Presenting the biggest moments, movements, and people that shaped the sport, pushed it forward, and got us talking.
Presenting, in no particular order, Triathlete’s Best of 2019 Awards:
Long-Distance Male of the Year: Jan Frodeno
Germany’s Jan Frodeno struggled through the 2017 Ironman World Championship in pursuit of his third title, hobbling his way to the line and finishing in 35th. In 2018, Frodeno looked to be well on his way back to the top of the world. He dominated the Ironman European Championship in 8:00:58, and then beat out fellow former Olympic medalists to win his second Ironman 70.3 world title. Then, just 10 days later he announced that he would not be competing in the Ironman World Championship the next month due to a stress fracture in his hip. Frodeno took a cautious but mindful approach to his 2019 racing season, defending his title at the Ironman European Championships but choosing to sit out of the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in favor of ensuring he could nail his lead up to Kona. He arrived on the Big Island fit, healthy, and full of gratitude. On a tough day, he put down the fastest time in the history of the race (more on that below). “It was that day in my career,” he said after the race. “That day I was dreaming of. That day I was always working for—when you feel that just everything falls into place.”
Long-Distance Female of the Year: Anne Haug
Germany’s Anne Haug struggled for much of 2019 with injuries, but managed to get a last-second Kona qualification at Ironman Copenhagen with a blazing time of 8:31:32. Onto the Ironman World Championship, lead switch-ups galore, surprising DNFs, and an epic last-minute surge in the women’s pro race kept us on our toes. Safe bets were always on four-time defending champ (the last four years in a row!) and course record holder, Daniela Ryf. When Lucy Charles-Barclay exited the water with a five-minute headstart onto the bike course and proceeded to fly along the Queen K, we all expected Ryf to start eating into her lead, as she had the last two years. But that moment never came. Charles-Barclay hit T2 with a six-minute buffer to start the marathon and it looked like she might take a wire-to-wire win, although the group of women chasing her possessed some fleet feet, and by mile 15 Haug—who posted the fastest run split (2:51!)—took the lead and never let it go. Haug crossed the finish line in 8:40:10 to earn her first-ever Ironman World Championship victory (and her spot on Triathlete’s best of 2019 list).
Short-Course Male of the Year: Mario Mola
Though this may come as some surprise to fans of the ITU, as Spain’s Mario Mola did not actually win the WTS world championship (an honor that went to France’s Vincent Luis). But, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Last year’s ITU world champion was off to a fantastic start to his 2019 campaign with a win at WTS Abu Dhabi in March. But at WTS Bermuda in April, a poor swim became the perfect storm on the tough bike course, and Mola finished an uncharacteristically 26th place—his worst showing in any ITU event since 2012. Again in May, a bad swim found Mola far off the pace of the front pack at WTS Yokohama, relegating him to an even more disappointing 29th place, and a month later in Leeds history repeated, down to the exact place he finished in Japan. Three bad races might not be a big deal over a whole season of success (Mola rebounded and finished an incredible 2nd, 4th, 2nd, and 2nd at the final four WTS events), but in the World Triathlon Series, a few slip ups can cost a world title.
Still, even with some of his worst racing in almost a decade, the three-time world champion still proved he was a class act by bouncing back and finishing the season strong with a close second-place finish to Luis in the WTS series. Sometimes good triathletes prove they’re the best when they come back strong.
Short-Course Female of the Year: Katie Zaferes
The smart bet for the first American to nab a spot on the team for Tokyo 2020 was Katie Zaferes. Heading into the Olympic test event in August, the 2016 Olympian had already won four ITU World Triathlon Series events, and a top-three finish was all she needed to punch her ticket to Tokyo—even a top eight would’ve worked if she was the first American. But…
She misjudged a turn on the bike, slamming into a metal barricade at top speed, breaking her nose and requiring 23 stitches in her mouth where her gums separated from her teeth—along with impact to her shoulder and leg. Needless to say, she didn’t get the spot (teammate Summer Rappaport did, however, with a fifth-place finish… more on that below). The last race of the WTS season—the ITU WTS Grand Final—took place just two weeks later, where Zaferes would need to finish in the top 12 to secure her first world championship title after years of coming tantalizingly close.
Despite almost a week away from training, Zaferes crushed it, beating the first two women across the line at the Tokyo test event for the win. “By finishing first in the Grand Final, I showed myself I was able to overcome the mental and physical challenges of crashing,” Zaferes said. “It made me feel like I truly deserved to be world champion.” If her tenacity in 2019 is any indicator, place your bets on Zaferes for Tokyo in 2020.
Breakthrough Male: Gustav Iden
This year’s men’s 70.3 World Championship in Nice, France, was always going to be an epic September showdown with such a loaded field of superstars. But no one expected a relatively unknown Norwegian youngster to break the tape. Enter Gustav Iden, a short-course racer whose bike handling skills make Evel Knievel look a little lame. By taking the title, not only did the 23-year-old cause a huge upset, but he also became the youngest ever Ironman 70.3 world champion.
Those who follow ITU racing closely will know Iden is not actually an overnight success: He has been racing on the draft-legal circuit since 2016—and as a junior since 2012. He finished 4th at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland, and also came 4th at the Tokyo test event in August.
Iden won the 70.3 Worlds title in a time of 3:52.35, with British two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee in second place, and American Rudy Von Berg in third. He is undoubtedly proud of the fact he did so as the only pro to ride a road bike—and then went on to post the fastest run split (with a lightning fast 1:08). Although Iden says he is primarily focused on Tokyo 2020, he is equally looking ahead to step up to long-course racing and has boldly claimed that he will “try really, really hard to win Kona one day.”
Breakthrough Female: Laura Philipp
Germany’s Laura Philipp finished fourth at the Ironman World Championship in her debut at the event. Given how difficult it is to find success on the Big Island, this is huge for the 32-year-old. On top of that, she posted the fastest bike split of the women (4:45:04).
“I am super proud of the fastest bike split of the day at my first IM Hawaii experience,” Philipp wrote on Instagram. “Thanks so much everyone for your messages and congratulations and also a big Mahalo to all my sponsors friends and family who help me to get the best out of myself!” We’re excited to see what she’ll do in 2020!
Best Record Breaking Male: Jan Frodeno in Kona
Last year, Kona racers experienced perfect, once-in-a-lifetime conditions: not too hot, not windy. Just fantastic enough for Germany’s Patrick Lange to set a record we thought wouldn’t fall for years. So when the wind picked up, the run turned roasty, and Lange—along with the entire Kona top 10 from 2018—returned, we expected an epic battle, but not a brand new record. Then fellow countryman and two-time Ironman world champ Jan Frodeno showed up and proved he’s the Greatest of All Time, smashing Lange’s record by more than a minute to set the bar at 7:51:13 and claim his third Kona title.
Frodeno, Tim O’Donnell, two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee, and others set a super fast, aggressive (and balanced) attack right from the start. Even though Lange withdrew midway through the bike, it wouldn’t have mattered as Frodeno put on a master class in long-course triathlon, taking control of the race essentially from the gun and impressing everyone with his form; he looked like he was floating through the run while everyone else was stepping on hot coals. “Thomas Hellreigel was along the course and he made me aware that I needed about a 2:44 marathon to do it,” Frodeno said of breaking the record, a goal he hadn’t much considered as he swam out to the start. “But I have to say I’m not the guy for records anymore. They don’t fascinate me, they don’t grab me, and somebody’s going to break this record sooner or later.”
Best Record Breaking Female: Daniela Ryf’s Fifth 70.3 World Title
It’s rare that we’re not giving Daniela Ryf (SUI) the long-distance female triathlete of the year award, but that definitely belongs to Haug this year. While Kona was massively disappointing for Ryf (she finished 12th and later cited a stomach bug for the lackluster performance), it shouldn’t overshadow the amazing feat she pulled off just a few weeks prior. On Sept. 7 in Nice, France, the “Angry Bird” swam, biked, and ran her way to a fifth Ironman 70.3 world title. With the victory, she became the first athlete (male or female) to win the Ironman 70.3 World Championship five times. She proved she’s human in Kona, but overall she’s still one of the greatest triathletes to ever live and she’s got another record to prove it.
Best Comeback: Flora Duffy
Bermuda’s Flora Duffy was on top of the triathlon world when she crossed the finish line of the 2018 ITU WTS Bermuda race in first place in front of a raucous hometown crowd. She went on to win WTS Yokohama just two weeks later, but it was around that time that she started to feel pain in her foot. The injury ultimately took Duffy out of the rest of the 2018 season, leaving her unable to defend her ITU world title, and a good chunk of the 2019 season. Duffy finally returned to the race course at the Tokyo Olympic Test event on Aug. 15 of this year. She technically crossed the finish line in third, but was awarded the victory after the first two finishers across the line were disqualified (see controversy of the year below for more on that). Duffy then went on to finish fifth at the Grand Final in Lausanne, third at a World Cup in Spain, and then reclaimed her XTERRA world title in Maui. She’s now a nine-time world champion and will be the favorite as we look ahead to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I was thrilled with third and thrilled to be back racing after one of the hardest years of my professional career,” Duffy said after the Tokyo event. “There were many times in the last 14 months that I did not think I would race again. So today was a huge personal milestone in my journey back. I still have a long way to go.”
Age-Grouper of the Year: Triny Willerton
In May 2018, a pickup truck struck 47-year old Triny Willerton while she was on a training ride in her hometown of Boulder, Colo. The mother of five suffered six broken ribs, a fractured scapula and pelvis, and a punctured lung. But she miraculously competed in Kona five months later, an opportunity granted through a special slot that non-profit Women for Tri gifted her. That’s an incredible comeback story in itself, but that’s not why she’s age grouper of the year in 2019.
After the crash, Willerton became a road safety advocate. She dubbed her platform #itcouldbeme, and lobbied for policies to better protect vulnerable road users. This May, as a result of her efforts, Colorado’s Governor Polis signed into law Senate Bill 19-175, which does just that by creating harsher penalties for drivers who cause those users harm. As Denver’s streetsblog explains, before the law took effect, drivers could severely injure someone in a crash and receive just a four-point penalty on their license. If the driver had a clean record, they could have caused injuries in three more crashes before having their license revoked under the state’s 12-point system. Now, such an offense is a class-one traffic misdemeanor that could result in a license suspension, paying restitution to the victim and other penalties.
Willerton turned a nightmare into a positive step forward not just for herself, but for the entire Colorado triathlon and cycling communities, and she hopes to do the same for athletes across the U.S. and around the globe.
American Triathlete: Tim O’Donnell
Tim O’Donnell didn’t have the most ideal lead-up to the 2019 Ironman World Championship. The American, whose previous best Kona finish was third in 2015, rolled his foot just over a month out from the big race and re-fractured his foot (which he had broken in 2018). He was in a boot for awhile, and then trained as much as he could on the alter-G and in the pool (aqua-jogging). Come race day, O’Donnell exited the water with the leaders and then played a huge role in the dynamics of the front group. He came off of the bike in second position, just 1:26 back from eventual race winner Frodeno. Despite the injury struggles, he turned in his fastest marathon ever—a 2:49:33—to maintain second position all the way to the finish line. “I felt great,” O’Donnell said of his marathon. “I tried to make sure I didn’t run to hard on Ali’i. I aways get excited and run too hard and then I get out on the Queen K and I go through a horrible dark patch. So, I was really consistent. I just focused on being relaxed and finding my rhythm.”
He was one of only two athletes on the day (and one of four in the history of the race) to finish under eight hours, claiming that runner-up spot in 7:59:40. “I was coming out of T2 and I saw that it was 5:09,” he says of the moment he realized a sub-8 finish was possible. “So I thought well you can break eight hours, but you’re going to have to run a sub-2:50, which was another one of my big goals.” He went on to finish Ironman Cozumel just over a month later, punching his ticket for the 2020 Ironman World Championship.
Best Clutch Performance: Summer Rappaport
While the qualifying standards for making the U.S. Olympic triathlon team may seem slightly byzantine, but in brief, U.S. athletes needed to needed to be in the top eight at the Tokyo test event in August. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t get another shot until the Yokohama WTS in May. This meant athletes would either get almost a year to prepare for the Olympic Games or a couple of months.
While Katie Zaferes was nothing short of a lock for the Olympic team at the Tokyo test event—after winning four ITU WTS events already in 2019—it would take a big result for another U.S. woman to get her “auto spot” in the same race.
When tragedy struck during the bike as Zaferes accidentally collided with a traffic barrier—taking her out of the race and requiring hospitalization—Summer Rappaport seized the opportunity. The relative newcomer to the triathlon scene, after running and swimming in college at Villanova, shocked the triathlon community by finishing fifth overall in the heat of the shortened run course to nab the first (and so far only) Olympic slot for the U.S.
“I was in shock,” she told Triathlete, “but it has started to sink in.” And yet at the actual Olympic Games, Rappaport might be the one doing the shocking. “The learning curve is steep in this sport, and I’ve had to be patient in my approach,” she says. “By adapting and growing, I’ve been able to gradually improve. It’s been a cumulative build, and it’s still building.”
Biggest Controversy: Holding Hands to a DQ
The women’s Tokyo ITU World Triathlon Olympic Qualification Event on August 15 ended in one of the most controversial finishes in all of triathlon history. After being together near the front for much of the race, British teammates Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown crossed the line hand-in-hand with big smiles on their faces—an act that turned out to have huge consequences.
Soon after the race, both athletes were listed as “DSQ” on the official results, with Bermuda’s Flora Duffy (third across the finish line) showing in the top spot. The ITU later confirmed that both athletes had been disqualified for a violation of rule 2.11.f: “Athletes who finish in a contrived tie situation, where no effort to separate their finish times has been made, will be DSQ.”
The decision riled tempers on both sides (read both arguments here and here). Some argued the women should have known the rules, violated the spirit of competition by not sprinting to the finish line, and deserved to be disqualified. Others said it was an incredibly harsh decision and against the intention of the original rule. The test event offered no money and no points toward the WTS series, so the tangible consequences were minimal. But the race’s high-profile stoked a huge reaction.
Biggest Industry News: Ironman Gets Listed
You can now officially own a part of M-Dot glory without even going to a race: Beijing-based Wanda Sports, a unit of Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, started trading on July 26 on the New York Stock Exchange under the title WSG. Besides Ironman, WSG also includes marketing company Infront Sports & Media AG. The IPO valued the companies at $1 billion. Dalian Wanda paid $1.2 billion for Infront in 2015 and $650 million for Ironman later that year. You can now look forward to Wanda Sports financial reports for a regular glimpse into the state of long-course triathlon.
Biggest Gear Trend: Quick Kicks
Quick kicks like the kind used to break 2 hours in the marathon just before Kona started–were all over the Kona course, specifically the Nike 4% and Nike NEXT%. A 2018 study funded by Nike said the shoes improve the metabolic efficiency of runners by 4 percent. This isn’t to say you’ll necessarily be 4 percent faster, but you could be 4 percent more efficient. And so far, the shoes have popped up on some fast feet: At this year’s London Marathon, the entire podium wore some version of the 4% or NEXT% platform; Eliud Kipchoge became the first runner ever to break two hours in the marathon in the NEXT%; Brigid Kosgei broke the women’s marathon world record in a pair; and in this year’s Kona pro field, four out of the top 10 men (only one is sponsored by Nike) and five out of the top 10 women (including the entire women’s podium) were wearing some version of Nike’s 4% or NEXT% shoes.
The steep $250 price tag and limited availability may not be easy to stomach, but the good news is you’ll soon have more options as other brands debut their own carbon-plated kicks: Hoka’s new Carbon X was released this year for $180, and Ironman world champion and world record holder Jan Frodeno was wearing an early model of Asics’ design in Kona. Carbon: It’s not just for bikes.
Fastest Growing Multisport Trend: SwimRun FTW
Swimrun officially began in Sweden in 2006, but 2019 will forever mark the year it started humming along as a bonafide multisport option in the States. U.S. events like the Odyssey Swimrun and Ignite series have been growing, U.S. brand ROKA added a swimrun suit to its lauded wetsuit lineup, and the grandfather of them all—ÖtillÖ—announced its first world series race on U.S. soil will take place on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, at the end of February 2020.
Biggest Training Trend: The Ride to Nowhere
Indoor riding is having a moment. Combine the rise of exciting virtual training environments like Zwift, Sufferfest, Trainerroad, and Rouvy with discouraging cyclist-versus-car stats and you’ve got an indoor revolution. In our own 2018 audience survey, we found that over 80 percent of our readers owns an indoor trainer. But that’s not why we’ve declared 2019 the year of riding inside. Peloton is.
Peloton—a brand that has been called the “Apple of the fitness category”—went from a tiny little 2012 Kickstarter to a company whose valuation at the time of publishing is expected to be around $8 billion with 1.4 million subscribers. Peloton’s indoor bikes start at $2,000, and the company offers a subscription package with live and pre- recorded training sessions led by real humans that begins at $20 per month. Likely because of Peloton’s success, we saw several tri-adjacent brands, like Wahoo, release dedicated indoor bikes this year, alongside existing lines from Stages and Bkool.Whether it’s for safety, performance, or time management, in 2019, more and more triathletes are saving on sunscreen and sweating where the wind don’t blow.
Best Battle: The Pro Women’s Marathon in Kona
While Frodeno led off the front of the bike in Kona and then ran his way to a historic victory, the women’s race played out much differently. Great Britain’s Lucy Charles-Barclay was dominant on the swim and bike, coming into T2 all alone with an eight-minute lead over Danielle Bleyhmehl (GER), Anne Haug (GER), Sarah Crowley (AUS), Laura Philipp (GER), and Carrie Lester (AUS). Charles-Barclay looked solid out front with a steady 7-minute pace, but the threat of a fast-running Haug was quickly apparent. The gap between the two slowly narrowed and at mile 15 Haug made the pass and never looked back. Charles-Barclay went through a rough patch and was passed by Crowley to put her into third at around mile 20. She rallied and was able to repass Crowley to reclaim the second spot. “It was a little bit of a silly stunt because I ended up in the medical tent,” Charles-Barclay said of the effort. “I’ve come second the last two years. I didn’t really want to move back a spot.”
Ultimately Haug took her first world title (see more above), with Charles-Barclay claiming the runner-up spot and Crowley rounding out the podium. The dramatic shuffling through the 26.2 miles made for an epic race full of interesting dynamics.
Best Finish: Daniel Baekkegard at Ironman Austria
Dane Daniel Baekkegard was over the moon after crossing the finish line on a tough, stormy day in Klagenfurt. Only eight days after winning his first Ironman 70.3 in Lahti, he took over the lead early on the run and made his way straight to a rookie win. But it wasn’t that dominating run that made this finish notable–it was how he crossed the line.
We dubbed it the Baekkegard Smash and couldn’t stop talking about it. You either loved it or hated it, leaving 257 comments on our Facebook page. Comments ranging from “super arrogant” and “douche move” to “easily the best” and “you do you.” We’re giving it this year’s best finish because, no matter where you stand on the stomp, it it certainly ticked all the boxes for best: Huge emotion? Check. Eye-catching move? Check. Momentous personal achievement? Check. Seen round the world? Double check.
Coolest Milestone: HBCU in the NCAA Gains Steam
As part of an initiative to grow the sport, last year USA Triathlon named Hampton College as the recipient of a grant to become the first historically black college or university (HBCU) to offer triathlon. This year, not only did USAT win the Diversity & Inclusion Choice Award from the USOPC (U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee) for the grant, but Hampton took a big first step by appointing Dr. Joetta Jensen—their current director of aquatics—as the first head coach of the women’s NCAA division 1 triathlon team.
In 2019, the ball finally got rolling for Hampton as Coach Jensen began laying the groundwork for next year’s competition. “[Right now I’m looking to] recruit and grow the program, through recruiting local athletes, HU students as well as international students as well,” she says. “Goal one: grow the program. Goal two: community outreach.”
Jensen sees the school’s inclusion in NCAA triathlon as something more than just a good opportunity for Hampton’s 4,300 students, but for the wider community that is impacted by HBCU’s. “As with swimming and other predominantly white sports, triathlon is underrepresented by african americans, therefore, this is a great step forward by Hampton University to help address the underrepresentation and provide opportunities for african-american females,” she says. “[We’re looking] not only to grow the program through team members, these ladies then become role models for not only young girls, but also for adults who may also be inspired to do a triathlon.”
Craziest Weather: Ironman Ireland
The inaugural Ironman Ireland featured some of the craziest conditions we saw all year—the fact that athletes had to battle the weather across the Ironman distance is the reason this one topped our list. With race organizers making the decision to cancel the swim, athletes forged on with a bike-run duathlon. The entire race around Cork looked wet, cold, and generally pretty miserable. Any spectators who were brave enough to battle the elements were rewarded by seeing two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee earn his first Ironman victory and nab a Kona spot. “8 hours, 12 gels, lots of clothes, thousands of spectators,” Brownlee wrote on Instagram. “Grinding up Windmill hill in Cork on Sunday. Can’t believe so many stood on that road in the constant rain. Amazing!”
Best New (Old) Race: LA Tri
Once upon a time, the Los Angeles Triathlon was huge. In the mid-aughts, it was part of the Life Time Tri series, a group of races that spanned the country and offered pros a half-million dollar prize purse. That money drew in big names, like Olympians Andy Potts, Julie Ertel, and Hunter Kemper. For age-groupers, the race was doubly awesome: they got to hobnob with the sport’s biggest stars and enjoy a unique opportunity to bike straight from famous Venice Beach to downtown Los Angeles on car-free roads (after a swim in the Pacific). More than 1100 athletes raced the Olympic-distance event in 2008. Then in 2014, the race moved south, losing its defining Venice-to-downtown presence. In 2015, Life Time cut its pro prize purse, and the event slowly faded away.
But thanks to major investment from global nutrition company Herbalife, and the vision and and connections of new race director Brennan Lindner, the race came back this year. The Olympic distance race hosted 454 athletes, a number we only expect to grow. We’ve seen some major series and iconic races go bust recently (RIP Escape Series and Wildflower). The LA Tri’s return was a positive, notable achievement for the sport.
Best Nutrition Trend: Natural non-GMO ingredients
While non-genetically modified (or non-GMO) and other “natural” foods have been in the news over the last decade, endurance sports nutrition brands are finally starting to follow along. Due to a high barrier entry, verified non-GMO products are more rare than you’d think.
“The vast majority of supply are conventional crops, due to the ease of cultivating and minimal regulations,” explains Nuun CEO Kevin Rutherford. “The result is that sourcing non-GMO ingredients is more challenging to identify, based on scarcity of supply.” Just this year, Nuun made the big (and costly) step of ensuring their products are non-GMO verified—something that’s as important as it is difficult. ”To put it simply, the reason competitive brands don’t go this route is likely due to lower costs and the path of least resistance in sourcing.”
Hats off to brands like Skratch Labs and Clif Bar, who have been producing non-GMO products for years, but this year we’ve seen major brands like Nuun make the leap and now non-GMO certified nutrition brand Vega Sport enter the endurance space.
What makes non-GMO ingredients good or better? The reality is we don’t know what we don’t know. Non-GMO products have not been produced artificially in a lab, and while the effects of genetic modification are still under researched, the U.S. is one of the few global superpowers that doesn’t require a food to be labeled if it has GMOs. This could change as early as 2022, but any triathlete knows that there are a lot of miles to train (and nutrition to take in) between now and then.
Until then, it helps to be informed. “Consumers should look for both products that deliver efficacy based on science using ingredients that are ‘clean’ and natural,” says Rutherford. “Knowing this, it’s important to look for recognizable and reputable ‘third-party’ certifications [like the Non-GMO Project] from their sports nutrition brand. This independent view provides the insurance to the consumer that you are truly ‘getting what you pay for’.”
Do you agree with our Triathlete Best of 2019 awards? Who else would you give an award? Sound off on Facebook.