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IRONMAN KONA: The Chrissie Wellington verdict on a ‘next level’ World Championship

IRONMAN KONA: The Chrissie Wellington verdict on a ‘next level’ World Championship

Chrissie Wellington is a Kona legend – and passionate about encouraging women and girls in sport – so who better to talk to ahead of what is a ground-breaking IRONMAN World Championship this week.

The women will have the spotlight to themselves in Hawaii this year, with the men having already raced in Nice, and Wellington – who won on her Kona debut in 2007 and on the three subsequent times she raced there in an unbeaten full-distance career – admits she still has mixed feelings about the Kona / Nice co-hosting for at least the next four years.

Shining the spotlight on the women

Thoughtful and as eloquent as ever, she told TRI247: “I’m on the fence with regards to whether a split event is the most appropriate step forward. However, there’s no debating the fact that for the women to have their own event will be phenomenal for elevating that aspect of the sport.

“I think it’s an interesting concept having the men and women not only racing different weekends, but also different locations. But I do think it’s important, regardless of whether or not the kind of men and women are in a different location, that the women get their fair share of the spotlight. So if this move generates more media attention and shines that spotlight on the women, then that has to be a good thing. However, it shouldn’t take a split race for that to be the case.

“However, we have to think about why it is that the race can no longer be conducted in one day, and that’s because they want to increase the capacity. So, is that the right move? Are they not better off reducing the capacity and enabling it to still take place on one day, as it always has done?

“But as they grow the number of events, then obviously it puts a strain on the belt of Hawaii as we’ve seen that belt burst, and it could no longer accommodate the capacity that was placed on it. And I totally understand that.”

Chrissie also feels there’s a distinction to be made between the professional and age-group athletes, though only time will tell to what extent.

She explained: “I do feel that for the professionals, whilst there’s obviously a draw to Hawaii, we want to race the best in the world, wherever that race might take place. So I think that there is an argument for rotating the location so that it suits different athletes’ strengths.

“But I think for age groupers, the allure of Hawaii is really strong, and I don’t know whether racing in another location holds the same appeal. So it will be interesting from an age-group perspective, what happens to registrations for next year, for example, if you’re a female qualifying for Nice, whether you defer your slot or not race at all.”

‘Next level’ Kona field

What definitely isn’t up for debate is what an incredibly stacked field we have on Saturday, with all the big, long-distance names going head-to-head – as well as a certain Taylor Knibb, who we’ll focus on in the second part of this interview.

“No disrespect to the men’s race in Nice, but I’m more excited by the women’s race and I feel that the depth of field, and by that I mean the number of athletes that could compete for the victory, is a lot higher,” Chrissie told us.

“I’m scrolling down the list and I’m thinking, well, they could win, they could definitely win, I wouldn’t count her out and so on – that’s probably in double figures.

And not to disparage the athletes that I was racing against and my era of racing, but now it’s next level in terms of the number of women that are incredibly competitive.

“It’s probably a fool’s errand then to make predictions! I always find it difficult, and I enjoy that element of jeopardy about sport. And that’s especially the case with this race, in that I’m finding it incredibly difficult to pick a top three with any level of certainty.

Daniela Ryf Chrissie Wellington Challenge Roth 2023
Daniela Ryf and Chrissie Wellington embrace after the finish line [Photo credit: Challenge Roth]

“There’s any number of athletes that can win and their back stories are really intriguing – there’s definitely a few cases of ‘phoenix rising from the flames’. Whether that’s Lucy [Charles-Barclay] with her injury, or Kat [Matthews] with that terrible accident. Obviously Chelsea [Sodaro] hasn’t had the season that she might have expected and I think that also tells of the challenges of wearing that crown.

“Being a high-performing professional athlete means also being able to assimilate all of those pressures. And I’m really hoping that here she can demonstrate that whilst the road this year has been a little rocky, that she’s still capable of performing against the very best in the world.

“But I also wouldn’t discount Daniela and when I look at the list, I still see her as being the person that I think is most likely to win because she’s just so phenomenally experienced and resilient. Powerful and resilient not only to injury, but also I think to pressure and to expectation. And I think that’s really important.

Decision time for Chrissie…

“But there’s others like Laura Phillip, she’s an incredible athlete and often a dark horse, so I certainly wouldn’t discount her. And Kat absolutely. She’s just dogged and tenacious and yeah, I would love to see her have a podium-position day.

“Lucy is sort of getting back into it but I fully expect to wake up on Sunday morning with her being in the mix, and she’s had enough second places to be given a taste of what it feels like to be so close. And again, tenacity is the word, she’s so tenacious and she’s such a smart athlete and she’s brave and strategic, she just leaves it all out there and I really love that.

“But someone like Lisa Norden maybe we’re not necessarily talking about her, but she has such a depth of experience and just a really phenomenal athlete who now has the experience of racing on the Big Island.”

But put on the spot for her one-two-three, her podium is: “Daniela, Taylor and Lucy – but I probably missed someone out!”

In part two we will turn the focus onto Taylor Knibb and look back at Chrissie’s life-changing first victory at Kona in 2007 – her first year as a pro.

We also hear more about how the pressure of wearing the crown is in many ways harder than that first appearance – and find out why Chrissie won’t be watching the race on Saturday for very personal and well-articulated reasons.

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