Proof that nice guys don’t always finish last is Simon Whitfield, one of the most popular performers ever to step onto a triathlon race track. Yet behind the smiles and affability was one of the most dedicated trainers in triathlon, famous for his relentless pursuit of sporting excellence (so much so that the term would become his catchphrase).
The Canadian would become famous for his tactical knowhow and big race ability, with his achievements including 11 ITU World Cup victories, nine Pan American Cup wins, a record four Olympic appearances and becoming triathlon’s first-ever male Commonwealth Games champion.
But it’s his Olympic Games exploits that make Whitfield a fixture on this list. At Sydney 2000 in triathlon’s debut men’s Olympic Games race, Whitfield came out of the Sydney Harbour waters 30secs behind the favourites, Simon Lessing and the Kiwi Hamish Carter, and would exit T2 in 25th place after a bike collision nearly wiped him out. With Lessing overcooking it on the bike, Whitfield charged out of transition to leave a host of world-beaters in his wake.
With 2km to go, Germany’s Stefan Vuckovic had control of the race, at one point opening a 20m gap between himself and the chasing Canadian.With the Opera House finish line in sight, Whitfield’s sprint reps reaped the rewards and he passed the German to win by 13secs and enter triathlon immortality.
Forever a forward thinker, Whitfield was behind triathlon’s most famous use of a domestique at the 2008 Olympics when his fellow Canadian, Colin Jenkins, acted as his pace man and protector on the bike. The tactic took Whitfield to within 200m of his second Olympic gold before Germany’s Jan Frodeno, in the race of his life, edged the Canadian on the home straight to win by 5secs.
Olympic Games gold medal, 2000
Olympic Games silver medal, 2008
Commonwealth Games champion, 2002
Some of the copy here comes from Matthew Baird’s ‘Triathlon: A tribute to the world’s greatest triathletes, courses and gear‘ from Aurum Press and available here
9. Peter Reid
Canadian Peter Reid’s victory at the 2000 Ironman World Championships, the second of his three Kona titles, confirmed his position as one of the most consistently brilliant athletes of his generation. His 4th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd finishing run at Hawaii is up there with the greatest ever seen on the Big Island.
Reid was born in Montreal in 1969, and throughout his teenage years was heavily into skiing during the harsh winters and cycling during the summer. His first brush with triathlon came in 1989, when its demands forced him to resort to breaststroke just 100m into the swim of his debut sprint-distance race.
Nonetheless, the 20-year-old was soon hooked. After graduating with a political science degree Reid gave himself a year to show clear signs of improvement in the sport. Giving early indications of his famous perseverance, he soon came good to win Japan’s gruelling 1993 Astroman duathlon (8.5km run/180km bike/42km run) in a typhoon.
The results started to flow in 1994, with victory at Wildflower and fourth at his first venture in Hawaii. A fourth place at Kona followed in 1997 before Reid hooked up as a training partner with the rising American star Tim DeBoom in the summer of 1998 in Boulder, while staying at eight-time Kona champ Paula Newby-Fraser’s house.
Whatever advice she imparted seemed to work. In 1999 Reid won his first Ironman world champs victory in 8:24:20 after out-biking all the riders bar Thomas Hellriegel and outpacing all the runners except Lothar Leder. Lori Bowden finished second that day in Hawaii, and a year later the roles were reversed when Bowden, now Reid’s wife, took gold, and Reid was second behind Luc Van Lierde.
Reid would label his 2000 Kona victory over DeBoom the hardest race he ever had. In 2002 DeBoom broke free on the run to secure his second Kona title. Reid’s feat in finishing second shouldn’t be underestimated, however. He’d suffered a huge mental and physical burn-out earlier in the year and took a break from the sport on his doctor’s orders. Slowly, he found his motivation and energy returning and set about targeting Kona armed with a beginner programme, written by Mark Allen, named ‘18 weeks To Your First Ironman’.
Even so, his preparations for 2003’s Hawaii showdown were far from ideal. His marriage to Bowden had unravelled throughout the year. The duo both produced the winning goods on race day (for the last time), and the organisers rearranged the awards ceremony so the two wouldn’t appear together on the podium.
After two more Kona podium places in 2004 and 2005, Reid announced his retirement from triathlon to pursue a career as a bush pilot in the northern wilderness of Canada. But it’s for his triumphs over adversity in Hawaii that Reid’s place in Ironman folklore is secure; few have grafted as hard as Peter the Great for victory in Kona.”
Love him or loathe him, Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack is a formidable tactician of triathlon racing, a master of mind games and one hell of an athletic performer.
All of these traits and more were evident on 9 October 2010, when the Australian won his self-proclaimed masterpiece, the Ironman World Championships, his victory over Andreas Raelert being instantly labelled an Iron War for the 21st century. Everything that have made Macca such a fascinating, fearless and formidable presence on the triathlon circuit for two decades were distilled into that famous victory.
After arriving into T2 with a nine minute advantage over reigning champ Craig Alexander, Macca’s chief concern was now the presence of rising German star Andreas Raelert two minutes behind him.
Raelert caught Macca with 5km of the run to go. After over seven hours and 221km of racing it would come down to a 5,000m duel between the proven winner and the German new kid on the block, four years Macca’s junior.
In one of the sport’s most iconic moments Macca turned to Raelert and said, ‘Andreas, best of luck. No matter what happens here, you’re a champion. May the best man win.’ Macca would prove to be the champion, crossing the line in 8:10:37 to win the greatest Ironman World Championship race of the 21st century.
And it isn’t just Kona that Macca is famous for. In 1997 he’d become the only man to win the ITU World Cup series and the ITU World Championship title in the same season.
In 2002 he turned his attention to Ironman, winning Ironman Australia on his long-course debut in April 2002: the first of four consecutive victories.
Things at Hawaii weren’t so easy for him. He arrived on a wave of hype (some of it self-generated) in 2002 and failed to finish; he then came 59th in 2003 and failed to finish again in 2004.
By chance, the race vehicle that picked Macca up after his 2004 defeat was being driven by one Mark Allen, who suggested to him that he should enter fewer iron-distance races during the season. After that Macca went on to finish sixth in 2005, then second the following year – behind his new nemesis Normann Stadler (there was evidently no love lost between the two). Finally he captured the Ironman World Championship title in 2007 after outpacing Craig Alexander on the run.
As one of the most consummate pro athletes ever to grace the sport, Craig Alexander used his stinging defeat at the Ironman World Championships in 2010 to come back stronger. The 38-year-old ripped up his existing bike contract to join Specialized and sought added advice from Ironman Hawaii legend Dave Scott. Fresh from winning his second Ironman 70.3 world title in September 2011, he returned to Hawaii a stronger all-round athlete in every area.
Eight hours, three minutes and 56 seconds after the starting horn on 8 October 2011, Crowie was leaping across the finish line as the Ironman World Champion once again. In the process he broke Luc Van Lierde’s 15-year Kona course record, became the oldest ever winner of Hawaii and the first man in history to win Ironman and Ironman 70.3 titles in the same year.
Craig Alexander was born in Sydney in 1973. He was given a pro licence from Triathlon Australia after impressing at a Powerman duathlon in 1995 and raced his first elite event in October 1995 at the Sydney ITU World Cup. He finished eighth, just a second behind Aussie star Greg Bennett.
After watching the Sydney Olympics in the flesh made Crowie determined to pursue both Commonwealth Games and Olympic places, but a bad case of chickenpox led him to miss qualifying for the 2002 games, speeding his move to long-course racing.
In 2006 Alexander won his first Ironman world title at the inaugural Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Florida. This was his first of three 70.3 World victories (and one of 26 Ironman 70.3 wins), and it automatically qualified him for the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in 2007.
He came in second on his debut in 2007, just four minutes behind McCormack. Soon, though, he was the King of Kona, with consecutive victories in 2008 and 2009, both won by outpacing his rivals on the run. Then McCormack out-manoeuvred him in 2010, but Crowie came back with his annus mirabilis in 2011, as we have seen.
He officially retired from Ironman racing in 2014. But that just marked his entry into triathlon coaching, via his business Sansego (= ‘without ego’) – the aptest of names for this truly humble, hugely talented and perennially-popular triathlete.
Before Chrissie Wellington and the Brownlees came along and did their world-beating thing, Simon Lessing was Britain’s most visible and decorated triathlete, dominating Olympic-distance triathlon with his British teammate Spencer Smith in the nineties.
By the end of the century, Lessing’s trophy cabinet would house four ITU World Championship titles, three European championships and the ITU Long Distance gold medal, yet his single-mindedness also produced headlines, from his rivalry with Smith to disputes with the British Triathlon Federation.
During the 1990s Lessing and his British rival, Spencer Smith, would rule Olympic-distance triathlon. Lessing won the ITU World Championships in 1992, ‘95, ‘96 and ’98, the European Triathlon Championships three times and the ITU Long Distance World Champs in 1998.
Although a classic all-rounder, it was Lessing’s devastating, long-loping run that spread fear throughout the ITU circuit. As Smith declared to 220, “It was a case of game over if you left the bike together.” In a similar vein to Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, however, there were reports of needle between Lessing and the passionate cockney. Smith adds, “There was an element of truth to these stories. I certainly hated getting beaten by Simon and I’m damn sure that was the case with him. Simon definitely got me up in the morning to train. If I wasn’t training, I knew he was. That was a big motivator for me. But I had a lot of respect for him.”
Lessing continued to claim titles throughout the nineties. In 1996 he another ITU Worlds with the outrageous time of 1:39:50 at Cleveland and won the first of his three Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon titles.
The 2000 Olympics in Sydney were predicted to be the crowning moment of Lessing’s success, coming soon after his MBE from the Queen. In the lead-up to the games the British sports media perceived him as nigh-on invincible. Lessing would finish a disappointing ninth, by most accounts enduring a thoroughly miserable time in Australia.
Lessing’s moved to Boulder, Colorado, to concentrate on Ironman soon after a fourth place at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Like Smith, his long-distance venture had highs (see his 2004 Ironman Lake Placid win) but failed to scale the heights of his short-course career.
ITU World Champion, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998
ITU World Long Distance Champion, 1995
ETU European Champion, 1991, 1993, 1994
5. Javier Gomez
A record five ITU World Championship titles. The Xterra World title. Four European Championships. Two Ironman 70.3 World titles. An Olympic silver medal. The scary thing about Javier Gomez Noya is that there could be much more to come from one of the best all-round athletes to grace the sport of triathlon.
Javier Gómez Noya was born in Basel, Switzerland, on 25 March 1983. His parents returned to Spain in July that year to the north-western Spanish coast, where Javier would spend his formative years. A sporty childhood of football, mountain biking and swimming led to Gomez discovering tri at the age of 15.
Under the tutelage of long-term coach José Rioseco, the prodigious teenager dominated the local junior scenes in both swimming and triathlon. In December 1999, the rug was pulled from under the feet of Gomez when the Spanish government agency for sport detected a cardiac anomaly. His international race licence was revoked and seven years of court cases and visiting cardiology specialists worldwide would begin.
Early 2006 would finally see Gomez regain his race licence for good, and one of triathlon’s most prolific periods would begin. In 97 ITU-sanctioned races from 2006 to the end of 2015, Gomez would hit the top ten 80 times, amassing 37 victories and 73 podiums along the way. If two brothers from Yorkshire hadn’t shown up, the groans from Gomez’s overstocked trophy cabinet would’ve been even greater.
The nine-year period saw Javier scoop ITU World Championship titles in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and three ETU European Championship gongs. Alongside this, two megabucks Hy-Vee titles and the 2013 Escape from Alcatraz gold have all headed to Galicia. The Olympic title is the only one to have brought heartache.
After his exclusion in 2004, Gomez went into 2008 as the favourite but came out the loser in a four-way showdown with Jan Frodeno, Simon Whitfield and Bevan Docherty for the Beijing title, finishing fourth. At the 2012 Olympics in Hyde Park, Gómez took the silver medal, finishing 11secs behind a dominant Alistair Brownlee on home soil.
While Gomez’s record against Jonny Brownlee is favourable (he held the upper hand in all of 2014’s Olympic-distance races and outsprinted him at Hyde Park to take the 2013 ITU World title), he rarely gets the better of a fit and focused Alistair. Sadly for the world of triathlon was deprived of what could’ve been a battle for the ages at Rio 2016 when Gomez was forced to pull out injured earlier in the year.
Ominously for the long-distance world, Gomez also has eyes for another of triathlon’s greatest prizes. He went to Ironman Hawaii in 2011 to witness Craig Alexander’s final triumph and vowed to return. “Winning Ironman Hawaii is as important to me as winning the Olympic Games,” Gomez stated soon after.
His first middle-distance race in May 2013 at Challenge Half Barcelona saw him trounce the two-time Ironman World Champion, Chris McCormack, to take the title. In February 2014, he broke the tape first at Ironman 70.3 Panama before going on to win the Ironman 70.3 World Championships at Mont Tremblant in September, gaining revenge over Jan Frodeno to win by a minute.
Even before his stunning Ironman 70.3 World triumph over a field of more experienced athletes, the Spaniard has been tipped by many as the future King of long-course racing, with Spencer Smith labelling him as “the next sensation in triathlon in long-distance racing.” And his dominant 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Champs victory suggests there’s far more to come from the ever-popular Spaniard.
2018 saw his debut at Ironman distance and a disappointing 11th place at Kona, with him admitting that lessons were learnt. Can he threaten the Ironman stars in 2019?
ITU World Champion, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014
Ironman 70.3 World Champion, 2014, 2017
Olympic Games silver medallist, 2012
ETU European Champion, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2016
4. Alistair Brownlee
Alistair was born in 1988 in West Yorkshire, with Jonny following two years later. Alistair was already entering cross-country events at the age of six and multisport was soon to follow, with the duo part of the first generation of athletes to have raced triathlon pretty much from the get-go.
By the age of 17, Alistair was the 2006 ITU Junior World Champion and his reputation for being as tough as old boots, despite the boyish looks, was also formed after setting a course record at the Helvellyn Triathlon in 2007. The U23 World title would follow in 2008 before his breakout performance at the 2008 Olympics, with the then 20-year-old Leeds University Sports Science student (Ali quit his medicine studies at Cambridge to focus on triathlon) leading with 3km to go before hitting the wall and finishing 12th.
The brave and bold style of racing endeared him to the watching masses, and started a purple patch of form with few peers in the sport, winning 15 out of his next 20 ITU races to take two ITU World Championships and a duo of European Championship titles. The 21st race in that cycle was the 2012 Olympics, held in Hyde Park on 7 August 2012.
After experiencing a famous bonk on the finishing straight at Hyde Park in his defeat to Gomez two years before and tearing an Achilles in early 2012, Alistair wasn’t a shoo-in for the Olympic title. Yet everything for the elder Brownlee went to plan on that famous day for British triathlon, shaking-off Gomez on the final run lap to become Britain’s first Olympic triathlon champion after a 29:07mins 10km run split (which would’ve been even faster if he hadn’t ambled the final 200m with the Union Jack in his hands).
Alistair’s refreshing race from the front in all disciplines style – a throwback to the aggressive style of Spencer Smith and Simon Lessing, the duo of Brits who dominated short-course racing when Ali was in very short trousers – would continue to garner plaudits and trophies from 2013 onwards, with Alistair taking the Commonwealth Games gold and European Championships in 2014 (as well as obliterating all before him at the ITU Grand Final in Edmonton).
Those two races in 2016 exemplify what makes Ali Brownlee a cut above the opposition, with that speed and stamina combined with ruthlessness and a commanding tactical knowhow resulting in the greatest ITU athlete who ever lived.
There’s promise of more to come from the baby-faced assassin, with his 3:41:58 course record at Ironman 70.3 St. George result ahead of a crack field of world champs, and a second place at the 2018 and 2019 70.3 World Championships in South Africa. After a relatively disappointing marathon run at his first Kona he will be hoping for more in the years to come, and become the greatest of all time.
2nd Ironman 70.3 World Championships 2018 and 2019
3. Dave Scott
Six-time Ironman World Champion, coach, guru, inspiration, influence, innovator, statesman, Iron War protagonist… Dave Scott has been a towering presence in triathlon since the dawn of the sport. His rip-roaring Kona victories and epic battles with Mark Allen have all have gone down in triathlon folklore.
Born in1954, Dave Scott grew up in California with a relentless thirst for sport. His first triathlon was in 1976, when he came second at the Turkey Triathlon in San Fran. His Ironman journey began in 1978 when Ironman creator John Collins handed him a flyer for the second ever Hawaii race after he finished ninth at the Waikiki Roughwater Swim.
He returned to Hawaii for the 1980 race and obliterated the competition, winning by over an hour and becoming the first man to go under 10 hours (9:24:33). ‘The Man’ nickname was born.
After missing the race in 1981 he went on to be unbeaten at Hawaii until 1989 (though he boycotted the 1985 event due to the lack of a prize purse and missed 1988’s through injury).
The 1989 race proved to be one of the most memorable the sport has ever known. The 35-year-old Scott produced a 2:41hr marathon on the way to smashing his course record by 18mins with a time of 8:10:13. Unfortunately for him, though, Allen – five years his junior – had matched him every stroke, pedal and stride for 223km before breaking free with 3km to go to win his first Kona title at the eighth time of asking.
Scott’s iron grip on the Ironman Hawaii title may have ended on that unforgettable day, now known as the Iron War, but his legacy lives on (he’s also coached many Ironman champs). The times Scott was achieving in Kona are rarely bettered today, and were only matched by Mark Allen and Scott Tinley when he was at his peak.
“Who is Jan Frodeno?” asked 220’s cover in 2008 after a tall, skinny German unknown upset the odds to become the Olympic Games champion a day after his 27th birthday. Over a decade later it’s a question no one asks as Frodeno’s place as one of triathlon’s greats of all time is assured forever, with three Kona titles, two 70.3 world champ titles and the iron-distance world record to his name.
Back in 2008, in the muggy heat of Beijing, the boy from Cologne stayed with the big hitters of the sport on the swim and bike, but faced a trio of more experienced figures in the dying stages of the run. Standing between Frodo and gold were Canada’s 2000 Olympic Games Champion Simon Whitfield, Spain’s reigning ITU world champ Javier Gómez and formidable Kiwi sprinter Bevan Docherty. Only the brave and the bold would place their bets on Frodeno.
Using his long loping stride, Frodeno pushed past Whitfield with 100m to go and produced the biggest men’s Olympic upset since the young Whitfield had crossed the line eight years earlier.
Frodeno, born in 1981, had started his sporting career as a competitive swimmer in South Africa during his teens. By the time he retired from ITU racing in 2013, Frodo had another golden ring and epic journey in his sights: the Ironman World Championships.
He came second at the Ironman 70.3 European Championships in 2013, but Frodeno’s long-course career began in earnest in 2014, with a third-place finish and the day’s fastest marathon of 2:43hr on his Ironman debut at the European Championships in Frankfurt. The feat was all the more impressive because Frodeno suffered three punctures and lost 10 minutes on the bike leg.
Frodeno’s Ironman World Championship debut in October 2014 also provided plenty of drama: he exited the water in second place, but then a couple of punctures and a time penalty for drafting on the bike leg enabled Sebastian Kienle to increase his advantage over his compatriot. Frodeno’s ITU speed work helped produce the day’s fastest run split of 2:47hrs to finish third behind Kienle and America’s Ben Hoffman.
In 2015 Frodeno won the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Austria and then would become the first Olympic Games champion to win the Ironman World Championship title in a time of 8:14:40, 3:03mins ahead of Andreas Raelert.
In 2016, he entered the iron-distance record books with a 7:35:39 finish time at Challenge Roth, which smashed the existing record by a huge 6mins. A matter of months later, he successfully defended his Kona title, breaking free from Sebastian Kienle at 15km on the run. Frodeno’s finish was 8:06:30, just short of breaking Craig Alexander’s 8:03:56 course record.
220 named him one of the greatest Kona triathletes ever
1. Mark Allen
Fellow six-time Kona champ Dave Scott may have the edge in their Hawaii showdowns, but it’s for Allen’s other triathlon victories that secures him the best in history title over Scott.
Back when the race was one of the three biggest triathlons in the world, Allen won the Nice Triathlon in France on 10 consecutive occasions. Number three on that list was Powerman Zofingen, which Allen also won in 1993. The Californian would also win the debut ITU World Championships in 1989 by over a minute, proving he could cut it at short-course racing as well.
Born in 1958 in California, Allen showed glimpses of athletic promise in his youth, but it wasn’t until he witnessed a highlights package of Ironman Hawaii that the triathlon bug bit. And hard. It was February 1982 and the year when college student Julie Moss’ famous crawl to the finish line. The event brought tears to Allen’s eyes, and he signed up for the next edition of the race in October 1982.
Allen failed to finish that first venture on the lava fields of Hawaii but soon began to make inroads in Hawaii, finishing fifth in 1984 and taking second in 1986. The winner each time? Fellow Californian Dave Scott.
The rivalry came to a head in 1987 with some pre-race sparring in the media that continued throughout the race, with Allen tapping Scott’s heels on the swim. After 26km of the marathon, Allen had created a 4:30min lead before hitting the wall, succumbing to walking pace by kilometre 35, when Scott passed him on the other side of a TV truck. Allen finished second and would require medical treatment post-race after internally bleeding during the run. The 1988 Kona was one to forget for Allen (two punctures) and Scott (knee troubles), with another Big Four member, Scott Molina, taking the title. The stage was set for a titanic battle in 1989.
The 13th edition of Ironman Hawaii took place on 14 October and, as in 1987, the pair were pretty much inseparable for the duration. As a man who trusts the intangibles more than most, Allen cites an unusual source of inspiration behind his victory. ‘At the half marathon point, I was ready to just give up. I’d been there six times before and never won, and now it was looking like Dave would continue his string of victories. But then I recalled the image of a 110-year-old Huichol Indian shaman, Don José Matsuwa. He had a peaceful but powerful look that said, ‘I’m happy just to be alive’. And suddenly, I was just happy to be racing side-by-side with the best guy in the world!’ At 37km of the run Allen made his move to produce a 2:40hr marathon to smash Scott’s Kona record by 20mins.
Bob Babbitt soon christened the race Iron War; entire books were devoted to the showdown and the duo are routinely being asked about it over 25 years later. Allen would go on to match Scott’s record of six Ironman World Championship titles, establishing another Kona record with his 8:07hr finish time in 1993 and taking his final Hawaii title in 1995 in another epic showdown, this time with the German Thomas Hellriegel.