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Kona Champions: Where Are They Now?

These athletes have all won the coveted Ironman World Championship title—some of them more than once—but what are they doing now?

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What are their favorite memories from those magical times—and who do they think will win this year? caught up with some of the former champions to find out more…

Chrissie Wellington (Great Britain), four-time Ironman world champion: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011

“I’m now working as Global Head of Health and Wellbeing for parkrun, I’m a public speaker and an author, as well as being a wife and mother. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which is the most challenging, time consuming, and fulfilling!

“When I think back to those Kona victories, my first memories are usually of running down Ali’i Drive, high-fiving the crowds with a beaming smile on my face, crossing the finish line with my arms aloft and then falling into the arms of my family.

“I remember the first year I won, I thought the finish line was literally at the bottom of Palani, so I grabbed a Union Flag and started waving it, only to realize that the finish line was actually still another mile away and they cruelly sent you on a little tour of Kona town before you finally reached Ali’i Drive and that wonderful hallowed finish line.

“For that first victory, I think it was key that I was the unknown and I went into the race as a total novice. Being a rookie, I could just go out there and race without any preconceived fears, ambitions, limitations or expectations, either from others or those I put on myself. Looking back, that freshness and naivety was so liberating and enabled me to achieve more than I could have ever thought possible.

“I always enjoyed celebrating my victories with my family—and more than a few Mai Tais!

“I wish I could be there to watch this year’s race, but I’ll be watching it online, although the time difference with the UK means that I might prioritize a bit of sleep during the bike leg!”

Chrissie’s Championship Picks

Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf

Tim Deboom (USA), two-time Ironman world champion: 2001, 2002

“I’m now an adventurer, personal trainer, coach, and father. For me, Kona was my birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s rolled into one day. I was disciplined beyond most, I think, and grew up knowing how to hurt. I just out worked most guys. You have to be selfish to succeed, too, and I was that. Just ask my friends and family.

“One of my favorite memories from the 2001 race was when I made the turn in the Energy Lab. I remember checking my watch. I didn’t see anyone for eight minutes—and I felt great. I actually picked it up after that. I was in the zone. And then hugging my mom at the finish line. She never believed in my choice to make triathlon a career, but she believed after that day.

“In 2002, I had based my whole year on repeating in Kona. I don’t think anyone really believed I would. It felt really good to back it up with my actions instead of talking about it. I believe the key to my victories was that I enjoyed the suffering. I wouldn’t let myself get comfortable. I had to eliminate distractions during training because I believe that’s what it takes. I loved the process of getting ready for those races—the training to be as fit as I ever would be in my life. I also think of the nerves before the race, controlling the “what if’s” and finding the courage in myself to even attempt to win those races. I look back now and wonder where it all came from sometimes.

“I will be in Kona this year as I’m being inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame. I’m bringing my daughter who has no clue what I did, so it will be fun to show her the race live. Maybe you’ll see me out at the Energy Lab handing out Cokes!”

Tim’s Championship Picks

Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf

Karen Smyers (USA), Ironman world champion: 1995

“I’m now a coach, event organizer, speaker, and mother. I have a lot of great memories of that day. During the actual race, I barely had any time to enjoy it—I probably only had three minutes during the entire race (the final stretch down Ali’i Drive when I looked back and realized Paula [Newby-Fraser] was not in sight) in which I knew I had it won. I didn’t really jump for joy over the finish line—because I was still in shock! Going back to the finish line for the final hour and getting to greet the final finishers as the women’s Ironman world champion was pretty cool, too. Overall, there was just this general feeling of euphoria: Being the best on the day at that particular race was just so momentous. I knew it was something I would cherish and be proud of forever, no matter what else happened in my career.

“I remember there being a key point in the race when Dave Scott, stood on the side of the road, really helped snap me out of a funk I’d gotten myself into. Paula had been putting more and more time into me on the bike. As I was climbing the hill out of Kawaihai at mile 80 or so, he gave me a split that I was 8.5 minutes behind. I responded by standing and stomping on my pedals up the hill to show that I was fighting like hell to keep the deficit down. He read my body language and yelled to me: ‘You gotta do your own race! You are doing fine!’

I had another 35 miles to think about it and realized that he was right—I was spending too much energy focusing on how I was doing relative to Paula. Dave’s advice helped me to let go of my negativity and self-criticism so that I was able to finish the bike in a much better frame of mind and with the resolve that I was going to have the best run I could muster—and that was all I could ask of myself.

“My run legs felt great, fortunately. I was able to make up four minutes in eight miles, which gave me the motivation that I was running fast enough to reel her in if I could keep my pace up. I think the key to my win was heeding Dave’s advice by refocusing my energies and attitude on the bike and then not giving up on the run.

“I can’t remember exactly how I celebrated my win, but I do know there was beer involved!”

Karen’s Championship Picks

Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf

Leanda Cave (Great Britain), Ironman world champion: 2012

Leanda before her final Kona race in 2017. Photo: Corey Hollister

“I retired from professional racing last year and am now working as a coach and business development manager for the coaching app

“The first thing I think of when I think back to that day is the pass I made when I took the lead from Caroline Steffen. From that moment to the finish line, I felt invincible.

“My favorite memory of the race itself is running onto Ali’i Drive in the last mile of the race and being in the lead. After crossing the finish line and leaving the finish area with my sister, I remember we phoned our parents—and that’s when it dawned on me that I had actually won. I’ll never forget the energy and noise of the crowd.

“I believe the key to my victory was consistency and no distractions. When I was able to focus entirely on triathlon and nothing else, I was able to do what I needed to do to have success. I felt very lucky to be supported by amazing sponsors that enabled that to happen. I could train and race with little to no financial stress. This was a privilege in our sport where prize money is not enough to live off unless you win world titles year in, year out. This is nearly impossible for most.

“This year I’ll be in Kona watching. It is still the most inspiring sport to watch live. Last year, I worked with Ventum and Peakers leading up to the event. On race day I was out past midnight supporting age groupers, including the oldest competitor to ever finish, 85-year-old Hiromu Inada from Japan, who missed the cut off the previous year. I was out on the Queen K where he had 5 miles to go. It was dark and quiet, just me cheering him on.”

Leanda’s Championship Picks

Patrick Lange and Daniela Ryf

Peter Reid (Canada), Ironman world champion: 1998, 2000, 2003

“I’m now a pilot, flying float planes in Canada. I still always watch the race. For the past few years, I’ve typically been working on weekends so I put the live coverage on the TV in the pilot crew room. My nickname at work is Ironman. The pilots are always blown away at how long it takes to complete an Ironman.

“When I think back to those days when I won, I think my favorite memory is running down Ali’i Drive in first place in 1998. It was a magical day where everything went perfectly on race day. It was the dream race of my career—solid swim, fast bike, strong run—and it just felt easy all day.

“After watching Paula Newby-Fraser fall apart with less than a mile to go during the 1995 race on NBC, I learned to never think you have the race won until you cross the finish line. You have to have 100 percent focus until you cross the line. I have been asked what I would think about in the last part of a race and I was always just counting my steps to 50 and repeating over and over again. It’s a trick I learned from Mark Allen to help keep a rhythm going on the run.

“I always absolutely loved racing in warm climates. I am from Canada but for some reason my body loves the heat. Even to this day I do better doing sports when it’s hot. My body was made to race on the Big Island. These days my sports addiction is kite surfing, along with mountain biking and cross country skiing in the winter.”

Peter’s Championship Picks

Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf

Faris Al Sultan (Germany), Ironman world champion: 2005

“When I crossed the line to win the Ironman World Championship back in 2005, I don’t think I really believed it. ‘Have I really done that?’ was my most common thought. It was only very late in the race when I realized I could win. It was after I’d run down Palani.

“The heat that day was tough. I was in a lead group of three guys in the water and my spirits were up, so I knew I could have a good race.

“The race has changed a great deal since then. It has become far more scientific and we don’t have as many special guys among the pros. I think Lionel Sanders is probably one of the few. “I now work as head coach of the German Triathlon Federation and am coach to Patrick Lange, so I have to bet on him to win this year. We have a clear favorite in the women’s race, but I do hope Anne Haug can interfere in Daniela’s plan.”

Faris’s Championship Picks

Patrick Lange and Daniela Ryf