Last Weekend Now: The Year of Professional Triathlon-ing
Was 2022 the greatest year in the history of professional triathlon? Columnist Brad Culp recaps the highlights of the season.
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Last Weekend Now is your weekly commentary on what’s happening in pro triathlon, brought to you by Brad Culp. (Ed note: So yell at him if you don’t like the comments.)
2022 was the greatest year in the history of professional triathlon. I said it, I meant it, and I’m here to represent it. We had two Ironman World Championships taking place at two different venues over the course of three days in total. It’ll take some extraordinary circumstances for that to happen any time soon. We also had the PTO take its next step into the event business with the Canadian and U.S. Opens—which were OK for fans and pretty great for pros. Super League continued to grow with some spectacular new venues and one very bizarre one. World Triathlon put on the longest world championship series in the history of sports, which concluded with the race of the year. (More on that soon.)
Here are a handful of highlights from a most unique year of professional triathloning:
1. The American Women are [finally] Back on Top
Chelsea Sodaro certainly put in the surprise performance of 2022, stunning everyone but herself, her family and coach as she surged to the front of the marathon in Kona at a ridiculous pace and never backed off. Even more absurd than the speed by which she dropped the other best runners in the sport was that she had birthed a tiny human just 18 months prior. There are some supermoms from all walks of sport who have done some jaw-dropping feats in the months and years after becoming a supermom, but this has to be at the top of the list.
RELATED: Who is 2022 Ironman World Champion Chelsea Sodaro?
Removing babies from the equation, my pick for the best performance of the year goes to Taylor Knibb at 70.3 Worlds just three weeks later. It wasn’t just about the time she put into the rest of the field on the bike and her eventual winning margin of 5:47. We’ve seen athletes do that before. It was the way she broke the souls of her competitors so dang early in the race. She didn’t have to put in a surge to pull away; she just rode her normal tempo, and in a matter of minutes, the gaps to her main competitors were measured in miles.
She’s probably the most talented person on two wheels we’ve ever had come into triathlon. She swims like Lucy Charles-Barclay. She has WTCS-winning run speed. Triathlon isn’t exactly known for tough courses, but that’s seemingly changing bit by bit. When there is a world title up for grabs on a tough course (like 70.3 worlds in St. George), Knibb is going to be very tough to beat for a very long time.
RELATED: The Training Secrets Behind Taylor Knibb’s 70.3 Worlds Win
2. The Men’s Race at the World Triathlon Series Finale in Abu Dhabi
It didn’t help that this race took place super early on a Friday, when most people are just frantically trying to put the final nails in the coffin of the work week. What they missed was the strangest and most perfect fusion of events that led to France’s Léo Bergere somehow winning his first world title. He did so despite not winning a race until the final one of a 14-month-long season. Imagine Max Verstappen winning the Formula 1 championship by only winning the final race of the season (also in Abu Dhabi). You can’t, because that could never come close to happening. But triathlon is weird, so we were rewarded with a most unlikely world champion for 2022. I’ll spare you a breakdown of exactly how it happened, because I just did that a few weeks ago.
With less than eight months to go until the Paris Test Event, the race for medals is already heating up; particularly for the relays, where the host nation is looking stronger than ever as we inch closer to Paris 2024.
3. The Globalization of Norwegian Triathlon
Superstars are good for sports. Golf is still just tennis without Tiger Woods. Marathoning is less cool without Kipchoge. Triathlon is definitely less cool and interesting without the pair of Norwegians who have taken the sport by storm. The on-course exploits and off-course training methods of Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden have garnered attention from outside of the sport—with features in the NY Times and an appearance on the popular Rich Roll Podcast—and it’s the best commodity triathlon has to export to the real world right now.
It helps that they’re easy to like, engaging with fans, and add a lot of fun to the sport by just being themselves. They’re commencing what will be the most difficult and unlikely crusade of their careers so far: Returning to the Olympics, where Blummenfelt will be defending champion and Iden is eyeing his first medal. Then, immediately back to Kona, where Iden will be defending champion and Blummenfelt has unfinished business. It’s more insane than anything they’ve attempted before, so it’ll probably work.
RELATED: What Does It Mean to “Train Like A Norwegian?”
4. The Growth of PTO
Imagine being a newish pro triathlete at the dinner table this holiday season, trying to explain to blue-collar relatives how the Professional Triathletes Organization is helping finance your career. They would probably assume there’s an element of money laundering or human trafficking involved. It sounds too good to be true—especially in a sport where paying the entire field or paying out year-end bonuses hasn’t exactly been the norm.
PTO put on three events in 2022, including its first two “Opens” in Dallas and Edmonton. While I can think of a few more inspiring places for triathlon, both races had a million-dollar prize purse, a world-class field, and decent live coverage by triathlon standards. Even the athlete who finished dead last in Dallas (probably Andrew Starykowicz) made two grand.
The PTO footprint will grow to five professional events in 2023, adding Opens in Asia and Europe. With a sudden influx of roughly five million dollars into the annual pro triathlon pot, it’s a pretty good time to be a [top] pro.
RELATED: PTO U.S. Open Results: American Collin Chartier Shocks Field For Win In Dallas
5. Super League Speeds Up
The tighter window between Olympics has benefited the athletes and events of Super League, which had eight races total in 2022. There’s no longer a need for Olympic hopefuls to dabble in non-draft racing in the year or two after the Games, thanks to more money and faster racing on the line at Super League.
Aside from the handful of athletes who raked in six figures during the brief Super League season, the biggest beneficiaries are the fans. The racing is never boring, the live coverage is very good, and it’s one of the best vehicles we have right now to expose triathlon to new audiences. Perhaps we could do something about the Cheetahs kits before we do that.
The Super League Arena Games will have a four-race series in 2023, beginning with the debut of Montreal on February 25.