39, the reigning champion is bidding to become the oldest winner of the Ironman World Championship, but is also still a relative newcomer to the non-drafting side of the sport having only switched her focus from short course towards the end of 2017.

If the window is short for her to excel, Haug is making the most of it. She finished third in Hawaii in 2018 before looking imperious when running down Charles-Barclay the following year to take the win.

Haug has only completed one full distance event since, taking the honours at Challenge Roth in a scintillating show. Although her 7:53:48 time signified a short bike course, she still ran a 2:43:54 marathon. The plan for her rivals will be the same: Make the bike really hard to ditch Haug ahead of the marathon – then pray she doesn’t run you down.

Kat Matthews, 31, Great Britain

Kat Matthews approaches the finish line at the Collins Cup in 2021 (Credit: PTO)

The army physiotherapist’s star continues to rise quickly in triathlon, and despite it being an Ironman World Championship debut, St George offers a golden opportunity for success.

A recent dominating performance in Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote – where she comfortably defeated Haug – suggests preparation is going well for Utah, and the form has been rewarded with an chance to replace the injured Charles-Barclay in the Pho3ix Sub8 Project in June.

Now a two-time Ironman champion after victories in Florida (2020) and Bolton (2021), the Devon-born Brit also won her match for Team Europe in the inaugural Collins Cup in August and finished fourth in the Ironman 70.3 worlds in St George in September.

A solid all-rounder, the BMC Pro Tri team member will be determined to stop Ryf taking almost 16mins out of her on the bike leg as happened in Tulsa last year, but will still want to reach T2 in shape to produce the kind of 2:49:48 marathon that got her to within 5mins by the finish.

While a big ask, if Matthews wins, she would be the third British woman to land the title after four-time winner Chrissie Wellington (2007-09, 2011) and Leanda Cave (2012).

Laura Philipp, 34, Germany

Laura Philipp celebrates after winning IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau in 2018
(Credit: Joern Pollex/Getty Images for Ironman)

Update (3 May 2022): Laura Philipp has now confirmed that she won’t be competing in St George after contracting Covid-19. But if that hadn’t happened, here’s what we’d have thought of her chances…

There’s every reason to suggest that a German could stand atop the podium in St George and such is her level that perhaps Philipp has an even better chance than reigning champion Haug.

The 34-year-old has competed in four Ironmans and won three of them – the only defeat being a commendable fourth place in Hawaii in 2019 on her Ironman World Championship debut.

More impressive still are the times she has posted: 8:34:57 in Barcelona in 2018, 8:38:28 in Finland last year and then 8:34:32 in Austria a month later in September – among the fastest ever in women’s Ironman racing.

In beating Ryf in Ironman 70.3 Dubai in March, Philipp also became the PTO’s No 1 ranked performer. A high level allrounder but particularly strong on the bike and the run, she’ll head to St George for the first time as one of the main contenders.

Ruth Astle, 32, Great Britain

Brit Ruth Astle crosses the finish line in first at Ironman Mallorca in 2021 (Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images for Ironman)

If Astle can leave her mark in St George it will confirm a successful transition to the pro ranks from overall age-group winner at the 2019 Ironman worlds to mixing it with the very best.

There’s a convincing argument to say she’s already there though. Last season saw first pro wins over the full distance at Ironman Mallorca and then South Africa – the latter cementing early qualification for a return to Hawaii in October which could prove highly beneficial as we reach the meat of the season’s racing.

It’s full focus on St George for now though, where the Brit will hope her swimming has improved sufficiently from training with the likes of Beth Potter and the Brownlees in Leeds to bring down the deficit to the front of the race.

From there, Astle will hope her strength on the bike takes over. She had race-best sub-5hr bike splits in both winning Ironmans, including out-biking Sweden’s multiple national time-trial champ Lisa Norden in Mallorca. A top 10 finish in Oceanside recently showed Astle is in decent shape, the same again in St George – or even better – would be very welcome.

Also worth keeping an eye on…

Triathlete Fenella Langridge takes second at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2021 (Credit: Harry How/Getty Images for Ironman)

Let’s stick with the Brits, and three-time 70.3 winner Fenella Langridge will be confident having got her season off to a flying start with victory in Challenge Salou earlier this month, where she beat former Olympic silver medallist Norden.

Former Ironman Lanzarote winner Nikki Bartlett has also decided to race despite battling neural pain and hamstring issues for much of the winter.

Tara Grosvenor and the improving Chantal Cummings both make world champs pro debuts, the latter having twice stepped on to podiums last year at Ironman UK and Warsaw 70.3. So too will Simone Mitchell, the 2019 Ironman Wales winner.

The final Brit is evergreen Laura Siddall. Now 41, it will be a fourth world championship for the Girona-based four-time Ironman winner who will want to better her 15th place showing from 2017.

Elsewhere the field looks wide open. Sweden’s Sara Svensk could be a name to watch after posting an eye-wateringly fast 8:22:40 time in Cozumel in November, an eighth place in the packed field for the PTO Championship in Daytona in 2020 and 8:34:10 when winning Ironman Barcelona the year before.

USA’s Linsey Corbin (13 starts) and Meredith Kessler (8 starts) are the most experienced in the field but both are now in their forties, and Heather Jackson, the reigning Florida champion who has been four times in the top five in Hawaii should also be one to watch.

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Top image credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images for Ironman