In 1997, when a then-29-year-old Natascha Badmann took the lead in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, TV commentators remarked, “they have no idea who she is, but they’re cheering anyway.” Indeed, the young Swiss pro was an Ironman rookie and a relative stranger to fans after venturing into multisport after spending much of her 20’s as an out-of-shape working mom with an unfortunate smoking habit. She didn’t grow up swimming, biking, or running–rather, Badmann only began jogging a few years prior simply to lose weight.
That all changed when she met her future husband and coach Toni Hasler and he set Badmann on a path to becoming one of the greatest triathletes of all time. After a few seasons racing duathlon, Badmann arrived in Kona in October, 1997 armed with an abundance of fresh energy and her trademark smile. And though she was eventually passed by the “Queen of Kona” Paula Newby-Fraser on the run, Badmann was elated with her runner-up status. She returned in 1998 as an even stronger, more determined athlete. Not leaving much to chance, she took the lead early on and held it, capturing her first world championship title in 9:24:16–the very first European to win an Ironman World title. “I was so happy, happier than I could express with words. I spread my arms out and wanted to share my happiness with the whole world,” she said of the win.
Of course, Badmann didn’t stop there. She returned to Kona again and again…and again, ultimately winning the iconic race six times (1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005), including coming back from a 10-minute deficit from Australia’s Michellie Jones to take her final title by nearly two minutes. “It was a magic discovery of what is possible,” Badmann said of that race, where she had to regroup and charge after Jones after being doled her first (and only) drafting penalty on the bike, forcing her to hang in transition for three minutes before taking off on the run.
But with the high-highs came some lows, including her turns at the World Champs the following two years, first suffering stomach issues that dropped her to tenth place in 2006. In 2007, she had a devastating on-course bike crash resulting in a broken collarbone, a DNF, and several surgeries to repair her injuries. While her winning streak in Kona had ended, she continued to race there until 2016, even nabbing the fastest bike split of the field in 2012 (5:06:07) at the age of 45, riding faster than competitors like Leanda Cave, Mirinda Carfrae, and Caroline Steffen, all much closer to her daughter’s age than her own.
Badmann continued to impress in the final races of her career, winning Ironman South Africa in 2014 at the age of 48. The same year, she scaled one last pro podium, placing second on home turf at Ironman Switzerland behind countrywoman (and four-time Ironman World Champ) Daniela Ryf.
Badmann, now 53, last toed the starting line in Kona in 2016, calling it her retirement from pro sport. But she hasn’t counted herself out of future competitions. “I want to keep on racing,” she said in an interview in late 2019. “I know I don’t have the same speed anymore. I am no longer 20 years old and I don’t expect myself to be as fast as I used to be. But I give myself the right to still enjoy the fantastic power of my sport.”