Home > Feature

The 20 most influential women in triathlon

Women who have made (or continue to make) a difference in our sport

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

It’s International Women’s Day and, as has become our tradition, we’re using the day as a chance to celebrate the women who have been critical in the development of our sport. Last year we celebrated the 15 most influential women in triathlon history,¬†focusing on women who have either retired from racing or were at the tail ends of their careers. This year we figured it would be fun to extend the list to 20, and include some women who are still in the prime of their careers, but who have already made a historical impact on the sport.

Paula Newby-Fraser

The “Queen of Kona” won the Ironman World Championship eight times, won 24 Ironman races in total, and has been lauded by various media outlets as one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time – Sports Illustrated named her one of the top 60 athletes of the 20th century. She remains a mainstay in the sport, working with Ironman in a variety of roles including as a pro athlete liason, coach and commentator.

Julie Moss

The dramatic coverage of Moss crawling across the finish line in 1982 at the Ironman World Championship on ABC’s Wide World of Sports mesmerized a nation and served as the dramatic inspiration for many to get into the sport.

Moss also remains a mainstay in the sport as an ambassador for Ironman.

Daniela Ryf celebrates her fifth Ironman 70.3 world title.

Daniela Ryf

The five-time Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion wasn’t included on our list last year because she was just months away from dominating the best in the world once again at the Ironman World Championship in St. George. She was the first woman to take three 70.3 world titles, and could certainly expand that record to beyond the five titles she has already. A decent short-course athlete, once Ryf turned her sights to long-distance racing she would be untouchable for many years. A few years of health struggles have added to the inspirational component of her career. It was a frank and honest interview in 2021 in which she was open about her sexuality and the pressures she endured as the world’s top triathlete (along with the news that she was leaving long-time coach Brett Sutton), though, that really set the stage for Ryf to become one of the most influential role-models in the sport. That influence could likely continue for many years to come.

Lyn Lemaire

Without Lyn Lemaire there wouldn’t be a Paula Newby-Fraser, Julie Moss or a Daniela Ryf. In 1979, the second year of the Ironman World Championship, Lemaire became the first woman to finish the event that put the sport on the map. That year she finished fifth overall in 12:55:38.

Judy Collins

The Ironman event was conceived by Collins and her husband, Commander John Collins. Both Judy and John competed in what many believe was the first triathlon event in San Diego in 1974 – the Mission Bay Triathlon.

Lynn Van Dove and Valerie Silk at Richter Pass. Photo courtesy Lynn Van Dove

Valerie Silk

Even though she was not an athlete, through chance Silk would become the guiding influence for the growth of Ironman over its first 12 years. Ironman c0-founder (see above) John Collins handed over the paperwork from the Ironman event to Silk and her husband in 1980 – the pair owned a nautilus club that had been involved with the race. Silk and her husband would eventually divorce and Silk continued to run the race, eventually creating a qualifying series and helping Ironman grow in stature. She sold Ironman in 1990 to Dr. Pitt Gills, who owned the company until 2008.

Lucy Charles-Barclay wins Challenge Roth.

Lucy Charles-Barclay

A former long-distance swimmer who came close to making it to the Olympics in that sport, Lucy Charles-Barclay has become one of the sport’s most dominant social media personalities. She has one 70.3 world title to her name at this point in her career, but an impressive four runner-up Kona finishes. An inspiration to age-group athletes across the globe, Charles-Barclay combines impressive results with lots of fan popularity to make her a sponsor’s dream athlete.

Marisol Casado receives an award.

Marisol Casado

The president of the ITU since 2008, Cosado is the only female head of an international summer sport federation. She is a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Loreen Barnett

Competing in her first triathlon in 1981, Barnett was the first Canadian woman to compete at the Ironman World Championship. Her contribution to the sport wasn’t just as a trailblazing athlete, though – she was instrumental in the formation of both Triathlon Canada (which started in 1985) and eventually the ITU and remains First Vice-President with the organization.

Chrissie Wellington

Wellington burst onto the world scene with a dramatic win at the Ironman World Championship in 2007. She would go on to win four Kona titles, while her “world-best” time from Challenge Roth of 8:18:13 remains the fastest full-distance performance ever. She was undefeated in all 13 of the full-distance races she started.

The 11-time Ironman champ welcomes the athletes on behalf of Subaru.

Lisa Bentley

Her career that included 11 Ironman and 11 Ironman 70.3 titles is a miracle in and of itself, considering Lisa Bentley was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis early in her professional career. The embodiment of determination, Bentley continues to be an influential part of the sport, serving as a Professional Triathletes Organisation board member and Collins Cup captain.

Sarah Springman

An elite athlete from the UK from 1983 to 1993, Springman served as the vice-president of the ITU from 1992 to 1996. She was instrumental in getting the sport into the Olympics.

Chelsea Sodaro

Her speech after winning last year’s Ironman World Championship will go down in history as one of the most important affirmations of the role of women in sport. The collegiate runner-turned triathlete surged to prominence just 18 months after the birth of daughter Skylar, and has used her new-found fame as a platform to push for change in sport.

Related: Game Changer: Ironman world champion Chelsea Sodaro uses her new-found platform to push for change in sport

Erin Baker

A two-time winner in Kona, Baker was also the first ever ITU world champion, taking the title in Avignon in 1989. Arrested during a protest against South Africa’s rugby team competing in her home country of New Zealand, Baker was barred from competing in the United States during the early years of her career. Outspoken on behalf of equal prize money for women in the sport, it came as no surprise to any who knew her that she would eventually become a politician in New Zealand.

The Iron Nun and Lisa Bentley

Sister Madonna Buder

The oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman (Buder was 82 when she finished Ironman Canada in 2012), Buder continues to set new age standards for the sport. Her numerous features on the NBC coverage of the Ironman World Championship served as inspiration for thousands of age group athletes over the years. At 75 she was the oldest to ever finish an Ironman race, and managed that same feat seven years later. At 89, the oldest competitor in the race, Buder finisher third last year at the USA Triathlon national championships in the 85+ category.

Natascha Badmann

The Swiss Ironman star took the Ironman World Championship six times, and might have won more had she not suffered a terrible bike crash at the 2007 that required numerous surgeries before she was able to return to racing. Badmann had a child when she was 18 and only got into sports when she was 24. Her tenacity and longevity in the sport saw her become the oldest woman to win an Ironman race when she won Ironman South Africa in 2014 at the age of 48 (she won the race two years before, too), and was 46 years old when she finished sixth in Kona in 2012. She rounded out her professional career at the age of 50 with her final appearance on the Big Island. Badmann’s influence on the sport continues – she was one of the European Captains at last year’s Collins Cup.

Michellie Jones (Kona Ironman Champion, and Olympic Medalist) raced in the Age group Sprint Triathlon Championships in Edmonton in 2014. Credit: Jordan Bryden

Michellie Jones

The silver medalist at the inaugural Olympic triathlon in Sydney in 2000, Jones was one of the most successful short-distance triathletes ever. She took the ITU Triathlon World Championship title in 1992 and 1993, and the ITU Triathlon World Cup in 1998 and 1999. Proving her versatility in the sport, she won the inaugural Xterra World Championship in 1996 and, after she wasn’t chosen for the 2004 Olympics, turned her sights on Ironman racing. She took second to Natascha Badmann in 2005, then became the first Australian woman to win the Ironman World Championship in 2006. In 2016 Jones served as a guide for Katie Kelly at the inaugural Paralympic triathlon in Rio, helping her countrywoman win the gold medal.

Mirinda Carfrae greets daughter Isabelle after winning Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant.

Mirinda Carfrae

The Australian three-time Kona champion is renowned as one of the fastest runners the sport has ever seen, putting together an incredible 2:50 marathon split to overcome a deficit of almost 15 minutes to win the 2014 race. After giving birth to daughter Isabelle in 2017, Carfrae returned to racing in 2018 with a fifth-place finish in Kona. A year later she enjoyed a number of 70.3 wins, including a stellar performance in Mont-Tremblant. Carfrae and husband Tim O’Donnell now have two children and are amongst the sport’s most popular professionals.

Nicola Spirig celebrates at the finish line of the ITU WTS Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Nicola Spirig

The 2012 Olympic gold medalist took silver in 2016 and finished sixth in her fifth Olympic appearance in Tokyo last year. Spirig pretty much personifies the “super-mom” concept – she’s a lawyer with three children who somehow manages to balance family life with sport at the highest level. Spirig has excelled at both draft-legal racing and long-distance events – she won her Ironman debut in Cozumel in 2014 and has won all but two of her half-distance races – she finished on the podium the two times she hasn’t been victorious. At 40 Spirig remains a major player in the sport – this summer she is slated to be part of the Sub7/ Sub8 project and will try, alongside Lucy Charles-Barclay, to break eight hours over the full distance.

Rachel Joyce at the Ironman World Championship

Rachel Joyce

A two-time runner-up in Kona, Great Britain’s Rachel Joyce quit her career as a lawyer to pursue triathlon, enjoying an impressive career. She put those law skills to work, though, relentlessly pushing Ironman to include more pro women at the world championship, and serving as one of the founding forces behind the Professional Triathletes Organisation. She was a key player in the organizations innovative and ground-breaking maternity leave policy.