It was a big day for the trajectory of women’s sports. For the first time since its 1978 debut, the IRONMAN World Championships gave female competitors their own platform. Over 2,200 of the top women in triathlon descended upon Kona this week for an iconic display of girl power at its finest.
Lucy Charles-Barclay, Anne Haug, and Laura Philipp decorated the podium at Saturday’s race. Charles-Barclay has previously taken second place in four IRONMAN World Championships, and came into the race hungry for a gold to round out her silver collection.
An Olympic open water competitor before transitioning to triathlon, she’s widely regarded as the GOAT of the swim leg. Charles-Barclay battled choppy conditions to enter T1 in 49:36, just behind the swim course record of 48:13 that she set back in 2016.
Charles-Barclay battled choppy conditions to enter T1 in 49:36, just behind the swim course record of 48:13 that she set back in 2016. She held onto her lead through the bike portion with Taylor Knibb nipping at her heels a mere two minutes behind. Knibb, already a two-time 70.3 World Champion at just 25, had never completed a full-distance IRONMAN (or even a full marathon) until Saturday. She spent the year focused on short-course racing in order to qualify for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team. With that in the bag, Knibb leaned into learning on the fly for Kona. An open mind and a feisty spirit kept her drive high as she chased Charles-Barclay.
A Tight Race
Philipp stole third midway through the bike leg of the race, leapfrogging with five-time World Champion Ryf, Lisa Norden, and Jocelyn McCauley, until McCauley charged ahead in the final 10 miles. Philipp made up time with a speedy transition and took back third on the way to “Fly Human Fly” through the run. She reigns as the back-to-back European IRONMAN Champion, setting the women’s record for the fastest finish in IRONMAN history at the 2022 Hamburg competition.
Then, 2019 World Champion Anne Haug caught up to Philipp at the 10-mile mark. Haug, who didn’t even learn to swim until age 20, surpassed Knibb as well by mile 17. Charles-Barclay crossed the finish line in 8:24:31 to claim victory — and a course record — while Haug and Philipp completed the podium.
Knibb ended up with a fourth place finish, while five-time champion Daniela Ryf took fifth. With that, Ryf rang in her last lap on the Kona course as one of the most decorated female triathletes in the sport. The whole HOKA team celebrated her legacy as Ryf rounded out the top five finishers of 2023.
Magic in Kona: Women’s IRONMAN
For everyone else, toeing the start line at all is its own accomplishment. The qualification process for the Championships weeds out all but those at the very pinnacle of the sport. Triathletes make the cut for Kona via two main avenues: age-group wins at full-distance IRONMAN races and select IRONMAN 70.3 races, or meeting IRONMAN Legacy Program standards by completing 12 different full-distance races. Either way, hopefuls had their work cut out for them. Earning a spot comes tooth and nail.
Many of those women, the cream of the IRONMAN crop, said they felt a different energy in Kona this time around than ever before. Els Visser of the HOKA athlete team said that bringing so many ladies together for their own separate competition will trigger a ripple effect.
“Seeing the determination and will of these women all together, on their own, makes other women question their paths,” she told GearJunkie. “Do they do what they love? What’s their passion? Do they make the most out of life? Can they do something like this too? This is what we want to achieve.”
Adrienne Bunn, the youngest competitor in the field at 18 and the first female athlete with autism to complete an IRONMAN World Championship, appreciated the forced focus on female accomplishment that the new race format ensures.
“No matter what, the first person to cross the line is a woman,” she said. “The media is here to highlight the accomplishments of women only.” In her eyes, the woman-centric coverage that’s come out of this race will facilitate a broader change in perspective regarding gender balance in sports.
The level of grit that it takes to complete an IRONMAN, let alone make it to the Championships, doesn’t come easy. Sometimes the same strength that lends a fiery presence on the course stems from situations few could endure. Visser survived a shipwreck and completed a Ph.D. in surgery before entering the professional ranks of triathlon.
“This harrowing experience prompted me to live my life to the fullest and follow my dreams,” she says. Visser crossed the line in 15th at the World Championships.
Sara Whittingham, an anesthesiologist and retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, brought her own storied past to Kona. Since her initial experience at the Championships in 2002, she started a family, served overseas, completed four full IRONMAN races, and received a diagnosis for Parkinson’s disease.
“Upon learning of my diagnosis,” Whittingham explained, “I figured my racing days were behind me. I pictured myself just slowly withering away to a completely disabled state for the foreseeable future. But after battling crippling anxiety, depression, and a 30-pound weight gain, I found myself on a journey that included a research study looking at the effects of cycling on Parkinson’s progression.
“This got me back on the bike, and I quickly realized that the more I rode the bike, the better I felt. It gave me the motivation to get back to doing what I love most: lining up on the starting line ready to give it my all.”
HOKA competitor Sara Crowley arrived in Kona on the heels of a nasty bike crash just 8 weeks prior. Her mantra became, “Stick to the fundamentals and chip away.”
Women’s World Champs: Moving Forward
From now on, the women of IRONMAN will continue to race in their own space apart from their male counterparts. But next year, the two groups will take turns competing in Kona or Nice, France.
HOKA, the title sponsor on the running side of the Championships, said it envisions a new era of IRONMAN. There’s momentum on the horizon for both motivational and logistical reasons.
All the positive energy could inspire fresh batches of up-and-comers. HOKA marketing vice president Erika Gabrielli emphasized that “as a brand, this has always been one of our goals and we’re excited to welcome more women into what has historically been a male-dominated sport.”
The change does more than just promote equity, too. It also helps protect the historic home of IRONMAN. The rapid rise of triathlons over recent years has placed serious demands on the island community, environment, and infrastructure. Splitting up the field reduces the footprint IRONMAN leaves on Kona each year so that the legacy can feasibly continue.
All triathletes benefit from IRONMAN’s initiative. Women get the attention they’re due and the community as a whole gets to keep feeling the Kona magic. With the right attitude, it seems, everyone wins.