There is certainly a stacked field set to line up for tomorrow’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Lahti, Finland. Tomorrow we’ll see the women rip through the Lahti course, with the men competing on Sunday. And, while tomorrow’s race includes many of the best half-distance athletes on the planet, much of the focus will be on two women: Taylor Knibb and Daniela Ryf.
Knibb, of course is the American star who has lit up the triathlon scene over the last few years. She was the youngest woman to ever represent the US at the Olympics on Tokyo, took a huge win at the Grand Final a few weeks later, then stunned the world with a stellar performance at the Collins Cup, where she blasted the field, despite using a road bike instead of a tri bike. Knibb is the defending champion, having taken the 70.3 world title last year in St. George.
Ryf should not need any introduction. A five-time 70.3 world champion and five-time Ironman world champion (four wins in Kona and also the winner at the worlds held in St. George), the Swiss superstar ruled the sport for years. In Kona in 2019 she had a tough day, and for the next few years she wasn’t the same dominant force we had seen. There were still wins, but there were also a few tough days that we just weren’t used to seeing.
Ryf returned to her long-time coach Brett Sutton at the beginning of the year, and other than an off day at the PTO European Open in Ibiza, she’s most definitely returned to her superstar ways. A big win over Ashleigh Gentle at Ironman 70.3 Switzerland was followed by a huge race at Challenge Roth, where she shattered Chrissie Wellington’s world-best time.
The two arrive in Lahti in great form. Knibb just won the PTO US Open, and earned her spot for next year’s Olympics in France with a fifth-place finish at the Paris Test Event. Ryf proved that when she is on, there really are few who can touch her with that great performance in Roth, and appears ready to go after another 70.3 worlds/ Kona double.
For those of us old enough to remember the epic Ironman race in Kona in 1989, you’ll know that it was one of the greatest races the sport has ever seen. After years of finishing second to Dave Scott, Mark Allen finally beat him. A few years later I asked Scott if Allen needed to beat him that day to ensure his legacy in the sport. Scott told me I’d have to ask Allen. When I did, Allen agreed. – if he hadn’t won that day and Scott had retired, he would have gone down in history as the guy who never beat Dave Scott at his best.
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Let me make one thing clear. I am not trying to say that Daniela Ryf is going to retire any time soon. She’s 36, and we’ve seen lots of amazing performances with athletes into their 40s of late. (Jan Frodeno come to mind?) She’s already proven that she’s amongst the greatest long-distance triathletes the sport has ever seen. It’s hard not to imagine that she’d love to have eight Ironman world titles on her resume, just like Paula Newby-Fraser, or possibly even more. No one else has won more than two 70.3 world titles, so she’s already way ahead on that record-setting front.
Who knows how many more titles Taylor Knibb is going to earn over the next decade or so. But what will really set her up as one of the all-time greats in the sport will be a win over a recognized all-time great at her best.
Another of the memorable long-distance races that will go down in history? Jan Frodeno’s win over Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa in 2018. Frodeno was already easily in the “greatest” conversations before that race, but beating two of the best athletes the sport has ever seen (two-time Olympic gold medalist, nine-time world champion) solidified that position even more.
I’ll add one more comparison. Do you think John McEnroe would be remembered as a tennis legend if he’d never beaten Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon or the US Open? (And, its important to remember, too, that Borg beat McEnroe at Wimbledon first, setting up the incredible rivalry.)
When Knibb beat Ryf at the Collins Cup in 2021, it was obvious the Swiss star was not having a good day. Ryf is a class act, and is always quick to congratulate those who beat her, but it’s not hard for us triathlon fans to know when something wasn’t right. So, while the record book shows that Knibb beat Ryf that day, for us triathlon fans, we want to see a much closer race. We want to see Ryf at her best, and Knibb at her best and … an incredible race that will be talked about for years.
Will Ryf continue her demonstration of excellence with a sixth win? Will Knibb add yet another huge win to her already impressive resume? From my interactions with both of them, they seem to thrive on competition, and love fierce competition even more. The only ones looking forward to an exciting, close race more than the fans are Daniela Ryf and Taylor Knibb. Here’s hoping we get to see that tomorrow.
How about the rest of the field?
You can see the pro women’s start list here.
With all the hype about the Ryf/ Knibb showdown, don’t be surprised if one of the other talented women in the field tomorrow ends up at the top of the podium. Fresh off an appearance at the UCI Time Trial World Championships, Paula Findlay is back looking to improve on her runner-up finish from last year. If anyone can bike with Ryf and Knibb, it’s likely to be the Canadian.
Emma Pallant-Browne (GBR) is a two-time podium finisher at the 70.3 worlds (second in 2017, third last year). A former elite runner, if she’s in touch at the end of the bike she could certainly be one to watch for another podium finish. Laura Philipp (GER) is another woman who could contend for a win – among her many titles is the win, over Ryf, at Ironman 70.3 Dubai last year. Her breakthrough performance as a triathlete was her third-place finish at the 70.3 worlds in 2017.
Thanks to much improved cycling and swimming legs, Canadian Tamara Jewett doesn’t have to completely depend on her impressive running skills quite as much these days. A wetsuit swim will help Jewett even more, and you can be sure that both Knibb and Ryf will be determined to have some space between them and the former national team runner in T2. On the opposite front, 2016 70.3 world champ Holly Lawrence will need to come off the bike with a good lead for the win. She’s done that before, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to see her contend for the win. A podium finish, though, is very much in the cards.