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With few of the women’s top names returning to Kona this year and a lot of new, very fast faces taking their place, this year’s Ironman World Championship could be one of the most exciting women’s races in recent history. While everyone has their perennial picks, we’ve compiled a quick guide to the other top names you should know—European racers with a real shot at the podium, but who don’t show up on North American radars. If Holly Lawrence’s surprise win (to some) at 70.3 World Championship in September proves anything, it’s that athletes can step up in a big way on the biggest day. Don’t embarrass yourself by being the ironfan blindly calling out, “Who is that?!” at your Ironman viewing party; be the one to educate them.
Julia Gajer (GER)
Gajer scored her invite to the big show with a win at the North American championship in Texas this year, but she hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Five years ago, Gajer finished second at Challenge Roth; the next year she was third in the always loaded field. Since then, she racked up a win at Ironman Arizona in 2013, running through Meredith Kessler and Michelle Vesterby along the way. Gajer has also proven herself on the Big Island with a sixth-place finish in 2014, but was forced to withdraw during the bike in 2015 despite a lot of pre-race hype. Qualifying early in Texas means Gajer has had plenty of flexibility with her schedule to focus her training entirely on the big day. Her strength is her run, and with two sub-2:50 open marathons in her pocket, she shouldn’t be written off coming out of T2.
Susie Cheetham (GBR)
Cheetham is essentially in Gajer’s position from last year. Coming off of a breakthrough sixth-place finish in Kona in 2015, Cheetham used a well-balanced attack to score a second-place finish at Ironman South Africa this year, beating another under-the-radar Brit, Lucy Gossage and Aussie stalwart Annabel Luxford, who finished third and sixth respectively. Though she was plagued by a crash early in the season and some recurring plantar issues, Cheetham’s light schedule of mostly 70.3 events has left her rested and focused for the big day. Look for her reasonably strong swim that still allows her to stay in the mix and not have to play catch-up like many of the other running specialists.
Lucy Gossage (GBR)
Gossage’s strategy this season is in stark contrast to countrywoman Susie Cheetham. In March, Gossage took second at Ironman New Zealand and only a month later grabbed third at Ironman South Africa. Instead of taking a huge break, Gossage used her momentum to score a big victory at Ironman UK in July. Though her record at Kona is short (she has raced twice as an age-grouper and twice before as a pro), her ascension has been fast—she bounced back from a 32nd-place walk/finish in 2014 with a 10th-place breakthrough last year.
Kaisa Lehtonen (FIN)
Though not necessarily a familiar name on the ITU circuit, Lehtonen is among the refugees who have come from short-course racing to Ironman. While Lehtonen’s ITU career was marred by injuries, she immediately found a home in long-course racing by taking second place at Ironman Barcelona in 2015, only two minutes behind favorite Yvonne Van Vlerken. This year, she won Ironman South Africa ahead of both Cheetham and Gossage with an incredibly well-rounded attack. Though she’s a rookie in Kona, Lehtonen has been taking drastic steps to prepare by using indoor cycling sessions in a hot yoga studio to acclimatize, so don’t expect her to wilt in the Hawaiian heat.
Anja Beranek (GER)
It can be hard to be a German athlete not named Andreas, Sebastian or Jan, but Beranek has carved out a place at the top of her country’s long-course list. In her second year as a pro, Beranek posted a very telling win at Ironman Switzerland in 2013. She set herself up tactically for an appearance in Kona this year with a surprising podium finish at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and a win at Ironman Wales in 2015. Despite a light schedule this year, her stock has been trending upward in 2016 with a fifth-place finish at Roth and more than enough time to prepare for an assault on Kona. Watch for Beranek as a “race instigator” in Hawaii, as her incredibly strong swim and bike will likely help drive the main field.