Ironman World Champ predictions: who will be queen of Kona?

It's Kona time and the best long distance triathletes in the world are descending once again on Hawaii for the Ironman World Championship, but who will be high-fiving along Ali’i Drive and supping from the largest umeke bowl on Saturday, October 14? 220Triathlon columnist Tim Heming counts down his top 10 women’s predictions.

Will Ryf win her third Ironman world title in a row?

10.  Anja Beranek, 32, Germany

Those who enjoy the raucous atmosphere of Tenby in Wales might remember the German from her Ironman victory in 2015 and a runner-up spot four years earlier. She followed up that 2015 result with a second consecutive DNF in Hawaii, before finally cracking a big part of the Kona code to finish fourth last year. A strong swim-biker, Beranek was in exalted company at the front of the bike ride with Daniela Ryf for much of last year’s race before slipping back with a 3:16hr marathon. This year hasn’t been straightforward. A virus meant she only finished eighth in the European Championship in Frankfurt, but a confidence-boosting win at Ironman 70.3 Ruegen at the start of September suggests she’s in the form to again make the prize money.

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9. Lucy Charles, 24, Great Britain

Charles slips through the water so quickly she clocked the fastest women’s swim by almost 3mins in 2015… as an age-grouper. In 2016,  she wasn’t competing in the main event, so instead won the pre-race Ho’ala training swim over the same course outright. This year expect the youngest in the field to emerge with plenty of clear water – perhaps joined by almost-as-impressive American Lauren Brandon – and then lead the way for the first 40km of the bike. It’s when the chasers catch that the race will really start for the 24-year-old, but even if she does lose time on the bike, expect a sting in the tail on the run. Charles won the inaugural Challenge Half Championship in Samorin in Slovakia in the last kilometre of the half-marathon, and second place at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt was also impressive. So too was victory at Ironman Lanzarote – a volcanic island as close to anything Europe has to Hawaii’s terrain. And although this is Charles’s first Kona start as a professional, she’s raced on the Big Island before, winning the 18-24 age-group in 2015 in 10:20hr.

8.    Susie Cheetham, 31, Great Britain

After a spectacular first season in Ironman in 2015 – culminating in a sixth-place finish in Hawaii – the Brit was dogged by plantar fasciitis, a bike crash in South Africa, and a DNF at Kona last year. But 2017 has been kinder on Cheetham, who’s been back on form and threatening at the front of races again. The 31-year-old made it a British double with Tim Don in winning Ironman Brazil in a speedy course record 8:52hr to back up a third place in South Africa in April. Add that to a trio of 70.3 runner-up positions in South Africa, Dublin, and Luxembourg, an improving swim and strong bike coupled with an already formidable run, and the former national level cross-country and track runner could match her result of 2015, or perhaps go even better.

7. Sarah Piampiano, 37, USA

Piampiano has finished seventh in Kona for the past two years and as she looks set fair for another top 10 finish, another seventh is as good a pick as any. In her only Ironman of the year, she placed second behind Sarah Crowley at the Asia-Pacific Championship in Cairns, underlining her strong bike-run credentials with a 4:52hr bike and 3:02hr run. In Kona last year she was similarly strong on dry land with a 5:07hr bike and 3:07hr run combination. Where Piampiano struggles is in the water, and a 1:02hr 3.8km swim in Hawaii will need to be improved upon if the former investment banker – who took up triathlon in 2009 – wants to threaten the top five. This season she’s been solid in middle-distance competition. After three runners-up spots in 70.3 races, she finally stood atop the winner’s rostrum in August – although she did have to head to Qujing in China to achieve it.

6.    Michelle Vesterby, 34, Denmark

The Dane loves Hawaii but, judging by her effervescent demeanour, she seems to love every race. Vesterby goes into her sixth appearance on the Big Island as a strong contender, having finished sixth in the qualifying points list and sixth last year too. A win in Ironman Cozumel in November was backed up by another on home soil in Copenhagen and a third place in Austria. Vesterby needs to improve her run if she’s going to push for a podium place, a 3:12hr marathon best is solid but not frightening any of the main contenders. Whatever the finishing position, you can expect a beaming smile to emerge along Ali’i Drive. And, when the going gets tough, that positive outlook is probably her greatest strength.

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5.    Kaisa Sali, 36, Finland

Another racer who’s been racking up the qualifying points, Kaisa Sali finished third in the Kona Points Ranking table. And, if she comes across as relatively unknown, then she wasn’t much better recognised when she stormed to fifth place in Hawaii last year under her maiden name of Lehtonen. Her weapon is her run leg, with the ability to rise through the field as she proved last year with a 3:03hr marathon in Kona. That was backed up with a 2:59hr run in Port Elizabeth in South Africa this year as she tried to chase down Daniela Ryf, and more recently she placed fourth in the ITU Long Distance World Championship in Penticton, Canada. Sali has also switched training groups to be mentored by the hugely successful Siri Lindley, who has coached a wealth of high-performing women athletes to Ironman success, including three-time Kona champion Mirinda Carfrae

4.    Sarah Crowley, 34, Australian

Crowley was second on the Kona Points Ranking behind Daniela Ryf but qualified automatically ‘twice’ thanks to victory at Ironman Cairns in the Asia-Pacific Championship in 8:58hr, and then, for good measure, the European Championship in Frankfurt in 8:47hr. If that rare regional double wasn’t enough, taking the tape at the ITU Long Distance World Championship in Penticton in Canada set her up for only her second tilt at Kona having place 15th last year. Coached by Brisbane-based Cameron Watt, a long-time apprentice of Australian uber-coach Brett Sutton, Crowley will be in good hands, and an accountant by trade – she was the Deloitte Businesswoman of the Year in 2006 – she should be able to make a calculated stab at running into the top five.

3.    Heather Jackson, 33, USA

If the American men struggle to take top spot in Kona, then the women after suffering even more. If Jackson wins in Hawaii, she will become the first US woman since Paul Newby-Fraser in 1996 to land the Ironman world title, but if that feels a little outlandish, then still expect another consistent performance over all three disciplines. That’s what she delivered last year to finish third behind Daniela Ryf and Mirinda Carfrae, after an equally impressive debut effort of fifth the season before. A second place finish behind Rachel Joyce at Ironman Boulder to complement four 70.3 wins at Peru, Chattanooga, Calgary and Steelhead augurs well, but she’ll need to improve her swim, a marathon best of 3hr 7min, and provide a performance as eye-catching as her race-wear, to take that extra step up the podium

2. Rachel Joyce, 39 Great Britain

Joyce had no intention of even racing in Hawaii this year after missing last year’s Ironman World Championship through pregnancy. But she’s on the start-list and, while she’ll likely play it down, there are a few factors that add up to her being a genuine podium contender. Firstly, big names Mirinda Carfrae and Liz Blatchford are missing. Secondly, having been forced to race three Ironmans in as many months [after starting with no KPR points] to scramble through qualification – expectations are lower. But chiefly because every time Joyce turns up in Hawaii she puts in a performance to be proud of. Now 39, she’s arguably the best female triathlete never to have won on the Big Island. From 2009 to 2015, Joyce finished sixth, fifth, fourth, 12th, second, second, third and second – the one blip, in 2012, when she was struck down with a virus on the eve of the race, but still strove admirably to the finish. Wins at Ironman Boulder and Mont-Tremblant (on the final weekend of qualification), came either side of a fourth place in Whistler at Ironman Canada. Consistent at all three disciplines it will be intriguing to see how she performs this time around.

1.    Daniela Ryf, 30 Switzerland

In 2009, Chrissie Wellington won her third straight Ironman World Championship with a victory margin of 19:57mins over Mirinda Carfrae. It was total domination. Last year, Ryf won by over 23 minutes over the same opponent and in doing so set a new course record of 8:46:46. That is a mark of how far ahead of the field the Swiss is. And Carfrae isn’t competing this year. Ryf was injured for the first part of the season, but after victory in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship it seems that something will have to go horrible awry for the 30-year-old not to make it three consecutive wins in Hawaii. In doing so she’d join Carfrae on three titles, with only Paula Newby-Fraser (eight), Natascha Badmann (six) and Chrissie Wellington (four) ahead. Nothing is certain in the Ironman World Championship but Ryf’s record is Wellington-esque. She’s gone sub-9hr in eight of her 10 iron-distance races, including wins at Ironman South Africa and Challenge Roth in 2017, and has only tasted defeat once – on debut in Kona in 2014 – to, you guessed it, Carfrae. Don’t expect that copybook to be blotted this year. 

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220 named Ryf 8th greatest female triathlete of all time and the 9th greatest Kona triathlete of all time. Will she rise higher after Kona and could she become the greatest ever?