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Daniela Ryf returns to old coach Brett Sutton. Is Ibiza the first race of a make-or-break year?

5-time Ironman world champion feels "I have one last chance to win in Hawaii"

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

Her win at the Ironman World Championship in St. George last May looked similar to the other dominating performances we’ve seen from Daniela Ryf over the years. Anyone else remember the record-setting day in 2016 when we had to wait almost a half hour for runner-up Mirinda Carfrae (a three-time Kona champ, no less) to get to the finish line behind her? Or the year she blasted to the Kona course record in 8:26:18, over 10 minutes up on Lucy Charles-Barclay?

Ryf was the undeniable Queen of long-distance racing for years. The stats are just frightening. In 2014 she “lost” just one race – her runner-up finish to Carfrae in her Kona debut. In 2015 she won every race she entered. In 2016 she pulled out of the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt because of the freezing temperatures, then won in Roth a week later. That year she had an uncharacteristically “bad” day when she took fourth at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. In 2017 she took third in an early season race where she was dealing with some injury issues, and third again at an end-of-season event in Bahrain. 2018 was another unbeaten year. And in 2019 there was just one blemish to an otherwise perfect season – another uncharacteristic “bad” day where she finished 13th in Kona.

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Daniela Ryf celebrates her fifth Ironman 70.3 world title in Nice in 2019

She didn’t race at all in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, then, early in 2021 she announced that she was leaving long-time coach Brett Sutton, a controversial Australian coach who has coached numerous world champions over the years including Chrissie Wellington.

“Brett and I have not fallen out,” she said in an interview with a Swiss publication. “And I am eternally grateful to him. But I wanted to develop further. After eight years with Brett, I want to implement what I’ve learned myself.”

While Ryf continued to win, the aura of invincibility was starting to dim. She hung on for dear life to take the win at Ironman Tulsa, then was not her normal self at the Collins Cup, where she finished well behind American Taylor Knibb. Things appeared to be getting back on track with a win at Ironman Switzerland, but then her year ended with a disappointing 11th-place finish at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

While 2022 started with a runner-up finish to Germany’s Laura Philipp at Ironman 70.3 Dubai, it looked like the Daniela Ryf of old was back with her impressive win in St. George. Ryf crossed the line, boldly holding up five fingers to signal this was her fifth Ironman world title. She followed that up with another win in Switzerland, then continued her impressive form with the fastest performance of the day at the Collins Cup. All of which seemed to be setting her up for another big day on the Big Island.

Ryf would cross the line in eighth, in tears.

Returns to Sutton

In January Ryf decided it was time to start working with Sutton again, even though he’s now based in China, where he’s working to develop the Chinese team. Now 36 and with the 2024 women’s Ironman World Championship taking place in Nice, Ryf told a Swiss Newspaper that “It’s clear to me that this year I have one last chance to win in Hawaii.”

Sutton is renowned for his old-school approach to training – there’s no lactic-acid tests or deep-dives into power analysis. That’s in stark contrast to the data-driven approach that we’re starting to see dominate the coaching landscape.

Rather than seek out one of the data-driven coaches other athletes are working with, Ryf decided that approach would end up being more stressful for her.

“He (Sutton) knows me very well and knows when to push or slow me down,” she said.

Performances of the decade: Daniela Ryf smashes Kona course record by 20 minutes

Ibiza test

On Saturday the Swiss star will be facing what many feel will be one of the most competitive fields assembled for a triathlon this year. A dominant performance in Ibiza will set the stage for the rest of 2023 – a series of wins leading up to Kona will allow her to arrive on the Big Island with the same aura of invincibility that served her so well the other four times she won there.

During those years, whether they liked to admit it or not, the other women in the field knew that Ryf was the woman to beat, and that if she was performing at her best, they were racing for second. That isn’t the case anymore. A big win on Saturday, though, would change all that.