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Recalled: Chrissie Wellington’s Sparkling Kona Debut

Thirteen years ago this month, Chrissie Wellington won her first Ironman World Championship as a relative unknown, sending shockwaves through the sports world. Here’s a look back at the race that has been called the biggest upset in Ironman Hawaii history.

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Prior to the 2007 Ironman World Championships, the start list for female pros included all of the major names of the day: Kona champs Michellie Jones and Natascha Badmann. Future winner Leanda Cave. 70.3 World champ Samantha McGlone. Top U.S. stars Joanna Zeiger and Dede Griesbauer. And then, assigned bib number 107, was one Chrissie Wellington, a lithe, tanned 30-year-old representing Great Britain. Sure, anyone who had been closely watching her career up to that point may have considered her a dark horse. After all, earlier in 2007, she had absolutely crushed her competition in the uber-challenging Alpe d’Huez Triathlon. Then, in September, she took the Ironman Korea title by nearly an hour to snag her Kona slot. In those races, Wellington quietly demonstrated impressive athleticism, especially her ability to sustain wicked-quick paces on the bike and the run in high heat and humidity. But then again, she was a rookie pro, had only a single Ironman under her belt, and had never raced in Kona or dealt with the various unknown elements known to be hurled at competitors on the island. 

None of those factors, of course, would hinder Wellington in her Kona debut. Like a story plucked from a book of fairytales, Wellington transformed from a virtual unknown at the start of the day to a princess by sunset; her carriage coming in the form of her Cervelo bike on which she cruised to the field’s fastest split despite a broken pedal held together with glue; her glass slippers the racing flats took her to a 2:59:58 marathon; her ballgown a pair of borrowed shorts and a simple black tankini top she’d picked up at the race expo just days before. 

“Yeah, I really didn’t look the part,” Wellington would later say. “It was surreal. I didn’t know any better.”

Wellington won the race in a kit she purchased at the expo. TYR went on to be a longtime sponsor of Wellington’s. Photo: Thierry Deketelaere

But she didn’t have to look the part. Her unrivaled fitness–developed under the tutelage of famed Australian coach Brett Sutton (who’d later coach another multi-time world champ in Daniela Ryf)–was enough of a statement. As fate would have it, the race somewhat played into Wellington’s hands when heavy favorites Jones and Badmann dropped out on the bike leg. Still, it was not an easy win: After her powerful ride in which she made up a staggering gap from a sub-par swim (her weakest link), Wellington would put on a clinic on the run and win by nearly six minutes over McGlone in what was then the second-fastest run split in race history. 

That day, no one was more surprised about the result than Wellington herself. “Some people said I had a chance, but I never believed them,” she said. “You know [the best in the world] are behind you and you never know what they are capable of. I was running scared the whole way, thinking: ‘They’ll catch me, they’ll catch me.’ But they just didn’t.” 

Wellington was so out of her element that she misjudged the distance of the run course and started celebrating well before the finish line. “I got a bit confused and had to run about 1 kilometer more than I was expecting, whilst clutching hold of the Great Britain flag and smiling like a mad woman,” she recalled. 

It was that smile and goofiness that endeared Wellington to fans, on top of her unrelenting dominance on the race course. Granted, Wellington’s fairytale was only beginning in 2007–she’d go on to win in Kona three more times in 2008, 2009, and 2011, rack up victories all over the world, and set still-standing course records before retiring in 2012. But, for Wellington, perhaps no performance was as memorable–and as transformative–as her very first world champ win. 

“I went from being a nobody to winning the biggest race in our sport on the biggest world stage,” Wellington reflected years later. “It changed my life forever.”