Women didn’t even compete in the first Ironman World Championship, held in 1978 on O’ahu. But on Oct. 14 in Kona, they will have the spotlight all to themselves for the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run competition that is watched around the world.
For the first time in the history of the championship, the women are competing in a different location than the men, who raced last month in Nice, France.
“From cycling to soccer, there’s been a huge shift in a positive direction where more and more people are watching women’s sports,” said Diana Bertsch, senior vice president of world championship events for The Ironman Group. “This, once again, is a historical moment and it’s exciting to be able to show how the women can shine and what phenomenal athletes they are.”
And this year’s female field is strong.
Defending champion Chelsea Sodaro of the United States is headlining a record 54 professional women triathletes who will be on the hunt for the world title and a piece of the $375,000 professional prize purse.
Other pro challengers include last year’s runners-up, Great Britain’s Lucy Charles-Barclay and Germany’s Anne Haug. Also competing are five-time Ironman World Champion Daniela Ryf of Switzerland who is nicknamed “Angry Bird” and Ironman European Champion Laura Philipp of Germany.
The field also includes nearly 2,100 of the best age group women triathletes from around the world, some who will be trying to win their categories and others who are simply trying to complete the grueling course before the clock strikes midnight.
The average age of the competitors is 44 years old, with the youngest 18 and the oldest 75.
It wasn’t part of a grand plan for the Ironman organization to separate the women from the men.
But the race became so popular, and with the COVID-19 pandemic causing a backlog of triathletes who had earned spots in the championship, the one-day race was turned into a two-day event in 2022. The traffic jams, inability for some business to operate and other issues caused by the Thursday race angered many in the community.
With pressure from some residents and businesses, Ironman and Hawai‘i County concluded that the impacts of last year’s first-ever two-day race on the Kona community were too much. The Ironman championship also had grown too big to be able to compete in the same compact area of Kona on the same day.
The decision was made to alternate the years that the men and women would compete in Kona, with Nice chosen as the other site. The men will return to Kona in 2024 while the women head to France.
The triathletes from all walks of life.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Sara Whittingham, who served in Afghanistan and Korea, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years ago. Learning that cardiovascular exercise is the best way to slow the progression of the disease, the 49-year-old from Aurora, Ohio, refocused her energy into training for triathlons.
She’s completed eight Ironman races in the past 6 years. This will be her first in Kona.
Whittingham is inspired by others living with Parkinson’s and hopes to bring awareness of the disease and what’s possible by committing to a consistent exercise routine.
Fernanda Keller, a 60-year-old from Rio de Janeiro, was the first Brazilian woman to complete the Ironman World Championship and the only triathlete in the world to place third a total of six times from 1994-2000 and another 14 times in the top 10 in the following years. She was featured in 2015 as one of Forbes’ most powerful women in sports.
Keller finished her 24th Ironman World Championship in 2019, the most of any professional competitor in history, and returns to Kona this year looking to add to her decorated career.
When Annie Brooks of Leicestershire, United Kingdom, was 28 years old, she was diagnosed with epilepsy after having periods of intense brain fog and memory loss. Despite all the unknowns of the condition, the now 39-year-old has become a passionate triathlete. She started racing two years after her diagnosis and her dream of racing in Kona will come true this year.
Triathlon competition helps Brooks give her mind focus and relieves stress and anxiety, triggers for seizures: “Triathlon gives my mind mental meditation somehow.”
It’s about the journey and no one can do it alone.
On average, each Ironman racer brings three people with them to the Big Island. Counting members of the media, VIPs who come from around the globe to watch and the triathlons partners, there likely be more than 6,300 people descending on Kona next week. Some have been here for at least a week.
Bertsch, who completed the Ironman race in Kona in 1995 and has worked the race for 20 years, said more than 5,000 community volunteers help make the race and accompanying events during the week possible.
“It is amazing,” she said. “Being able to give up yourself as a volunteer is one of the most selfless things you can do. It’s incredible to see what people will give to make somebody else’s dream come true.”
Bertsch gets chicken skin thinking about how the community comes together to do something nowhere else in the world does like Kona.
“It’s a pretty great feeling when that last athlete crosses,” she said. “It’s probably not even right away, but when you do take the time or have the opportunity to reflect, you see what your team and what the community made possible.”