Can professional triathletes still win Ironman world titles in their 40s?

With athletes like Jan Frodeno and Mirinda Carfrae still racing strong, tri is set to shatter the myth that you cannot be a world champion in your fifth decade, says Tim Heming

Can professional triathletes still win Ironman world titles in their 40s?

When Lance Armstrong returned to triathlon in 2012, there offered an intriguing prospect of breaking new ground. Aged 41, the raw speed was lacking, but with an endurance chassis honed on the European cols, an assault on long course was well within his wheelhouse. Ironman chief executive Andrew Messick spotted the commercial potential and the brand went all in, announcing a million-dollar partnership with the Livestrong Foundation. Lance was back.

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It was risky, started well, then backfired dramatically. Armstrong had already won two 70.3 races and was preparing for Ironman France when the United States Anti-Doping Agency called out US Postal’s Tour de France shenanigans as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”. Armstrong was stripped of his seven titles and handed a lifetime ban. He was done.

But why gamble on a comeback? While there were those quizzical of his motives for a return in a ‘minor sport’ that would re-ignite doping authorities’ interest in his past, it belied a misunderstanding of both his competitive nature and the platform tri offered, not just of being world champion but the fittest 40-something in the world. A moniker to transcend sport itself.

The record books take some scouring to find world champions, or the equivalent status, in athletic pursuits in their fifth decade. George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins in the boxing ring. Italy’s Dino Zoff lifted football’s World Cup, but did play in goal. As for tri’s constituent parts, cyclist Chris Horner won the Vuelta a Espana aged 41 in 2013, while American swimmer Dara Torres won silver thrice in the Beijing Olympics aged 41. World Marathon Major winners top out at 38.

Should Roger Federer’s powers not wane before next year’s US Open, he has a chance. Serena Williams would have to wait for the following Slam in Melbourne (2022) for hers. If either achieve it, it will be seismic, billed as defying the ageing process.

Triathlon, though, is more likely to get there first. By the time of the next scheduled Ironman World Championship, Jan Frodeno, long-course triathlon’s premier male performer, will have reached that milestone. Neither the German’s prowess nor appetite for victory show signs of abating. On the women’s side, Mirinda Carfrae, who turns 40 in March, would be an outside bet.

While Dave Scott was much lauded for finishing runner-up as a 40-year-old in 1994, that outlier performance is more commonplace now. Frodeno was 38 when he won a third Hawaii title last year to match Australian Craig Alexander, who was the same age when he claimed his final Kona triumph in 2011. Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann was also 38 in 2005 when she won the last of her six.

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It seems a matter of when, not if, the magical mark is broken, and for a sport that began with competitors being weighed mid-race because of concerns over its attritional toll, it would be quite the evolution to have a quadragenarian at its pinnacle.