The 2023 Kona Ironman World Championships this Saturday promise to showcase one of the most competitive women's professional fields ever assembled. With no clear dominant favorite, the race is wide open and should come down to who can put together the most complete performance across all three disciplines of swim, bike, and run.
Defending Champion Chelsea Sodaro
While defending champion Chelsea Sodaro can't be discounted, her breakthrough victory in 2022 came in a race missing some of the world's best. The 34-year-old American showed both durability and closing speed in pulling away late for her debut Kona title last year. However, her competition will be far steeper this time around.
Sodaro's key strength remains her running. She posted the fastest marathon among women by nearly 6 minutes last year. Her ability to churn out sub-3 hour runs gives Sodaro a shot to win again if she can stay within striking distance off the bike. But with a mid-pack swim and some vulnerability on the bike, Sodaro will need to match some of the world's fastest swimmers and cyclists to repeat as champion.
An up-and-down 2022 season saw Sodaro fail to finish her last two Ironman starts leading into Kona. She abandoned Challenge Roth after 30k of the run due to stomach issues. Sodaro has also seemed to lack her signature pep this season. The gritty determination she displayed during her Kona breakthrough last year may be harder to conjure up with the target now squarely on her back.
Daniela Ryf Seeks Return to the Top
Daniela Ryf, winner of five Kona titles between 2014-2018, showed she still has championship form by setting a new world best time at Challenge Roth in July. Her 8:18:20 not only bettered Chrissie Wellington's eight-year-old mark, but Ryf also set personal bests on both the bike and run portions.
However, Roth was Ryf's only truly standout performance this season. She struggled to an 8th place Kona finish last year and a pedestrian 9th at the 70.3 World Championships in August. At 36 years old, Ryf may struggle to find her best form twice in one year. Back-to-back peak performances have eluded her since 2017.
Ryf's singular focus is returning to the top in Kona, and her ability to peak for the biggest race gives her an edge. Her extensive experience on the Big Island course could also come into play late in the marathon. But if Ryf has an off day in any discipline, one of her hungry challengers is sure to take advantage on a course offering few places to hide.
Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay Seeks Podium Breakthrough
British athlete Lucy Charles-Barclay has finished 2nd in Kona each of the last four years, an impressive demonstration of consistency. The 30-year-old remains one of the world's premier swimmers often exiting the water with a multi-minute head start. She's also a more than capable cyclist who can maintain her advantage on the Queen K.
Charles-Barclay's Achilles heel has come on the run. She often fades after leading the first two legs and has never posted a sub-3 hour marathon in Kona. After an injury-plagued start to 2022, Charles-Barclay will likely need a career-best long distance run split to finally ascend the top step of the podium.
While not known for her running chops, Charles-Barclay has shown impressive grit in recent Kona editions. In 2019, she surrendered the lead late only to rally back and re-pass Sarah Crowley to reclaim 2nd place. And last year she fought side-by-side with eventual 3rd place finisher Anne Haug all the way to the tape. She's proven she won't relinquish a podium spot without a fierce fight.
Anne Haug Hopes to Repeat Magic from 2019
Speaking of Germany's Anne Haug, the 2019 Kona champion also hopes to recapture former glory. The 40-year-old Haug has six Ironman wins and 12 podium finishes to her credit. She's made a career of picking off rivals with her potent closing speed.
Haug showed she still has impressive running legs with a blistering 2:44 marathon at Challenge Roth, finishing 2nd to Ryf by just over 5 minutes. Her steady 2022 season proved she's far from slowing down with age.
While perhaps not the dominant force she was in 2019, Haug's veteran savvy and lethal closing speed make her a threat to be reckoned with. Unlike some other challengers, Haug also has positive Kona experience to draw from. If she remains within striking distance off the bike, count on Haug to be making a signature last minute charge. It's been four years since her Kona breakthrough, but Haug's triumphant return could be coming.
Young Stars Knibb & Matthews Look to Shake Up Established Rivals
This year's Kona field also features two incredibly talented younger athletes seeking to shake up the more established veterans. American Taylor Knibb, 25, has dominated short course racing in 2022 and will make her full Ironman debut. Great Britain's Kat Matthews, 32, is also debuting after a string of impressive Ironman finishes.
Knibb cemented her status as triathlon's rising phenom with 70.3 World Championship victories in 2021 and 2022. Boasting perhaps the best swim-bike combo in the sport, the precocious Knibb gained her Kona entry through sheer talent rather than years logged. She set a new 70.3 World best time in 2022 and also claimed the Hy-Vee Triple Crown $1 million overall prize.
Matthews took the Ironman world by storm in 2020 and 2021 notching several podium finishes. She rebounded from a serious bike crash early this season to place 2nd at 70.3 Worlds, showing she's back in top form.
Both Knibb and Matthews are threats to lead large portions of Saturday's race. How their inexperienced legs handle the infamous Energy Lab and grueling late miles could determine their podium fate. While a win would surprise, neither should be discounted especially if late-race carnage occurs.
Other Competitors Lurk as Dark Horses
Beyond the consensus leading contenders, a few other names could factor in the Kona title mix. Great Britain's Fenella Langridge finished 6th in her Kona debut last year and just off the podium at Challenge Roth. A strong swim and bike makes her dangerous.
Veteran Sarah True is another seeking redemption in Kona after two straight DNFs. The American bounced back by capturing the Ironman European Championship in June.
Finally, German Laura Philipp is one of the most powerful cyclists in triathlon. The 36-year-old has consistently finished in the 9-hour range for her Ironman conquests aided by bike splits bordering on breaking the rules. An off day sabotaged her Kona hopes last year, but Philipp's biking could again position her well.
Any of these veterans will require a near perfect day to breakthrough for the win, but the potential is there if stars align.
And The Winner Is?
In the end, Ryf's singular focus on returning to glory in Kona plus her extensive championship experience give her the edge to reclaim her place atop the Kona podium. She knows how to peak for the biggest race and what it takes to overcome both the course and competition.
But Ryf's margin for error is razor thin. There are no fewer than eight women who could potentially stand on top of the podium. Haug, Charles-Barclay, Sodaro, and Knibb in particular look primed for a potential breakout performance. And challenges could come from multiple fronts between veterans wanting to reclaim past glory and rising stars trying to forge a new legacy.
The 2023 Kona Ironman World Championships women's professional race promises to be one of the deepest and most exciting in history. With no clear-cut favourite, we are sure to be treated to a dramatic battle that comes down to the final miles.