Can Swiss star Daniela Ryf win both Kona and 70.3 worlds this year?
Daniela Ryf, last year’s Ironman 70.3 world champion, never imagined success at the Ironman distance would come so quickly. “I was a bit surprised,” admits the modest 28-year-old who arrived on the Big Island for the first time last October, led the women’s race on the Queen K Highway for most of the day and ended up as the runner-up in the 2014 Ironman World Championship. “I was always interested to see what I could do in long course, but I was never planning to do it this quickly.”
A short-course specialist with two Olympic appearances, Ryf had hopes at the end of 2013 to qualify for another spot on the Swiss Olympic team when her new coach, Brett Sutton, convinced her to pursue a different path.
“Brett told me quite quickly that long distance would be good for me and that’s why last year we changed the whole plan,” she says. “The goal last year was just to do 70.3 worlds in Canada. But through the season he changed things around and suddenly he was talking about Kona and that’s why I did it. He was kind of forcing me a little bit and told me I should take the chance.”
As an ITU athlete, Ryf represented Switzerland in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, finishing seventh in Beijing and 40th in London. In 2010, she was third in the inaugural ITU Sprint Distance Triathlon World Championships.
A strong swimmer-cyclist, Ryf’s running times could occasionally match the best ITU athletes in the world. But although she never developed into an Olympic medal contender, Darren Smith, who coached Sweden’s Lisa Norden to a silver medal in the London Olympics, noticed a few things about Ryf when he coached her to her best Olympic finish in 2008.
“Truth be told,” says Smith about Ryf’s rare cycling strength and ability to suffer, “we didn’t do much riding. She had a massive turn of speed, but also a body type that was very robust and did not injure easily. … She is one of the best athletes I have ever worked with—period.” Another mark of her champion pedigree, Smith says, is her ability to perform when it counts. “I’ve only met a handful of them and they are ferocious racers who are tactically astute and deliver amazing things,” adds Smith. “All said and done, [she was] the perfect athlete to step up to long course when the time was right.”
Norden, a long-time friend and former training partner, isn’t surprised that Ryf has adapted so well to the iron distance. “I rarely get challenged on the bike in training,” she says, “but Daniela is the one who has made me suffer at times. She is one of the strongest girls I know in a no-fuss-just-get-this-done kind of way.”
With Sutton’s guidance and prodding, Ryf did her first Ironman last July at Ironman Switzerland in Zurich. She won handily in 9:13, 15 minutes faster than the second-place finisher, six-time Ironman world champion Natascha Badmann, the original Swiss Miss of Ironman.
“I was quite scared actually,” Ryf admits. “But Brett just said my body is made for Ironman because I’m quite strong, I’m a good cyclist and I can still run well off a hard bike. This was always a real challenge for me in the [ITU] World Cup races because if you’re a good cyclist sometimes it doesn’t really matter and you just have to be fast [on] the run. I’ve never been super fast, but I can hold a good pace for a long time, and that’s a big thing for Ironman. After Zurich, I started to realize this distance suits me quite well and then I really started to enjoy it.”
Ryf’s quick success at the highest levels of Ironman competition brings obvious comparisons to four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington, who was also guided by Sutton and whom Ryf considers her inspiration.
“I actually don’t know Chrissie,” Ryf says, “but she was in Kona last year cheering for me on the run, so that was quite inspirational. I have a lot of respect for her and what she did.”
Will Ryf become the next Chrissie Wellington? Can she win both this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship and the Ironman World Championship—a double achieved by only one other female athlete, Leanda Cave, in 2012?
Her coach is taking a wait-and-see approach. “I keep away from comparisons until they start winning the big ones,” Sutton says. “Yes, Dani has huge potential. For now it’s up to her to continue to improve and use it.”
Except for a longer build-up for Kona, Sutton says that there’s not much he’ll change in Ryf’s training this summer after the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, Germany, which she won in July with a course record-setting 8:51:00. Their summer training base in the alpine village of St. Moritz, Switzerland, should prepare her well for the mountainous terrain of 70.3 worlds in Zell Am See, Austria.
“Dani just needs to continue what she did last year,” he says. “Her race [at Kona] was brilliant and one of the best debut performances we’ve ever seen. She had a couple of mental downs at critical periods. However, we are working at making sure that we have improved in these areas.”
Ryf bonked and cramped coming out of the Energy Lab with 12 kilometers to go in the marathon after she went too quickly through the aid stations and dropped two bars and two gels, a critical mistake she says she won’t make again this year.
Her goal in Kona after what she hopes will be another success at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship is simple: To have a “Chrissie-like” ride on the Kona bike course, then back it up with a much faster marathon than last year’s 3:07. “I want to have a marathon where I can look back and think, ‘Whoa, I felt good.’ That’s my goal.” she says. “Then I think anything will be possible.”