Female triathletes: the 12 greatest ever

We have discussed, debated and, frankly, argued furiously about who should make it onto our top-12 female triathletes of all time list... do you agree with our chosen dozen?

Daniela Ryf enters the Kona history books. Image credit: Ironman

Triathlon is replete with some of the world’s finest female athletes, so picking the following 10 was one tough assignment. To help narrow down our list, though, we focussed on those who’d either utterly dominated in their respective distance or achieved world-beating success across all distances. Let’s meet our top-12… 

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12. Mirinda Carfrae

Mirinda Carfrae celebrates winning Challenge Roth on 20 July 2014, in Roth, Germany. Credit: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Two-time Ironman World Champion and previous holder of the Hawaii course record, the diminutive Mirinda Carfrae is an iron master. She has finished on the podium at Kona for each of her seven starts, and is undoubtedly one of the strongest runners on this list, knocking on the door of 2:50hrs.

Who is Mirinda Carfrae?

The Aussie athlete, known as Rinny, was born in 1981 and started triathlon when she was 19 making the junior elite team in 2001. She represented Australia at the ITU World Triathlon Championships from 2001-2005, earning silver medals in 2002 and 2003, before turning her attention to long-distance racing.

Early indicators were that this was the distance for her, but it was when she took the world title at the 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Championship that her talent was realised. From there she went on to achieve a 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st and a 2nd at the Ironman Worlds.

In her third Kona world-title race, in 2013, she posted the third fastest marathon overall (2:50:38) and a new run record en route to scoring the then women’s Kona course record in 8:52:14. This stood until 2016 when Daniela Ryf won in 8:46hr, breaking Carfrae’s Kona course record by over 5mins and nudging Carfrae into silver.

Mirinda Carfrae’s career highlights 

  • 2 x ITU Triathlon World U23 Championship runner-up – 2002, 2003
  • ITU Long Distance World Championship runner-up, 2005
  • Ironman 70.3 World Champion, 2007
  • 3 x Ironman World Championship runner up – 2009, 2011, 2016
  • 3 x Ironman World Champion – 2010, 2013, 2014

11. Nicola Spirig

Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig and Sweden’s Lisa Norden in a photo finish at the 2012 London Olympic Games in Hyde Park. Spirig would take gold. Credit: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Born in 1982, Swiss star Spirig is still ‘one to watch’, having become the queen of one-day performances. A five-time Olympian, and two-time medallist (gold in London; silver in Rio), she finished sixth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the same position she finished 13 years earlier at the Beijing Olympics.

The mother-of-three and qualified lawyer started ITU racing in 1998, aged 16. As well as her Olympic successes she’s also won six European standard-distance titles and her first Ironman on debut at Cozumel in 2o14.

In 2021 alone she finished second in the 10,000m at the Swiss National Athletics Champs and won the European Middle-Distance Champs in June. Add to that, four middle-distance Challenge and one 70.3 race wins.

Spirig turned 40 in February 2022. How did she celebrate such a milestone? By going sub-8hrs over the Ironman distance, of course.

  • ITU World Junior Triathlon Champion, 2001
  • 6 x ETU European Triathlon Champion – 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018
  • 5 x Olympian – 2004 (19th) , 2008 (6th), 2012 (1st), 2016 (2nd), 2020 (6th)
  • Olympic champion, 2012
  • European Games champion, 2015
  • Olympic silver medallist, 2016
  • European Middle Distance Triathlon Champion, 2021
  • Sub-8hr long-distance triathlete 

10. Karen Smyers

Karen Smyers competing at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on 24 July 1999. Credit: Donald Miralle /Allsport

For sheer toughness, Karen rivals the best. It took her 17 years for her to DNF from a race when a broken collar bone gave her little choice. She’s also battled thyroid cancer and was even hit by a truck. “I got more attention from having cancer and getting hit by a truck than all my races. People love a comeback story,” she says.

And her race record isn’t bad either. During her career she won six consecutive US Pro championships and was ITU World Champion in 1990 and 1995, Ironman World Champion in 1995 (she was the first woman to do the double of winning Ironman and ITU World Champs in one year) and ITU World Cup Champion in 1991. She has also finished second at Kona in 1994 and 1999.

Who is Karen Smyers?

Born in 1961 she started competing in triathlon when she moved to Boston, after graduating from Princeton University as she wanted to keep sport in her life after enjoying swimming and running at university.

In 2005, after having her second child at the age of 44, she posted another top-10 position in Kona. Five years later, she was the 32nd pro female across the line, finishing in 10:19hrs.

Having conquered both the ITU Worlds and Kona, Smyers is a member of an exclusive club in female tri history (see also Erin Baker, Michellie Jones and Leanda Cave). Throw in her multiple US Pro titles, an ITU World Cup series win – back when it was a major deal for the greatest athletes – and pure longevity, and it’s easy to see why she’s one of the most venerated athletes in tri history.

She’s also been one of the great ambassadors of the sport for decades, a hugely popular, determined and heroic inspiration to us all.

Karen Smyers’ career highlights

  • 2 x ITU World Champion – 1990 & 1995
  • ITU World Cup Champion, 1991
  • ITU World Championship runner-up, 1993
  • ITU Long-Distance Triathlon World Championship runner-up, 1994
  • 2 x Ironman World Championship runner-up – 1994, 1999
  • Ironman World Champion, 1995
  • Pan American Games Champion, 1995
  • ITU Long-Distance Triathlon World Champion, 1996

9. Erin Baker

Erin Baker racing at the 1991 Ironman World Championship, on 19 October, in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, USA. Credit: Gary Newkirk/Allsport/Getty Images

Kiwi athlete Erin Baker has attracted controversy throughout her life. Never one to hide her opinions, she protested against the apartheid during the South African rugby tour of New Zealand, fought gender inequality, and railed at the ‘useless corrupt old men’ at the International Olympic Committee.

These rebellions often overshadowed her significant achievements on and off the race course, from becoming the first female ITU world champion in 1989 and the debut Antipodean winner at the Ironman World Champs (1987), to being cited as a major factor in the sport’s establishment of equal prize pots for both men and women.

The late ITU President, Les McDonald, attributed one of the reasons behind the move to equal prize money in the sport to athletes like Baker failing to take no for an answer.

Who is Erin Baker?

Baker was born in 1961 and her first sporting successes came in cross-country running. She won her first triathlon in 1984 and a year later she would take her first of three titles at the Nice International Triathlon.

Wins at Ironman New Zealand in 1986 and 1987 followed before Baker’s first venture on the Big Island of Hawaii in October ’87, becoming the first athlete from Down Under to win the Hawaii crown, smashing Paula Newby-Fraser’s course record by 14mins in the process.

In 1990, Baker would take gold at triathlon’s demonstration event at the Commonwealth Games, break the course record at Ironman Canada after a 2:49hr marathon run split, and win Kona in the hottest conditions the race has ever known.

The 1990 title would be Baker’s last in Hawaii but she’d continue to rack up the victories across every level of multisport, winning the ITU World Duathlon Championships in 1991 and Powerman Zofingen in 1992 and ’94 to amass a total of 104 wins of the 121 races she entered, including four wins at Ironman New Zealand and two at Ironman Canada.

220 says: “Erin Baker is one of the few on this list to have won major World Championships across standard and long course, having won the first ITU World Series in 1989 and the Ironman World Championships twice.

“Though the standard and professionalism of the sport has arguably developed since Baker was in her prime, such versatility and ability to switch distances (and win major honours) in successive seasons transcends her era – as does her maverick reputation!”

 Erin Baker’s career highlights 

  • ETU European Triathlon Champion, 1985
  • 2 x ETU Long-Distance Triathlon European Champion – 1985, 1986
  • ETU Middle-Distance Triathlon European Champion, 1986
  • 2 x Ironman World Champion – 1987, 1990
  • ITU World Champion, 1989
  • Commonwealth Games Champion, 1990
  • ITU World Duathlon Champion, 1991
  • 104 wins out of 121 races entered

8. Gwen Jorgensen

Gwen Jorgensen wins triathlon gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on 20 August, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Credit: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Born in 1986, USA athlete Gwen Jorgensen competed in her first triathlon in 2010 before going on to race at the highest level, dominating the ITU circuit by winning every individual race she entered for three years between 2014 and 2016 (17 consecutive race wins, to be precise). Her winning streak was finally broken at the World Triathlon Gold Coast race in April 2016, when she came second to GB’s Helen Jenkins. In 2015 she also recorded the fastest run split in all seven of her races.

Jorgensen was the first woman to win the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final twice (2014 and 2015) and joins the illustrious quartet of Michellie Jones, Emma Snowsill, Emma Moffatt and Flora Duffy to win back-to-back ITU World Championship titles (2014 and 2015 again). It was almost three in a row, but in the end she had to settle for second behind Flora Duffy in 2016. Not that she will have been too disheartened, having won the ultimate short-course prize – Olympic gold in Rio – a month earlier.

Jorgensen holds the most World Triathlon Series wins (18) of any athlete, and the most career World Triathlon Series podium finishes (23), achieved from 36 starts.

Gwen Jorgensen’s career highlights

  • 2 x  ITU World Champion – 2014, 2015 
  • ITU World Championship runner-up, 2016
  • Olympic Champion, 2016
  • 18-time ITU World Triathlon Series Winner

7. Emma Snowsill

Emma Snowsill celebrates after taking gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on 18 August, in Beijing, China. Credit: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Emma Snowsill may have retired in 2014 at the relatively young age of 33, an age when many of her compatriots are still racing, but her reputation as one of the greats in triathlon will live on for decades.

Who is Emma Snowsill?

Born in 1981, she was champion at both the 16-20 category ITU World’s in 2000 and the 2001 Sydney Youth Olympic Festival Triathlon. A series of major wins in the early 2000s, including the 2003 ITU World Champs and the 2004 World Cup cemented her as at the top of the triathlon tree.

In 2005 she took her second world crown in Gamagori, Japan and won five out of six ITU races.

Then in 2006 she bettered this with six out of seven wins at ITU races and a gold in both the Commonwealth Games and the Lausanne ITU World Champs, making her the first female triathlete to win three world titles. Her career was crowned with gold at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

And she may have achieved more if Triathlon Australia had not controversially overlooked her for both the 2004 and 2012 Olympics.

In July 2014 she made the decision to retire saying: “It’s like that holiday that you never want to end. It was wonderful, you had a great time, but you know at some point it has to finish. I’ve been a competitor all my life and have loved nothing more than the pressure of a big race and representing my country.”

Snowsill is married to fellow Beijing Olympic gold medallist and three-time Ironman world champ Jan Frodeno.

220 says: “Despite never proving herself over middle and long-distance tri, Snowsill won her trio of ITU titles in a highly competitive era. She triumphed over her hugely talented rival Vanessa Fernandes in multiple ITU races, and most importantly at the 2008 Olympics. Snowsill was also versatile enough to win the non-drafting Hy-Vee triathlon twice, scooping the huge prize-purse in the process.”

Emma Snowsill’s career highlights

  • 3 x ITU World Champion – 2003, 2005, 2006
  • 2006 Commonwealth Champion
  • 2008 Olympic Champion

6. Flora Duffy

Flora Duffy wins gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Credit: Wagner Araujo/World Triathlon

Born in Bermuda to British parents in 1987, Flora Duffy has quietly but assuredly risen through the ranks of multisport to become one of the greatest short-course and off-road triathletes of all time.

The 2021 season was Duffy’s annus mirabilis; the culmination of 16 years hard graft on the elite World Triathlon circuit.

First she ticked off a longed-for Olympic medal – gold, no less – then a month later she added World Triathlon title number three at the Grand Final in Edmonton to equal Emma Snowsill’s record; casually rocked up to the final Super League Triathlon race in Malibu and won all three Eliminator races; before rounding the year off on her happy hunting ground – the Xterra World Champs in Maui, Hawaii, where she took an unprecedented sixth title.

Duffy also holds the lofty title of being the first female triathlete to win both the Olympic and world title in the same year, and the first-ever triathlete to win back-to-back Commonwealth titles thanks to victories in both 2018 and 2022.

She’s also her home country’s first-ever Olympic gold medallist, and in January 2022 she was made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours List.

Flora Duffy’s career highlights

  • 6 x Xterra World Champion – 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2021
  • 2 x ITU Cross Triathlon World Champion – 2015, 2016
  • 3 x ITU World Triathlon Champion – 2016, 2017, 2021
  • 2 x Commonwealth Champion, 2018, 2022
  • World Triathlon Championship runner-up, 2020
  • Olympic Champion, 2020 (held in 2021 due to one-year pandemic delay) 

5. Daniela Ryf

Daniela Ryf celebrates after setting the course record of 8:26:16 to win the 2018 Ironman World Championship on 13 October, in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images for Ironman

Who is Daniela Ryf?

Multiple Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion Daniela Ryf was born in 1987, the Swiss star, nicknamed ‘Angry Bird’, started her career in ITU, representing her country at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics before moving to long distance in 2014, under the eyes of revered coach Brett Sutton.

That same year she won the 70.3 World Champs and finished runner up in Kona before completing the double just one year later.

In 2015 she also won the Triple Crown, along with its unprecedented prize of one million dollars, and was named Swiss Sportswoman of the year.

In 2016 she won Ironman 70.3 Dubai, Ironman 70.3 Rapperswil, Challenge Roth and Ironman Zürich before winning the Ironman World Championship for the second year running in a time of 8:46hr, breaking Mirinda Carfrae’s Kona course record by over 5mins.

Her 2017 season saw her regain her 70.3 crown from 2016 world champ Holly Lawrence, as well as wins at Challenge Roth and Ironman 70.3 Dubai to name just a few.

Ryf has also been named as a Laureus sport ambassador, a select group of current and retired athletes who have achieved sporting greatness and who will work with the organisation to make significant contributions to the sporting community from now on.

In 2018, Ryf shattered the Kona record she set in 2016 by over 20 minutes with a 8:26:18 finishing time, and won her fourth 70.3 world title.

In 2019, she racked up 70.3 title number 5, but a stomach bug would deny her a sixth Ironman world title as she finished in 13th place.

At the postponed 2021 Ironman World Championship in St. George, Utah, at the start of May 2022, Ryf grabs title No.5. 

Daniela Ryf’s career highlights 

  • ITU Sprint World Championship bronze medallist, 2010
  • Ironman World Championship runner-up, 2014
  • 5 x Ironman 70.3 World Champion – 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 
  • 5 x Ironman World Champion – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 (held in 2022 in St. George, Utah)

4. Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington wins Challenge Roth with a new long-distance world record on 10 July 10, 2011, in Roth, Germany. Credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for Challenge Roth

Born in 1977, Chrissie Wellington‘s triathlon career started as an age-grouper, training and competing around her career in international development. In 2006 she won the ITU Olympic-distance age-Group World Championships, which sparked her decision to turn pro the following year.

In 2007 she raced and won her first Ironman, in Korea, in very hot conditions. She finished over 50 minutes ahead of 2nd place and was seventh overall. In October of the same year, she raced her first Ironman World Championship… and won by a margin of 5mins to become the first British female champion.

This was the start of a string of 13 victories at every iron-distance race she entered, including a further three Kona titles in 2008, 2009 (and broke the then course record with a 8:54:02, beating Paula Newby-Fraser’s record of 8:55:28 which had stood since 1992) and 2011.

At her last Kona outing in 2011, visibly scarred and bruised after a training accident two weeks prior, she crossed the line after 8:55:08, which was second only to her 2009 course record.

The same year she also broke the women’s long-distance world record at Challenge Roth with a time of 8:18:13 – it still stands [as of March 2022] – to finish fifth overall.

Chrissie Wellington’s career highlights 

  • 4 x Ironman World Champion – 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011
  • ITU Long Distance World Champion, 2008
  • 3 x Challenge Roth Champion – 2009, 2010, 2011
  • 7 x Ironman 70.3 wins
  • 13 long-distance wins

3. Natascha Badmann

Natascha Badmann wins her second Ironman World Championship title, in Kona, Hawaii, USA, on 14 October, 2000. Credit: Holde Schneider/Bongarts/Getty Images

As the first European woman to win the Ironman World Championship and the owner of six Ironman World Championship titles – along with multiple duathlon titles – Swiss triathlete Natascha Badmann is very worthy of third place on the list.

Who is Natascha Badmann?

Born in 1966, by the time she was in her twenties she was, in her own words, an ‘overweight smoking secretary’ and an unlikely triathlete. However, her life changed forever when she met Toni Hasler at work and he sparked her interest in the sport.

In 1989 she came sixth at the Powerman Duathlon Championships in Zofingen and her rise to the top had begun. Success came thick and fast, including silver at the 1995 ETU European Championships and sixth place at the ITU World Championships.

Her first Kona was in 1996, finishing second behind Paula Newby-Fraser. For the next 10 years she’d dominate long-distance tri – and is still be competing 20 years after that first Kona appearance.

220’s says: “The original smiling assassin, Natascha Badmann’s sixth Hawaii victories (equal with Dave Scott and Mark Allen) would put her near the top of any best triathlete ever poll. That she also scored success at Powerman Zofingen when it was one of the ‘Big Three’ for elites (along with Kona and Nice) adds to the legend of Badmann.

“As does her victory at Ironman South Africa in 2012… at the age of 45, and five years after a career-threatening bike crash in Hawaii had deprived us of seeing her battle Chrissie Wellington in what could’ve been a showdown for the ages.”

Natascha Badmann’s career highlights

  • ITU World Duathlon Champion, 1995
  • 6 x Ironman World Champion – 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005 
  • ETU European Champion, 2000

2. Paula Newby-Fraser

Paula Newby-Fraser during the 1991 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on 19 October. Credit: Gary Newkirk/Allsport

In second place is the Queen of Kona. Born in 1962 she has won eight world Ironman titles, and racked up 24 Ironman wins. She was also the first woman to break nine hours in Kona and held the course record there for 17 years, until Chrissie Wellington beat it in 2009.

She has also had the highest finish ever for a woman in Kona having finished 11th overall in 1988.

She famously collapsed near the Hawaii finish line in 1995 from dehydration, eventually coming fourth after a 20-minute hiatus. But the resilience she showed in coming back to win her eighth and final championship the following year is the sign of a true champion.

Who is Paula Newby-Fraser?

Born in 1962 in Zimbabwe, she grew up in South Africa and  was a nationally ranked swimmer as a child. In 1984, intrigued by her local triathlon, she bought her first bike and won the women’s event eight weeks later to come fourth overall. Her love and fascination of the sport had begun.

220 says: “Paula is probably still the most consistent triathlete of all time, an eight-time Kona winner who was finishing in times that’d still be world-beating today.

“As with Dave Scott, considering the limited technology she had access to, lower financial incentives and a smaller field to compete against, her achievements narrowly eclipse that of Chrissie Wellington’s, and she also racked up victories over shorter distances during her career.

“Her route into triathlon was not without adversity, latterly giving up her South African citizenship and taking a huge gamble by taking up the sport professionally. In our opinion, she remains one of the greatest of all time regardless of era.

Paula Newby-Fraser’s career highlights

  • 8 x Ironman World Champion – 1986, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996
  • 24 Ironman career wins

1. Michellie Jones

Michellie Jones waves to the crowd after winning silver at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, on 16 Sep 2000. Credit: Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT

Our top spot goes to Michellie Jones. Born in 1969, the Aussie hero won an extraordinary 175 races during her career, including the ITU World Championships in both 1992 and 1993.

She won a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and was the first Australian woman to win a Ironman World Championship, finishing first at the 2006 Ironman Worlds. In May 2015 she also became Katie Kelly’s new guide in the run-up to the 2016 Paralympics… which they would go on to win in paratriathlon’s debut in Rio, Brazil.

Who is Michellie Jones?

Michellie was initially identified as a talented race walker but turned to triathlon when she was studying physical education at university in Wollongong. In 1989 she qualified for the Worlds in Avignon but couldn’t compete as she couldn’t afford the air fare.

The next year she was managing to make a living from the sport and represented Australia at the ITU Worlds in Orlando and in 1992 won her first ITU World Championship title at Muskoka Canada.

There may well have been more Olympic medals for her had the Australian selectors not overlooked her in favour of rookie Maxine Seer in 2004, despite Jones winning the Athens test event. This decision led her to going long, and she won her debut M-Dot race at Florida in 2004.

In 2006 she scored success at Kona and became one of a handful women to have won both ITU and Ironman World Championships.

220 says: “Okay, she’s won seven less Ironman world titles than Newby-Fraser, one fewer ITU World Champs titles than Snowsill, but has there ever been a greater all-round, distance-straddling and consistently brilliant triathlete than Michellie Jones? We think not.

“Short, long, off-road… she’s conquered the lot during her 175 (yes, 175) career wins, and was only two seconds off winning the debut Olympic Games gold medal in triathlon history, edged by Brigitte McMahon (who would later test positive for EPO in 2005) in one of tri’s greatest upsets at Sydney 2000.”

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Michellie Jones’ career highlights 

  • 175 career wins
  • 2006 Ironman World Champion
  • 1996 Xterra World Champion
  • ITU World Championships 1992 & 93
  • 2000 Olympics, silver medal