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In September of 2017, a pair of women, dressed in matching blue sports bras and shorts, the same square watch on their wrists, the same mahogany-hued ponytail swinging behind them, the same slack-jawed, steely-eyed expression on their faces, even the same spray of freckles across their chests and arms, crossed the finish line of Rock ‘n’ Roll Montreal side-by-side. Even their times matched, down to the second; a respectable 1:37:24, good enough to win the 55 to 59 age category.
The image of this pair running stride for stride was instantly familiar to anyone who had followed triathlon since its earliest days. It was the same duo who once dominated Ironman Hawaii in the 1980s: Identical twins Sylviane and Patricia Puntous. The French-Canadians’ pro triathlon careers were relatively brief, but prolific. They raced frequently and won often. With the exception of 1985, a Puntous was on the podium in every single Ironman World Championship race between 1982 and 1989. Perhaps the most impressive of their performances in Hawaii came in 1983 and 1984, when they finished first and second, with Sylviane becoming the first non-American to win–and, later, the first woman to snag back-to-back victories in the historic race.
Hailing from Montreal, the twins began as competitive swimmers before turning to track, ultimately becoming some of the fastest middle-distance runners in Canada at the time. When they joined the burgeoning sport of triathlon in the early 80s, they displayed prowess from the start, breaking the tape together in their very first race. Months later, they were in Hawaii, set to compete against the world’s best at the Ironman distance at just 23-years-old.
This was a pattern that would play out in many more races to come: Out of 86 races they entered in a six-year span, they finished 1-2 68 times. They also tied in several races and were rarely more than one or two places apart in other competitions.
The Puntous’ career was not without some drama, however. In 1986, Patricia took the lead on the run and broke the tape at the Ironman World Champs in 9 hours, 47 minutes and 49 seconds–a new course record. After an emotional reunion with her twin, who finished third behind Paula Newby-Fraser some five minutes later, the celebration was abruptly halted by the race marshall who informed Patricia she had drafted on the bike and would be disqualified. As cameras rolled, Patricia, with her victory lei still draped around her neck, could be seen pleading with the official, shaking her head and waving her arms in protest before breaking down into sobs. Although Patricia disputed the penalty and it was thought perhaps Sylvaine was the one who drafted, there would be no appeal, per the race rules: Officials claimed Patricia had drafted among a pack of men along the course (at the time, athletes didn’t serve penalties on the course). The victory would go to Newby-Fraser, her first of eight world champ wins.
Later, the twins would say they “put that behind us and now we feel good and happy again,” and began wearing different color kits to distinguish themselves for the judges. Still, perhaps burned or scarred from the experience, Patricia would never reach the podium in Kona again; although Sylviane would finish as runner-up in 1987 and 1989.
That year, both sisters quietly stepped away from the sport, although they did continue to hit road races throughout Canada. But it wasn’t before they pushed the envelope of what was attainable in the sport by demonstrating the possibility of achievement in the Ironman event race after race. And, if anything, they provided fascination for fans who’d they’d leave in awe after each nearly synchronized performance.