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Recalled: Simon Lessing’s World Record-Setting Race

His 1:39:50 for a draft-legal Olympic-distance still stands today.

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25 years ago next month, British star Simon Lessing turned in the fastest time in history for a draft-legal Olympic distance race. His time? An impressive 1 hour, 39 minutes, 50 seconds over a 1500m swim, a 40K bike, and a 10K run at the 1996 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Championships in Cleveland, Ohio. Although there was some speculation that the course was short (the women’s winner, the late Jackie Gallagher Fairweather of Australia, also set the still-standing world’s best of 1:50:51 that day), there’s no doubting Lessing’s absolute dominance in the 90s, where he won a grand total of five ITU world championships and plenty more podiums. Here’s a closer look at that fastest-ever finish.

On the morning of Aug. 25, 1996, Simon Lessing lined up alongside his competitors on the water’s edge of Lake Erie as the odds-on favorite for the title. At the time, the 25-year-old South African born triathlete, representing Great Britain, already had three world titles to his name, including two ITU championships (now called World Triathlon), plus several podium finishes in major events.

Good thing he had the confidence to back it up.

“There was no one who had trained as hard as I had,” he said of his mindset going into major races on a 2019 appearance on the Swim Smooth podcast. “If I got beat, second place would lead to embarrassment and even worry about the end of my career. Winning motivated me for many years.”

Growing up in Durban, South Africa, Lessing was a standout swimmer, runner, and sailor as a kid, earning high honors across the board from the time he first toed a starting line. He began racing triathlon around the age of 13, saying he was “a little fed up with swimming” and soon discovered his true talent in multisport.

Lessing winning the 1998 World Championships. The South African athlete, racing for Great Britain, was dominant in the 90s. Photo: Phil Cole /Allsport

“People often ask me how I found triathlon,” he told World Triathlon. “I actually think triathlon found me. I found what I was good at, quite honestly. When you’re good at something it motivates you and creates an interest. It was just the element of something completely different and new, but bringing in elements of two sports which I was pretty good at.”

Pretty good is an understatement. At 19, Lessing finished seventh in his first ITU world championship race. Two years later, he won his first world title, competing for Great Britain (because South Africa was banned from competing in all international sporting competitions due to Apartheid, Lessing raced for his mother’s home nation.) He picked up another title in 1995, and won the world champs in long-distance event that year as well.

So, in 1996, Lessing wasn’t expecting anything less than a win in Cleveland, just the second U.S. city to host a world championship triathlon. The field was stacked with the likes of Belgium’s Luc Van Lierde, Australia’s Greg Bennett, and New Zealand’s Hamish Carter. In the swim, Lessing and Australia’s Craig Walton set a blistering pace from the start, emerging from Lake Erie in 18 minutes, 24 seconds—some 20 seconds ahead of the chasers. They were eventually caught and folded into the lead pack on the bike, which traveled through city streets and a closed-off Shoreway, and a solid group of men set out onto the run course together.

Notably, some of the fastest runners in the field, including Van Lierde, Brazil’s Leandro Macedo, and Australia’s Miles Stewart, were not in that lead pack on the bike, which gave Lessing enough cushion to hold them off, despite their hard-charging efforts. Clipping along at sub-5-minute-mile pace, Lessing, a towering presence at 6 feet, 3 inches and in a unique one-piece Speedo racing kit, built a commanding lead as he cruised through the streets of downtown Cleveland. Eventually extending his lead to 20 seconds over a speedy Van Lierde, Lessing finished the run in a split of 30 minutes, 36 seconds, clutching the Union Jack as he crossed the line. 

Individually, Lessing’s swim, bike, and run splits were not the fastest of the day. But put together, along with speedy transitions, it added up to a jaw-dropping finish time of 1:39:50, a mark that still stands as the quickest Olympic-distance draft-legal race 25 years later. While the mark earned Lessing a mention in Guinness Book of World Records, record-setting finish times are viewed somewhat arbitrarily, as courses vary from location to location, and there is speculation that the bike course in Cleveland was inaccurate. But what cannot be argued is just how impressive Lessing’s body of work is, and this particular race only solidified his status as one of the most dominant short-course men in triathlon.