Female triathletes: the 10 greatest ever?

We have discussed, debated and, frankly, argued furiously about who should make it onto our top 10 female triathletes of all time list... do you agree with our chosen 10?

Mirinda Carfrae riding at Kona

10 Mirinda Carfrae

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.

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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 Triathlon World 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 Ironman 70.3 World Championship (2007) that her talent was realised. Since then she has been one to beat, coming second at Kona 2009, and winning the world champs in 2010, 2013 and 2014. In 2013 she posted the third fastest marathon overall (2:50:38) and a new run record en route to scoring the 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 Carfare into silver.

220 named Carfrae as 7th greatest Kona athlete of all time

220 Staff Writer Jack Sexty says: “Carfrae is one of the few athletes to have almost totally bypassed short-course racing and move to longer distances early in her career, a bold move that paid of and then some. Her overall course record of 8:52:14 and marathon split of 2:50:38 set at the 2013 Ironman World Champs make three-time Kona winner Rinny a deserving addition to the list.”

Mirinda Carfrae greatest victories

2014 Ironman World Champion

2013 Ironman World Champion and course record (with marathon record).

2009, 2011, 2016 Ironman World Championships runner up

2010 Ironman World Champion

2007 Ironman 70.3 World Champion

9 Karen Smyers

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 has 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.

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. 

And it is a sport that has never left her and age and children have not stopped her either. In 2005, after having her second child, at the age of 44, she posted another top 10 position and and five years later in 2010, she was the 32nd pro female, finishing in 10:19hrs, not bad for the age of 49!

220 features editor Matt Baird says, “Having conquered both the ITU Worlds and Kona, Karen 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 U.S. 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 greatest victories

Pan American Games gold medalist 1995

Ironman World Champion 1995

ITU World Champion 1995

ITU World Cup champion 1991

ITU World Champion 1990

8 Erin Baker

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 Ironman Hawaii to being cited as a major factor in the sport’s establishment of equal prize pots for both men and women. Former ITU President, Les McDonald, attributes one of the reasons behind the move to equal prize money in the sport being because of athletes like Baker failing to take no for an answer.

Baker was born in 1961 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 came 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 early 1990, Baker would take gold at triathlon’s demonstration event at the Commonwealth Games and break the course record at Ironman Canada after a 2:49hr marathon run split, and won 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 Staff Writer Jack Sexty 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 greatest victories

1991 ITU World Duathlon Champion

1990 Ironman World Champion 

1989 ITU World Champion

1987 Ironman World Champion

Gwen Jorgensen wins WTS Yokohama 2014

7 Gwen Jorgensen

Born in 1986, USA athlete Gwen Jorgensen competed in her first triathlon in 2010 and since then rose to the very pinnacle of the sport and for three years she has dominated the ITU circuit, winning every race she has entered since 2014, until WTS Gold Coast in 2016 where she came second to GB’s Helen Jenkins. In 2015 she recorded the fastest run split in all seven of her races.

She is the first woman to win the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final twice (2014 and 2015) and joins the illustrious trio of Michellie Jones, Emma Snowsill and Emma Moffatt, to become the fourth woman to win back-to-back ITU World Championship titles. It was almost three in a row, but in the end had to settle for second place behind Flora Duffy in 2016, the year she won Olympic gold in Rio.

Gwen has had the most World Triathlon Series wins (17) of any athlete, and the most career World Triathlon Series podium finishes (23), achieved from 36 starts.

220 editor Helen Webster says: “Gwen’s results list would be impressive for an athlete with a decade’s worth of racing behind them, but her consistency over the last two years sees her a worthy addition to our top 10. Hell, that run of hers alone would win her a slot!”

Gwen Jorgensen greatest victories

2016 Olympic Champion

20156 Runner up, World Championships

2015 World Champion

2014 World Champion

2012 U.S. Olympic Team Member

2013 USA Triathlon’s Triathlete of the Year

2014 USA Triathlon’s Triathlete of the Year

2015 USA Elite National Champion

2014 USA Elite National Champion

2013 USAT Elite National Champion (Sprint and Olympic Distance)

First USA Woman to win a World Triathlon Series race

18-time ITU World Triathlon Series Winner

2010 USAT Rookie of the Year

2010 USAT Elite Duathlete of the Year

Emma Snowshill

6 Emma Snowsill

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.

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 a gold at Beijing 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 current Ironman world champ Jan Frodeno. 

220 Staff Writer Jack Sexty 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 greatest victories

2008 Olympic Champion

2006 Commonwealth Champion

2006 ITU World Champion

2005 ITU World Champion

2003 ITU World Champion

Daniela Ryf

5 Daniela Ryf

Reigning Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion Daniela Ryf is at number 8. 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 Nasser Bin Hamad al Khalifa 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. 

220 has named Ryf ninth greates Kona athlete of all time

220 Deputy Editor Elizabeth Barrett said: “While she hasn’t had the longevity of a Newby-Fraser, Jones or Badmann, what Ryf has achieved on the long-distance circuit in less than three years makes her worthy of inclusion on this list. And at only 30, it’s quite terrifying to think how much more she can tick off in her sporting career…”

Daniela Ryf greatest victories

2017 Ironman 70.3 World Champion

2016 Ironman World Champion

2015 Ironman World Champion

2015 Nasser Bin Hamad al Khalifa Triple Crown

2014 & 15 Ironman 70.3 World Champion

2014 runner up, Ironman World Championships

Chrissie Wellington after winning in Kona

4 Chrissie Wellington

Four-times Ironman World Champion, Chrissie Wellington was the first British athlete to hold the Ironman World Championship title. Born in 1977, her triathlon career started as an age grouper and training and competing took place around her career in international development and in 2006 she won the Olympic-distance age-group World Championships.

The following year, in August 2007, she turned pro and won Kona at her very first attempt by a margin of 5mins. This was the start of a string of 13 victories at every iron-distance race she entered.

>>>  Hawaii According to Chrissie Wellington

In 2011 she broke the women’s long-distance world record at Challenge Roth with a time of 8:18:13.

Liz Barrett, 220 deputy editor, said: “A favourite of 220’s for many years, how could we not have voted for Miss Wellington of Chrissieshire in our top 5?! The only reason she wasn’t higher was because we had to take into account the breadth of achievement attained by the formidable ladies ahead.”

220 named Wellington 5th greatest Kona triathlete of all time

Chrissie Wellington greatest victories

2011 Ironman record holder (South Africa 2011)

2011 Ironman World Champion

2011 Challenge Roth winner

2010 Challenge Roth winner

2009 Ironman World Champion

2009 Challenge Roth winner 

2008 Ironman World Champion

2007 Ironman World Champion

Mirinda Carfrae riding at Kona

3 Natascha Badmann

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

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 Matt Baird adds: “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.”

220 named Badmann 4th greatest Kona triathlete of all time

Natascha Badmann greatest victories

2005 Ironman World Champion

2004 Ironman World Champion

2002 Ironman World Champion

2001 Ironman World Champion

2000 Ironman World Champion

2000 ITU European Champion

1998 Ironman World Champion

1995 ITU World Duathlon Champion

Mirinda Carfrae riding at Kona

2 Paula Newby-Fraser

In second place is the Queen of Kona. Born in 1962 she has won eight world Ironman titles, had 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.

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.

Jack Sexty 220 staff writer 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 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 for me, 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 my opinion, she remains one of the greatest of all time regardless of era. “

220 named Newby-Fraser second greatest Kona triathlete of all time

Paula Newby-Fraser greatest victories

24 Ironman career wins

1996 Ironman World Champion

1994 Ironman World Champion

1993 Ironman World Champion

1992 Ironman World Champion

1991 Ironman World Champion

1989 Ironman World Champion

1988 Ironman World Champion

1986 Ironman World Champion

Mirinda Carfrae riding at Kona

1 Michellie Jones

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 became Katie Kelly’s new guide in the run up to the 2016 Paralympics.

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 overlooked her in favour of rookie Maxine Seer in 2004, despite Jones winning the Athens test event. This decision led her to go 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.

Over to Matt Baird to explain why Jones tops our list… “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.”

Michellie Jones greatest victories

175 career wins

2006 Ironman world Champion

1996 Xterra World Champion

ITU World Championships 1992 & 93

2000 Olympics, silver medal

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