Best of Triathlon Awards 2016

Short-Course Male of the Year: Alistair Brownlee

In the time between the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics, Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee struggled to stay consistent or healthy—but it doesn’t really matter. The International Triathlon Union circuit is all about working toward one goal: the Olympics. The fact that Brownlee managed to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals (the first triathlete to do so) makes him the greatest Olympic triathlete ever, and there’s really no debating that. Just about a month after winning the gold medal, Brownlee entered his first swim/run event—the Aquathlon World Championships—and won. Then a couple of days later he was part of a spectacle that got perhaps more attention than the Olympics themselves (see “Brother of the Year Award” on this list). Next year Brownlee is aiming for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and says that he eventually wants to compete in the Ironman World Championship.

Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Short-Course Female of the Year: Gwen Jorgensen

The pressure was on for Gwen Jorgensen (USA) coming into 2016. Dating back to the first Olympic triathlon in Sydney, no one had been as heavily favored to take the gold as Jorgensen was this year in Rio. The two-time world champion saw her WTS winning streak end at 12 when she finished second to Great Britain’s Helen Jenkins at the Gold Coast event on April 9, but it didn’t really matter. With her qualification already taken care of, she had her sights set squarely on peaking for the Olympic triathlon on Aug. 20. Patience and persistence paid off for Jorgensen as she handled the pressure beautifully to become the first American triathlete to win Olympic gold. After a busy press tour in New York City, Jorgensen competed in the WTS Cozumel Grand Final (finishing second to Flora Duffy), the Island House Invitational Triathlon (winning for the second year in a row) and the NYC Marathon (running a 2:41:01, see “Best Single-Sport Performance” on this list).

Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Long Distance Male of the Year: Jan Frodeno

When you take home the title of Ironman world champion, it’s hard to improve on the next season. Yet, Germany’s Jan Frodeno did just that. The all-around threat lowered the iron-distance world record at Challenge Roth in July to 7:35:39. He then defended his crown in Kona in a hard-fought battle with fellow German Sebastian Kienle. Most importantly, he also became a dad in 2016, welcoming a son with his wife, 2008 Olympic gold medalist, Emma Snowsill.

Photo: Oliver Baker

Long Distance Female of the Year: Daniela Ryf

Swiss powerhouse Daniela Ryf once again put her dominance on display in 2016. After starting her season with two victories at the 70.3 distance, she raced two iron-distance events in seven days, winning both. Her fourth place the 70.3 World Championships was a surprising loss, but the woman nicknamed the Angry Bird answered her critics (and her own self-doubt) at the Ironman World Championship. She took the race by storm, setting a new course record and winning by over 25 minutes in 8:46:46 to defend her title and showcase what she is capable of.

Photo: Oliver Baker

Breakthrough Male: Henri Schoeman

Most of Rio’s Olympic triathlon competition went according to script. Alistair Brownlee finished ahead of younger brother Jonathan to win his second consecutive gold medal; Gwen Jorgensen narrowly out-ran reigning Olympic champion Nicola Spirig to do what everyone expected her to do. The only major surprise came when relatively unknown competitor, Henri Schoeman, came falling across the finish 36 seconds after Jonathan Brownlee to take the bronze medal. It was South Africa’s first Olympic medal in triathlon and the feat was especially unexpected because Schoeman spent most of the week leading up to the race receiving treatment for flu-like symptoms. The 24-year old wasn’t even cleared by his doctors to compete until the evening before the race. But he pulled it together, crossing the finish line in 1:45:43, seven seconds ahead of fellow South African triathlete, Richard Murray.

Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Breakthrough Female: Holly Lawrence

With former world champions Daniela Ryf (SUI) and Melissa Hauschildt (AUS) both on the start line, not many people had Holly Lawrence as their pick to win the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, including us. But the British athlete stormed to the lead early in the bike and never looked back. After posting the fastest bike split of the day, the former short course racer still had plenty in the tank to hold the charge from the other women, winning by almost two minutes. Her win wasn’t completely out of nowhere, she had some strong results before her big win including a second at the 70.3 North American Championships in St. George, Utah. Her big win in September has put her among the sport’s best and she won’t be flying under the radar anymore.

Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Most Versatile Athlete: Flora Duffy

There is nothing this 29-year old can’t do—and do phenomenally well—from draft-legal to off-road racing. The months of August, September and October prove it. First, Duffy competed in her third Olympic games in Rio, representing her home country of Bermuda, placing eighth with a time of 1:58:25. Then in September, she out swam, bike and ran rival (and Olympic gold medalist) Gwen Jorgensen to win the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Cozumel with a 1:57:59. A month later, Duffy found herself on the start line at the XTERRA World Championships on Maui where she beat some insane weather (see: Craziest Course Conditions award) to nab her third off-road triathlon world champ title.

“It was really tough out there,” Duffy said after her 2016 XTERRA win. “I crashed on the bike, went over the handlebars and flying into the bushes. My gears weren’t working… The three-peat it really cool. It’s actually probably even cooler with the fact that I also won the ITU World Championship and then to back it up with this, wow, it’s really a year I could not have asked for.”

Photo: Janos Schmidt/Triathlon.org

Best Record-Breaking Performance: Jan at Challenge Roth

If you’ve won just about every major event in triathlon, you have to start looking for other goals to stay motivated. That is what Jan Frodeno did when he set his sights on lowering the iron-distance world record at Challenge Roth in his home country of Germany in July. In near perfect conditions, his 45:22 swim, 4:09:22 bike and 2:40:35 run lowered the record to 7:35:39, nearly six minutes faster than the previous record.

Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images for Challenge

Best Clutch Performance: Patrick Lange’s Marathon in Kona

Many clutch performances are due to an athlete catching a bad break early on, only to overcome it through sheer force of will. That’s the case forPatrick Lange’s performance in Kona. An early penalty on the bike forced the German to lose contact with the main group. Lange came off the bike in 23rd position then lit up the run course. His run time 2:39:45 broke the run course record, held by legend Mark Allen, which had stood for 27 years. He also passed 20 competitors to take third place and make it an all-German podium in Kona.

Photo: Oliver Baker

Best Single-Sport Performance: Gwen Jorgensen at the NYC Marathon

Just a few days after winning her Olympic gold medal in Rio, American Gwen Jorgensen flew to New York City and announced that she would be competing in the New York City Marathon—her first attempt at the distance. Jorgensen took the win at the three day Island House Invitational and then one week later lined up with the elite field for 26.2 miles of running, emphasizing before the race that the marathon did not indicate any interest on her part to compete in an Ironman. Jorgensen was stellar, running a 2:41:01 to finish in 14th (as the sixth American). Despite the solid finish, Jorgensen admitted to being “a little disappointed” because the final miles were so tough.

Photo: Photon.net

Best PR Performance: Lionel Sanders at Ironman Arizona

“PR” is putting it lightly when it comes to the performance that Canadian Lionel Sanders turned in at Nov. 17’s Ironman Arizona triathlon. After a lackluster performance at the Ironman World Championship in October (Sanders finished 29th), he headed to Tempe, Ariz. looking to defend the title he first won in 2015. While Ironman Arizona isn’t known as being THE fastest course on the Ironman circuit (thought it certainly isn’t slow), this year’s pro field and conditions made for an extremely quick race. Sanders turned in a 53:43 swim, a 4:04:38 bike and a 2:42:31 marathon to earn the victory in 7:44:29 and break Marino Vanhoenacker’s 2011 Ironman Austria 7:45:58 record for fastest Ironman-branded race.

“I’m definitely a fan of the sport and a history buff, so I certainly was aware of Marino’s time,” Sanders said of going after the record. “I want to be the best in the world, so you have to be able to envision yourself doing that sort of thing. I won’t stay that intended on doing it [in Arizona], but you have to seize that when the opportunity comes.”

Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image

Legend Award: Natascha Badmann

Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann, a six-time Ironman world champion, raced her final Ironman Hawaii as a professional in October. The original “Swiss Miss,” who turned 50 earlier this month, was the first European woman to win the Ironman World Championship in 1998 (she also won in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005). Badmann brought a great energy to the Big Island, with her infectious smile, gracious attitude—and her historic sub-five-hour bike splits. She had a long, illustrious career (even winning Ironman South Africa at the age of 45!), and fellow athletes and triathlon fans will remember her as a class act. (Pictured above is Natascha Badmann on the Queen K preparing for her final Ironman World Championship.)

Photo: Oliver Baker

Best Battle: Nicola Spirig and Gwen Jorgensen in Rio

Four-time Olympian Nicola Spirig and two-time Olympian Gwen Jorgensen hadn’t gone head-to-head since London 2012 (where Jorgensen finished 38th after a flat). On Aug. 20, the reigning gold medalist and gold medal favorite put on a show with a back-and-forth dynamic that lasted nearly two hours.

The two exited the swim side by side and left T1 together. Then Spirig set out onto the bike course with a purposeful tactic to breakaway, but Jorgensen managed to cover every move. Then at one point in the run, Jorgensen and Spirig looked like they were arguing and slowed almost to a weird shuffle-walk.

“There was a windy side of the course, so no one wanted to lead and I said we should share the work,” Spirig explained. “She said no, I was leading before—you go.”

“We were saying ‘you take a turn,’ ‘no you take a turn’ and she said, ‘I already have a medal’—you go,” Jorgensen said. She added, jokingly, “but now she has two and I only have one!”

Spirig admitted she was pulling every trick out of the hat she could to break Jorgensen. “It was just some mental games—I knew she was a strong runner so I had to try everything to get her out of the rhythm a bit,” she says.

With 2K to go, Jorgensen initialized her famous surge, and Spirig couldn’t match her pace. Jorgensen cruised across the finish line in 1:56:16, bringing an end to one of the best battles in Olympic triathlon’s short history. Read more about their battle here

Photo: Delly arr/Triathlon.org

Best Battle (Runner-Up): Tim Reed and Sebastian Kienle at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship

After turning in his signature strong bike ride, two-time 70.3 world champion Sebastian Kienle (GER) took control on the run in pursuit of another title. Despite looking strong, Reed, Appleton and Maurice Clavel (FRA) soon joined him. Reed tried to break away, but Kienle didn’t let him go without a fight. The duo battled out front with each of them trying to make breaks at certain points, but nothing stuck and the two continued to run shoulder to shoulder throughout the entire half-marathon. It was Reed who found an extra gear and broke away in the final minutes to post a 1:11:03 half-marathon and earn his first world title in 3:44:14. Kienle had to settle for the runner-up spot for the second year in a row, finishing only two seconds behind Reed.

“Someone like Sebi is someone I’ve looked up to for many years,” Reed told Ironman.com. “Even to be running alongside him was a buzz in itself.”

Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Best Sprint to the Finish: XTERRA USA Championships

Josiah Middaugh out-nosed Braden Currie at the finish line to take the tape by 7/100th of a second in September in Ogden, Utah. The effort won Middaugh the inaugural XTERRA Pan America Championship title—and the honor of being one-half of the closest finish in XTERRA’s 21-year-history: 2:20:23.57 to 2:20:23.64. “I don’t think it could have gotten any closer than that,” said Middaugh, the reigning XTERRA world champion from Eagle-Vail, Colo. who finished 26 seconds ahead of Currie at the USA Championship held on this same course last year.

“To be honest I was coming down that hill and I had about five seconds on him when I last looked and I knew I couldn’t afford to look back and so I didn’t really know how close he was until I saw him right on my shoulder which was right on the finish,” said Currie. “I just did everything I could, and the last thing I thought was maybe if I get something across the line before him then I would win, but obviously that wasn’t quite right.” Watch video of the finish here

Photo: XTERRA

Brother of the Year Award: Alistair Brownlee

If you haven’t seen the men’s finish from the ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final, do yourself a favor and watch it—it’s downright heartwarming. The series crown was really a fight between the younger Brownlee brother, Jonathan, and Spain’s Mario Mola. Even though Jonathan Brownlee, the 2015 ITU world champion, was leading well into the run and looked to have the race (and the back-to-back world titles) in the bag, the hot and humid weather in Cozumel, Mexico, caused Jonathan to stumble deliriously just 400 meters from the finish line. His older brother, Alistair Brownlee, was running in third place, and rather than let Jonathan walk off the course and be helped by a volunteer, he grab’s Jonathan’s arm, throws it over his shoulder and runs stride-for-stride with him to the finish, then throws him across the line in second place (Olympic bronze medalist Henri Schoemann had run past them) to give him his best shot at the WTS crown. Mola’s fifth-place finish ended up giving him the edge in the series over Jonathan by just four points.

Photo: Janos Schmidt/Triathlon.org

Best Pro Selfie: Heather Jackson

The 2016 Kona podium finisher’s selfie game is on point. At the Ironman World Championship finish line, American Heather Jackson, after her third-place finish, had the energy to whip out her GoPro for a selfie with the top two iron-women in the world.

Photo:Twitter.com/hjacksonracing

Team of the Year: Arizona State University Sun Devils

The Arizona State University Sun Devils are on this list as much for their accomplishments, as they are for what they represent for the future of triathlon as an NCAA sport. Thanks to a vision by elite athlete Nicole Truxes and the execution by head coach Cliff English and assistant coach Erin Densham, ASU has become the gold standard for what triathlon at the NCAA level can look like. The Sun Devils turned in strong performances at all three regional competitions they participated in and then earned the team title at the USA Triathlon Women’s Collegiate National Championship. Now the sport needs other programs to match their example and further enhance the competition on a national scale.

“There’s no reason triathlon shouldn’t take its place next to other college sports,” English said after the win. “This was a great start for us. Now we have to make sure at ASU that we go out and do it again next year.”

Photo:Twitter.com/sundeviltri

Most Inspirational Story: Turia Pitt

Australian Turia Pitt truly embodies the Ironman slogan that “Anything is Possible.” Against the odds, she returned to competing in endurance events after suffering burns to 65% of her body when she was trapped by a grassfire while competing in an ultramarathon in Western Australia in 2011. After 200 operations, Pitt persevered and completed both Ironman Australia in May and the Ironman World Championship (pictured) in October. “There have been big barriers to overcome,” wrote about the training process on Ironman.com. “I only have three fingers as a result of the fire and so I have a custom-built bike. Because of the burns, my skin has difficulty regulating my body temperature. So yes, there have been huge challenges, but everyone on an Ironman journey must overcome barriers. I’m no different.”

Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for Ironman

Craziest Course Conditions: XTERRA World Championships

Rain, wind, and huge swells made for one insane day of racing in Maui. Stormy weather stirred up 6 to 8 foot waves at DT Fleming Beach, site of the World Championship swim, while several days of rain leading up to the race turned the already-tough 20-mile mountain bike and 6.5-mile trail run courses into muddy mayhem.

More than 800 endurance athletes from 46 countries participated in the event. Bermuda’s Flora Duffy won the women’s race in 3:14:59, more than 10 minutes ahead of runner-up Lesley Paterson from Scotland. It was Duffy’s third XTERRA World Championship win in a row, tying Julie Dibens record of three straight from 2007-09.

On the men’s side, 21-year old Mauricio Mendez of Mexico took the world champion crown for the first time with the fastest run split of the day (42:06) and a total time of 2:49:38. Read the recap

Photo: XTERRA

Saddest Goodbye: Wildflower Triathlons

Wildflower founder Terry Davis announced in October that the Wildflower Triathlon Festival would not take place in 2017. The iconic event, known as the “Woodstock of triathlon” was one of the most popular half-iron distance triathlons in the world until drought conditions in California forced the event to take on a non-traditional format of a 1.2-mile swim, 2.2-mile run to T1, 56-mile bike and then a 10.9-mile run starting in 2014.

For 34 years, thousands of athletes would camp in the hills surrounding Lake San Antonio, watching movies outside at night, grilling up grub, and enjoying each other’s company in a fun, laid-back environment that no other event has ever matched. The off-road, Olympic and half-iron distance courses were no joke, with hills, heat, and wind making athletes earn their dinner. We hope Wildflower will come back when it rains again in California. For now, the event will be sorely missed.

Photo: Rocky Arroyo

Biggest Gear Breakthrough: Doing More with Less

This year, the biggest breakthrough is more a lack of something than a new piece of gear. In the endless battle of aerodynamics, some manufacturers have removed entire tube sections have gone missing. However, those builders are still finding ways to integrate storage and hydration. Water bottles and spare tubes are no longer strapped to the back of the saddle. They now have specific compartments to carry your spare, tools, nutrition and anything else you may need to bring on race day. So while the bikes may have less tacked onto them, they are doing more than ever to help you go faster. Pictured here: The Diamondback Andean, one of the new bikes unveiled in 2016.

Photo: Oliver Baker

The Persistence Award: Cameron Brown

Age truly is just a number, as proven by New Zealand’s Cameron Brown. On March 7, the Kiwi veteran won Ironman New Zealand for the 12th time at the age of 43. With the victory, Brown extended his record as the oldest man to win an Ironman and became the first professional male to win the same race 12 times. Oh, and did we mention that he did it in the fastest time ever recorded on the Taupo course? He turned in 48:37 swim, a 4:29:13 bike and a 2:44:54 marathon on his way to the new 8:07:57 course record.

“That was the toughest,” Brown told Ironman.com. “And aside from that first win here, this would have to go down as the best. I’m a couple of months shy of my 44th birthday so to win this for a 12th time, and set a new course record is incredibly special.”

Photo: Delly Carr/Ironman

Worst 15 Minutes of Fame: Julie Miller

The Canadian triathlete became the unlikely subject of an in-depth New York Times feature after a suspicious age group win at Ironman Canada in 2015. Fellow triathletes and reporter Sarah Lyall started investigating Miller’s 10:49:03 after the second, third, and fourth place women in her 40-44 age group said Miller never passed them on the course. What the investigation turned up: Miller has a penchant for losing her timing chip, and she clocked bike loops faster than the male pros. Course officials decided she cut the course to earn her Kona slot, likely at more than one race. Ironman barred her indefinitely from its events, and New York Times readers—even those who’ve never done a triathlon—were collectively offended by her cheating. Read the full NYT story here

The Friendship Goals Award: Non Stanford and Vicky Holland

The British Olympians are not only best friends, but they’re training partners and roommates. (You may remember their fun backyard transition challenge leading up to the Rio Olympics.) And in Rio this year, the two ran next to each other in third place for much of the 10K run, until Holland ran right around Stanford just 100 meters before the finish to earn the bronze medal by just three seconds. Holland came over to Stanford on the blue mat just past the finish line. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘I’m really sorry,’” Stanford told The Telegraph in the UK. “But hey, she doesn’t have to apologize. We’ll be sharing a few G and T’s tonight.” Talk about friendship goals.

Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Badass Award: Susan Haag

At Ironman Florida in November, Jacksonville, Fla.’s Susan Haag became the first woman to complete 100 iron-distance triathlons. One hundred wasn’t something the 50-year-old lawyer necessarily set out to do. “I didn’t really have an end goal or a finishing goal—it just became a lifestyle,” she says. She started racing triathlon in 1990, and Ironman in 2002, and she doesn’t foresee an end to her racing. (In fact, she made it 101 when she raced Ironman Cozumel a few weeks later.) “I just love meeting the people,” she says, “I like the community that we’re in.” Read more quotes from Haag here

Photo: Nick Morales

Coolest Milestone: Triathlon in the Paralympics

It took 16 years after triathlon got accepted into the Olympic Games for paratriathlon to make its debut at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. It was one of seven sports formally submitted to the International Paralympic Committee, and paratriathlon (along with para-canoe) made its debut in Rio. The ITU has held Paratriathlon World Championships every year since 1995, and this year 60 paratriathletes were able to compete in Rio. “Our long-head ambition has come true,” said Sarah Springman, ITU vice president and executive board rep to the ITU Paratriathlon Committee, when the sport was added to the Rio lineup. “The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games will become the catalyst to encourage people with disabilities to take up paratriathlon.” We hope so!

Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

A look at the performances, moments and headlines that stood out in 2016.

Erin Beresini, Liz Hichens, AJ Johnson and Bethany Mavis contributed to this article.