In its 41st year of existence, triathlon has evolved from a swim-bike-run for fun race contested on September 25, 1975 by 46 competitors in Mission Bay, California to a worldwide enterprise involving millions of competitors in nearly 200 countries on six continents. This year saw the fifth Olympic triathlon in Rio de Janeiro, the 39th Ironman World Championship, and, for example, approximately 500,000 daily and yearly members of USA Triathlon competing in more than 4,200 events in the USA alone.
Here find some of the notable races and personalities that graced triathlon on the most recent spin around the sun.
PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR
Daniela Ryf overcame mid-season woes with a record-setting 8:46:46 time, winning her second straight women's crown at the Ironman World Championship in Kona and topping Mirinda Carfrae's 2013 race record by 5:28. Ryf's day was highlighted by women's-best 4:52:46 bike split and a 2:56:51 run split – a rare outrunning of Carfrae, the Kona women’s run record holder.
After two years of dominating the women's division of the World Triathlon Series, Gwen Jorgensen passed up some of her usual WTS schedule to focus everything on the Rio Olympics. After meeting surprising resistance on the run from defending gold medalist Nicola Spirig, Jorgensen sprinted away for the first Olympic Triathlon gold medal for the United States.
Canadian bike-run powerhouse Lionel Sanders rebounded from a Kona debacle a month earlier to break the Ironman brand record set by Marino Vanhoenacker at Austria in 2011 by 1:29 with a 7:44:29 clocking at Ironman Arizona.
Jan Frodeno won his second straight Ironman World Championship title with a decisive win over fellow German Sebastian Kienle. But his most singular achievement of 2016 occurred when he broke Andreas Raelert's 2011 Ironman-distance world best time with a 7:35:39 mark at Challenge Roth. Frodeno set race-best marks of 45:22 for the swim, 4:08:07 for the bike, and a 2nd-best 2:39:12 marathon to take the Roth win by 20:44 over Joe Skipper.
Paralympic stars Grace Norman (PT4) and Alyssa Seeley (PT2) led the U.S. to the lead in gold medals at the Paralympic Triathlon in Rio.
Heather Jackson became the first U.S. woman since Desiree Ficker won silver in 2006 to make the podium at the Ironman World Championship. Jackson did it with a 3rd place finish at Kona.
Patrick Lange of Germany broke Mark Allen's 27-year-old run record at Ironman Hawaii with a 2:39:45 clocking. Back in Allen’s day, they included T2 times in the run splits.
US women placed 1-2-3 at the Edmonton round of the World Triathlon Series.
Bermuda’s Flora Duffy scored her first WTS victory in Stockholm and clinched the ITU World Triathlon Series World Championship with an upset win over Gwen Jorgensen at the Grand Final in Cozumel. Duffy followed that with a third straight XTERRA World Championship, took a close second to Jorgensen at the big money three day Island House Triathlon, and capped off 2016 with a third World Championship of the year at the ITU Cross Triathlon Worlds in Australia in December.
RECORD WINS AND STREAKS
Jesse Thomas completed a 6-peat at Wildflower – a record likely to stand as the classic race was canceled for 2017 after 34 continuous years of operation.
Ronnie Schildknecht took his 9th Ironman Switzerland crown – 2007 through 2013 and 2015-2016.
At age 43, Cameron Brown won his record 12th Ironman New Zealand – 2001 through 2005, 2007 through 2011 and 2015-2016.
COACHES OF THE YEAR
Brett Sutton guided Daniela Ryf past mid-season woes to wins at Ironman Switzerland and Challenge Roth before setting a new Ironman World Championship Kona women’s course record in a time of 8:46:46. Sutton also guided Nicola Spirig to a comeback from an early season broken left hand to fiercely contest Gwen Jorgensen through 8km of the run and earn silver at the Rio Olympics.
Jamie Turner thoroughly prepared Gwen Jorgensen for her gold medal performance in Rio.
Joel Filliol guided Mario Mola to the World Triathlon Series world championship.
Mauricio Mendez of Mexico won the XTERRA Worlds elite men’s title at age 21 and also took his first Ironman 70.3 victory at Cozumel.
Summer Cook won the Chengdu and Tongyeong World Cups and captured her first World Triathlon Series victory at Edmonton.
CRAZIEST FINISH IN TRI HISTORY
Jonny Brownlee had never beaten his brother Alistair Brownlee when both were healthy. For example Alistair finished first to Jonny’s 3rd at the London Olympics and Alistair took 1st to Jonny’s 2nd at the Rio Olympics. Alistair has won 2 individual ITU World Titles (2009 and 2011) while Jonny won the ITU WTS World Championship in 2012 when Alistair missed most of the season’s races but won the London Olympics. So with 400 meters to go at the 2016 WTS Grand Final in Cozumel, Jonny had a big lead in the race and for the world title when he started wobbling and reeling from heat exhaustion. Alistair ran up and steadied his dizzy brother and assisted him to the finish line for 2nd place to Henry Schoeman in the Grand Final and 2nd in WTS season series behind Mario Mola, who finished 5th on the day.
Five-time ITU World Champion Javier Gomez had a low speed crash in July which left him with a broken elbow, knocking the 2012 London silver medalist out of the Rio Olympics
Big Island favorite Bree Wee announced in June that after eight years she was retiring as a professional triathlete and taking a full time job teaching first grade. Wee’s highlights include a first Ironman win at Louisville, a heartfelt blog which recounted her adventures at home in Kona and racing around the globe and the joy she felt raising her son Kainoa in Hawaii.
Honey Badger Mary Beth Ellis announced she was retiring from the professional ranks at the age of 39 in order to raise a family with husband Eric Olson. After osteoarthritis curtailed her marathon career in 2005, Ellis racked up a tremendous triathlon career which included an ITU long course World Championship, 11 Ironman victories, two Ironman 70.3 World Championship silver medals, victories at Escape From Alcatraz and the Pan Am Championships, two wins at Alpe d’Huez and a 5th place at the Ironman World Championship in 2012.
Richard Murray of South Africa incurred a penalty at WTS Hamburg for leaving his wetsuit in the wrong box at T1. Murray led the field after the bike but had to serve 10 seconds in the penalty box for his infraction and thus surrendered the lead to Mario Mola. Murray gave race referees a middle-finger salute and was disqualified for bad sportsmanship, losing his second place points and prize money.
Ironman announced in May it will test with "magnetic flux density" devices to detect motors in the crank and rear hub of competitors' bicycles.
ABOUT COURSE CUTTING
Julie Miller of Squamish, B.C. Canada was the subject of a 5,500 word article “Swim. Bike. Cheat?” in the April 8, 2016 edition of the New York Times examining her disqualification for cutting the running course at the 2013 and 2015 Ironman Canada events. On July 27, 2016, Miller was also disqualified from her top finish at the 2014 ITU long distance World Championship in Weihai, China.
Amy Stretton of New Zealand finished first in the 30-34 women’s age group at the 2016 ITU long distance World Championship in Oklahoma City but was disqualified because race officials considered her fast swim split – a minute faster than the fastest male pro - to be unbelievable. Later that day, the DQ was overturned after Stretton testified to race officials. But in early December, the ITU reinstated the DQ, not because of a challenge to the validity of her performance, but because Stretton’s appeal did not occur within the time frame allowed by the rules.
DOPING VIOLATIONS, VARIABLE PUNISHMENTS
Lisa Marangon was busted by Triathlon Australia for use of banned substance Ostarine, a selective androgen receptor, and received a 4 year ban ending in March 2020.
Ashley Paulson of the U.S. tested positive in March for Ostarine, but was given a six-month suspension because officials accepted her contention that the banned drug positive came from a contaminated supplement.
Russian triathlete Ivan Tutukin tested positive for the recently prohibited substance meldonium in April 2016. Tutukin was not suspended because the ITU ruled that the low concentration of meldonium in Tutukin’s urine sample was consistent with ingestion prior to the official prohibition of the substance on January 1, 2016.
Sign at the expo at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Omaha: “NuMale Medical” promised to “get your sex life back in just one visit.” The Erectile Dysfunction and Testosterone Replacement Therapy product is banned by WADA without a Therapeutic Use Exemption.
CHAOS AND CANCELLATIONS
Confusion reigned at Ironman 70.3 Cartagena when volunteers misdirected the pro men’s field and one pro woman on the two-loop run course. Apologetic race officials offered duplicate first, second and third place prize money to men’s finishers who were directed to race different, shorter distances. Early women’s leader Jeanni Seymour of South Africa was the sole woman to be misdirected. Because she ran more than the required distance, she finished 2nd but did not receive a duplicate first prize.
A cyclone with 100-plus mph winds forced race officials to cancel the December 4 Challenge Florianopolis.
The July 10 Boulder Peak Triathlon was canceled due to nearby wildfires.
CALIFORNIA DROUGHT SIDELINES WILDFLOWER
After three years of extremely low water levels in Lake San Antonio led to decreasing entries, Wildflower race director Terry Davis canceled all Tri-California triathlon events for 2017.
FORK IN THE ROAD
Initial reports asserted that the ITU was considering switching from Olympic distance to a sprint distance at the Olympics. The ITU later clarified that they were considering adding an additional sprint race, which might be the fast-action, short course mixed team relay.
Gwen Jorgensen finished 14th at the New York City Marathon in 2:41:01.
Luis Alvarez, who has completed 137 Ironman triathlons, summited the 29,029 foot peak of Mt. Everest on May 22. With this feat, Alvarez completed his goal of climbing the Seven Summits – the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents. Alvarez, 54, of Mexico City, Mexico, suffered temporary snow blindness on the expedition but has recovered.
Cliff Rigsbee, a 21-year veteran of the Honolulu Fire Department and an outstanding age group triathlete for 35 years, died June 16 from injuries he sustained during a rescue watercraft training accident near Diamond Head, Oahu. Rigsbee had six age group wins at the Ironman World Championship, was a USA Triathlon National Masters Triathlon champion and finished 5th overall at the 1998 Ultraman World Championship. In 1992 at Kona he finished 26th overall in a personal record time of 9:01:34. Rigsbee, 63, was a key figure in the Hawaiian triathlon and endurance sports community where he also served as a coach, training partner and adviser to countless fellow athletes.
Karen McKeachie, 63, one of triathlon’s most celebrated age-group stars, was struck by a vehicle on August 26, while cycling on a rural road near her home in Michigan. Ms. McKeachie and her husband Lew Kidder have been fixtures in the sport of triathlon since the 1980s. She was a coach, a race producer and a mentor to many athletes - most notably 3-sport Olympian Sheila Taormina. McKeachie won many world titles and was a 15-time national champion. In 1999, she was named USA Triathlon’s Overall Masters Triathlete of the Year.
Bridget Dawson, 58, the 55-59 champion at the 2012 Age Group World Championship and the 2013-14-15 U.S. duathlon age group national champion, died July 14 when she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle near her home in San Luis Obispo.
Dale Basescu, one of triathlon’s pioneer professionals, died in July at the age of 60. Shortly after starting the sport in 1983, Basescu became a top performer in short course triathlon and was considered a top-10-in-the-World competitor. Basescu suffered a chemical accident that scarred his lungs and caused him to retire from triathlon in the late 1980s. He was a touring musician and a practicing chiropractor in Beverly Hills, and had more than a dozen acting film credits to his name. Basescu had recently resumed triathlon training and intended to participate in the age group nationals.
Michelle Walters of McCook, Nebraska was hit by a car while riding on the cycling leg at Ironman Boulder in August and died in a nearby hospital. Walters, 34, was working toward a degree in nursing and was survived by young son Dorian, 4, her parents John and Deborah Walters, three sisters, and a step-brother. Walters took up distance running in 2015 and completed a half marathon, a marathon, and placed 5th female in the Dizzy Goat 12-hour trail race in which she completed 51 miles.