Torbjorn Sindballe was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve syndrome this spring, which promoted his retirement at age 32 from a remarkable triathlon career. The Dane whose name means Thunder Bear won silver at the ITU long course World Championship in 1999 and 2002, then gold in 2004 and 2006. He won the European Championship in 2003, and smashing victories at Ironman 70.3 California in 2002 and 2005. In the longer arc of his career, Kona was the ultimate goal and he advanced very far towards the summit, setting a bike record in 2005 and placing third overall in 2007 despite a physiology that was in no way a good fit with the heat and humidity of Hawaii.
One of the three or four best cyclists in the sport, Sindballe was that rare combination of a cool scientific mind with a hot-blooded Viking passion.
Coming off a runner-up finish at the 1999 ITU long course World Championship at age 22, Denmark’s Torbjorn Sindballe smashed to a huge lead on the bike at Ironman Florida 2000 against a field that included seven-time Zofingen winner Olivier Bernhard. But, just entering an 18-month period of injuries, he failed to finish the run.
A sign of things to come: Sindballe’s great bike – belonging to select company of Ironman cyclists that include Normann Stadler, Chris Lieto, Jurgen Zack – garnered huge leads such as this ride at Ironman Florida 2000 and attracted attention from the media.
Sindballe made his first big imprint at the inaugural 2002 Ironman California 70.3 in Oceanside. There he soundly whipped the likes of Craig Walton, Tim DeBoom, Cameron Brown, Craig Alexander, Chris Lieto, Steve Larsen, Chris Legh not only with his bike, but with a race–record 1:12:43 half marathon.
Sindballe’s 2002 win started off his best season – which included Danish sprint and duathlon national titles, a silver medal at ITU long course Worlds, and the Danish long course worlds.
Sindballe got a 6th place at Kona in 2004, but got more splash with his soon-to-be-eclipsed-by-Stadler race-record 4:21:36 bike split in the 2005 Ironman World Championship – even thought he faded from the top 10 on the run.
Back stronger than ever at Kona in 2007, Sindballe seemed destined to break away on the bike with two-time Hawaii champion Stadler (left) and Chris Lieto (right).
After a slow swim, Sindballe gradually caught up to the lead pack, saving energy for the run.
When it all worked out, Stadler DNF’d with food poisoning, Sindballe’s carefully, conservatively crafted 4:25:26 bike led Lieto and the rest of the field into T2.
Using his dorky but fabulously effective heat-deflecting white racing outfit, Sindballe had his best Kona ever – third - only passed at the end by Chris McCormack and Craig Alexander.
Primarily a quiet, modest, scientifically-oriented competitor, Sindballe let out a well-earned Viking roar for his podium finish on Alii Drive.
Ignoring the heat, Sindballe proudly wore the winner’s wreath almost an hour after his 8:21:30 finish.
On the stage at the Kona awards ceremony, clutching his hand crafted victory bowl made of native Hawaiian wood.
Back for a rematch in 2008, Sindballe earned a spot at the pre race press conference. Always a generous conversationalist, Sindballe talks with Marino Van Hoenacker.
Sindballe assiduously keeps the radiator flowing with coolant halfway through the Kona bike.
Looking at dials, hydrating, calculating how fast he needed to run to maintain his lead and improve his 2007 finish.
By the end of the ride, Sindballe was farther ahead of his mnearest pursuer than he was in 2007.
Only this time, he had no steam on the run and faded out of the top 40. Puzzled at the time, in retrospect Sindballe saw this as a signal of troubles to come with his bicuspid aortic heart valve malfunctioning.
Heading into 2009, Sindballe instigated some fundamental changes in his run and bike and swim technique and training – all planned to pay off in the future. Sadly, a meltdown at Wildflower led to a the diagnosis of heart valve trouble that prompted retirement in late June.
Sindballe remains optimistic and upbeat about the end of a brilliant career which fell just shy of all his athletic dreams.