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With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete will dip back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar events in triathlon. Today, we’re throwing it back to 2012, when British pro Leanda Cave pulled off an unprecedented double–and sealed her name in the history books as one of the greatest triathletes in the sport.
2012 didn’t start off quite right for Leanda Cave. In fact, it could have been downright disastrous, if you consider all of the muck she had to wade through in the beginning half of the season. An illness, likely picked up at a race in Panama that February. A freak fall, resulting in a pair of cracked ribs. But Cave, then 34, was no stranger to bumps in the road. She’d had her share of injuries during her lengthy career, as her willowy, extra-lean, 5’10” frame made her especially susceptible to stress fractures. But time and time again, from the ITU circuit to the Ironman course, she was able to recover, refocus, and recharge.
And 2012 was no different. Perhaps it was forced rest mandated by the illness and injury. Or perhaps it was Cave’s internal fire, burning hotter than ever, that set her up first for a big win at Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in June. She followed that up in September with an even bigger victory at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Henderson, Nevada, her first world title in seven appearances at the champs. She took the lead on the bike and never looked back, a pleasant surprise for Cave, who had been training specifically for the Ironman distance in the build-up to the race.
Despite the momentum going into Kona, one fact remained strikingly clear: No woman at that point had ever won both the 70.3 and Ironman World Champs in the same season. Would Cave be the one to finally check those two boxes? When Cave arrived in Kona in October 2012, she was optimistic, but not overtly so. After all, she’d already raced in Kona five times, and had experienced the gamut of performances from a DNF in 2008 to a third-place finish in 2011. Cave knew better than anyone that often, expectations for the race can easily blow away in the Big Island’s infamous tradewinds.
Still, that scorcher of an October day unfolded more or less like a dream for Cave–and a thrilling one at that. After a swift swim which landed her at the front of the pack, she held strong on the bike, battling for the lead with Swiss pro Caroline Steffan and American Mary Beth Ellis. A four-minute penalty on the bike set her back some, but she roared back in the run, ultimately reeling in Ellis and then a struggling Steffan at mile 23, while holding off Mirinda Carfrae, who’d finish third. And, with her trademark “Blazeman roll” across the finish line, the victory, finally, was hers.
In her remarks at the awards ceremony the day after her win, Cave showed the humility and grace of a seasoned competitor who had seen it all, been through it all, and stuck through to finally have her day–all while making certain she would never take the moment for granted.
“This is the biggest moment in my life. I really underestimated how hard this would be,” she said to the crowd. “Racing an Ironman is one of the toughest thing we put our bodies and minds through. To be up here standing and the world champion in the Ironman distance is the most amazing feeling.”
Cave would never win another world championship, as she’d struggle with more injury and burnout and some depression before retiring in 2018 to start up a coaching career. Still, her 2012 double world championship win remains a rare pinnacle of success among pros. The fact that just one woman (Daniela Ryf in 2015, 2017, and 2018) and two men (Craig Alexander in 2011 and Jan Frodeno in 2015) have done the same truly underscores the elusiveness of Cave’s accomplishment–and firmly cements her name as one of the greatest athletes to ever compete in the sport.