Who Ya Got? Triathlon Fantasy Matchup #1

We’ve got two experts to debate the age old question: “Who would win if…” This month we look at Ironman record holders, überbikers, and pop sensations.

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Welcome to the first installment of “Who Ya Got?” Each month, two experts will debate tri fantasy matchups—pitting former world champions, current pros, athletes outside of our sport, and even celebrities. This month we’ve tapped writer and tri gadfly Brad Culp to debate top coach and bike fitter Ian Murray. They’ll argue the undercards first, then the celebrity matchup, before squaring off for the main event at the end. Be sure to weigh in on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Photo: Brad Kaminski

Undercard 1: Peak Dave Scott vs. Peak Craig “Crowie” Alexander – in short-course competition

“I got Crowie”

Not to knock someone nicknamed “The Man,” but this wouldn’t even be a fair competition. Of all of the triathlon greats throughout the sport’s 47-year history, none have been more of a pure long-distance specialist than Scott, who wouldn’t have a prayer of beating Crowie in a short-course event. 

While best known as a three-time Kona champion, some would be surprised to learn that Alexander had a respectable ITU career as well, competing in 40 Olympic-distance races over his first 12 years as a pro. He even won an ITU Pan American Cup race back in 2005, running 30:07 for 10K. While Scott did compete in a handful of USTS short-course races, I can’t find any results that have me believing he could’ve come close to 30 minutes in 10K.

In an Ironman race, Scott may have the edge. His Kona PR is only seven minutes slower than Alexander’s, and he did that with equipment that was much more than seven minutes worse. But more than a decade of racing ITU at a very high level gives Crowie the edge in this one.  

– Brad Culp

“I got Scott”

Dave Scott vs. Craig Alexander at their best, in a short course duel. They are both great. They both have a rich history in our sport, but Dave Scott has the edge in an explosive, high-octane two-hour event. That type of racing requires a certain edgy-ness, bluster, and aggression that I worry Alexander just doesn’t have (his company is called Sans-Ego, after all). 

Scott’s entry to the sport was from swimming and water polo, and the physical contact and proximity defines so much of a short-course event. Also, Scott got in the habit of winning from the start, and won the first triathlon he ever did—some late ‘70s, San Francisco, bike-run-swim oddity where he walked away with the top prize: a turkey. You just can’t shake those beginnings. 

– Ian Murray

Photo: John Segesta/Lionel Sanders

Undercard 2: Peak Normann Stadler vs. Current-Day Lionel Sanders in long-course

“I got Lionel”

This would be such a great contest because they are both deeply mediocre swimmers and might exit the water shoulder-to-shoulder and well behind the lead pack. The fireworks on the bike would be devastating for the rest of the field. 

For a fair comparison, just look at peak Stadler in Kona 2006. He exited the water behind the group of favorites, and I can imagine Sanders right with him. Stadler took over the race lead by mile 5 of the bike, then rode solo off the front for 107 more miles, laying down a split that was 23:40 faster than respected powerhouses of Peter Reid and Tim DeBoom. Had Lionel Sanders been there, they could have half-wheeled each other into a bike course record that would still stand today, even up against the flood of aging pro-roadies who are entering our sport. That gap would have been over 30 minutes. 

Sanders races almost purely on grit and guts and would have been fueled by the proximity of Stadler. Both these athletes have passion, but when things really get tough, I worry Stadler would crack under the pressure, like when he chucked his carbon race bike into a lava field back in 2005, while Lionel Sanders would keep moving towards the finish. Surely there’s the question of Kona PRs, and while the different-times, different-days argument is valid, Lionel’s lightning-fast 8:04 from 2017 is nearly a mile ahead of Stadler’s 8:11 when he won in ‘06. Stadler was fast, but Lionel is faster (and grittier).

– IM

“I got Stadler”

Lionel Sanders has had exactly one good race in Kona, finishing second in 2017. Normann Stadler had three podium finishes on the Big Island, including two wins in a three-year stretch. The reason Stadler was able to become a two-time champion is because he was light-years better than his peers on the bike. While Sanders might be one of the best cyclists in the sport right now, there are a handful of guys who can ride with—or even away—from him on any given day. In each of his two Kona wins (2004 and 2006), Stadler rode more than 10 minutes faster than his closest competition—something that seems unfathomable now.

In a hypothetical head-to-head Ironman, both men would come out of the water in about 54 minutes. Given that Stadler’s long-standing bike course record of 4:18:23 was set on a Kuota Kalibur that wouldn’t even qualify as an aero road bike today, I think he could’ve ridden at least 12 minutes faster with today’s technology and fitting expertise. While Sanders is no doubt the stronger runner of the two, his best bike split (4:14) would still put him into T2 about ten minutes down on Stadler. Give Stadler a pair of “super shoes,” and his typical 2:55 marathon could be three or four minutes faster. That means Sanders would need to run in the low 2:40s to chase him down, and that’s not happening.

– BC

Photo: VALERIE MACON/Getty Images

Celebrity Matchup: Peak Taylor “Tay Tay” Swift vs. Peak Selena Gomez – short-course

“I got Tay Tay”

Comparing Selena Gomez to Taylor Swift is ridiculous in any capacity, and triathlon is no different. I don’t know much about either woman’s athletic ability, but I know that when I did a Google image search for pictures of each of them running, there were dozens of pictures of Taylor running and exactly zero of Selena—so point Tay Tay. Swift was also quoted in Marie Claire last year saying that she enjoys running while on tour to get out and see new places. I can find no such quote for Selena, so I can only assume that she does not run and would have no chance in this hypothetical race. 

None of this is going to help her win a triathlon—especially one against a human as supremely talented in all walks of life as Taylor. Given all these factors, Taylor would finish so far ahead of Selena that she’d have time to write, record, and produce a Grammy-winning album before Selena even meandered across the finish line.

– BC

“I got Selena”

Selena Gomez would destroy Taylor Swift at a sprint dist….. well, hold on, let us not just pretend here—this pairing will very likely happen at the star-studded Malibu Triathlon in the near future. Here’s how it will play out: The “Celeb Wave” cannon fires, and Swift, using some pent-up anger from the previous night’s break-up and her 5-foot, 11-inch physique, gets through the surf and around the swim course a few minutes ahead of 5-foot, 5-inch Gomez. 

But triathlon requires balance and a big range, and just as Tay-Tay’s talents lean very heavy on the music side, it’s Selena who has the deeper, multifaceted abilities as an actress and producer. Those are the elements, I believe, that would put her ahead of Swift on the bike and run—the fact that she’s an “entertainment multisporter.” Selena would go on to finish Malibu in front of Taylor, but, it must be said, still slower than Alexandra Paul’s record celebrity course time. (Ed note: Former Baywatch actress Alexandra Paul is Murray’s wife)

– IM 

Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image

Main Event: Peak Daniela Ryf vs. Peak Chrissie Wellington – long-course

“I got Daniela”

Both athletes are talented, smart, and formidable—I would say they are equal in their near flawlessness. But there are two elements, one obvious and one hidden, that give Ryf the win. The obvious edge is that Daniela Ryf has been to two Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in the ITU Sprint Distance Worlds. She had a career of short course racing that Wellington never experienced. That kind of racing develops speed that simply cannot be found anywhere else. Ryf has a gear that Wellington doesn’t, and can shift into it at any time. She has also raced Kona faster than Wellington’s fastest effort three times. The only person who’s been close to beating her when she’s her best is…herself. No one is even in the ballpark. Sure, Wellington’s run and bike are fantastic, but Ryf’s swim, bike, and run, are all fantastic. I don’t think Ryf would even know Wellington was racing her.

The hidden element that gives Ryf an even greater edge is this: When I interviewed Ryf for the LA Tri Club in 2019 she revealed that she takes an off season. While some pro athletes define an off season as 20 hour training weeks rather than 40 hour weeks, Ryf rests—and rests HARD. She consistently took two months off every winter. I asked if she took hikes: “No.” She added 20 pounds of body weight. She said that “..the feeling of not being fit, makes you appreciate it much more to be fit.” When we imagine Ryf vs. Wellington in a race against each other, Daniela Ryf takes the win, hands down. 

– IM

“I got Chrissie”

Without Chrissie Wellington, there is no Daniela Ryf. For nearly 15 years, it looked as though Paula Newby-Fraser’s Kona course record of 8:55:28 would never be matched. No woman even came close to breaking nine hours. Wellington’s 8:54:02 win in Kona in 2007 lifted the sport to new heights, and in my mind it’s the single greatest performance ever on the Big Island. She finished 20 minutes ahead of the runner-up, a feat that’s only been bettered by Ryf’s 25-minute margin of victory in 2016. 

When you break down the time splits, it’s hard to see Wellington topping Ryf. On each of their best days, Ryf was at least five minutes faster in the swim, 10 minutes faster on the bike, and a couple of minutes better on the run. But I believe it’s the immeasurable intangibles that would have Wellington at the finish line just before Ryf. Simply put, Wellington could not lose—so much so that she did not start the 2010 Ironman World Championship due to illness. Competing with the potential of losing simply wasn’t an option for Wellington, and that’s why I believe she would find a way to track Ryf down on the run and keep her ridiculous undefeated streak alive.

– BC