Knibb Conquers in Lahti for Back-to-Back 70.3 World Titles

Defending champ Taylor Knibb put on a dominant performance at the 2023 Ironman 70.3 World Championship women's race, winning by over 3 minutes to claim her second straight world title in a new course record time of 3:53:02

Knibb Conquers in Lahti for Back-to-Back 70.3 World Titles
Taylor Knibb captures her second title. Photo: Nigel Roddis - Getty Images for Ironman

The 2023 Ironman 70.3 World Championship took place in the picturesque lakeside city of Lahti, Finland, where the top female triathletes gathered to compete for the prestigious title on the stunning race course. After the dense fog rolling over Lake Vesijärvi pushed the pro women's start back by 30 minutes, the athletes finally dove into the crisp waters to commence the 1.9km swim under cloudy skies.

A lead pack of about seven swimmers formed in the choppy gray waves, led by Lucy Buckingham of Great Britain who stroked powerfully in her sleek blue speedsuit. Right on Buckingham's feet was 22-year-old defending champion Taylor Knibb of the USA, along with Pamela Oliveira of Brazil outfitted in bright green and yellow.

Another 10 seconds behind the leaders were Caroline Pohle of Germany and Imogen Simmonds of Switzerland, both ready to chase. The water temp was a cool 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit, causing many athletes to opt for wetsuits despite the non-wetsuit swim in last year's balmy Hawaiian waters.

1:22 later, the main chase pack completed the two-loop course, containing several notable pre-race favorites. Among them were the British duo of Kat Matthews in an eye-catching pink swimskin and Holly Lawrence in subdued black; Ellie Salthouse of Australia sporting navy blue, and Emma Pallant-Browne in patriotic red, white and blue.

Also in that group were Paula Findlay of Canada clad in red and black, along with fellow maple leaf Tamara Jewett. Rounding out the dozen women were Daniela Ryf of Switzerland, the reigning Queen of triathlon gunning for a sixth 70.3 World title in an unassuming black suit accented by Switzerland's white cross. Further back, Frenchwoman Marjolaine Pierre was 2 minutes behind the leaders, a deficit that would prove too substantial to overcome.

Exiting the water, the athletes wasted no time getting to work stripping off their wetsuits and helmets in T1. Out in under two minutes, Buckingham continued leading the pack as the first cyclists departed the lakeside transition zone greeted by throngs of cheering fans. But the blonde Brit's lead rapidly evaporated as Knibb powered her way to the front within the first 15km of the undulating 90km bike course.

The only one able to stick with Knibb's early attack was dark-haired Simmonds, as the pair steadily built a gap of over 2 minutes on the rest of the field. By the 40km mark, Buckingham, Pohle, and Oliveira had all fallen back, unable to match Knibb's blistering pace. The American phenom already had her sights set on defending her world crown.

Meanwhile, Ryf and Findlay led the chase pack and eventually caught up to the dropped swimmers around 30km in. But even with their combined firepower, they remained over 3 minutes behind Knibb and Simmonds. The Swiss legend Ryf was hoping to reclaim her throne after uncharacteristically fading to 13th last year, but Knibb seemed determined not to let that happen.

By the 80km checkpoint, Knibb had shaken even the tenacious Simmonds, who was now 1:15 behind in second. Ryf, Findlay, Matthews and Pallant-Browne formed the chasers nearly 5 minutes back, with Matthews recording the fastest bike split of that foursome. But no one came close to matching Knibb’s unmatched pace.

The American was utterly dominant on two wheels, blowing away the women's bike course record with a split of 2:07:52. That was over two and a half minutes quicker than any other woman, affirming Knibb's status as triathlon's rising superstar. After silver in St. George last year, she was pedaling with purpose in pursuit of her second straight world title.

Off the bike, Knibb quickly extended her substantial lead during the 21.1km two-loop run course consisting of paved trail surrounded by verdant forest. Her first 5km split was under 19 minutes—nearly a minute faster than the rest of the field—as she continued to crush the competition.

Clad in a stars-and-stripes unitard, Knibb's confident stride and optimal form belied the fact that she was over 3 minutes ahead of the competition. Her turnover was quick and light as she ticked off each kilometer at world record pace.

Simmonds initially held on to second starting the run, but was eventually caught around the 12km mark by Matthews, who had moved up from the chase pack with an incredible run split. The scrappy Brit dug deep to pass Simmonds and consolidate second place with a few kilometers remaining.

In the end, Knibb crossed the finish in Sorvalampi park alone, triumphantly breaking the tape in a new course record time of 3:53:02 to wild cheers from the crowd. She raised her arms and grinned in celebration of successfully defending her world title in dominant style. Matthews also soaked up thunderous applause as she claimed 2nd place in 3:57:05.

Simmonds held on for 3rd, ecstatic to be back on the podium after illness and injury in recent years. She crossed in 3:57:56, just 1:51 behind Matthews. The Swiss athlete was overcome with emotion at re-establishing herself as a world class triathlete after doubting if she could reach these heights again.

Just missing the podium in 4th was Britain's Pallant-Browne in 3:58:35, while Canadian veteran Findlay rounded out the top 5 females in 4:00:32. After an aggressive bike leg kept her among the lead contenders, Findlay ran steadily despite losing some ground to hold on to 5th. Post-race she was satisfied with her best World Championship result since 2016.

In the post-race press conference, the elated podium finishers spoke about their journeys to this moment under the pine trees in Lahti. The 22-year-old Knibb, now a two-time 70.3 world champion, reflected on executing the perfect race just a week after securing her second Olympics qualification. She called her Worlds defense the "icing on the cake" after an unforgettable month.

When asked about handling the solitary 30km bike ride by herself, Knibb remarked "I don't think we care about how we feel—we're professionals and the aim is to get to the finish as fast as we can." Her mentality exemplified why she is on track to become the future face of triathlon after the likes of Ryf and Jorgensen exit the stage.

Despite struggling through a subpar run, Findlay expressed satisfaction with 5th after an aggressive bike leg kept her engaged with the contenders. The Canadian was competing at her first World Championship race since having a baby last year, giving her performance added significance.

Pallant-Browne lamented a poor transition from the bike but credited the supportive Lahti crowds for pushing her to almost catch Matthews on the second lap. She called the Wellington, New Zealand course two years ago "the worst of my life," making her 4th place finish in the forests of Finland even more rewarding.

An emotional Simmonds described her long-awaited podium finish as a huge accomplishment after multiple injury setbacks and illness in recent seasons. "It was amazing, I was running scared constantly looking over my shoulder," she admitted regarding holding off the hard-charging Pallant-Browne. Her perseverance paid off handsomely with her first 70.3 Worlds medal since 2019.

Matthews was equally moved taking the silver medal in her first 70.3 Worlds just months after a traumatic cycling accident left her hospitalized with horrific injuries. She credited the local community and triathlon fans for an unforgettable experience competing on the "best course I've ever raced."

Given Matthews was unsure if she would ever compete again after the crash, her runner-up finish exemplified the extraordinary tenacity and spirit among these professional women. When later asked about deriving strength from adversity, she pointedly stated, "I don't think fracturing your skull, spine, sternum, rib and pelvis could ever make you stronger."

When asked who she predicted would win the men's race the next day, Knibb astutely advised the male contenders to clarify the swim start box rules and beware the deceptively tough bike course. She expected American Sam Long would likely prevail for the men's race, while her fellow podium finishers speculated Lionel Sanders, Christian Blumenfeld, or dark horse Frederik Funk could end up World Champion.

In describing the electrifying Lahti race environment, their sentiments solidified that the magic of race day emerges equally from the people along the course as the place itself. From Finnish families welcoming athletes into their homes to passionate spectators lining every meter of the run, the local community helped make the 2023 World Championship race one for the history books.