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Triathlete’s Best of 2021 Awards

As we wrap up 2021, we look back at the spectacular stories and big breakthroughs that caught our attention in the triathlon world.

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In a year that saw a mix of virtual and exhibition events alongside the spectacle that was the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021), it’s hard to narrow down the whole season to just a handful of bests. Fortunately, we had a lot to choose from. Too much. In fact, there are still great things happening even in these last few weeks of the year.

Actually, so much happened in 2021, that some of our readers will likely take issue with the fact that some more recent performances didn’t make our list. While Gustav Iden had already solidified himself as one of the best middle-distance athletes in the world and Kristian Blummenfelt’s gold medal performance was etched in our memories (see below), it wasn’t until after we went to print with this feature in the magazine that the Norwegian duo cemented their status as the ones-to-watch in long-course triathlon, too. Now, as the year closes out, they’ve firmly asked the question we look forward to answering in 2022: Is a new era here?

Part of the reason we picked Lucy Charles-Barclay as our 2021 Athlete of the Year, however, was precisely because she exemplified this spirit—jumping from short-course to long-course, from Zwift races to Olympic swim trials to road marathons. So many athletes did that this year. The Norwegian squad seemed unbothered by whatever you wanted them to race. Taylor Knibb shocked everyone with Olympic qualification and then jumped over the long-course and shocked everyone there too, and then went back to World Triathlon sprint eliminator formats, because why not. Heck, Flora Duffy could lock down a record sixth Xterra world championship title this weekend in the same year she won Olympic gold, adding to an already-impressive streak of streaks. The new era doesn’t limit itself to old triathlon constraints. They want to excel, have fun, and push themselves no matter the format. And maybe that’s the best thing of all to come out of 2021.

Presenting, in no particular order, Triathlete’s Best of 2021 Awards…

– Kelly O’Mara, editor-in-chief

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Triathlete of the Year: Lucy Charles-Barclay

(Photo: Nils Nilsen)

While the three-time Kona runner-up finally took home her first world title this year, it wasn’t just a wire-to-wire win in St. George that made her our athlete of the year. It was her uniquely 2021 approach—jumping into everything from the British Olympic Swim Trials to Super League races to the London Marathon. In June, the battle-braided Brit also made a surprise debut at the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Leeds, finishing fifth in a field that was packed full of short-course talent (with just 11 days notice that she’d be on the start line). That followed her second place at the British Olympic swimming trials in the 1500m (clocking 16:46.26) and a winter full of  domination in the Zwift Pro Tri series. She then took that firepower and obvious Zwift expertise to a second place at the half-virtual, half-in-person Super League Triathlon Arena Games in London back in March. And, of course, there was her dominating win at the 70.3 World Championship in September, where she led from gun to tape—and clocked the fastest split of the day in every single leg. Of course, the ever-popular 28-year-old followed that up with a return to the Super League championships (outdoors this time) and a 2:47 at the London Marathon, just because she can. While she’s no doubt enjoying some downtime now, it’s clear that Charles-Barclay will be eyeing a second, third, and maybe fourth world title in 2022.

Want to train like the legend? We’ve got an exclusive one-hour workout from the Triathlete of the Year herself: Lucy Charles-Barclay’s Pedal Power Training Session.

Best Male Performance of the Year: Jan Frodeno’s “World Record”

Argue all you want about whether or not it counts as a “real” world record, the fact is the German GOAT covered 140.6 miles in 7:27.53. Who cares if he got hand-fed nutrition by a motorcycle? On a course crafted for speed and made for TV viewing, Frodo broke his own “official” world record in a two-man exhibition match (aptly labeled “The Battle Royale”) against the always-game Lionel Sanders. While the 40-year-old five-time world champ never looked under serious distress, even Frodo can’t control the weather, and viewers around the world looked on as rain briefly sent him sprawling to the ground and threatened to derail his record attempt. But not for long. Sure, the record was broken later in the year by Kristian Blummenfelt at Ironman Cozumel, on another course seemingly designed for speed. But that just makes the inevitable match-up next year even more anticipated. Now it’s only a matter of time before one of them breaks the record again. Sub-7, anyone?

To celebrate his Best of 2021 award, Frodo opened his training logs to share two of his favorite open water swim workouts with Triathlete readers. Get them here.

Best Female Performance of the Year: Flora Duffy Wins Bermuda’s First-Ever Gold Medal

(Photo: Diego Souto/Getty Images)

In her fourth (and likely last) Olympics, the Bermudian put together a perfect performance on a wet and stormy course in Tokyo, never really leaving any question about who was the best on the day. After a typhoon delayed the women’s start, Duffy led a small group out of T1 that stuck together through a crash-heavy bike, where many women behind DNF’d. From there, it was simply a matter of putting together the fastest run to win by over a minute. It marked Bermuda’s first gold medal, and made them the smallest country to win a gold at the Summer Olympics. After a number of injuries and setbacks for Duffy, the win and the accompanying media blitz was especially sweet.

Are you a data geek? So are we. Read our expert analysis of Flora Duffy’s Olympic-winning bike files.

Most Intense Women’s Finish: Women’s Paralympic Wheelchair Race Sprint Finish

(Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Because of a unique headstart system used in the PTWC Paralympic race, leader Australian Lauren Parker found herself being chased down in the final laps of the run. While American Kendall Gretsch—already a cross-country and biathlon Paralympic medalist—was making up time each lap, she seemed too far back to get there by the line. But as they hit the blue carpet, Gretsch dug deep and the two sprinted for a photo finish. “You have to give everything you can. On that final stretch I just put my head down,” Gretsch said. The gutsy effort culminated in one of the closest wins in triathlon history and made her a viral sensation.

Gretsch has captured the world’s attention, but she’s not done yet. Read her take on what she’s accomplished, and what’s next: The Rapid (Multiseason) Rise of Gold-Medalist Kendall Gretsch

Most Intense Men’s Finish: Kristian Blummenfelt’s Olympic Win, Collapse, and Vomit

(Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Yes, Blummenfelt went on to have quite the year post-Tokyo too, but it was his finish in Japan that marked the start of Norwegian domination and the culmination of years of work. When the gun went off for the men’s Olympic race, a media boat was blocking half of the athletes. The rest dove in and then had to be rounded up and sent back to start again. Climbing out of the water in his controversial see-through white kit might have been an odd start to the Olympics for Blummenfelt, but the Norwegian wasn’t going to let anything stop him. A big group on the bike turned into a slugfest on the hot and humid run. It was a battle that Blummenfelt simply wanted to win more than anyone else. In the final kilometer, he dragged himself ahead of speedy runners Alex Yee and Hayden Wilde, let out a guttural scream as he crossed the line, and collapsed. After vomiting on the blue carpet, Blummenfelt eventually had to be helped to medical by the very guys he had just beaten. Worth it.

After the gutsy win in Tokyo, Blummenfelt’s coach gave us the inside track on how the Norwegian went from promising young athlete to Olympic champion. (Spoiler alert: It was no accident.) Get Blummenfelt’s gold-medal workouts here. 

Breakthrough season: Taylor Knibb

(Photo: Courtesy of Professional Triathletes Organization)

The 23-year-old’s magical year began with a surprise victory at the Olympic qualification event in Yokohama in May, earning her a spot as the youngest female triathlete in U.S. Olympic history. She then came home from Tokyo with a silver medal in the mixed relay and a respectable 16th-place finish in the individual race. A week later, she jumped into her first 70.3 and rode away from a solid field at 70.3 Boulder—on a road bike with clip-on aerobars. She followed this weeks later with a win at the World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton and a second-place finish in the season rankings. She then outdid herself at the inaugural long-course Collins Cup, where she beat four-time Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf in a head-to-head match-up and clocked the fastest time of the day. Oh, and then she capped it all off with a third place finish at the 70.3 World Championship—her second-ever 70.3 and, again, on her road bike.

She’s had one of the biggest breakthrough years we’ve seen from an athlete for some time, but how did she do it? Taylor Knibb’s coach Ian O’Brien lifts the lid on the training, mindset, and tactics they used to crack a stellar season: The Unusual Story (and Unusual Coach) Behind Taylor Knibb’s Overnight Success

Breakthrough performance: Sika Henry

Becoming the first African- American female pro triathlete was something Sika Henry had set her sights on years ago—but her journey to get there was far from easy. A serious bike crash two years ago left her reeling and then COVID delayed Henry’s comeback even longer. That only made it all the sweeter when she finished third amateur overall at Challenge Cancun in May, and in doing so earned her pro card and a place in the history books. She then made her pro debut at 70.3 Augusta in September and earned herself a spot in the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame.

We caught up with the history-making Sika Henry after her pro triathlon debut in September–read the full interview here.

Bravest moment of the year: Daniela Ryf’s coming out

Daniela Ryf has always been known for her outstanding performances on the race course—and her largely quiet life off it. But in April, she opened up about “sports, my future, and love” in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, in which she also revealed she was in love with a woman. She was quick to distance herself from labels—“Why do you have to give it a name at all?” she said. “I don’t want to label it. I can fall in love with men and women, so what”—but the LGBTQ+ and wider triathlon community viewed it as an empowering move, not just for Ryf, but for all queer athletes.

Following the April story on Ryf, support from the triathlon community was immediate and immense. Read the reactions of Holly Lawrence, Siri Lindley, and more: Outpouring of Support for Daniela Ryf as the World Champ Opens Up About Her Sexuality

Dark horse of the year: Kevin McDowell’s Olympic race

(Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Going into the Olympics, Kevin McDowell had never placed above 11th at a World Triathlon Championship Series event and had been selected for the Olympics primarily for his mixed relay abilities, so it was nothing short of extraordinary to see him hanging strong at the business end of the men’s individual race in Tokyo. As the run pace surged and bigger names fell off, McDowell stayed right there in the front pack. While Blummenfelt ultimately ran away from everyone to take gold, McDowell—who 10 years previously had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—finished sixth, just 50 seconds back and recording the best-ever Olympic finish by an American man.

Photo of the year

(Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Maybe nothing quite exemplified 2021 as this photo that captured the moment when the gun went off for the men’s race at the Tokyo Olympics. There was just one problem (as you can see athletes gesturing to explain): Half the field was blocked by a media boat; the other half dove in and then had to be rounded back up for a do-over. It’s our sport’s biggest stage, and the culminating moment of these athlete’s careers—and yet you still never know what’s going to happen. We’ve all been that guy, looking around, and yelling, “Hey! What’s going on?!”

After the race, executive editor Chris Foster called the men’s race in Tokyo a “beautiful disaster” – one that perfectly encapsulates the weird and wild world of triathlon. Read the commentary here.

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What was #trending in 2021 

(Photo: Maddie Geyer/Getty Images)

It was a weird year for a lot us, and our search history is proof of that. We can learn a lot from what people searched for and clicked on at Triathlete. Here’s what was trending this year.

The buzziest Triathlete articles of the year

2021 tri news, in a nutshell:

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The Biggest Moments of the Year

#1: Racing Returns: First major pro race in U.S.

(Photo: Bruce Velarde/Challenge Miami)

Challenge Miami was the race we all needed, even if we didn’t know it. It might go off amid COVID, it might not. Multiple Ironman world champion and Olympic medalist Jan Frodeno was going to be there, then he wasn’t. But unlike most of what had happened over the last 18 months, things actually worked out in Miami: On March 12, an absolutely stacked pro field took to the NASCAR Homestead-Miami Speedway and delivered an epic show. Jan Frodeno did make it across the Atlantic to take the win, and Jodie Stimpson put on a running masterclass to top the women’s podium. More than just names on a results page, though, Challenge Miami signaled the return of big-time, championship-level pro racing.

After her emotional win, Jodie Stimpson divulged the four factors and essential workouts that helped the ITU world champion make the switch to non-draft racing (and winning). The best part? Her lessons apply to everyday triathletes, too: Jodie Stimpson Shares the Sessions She Used in the Lead-Up to Challenge Miami

#2: Duel of the Year: Long v. Sanders to the line at St. George 70.3

(Photo: FinisherPix)

While Challenge Miami was the return of championship-level racing, the battle at May’s 70.3 St. George between friendly rivals Sam Long and Lionel Sanders showed tri fans that the pros still had some spark. After talking moderate amounts of trash in the months leading up to the race, the mano-a-mano showdown proved to be a back-and-forth duel for the ages with Sanders squeaking ahead by a small margin. “[In 2016] Lionel beat me by 33 minutes [as an age-grouper]—so I went from 33 minutes to 5 seconds,” Long said of getting beaten to the line. “Truthfully there’s been a lot of banter and I’ve always looked up to him tremendously and have tried to earn his respect. I think I hopefully did that today.” Long would go on to fully earn that respect by besting a fast-fading Sanders in a hot, longer-course rematch at Ironman Couer d’Alene in June.

The two athletes’ willingness to lay it all on the line and say it like they mean it—with a mutual respect for each other—makes this rivalry one to watch for years to come. Read Liz Hichens’ commentary on why the Sanders-Long rivalry is so good for triathlon.

#3 Most Inspirational Athlete: Chris Nikic can’t stop, won’t stop

(Photo: Getty Images for Ironman)

After becoming the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman at the end of 2020, triathlete Chris Nikic could have taken a rest. Instead, he kept going: In 2021, Nikic raced 70.3 Hawaii, released a children’s book, ran the Boston Marathon, and trained for an honorary spot at next year’s Ironman World Championship. For all of this (and more), Nikic won ESPN’s Jimmy V Award, given to a person in the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination. We can’t think of a better person for the honor.

#4: Scariest Moment: Tim O’Donnell suffers a heart attack

In August, Tim O’Donnell made a shocking announcement: While racing Challenge Miami in March, he had suffered a form of heart attack infamously known as “The Widowmaker.” Though pain in the arm and jaw set in during the race, O’Donnell chalked it up to the pain of racing and continued on—after all, he considered himself “one of the fittest guys in the world,” he said. It wasn’t until after the race, when symptoms escalated to nausea and vomiting, that he went to the emergency room and learned his left anterior descending artery (LAD) was 80% blocked. Though he has recovered and will return to racing, O’Donnell’s story was a reminder to all triathletes that physical fitness and health are not always one and the same, and made everyone think twice about the importance of regular check-ups and listening to your body.

What are the effects of prolonged exercise on the heart? It was the question every triathlete was asking after learning of O’Donnell’s heart attack. Dr. Jeffrey Sankoff discussed exercise and cardiovascular health in his article: The Reverse J-Curve: Exercise Benefits the Heart – Until it Doesn’t

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The Best Triathlon Gear of 2021

Best new bike: Scott Plasma 6 RC Pro

$10,000, scott-sports.com

The new Plasma 6 hits a lot of superbike highlights to get a rare five-star review from Triathlete: Well thought-out, built-in hydration, lots of tri-specific storage, good sizing and fit adjustments, and a great ride all make this a big upgrade for the Swiss brand that has historically not gone all in on tri.

Read our deep-dive review of the Scott Plasma 6 RC Pro.

Best new wetsuit: Zoot Wiki Wiki 2.0

$800, zootsports.com

Though parsing out what separates a great wetsuit from a greater wetsuit at this price is tough, the Wiki Wiki 2.0 stood out to our testers with next-level comfort, industry-leading shoulder flexibility, and water-tight edges around the neck and wrists.

Learn all about the Wiki Wiki 2.0 in our extended review.

Best new race shoe: Asics Metaspeed Sky

$200, asics.com

Move over Vaporfly. Asics Metaspeed series—the Sky is for runners who extend their stride as they speed up, while the Edge is for those who pick up their cadence—has emerged this year as the new supershoe contender. With responsive foam, a carbon plate that stays firm, and a outsole grip triathletes will appreciate, there’s a reason this shoe has become ubiquitous among pros. One warning: go up a half-size.

Read more about why the Asics Metaspeed Sky was selected as the best new race shoe of 2021 in our expert’s review. And we compared the Metaspeed Sky to the Edge, in their unique stride-based designs.

Best new trail shoe: Hoka Zinal

$160, hoka.com 

Even though the outsoles may look more like a pair of road shoes, this moderately-minimal pair of road/hybrid shoes is at home on both paved trails and loose, steep ups and downs on dirt. Because most triathletes typically do some road and some trails, the Zinal is the best of both worlds.

We compared the Hoka Zinal to other new trail shoes of 2021 – read how they stacked up in our comprehensive review.

Best new tech: Coros Vertix 2

$700, coros.com

Most new premium smartwatches right now are typically slightly upgraded versions of previous models, but the Vertix 2 boasts a scary big leap in battery life (60 days smartwatch, 140 hours full GPS), built-in color maps and music, and a faster processor for futureproofing. Think: a triathlete’s dream watch.

Get a detailed look at the new Coros Vertix 2.