For Leanda Cave, sometimes the hardest part was winning.
When Leanda Cave was 14 years old, she picked up a copy of her sister Melissa’s Triathlete magazine and boldly pronounced, “I’m going to be in here one day.” Melissa, two years older, was already well ingrained in the triathlon scene. Her little sister had hardly raced. Melissa rolled her eyes and laughed at the precocious teen’s proclamation, passing it off as a joke.
But it didn’t take long for the younger Cave to show that when it came to triathlon, she was serious. After excelling in swimming, cross-country, and surf lifesaving competitions in her hometown of Cairns, Australia, Cave entered her first triathlon, at 14. She won it, riding on a mountain bike. When she beat Melissa (who has since married and now goes by Melissa Denyer) for the first time soon after, the two didn’t speak for weeks. “I got over it… eventually,” Denyer says.
Clearly, Cave was the real deal. Her sister saw it in the way she passed on typical teen stuff—hanging out with friends, going out on the weekends—so she could train and focus on races. “Leanda made sacrifices others weren’t always willing to,” Denyer says.
And the investment paid off: At 20, Cave moved to the U.K. to compete for Great Britain (her parents, both Brits, relocated their family to Australia in 1982). At 21, she was crowned the European under-23 champ. A year later, she won her first world title at the Olympic distance.
But the best was yet to come: After a streak of podium performances at both the half- and full-Ironman distances, she won the 70.3 world title in 2012. Just five weeks later came Cave’s crowning achievement: Outrunning Caroline Steffen and Mirinda Carfrae to win the Ironman World Championship. At 34, she became the first woman to achieve world titles in both distances in the same year, a feat only recently matched by Daniela Ryf. While Cave acknowledges her world championship win as the defining moment of her career, it almost upended her life.
“I’m very shy and wasn’t comfortable in the limelight with people coming up to me and asking to take my picture. And then there were the expectations to repeat, but I was injured,” recalls Cave, who returned to Kona in 2013 and placed 12th. “When I couldn’t deliver again, it was painful realizing I wasn’t going to be the athlete I felt everyone wanted me to be. It took me a long time to get past that.”
While Cave continued to enjoy success in the sport—she won Ironman Sweden and an ITU World Cup race in 2014—more injuries and burnout prevented her from earning another world title. And, after a lustrous pro career spanning 18 years, Cave officially retired in 2018.
Today, Cave lives in Park City, Utah, with her boyfriend, Ventum bicycles co-owner Diaa Nour. She has no designs to race again anytime soon but has kept close ties to the sport through coaching a dozen elite-level triathletes as well as consulting on a new business venture—a training app called Peakers. She’s also writing a memoir and is considering going to school for finance.
“I have had so many ideas of what I want to do, and now, I’m just waiting to pounce on them,” she says. “If anything, triathlon made me very goal-driven and determined to achieve. I’m still that confident woman. And I’m pretty sure I’ll be successful no matter what I do.”