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Before she had four consecutive Ironman World Championships to her name, Daniela Ryf was a relative unknown on the long-course triathlon scene. The Swiss star, who competed in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, had stepped up to the Ironman distance in 2014, and that year qualified for Kona. And she just about won it, too, only to be passed by a hard-charging Mirinda Carfrae in the final miles. (Carfrae, who ran a jaw-dropping 2:50:26 marathon, made up a 14-minute, 35-second deficit off the bike to take the win, the most impressive comeback in the race’s history to date). In other words, Ryf made her really work for it.
So in 2015, with more long-course racing in her legs, Ryf, then 28, was ready for re-do in Kona. And there was little doubt she had the chops to do it: Just six weeks earlier, she collected her second consecutive 70.3 World Championship in Zell Am See, Austria and a win at Ironman Germany, which doubled as the European Championships. Still, the 2015 Kona field was stacked, with Carfrae back in the hunt, along with 2012 Ironman world champ Leanda Cave and Rachel Joyce, who placed third in 2014, as podium favorites.
When the starting cannon went off at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 15, Ryf quickly tucked herself into the lead pack behind early leader Jodie Swallow of Great Britain. Emerging from the Pacific Ocean in 56:14, it was an impressive swim, for sure, but Ryf’s strengths truly lie in the bike. And, true to form, she was absolutely dominant on the 112-mile course. By the time Ryf rolled into T2 with a 4:50:46 split, she had built a seven-minute lead over all of her other competitors—even though she was riding on a flat tire for the final mile. Later saying she was “lucky” that the flat occurred so late in the bike, Ryf started off the run calm and undeterred, taking the lead and never relinquishing it.
As other race favorites fell back (or, fell off all together: Carfrae, who had been hit by a car three days prior, dropped out with back pain; Cave crashed early in the race and also DNF’d, and Swallow, who had been closest to Ryf on the bike, wilted in the heat and stopped), Ryf only extended her lead. In a red Bahrain Endurance kit, day-glow green racing flats, and a gray flat-brimmed Red Bull hat, Ryf remained stoic, even under the increasingly hot sun. Running fairly even splits, she ultimately stretched her lead to 13 minutes with a 3:06:37 marathon. And as she rounded Ali’i Drive to the finish line, she took her time, even slowing to a stop to secure a Swiss flag around her waist, as she soaked in her very first World Championships win.
So what made Ryf so dominant? She credited her coach at the time, Brett Sutton, for taking her from “an unknown…to a world champion” and arriving earlier on the Big Island to get in training sessions on the course, something she hadn’t done in 2014. And she mentioned being motivated by her countrywoman Natascha Badmann, a six-time world champion, whose career she emulated. During a post-race interview, Ryf offered a hopeful vision of her future in the sport. “I have a few more years,” she said with a sly smile, “so maybe I can keep going,”
And that she did, winning three more times in a row. The impressive streak ties Paula Newby Fraser’s run between 1991 and 1994, although the South African remains the “Queen of Kona” with an all-time high of right wins. But now, at 34 and showing no signs of slowing in the Ironman distance, Ryf has plenty of opportunity ahead to rewrite that record.