It will be tough to top Caroline Steffen's historic performance at Ironman Melbourne last year. This year the women’s field will be a little bit weaker with the absence Mirinda Carfrae and Rachel Joyce. But the USA’s Meredith Kessler, New Zealand’s Gina Crawford and Switzerland's unsinkable aerobic smiley face Natascha Badmann should give Steffen plenty of challenge.
These contenders are ranked in order by a humble predictor who will be happy to be proved wrong and eat well-deserved crow from anyone who feels that their favorite triathlete has been given short shrift here.
Caroline Steffen (SUI), 35
Steffen gave one of the sport’s greatest performances last year at Melbourne with her 2nd-best-ever Ironman winning time of 8:34:51, the greatest women’s Ironman bike split ever with a 4:35:29 clocking, and a not too shabby 3:01:22 closing run. That gave Steffen a 12 minutes margin on runner-up British star Rachel Joyce and a whopping 30 minutes on 3rd place Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Champion Mirinda Carfrae. Steffen keeps knocking on the door at Kona with 2nd, 5th and 2nd finishes the past three years. She also has ITU Long Distance World Championship golds in 2010 and 2012, a 3rd and a 2nd at Abu Dhabi and at the prestigious Frankfurt Ironman has placed 2nd, 1st and 1st the past three years – capped off with a scary fast 8:52 last year. Current form is early season excellent as she is coming into Melbourne with a 2nd place finish at Abu Dhabi and a 2nd at Ironman 70.3 New Zealand – not peaking too early. Prohibitive favorite.
Meredith Kessler (USA), 35
This San Francisco-based Ironman star had a great 2012 which included Ironman wins at Mew Zealand, St. George and Coeur d’Alene. She also scored wins at Eagleman 70.3, Vineman 70.3 and took 2nd at Ironman Arizona. Kessler seems right on track in 2013 with another win at Ironman New Zealand this month. Another clue why she is playing Avis to Steffen’s Hertz yet again? Kessler finished 3rd at Ironman 703. New Zealand – 4:19 behind Steffen.
Gina Crawford (NZL), 32
This New Zealand mom has 11 Ironman-distance victories (including 5 wins at Challenge Wanaka) and is a consistent challenger at the big races – last year she finished 7th at Kona and 5th at Ironman Melbourne. She has always won at Ironman New Zealand, Ironman Western Australia and twice at Ironman Wisconsin. Her current form is good but not her best – she won Challenge Wanaka, took second to Kessler at Ironman New Zealand and 3rd at Ironman 70.3 New Zealand.
Yvonne Van Vlerken (NED), 34
This Dutch master has recorded 6 Ironman-distance wins, and has broken the 9-hour barrier three times – 8:51:55 at 2007 Challenge Roth, 8:45:48 at 2008 Challenge Roth and – most pertinent to Ironman Melbourne this weekend -- Van Vlerken was back in top form last November at Ironman Florida where she won in 8:51:35. Van Vlerken has many other world class performances, including 2nd to Chrissie Wellington at Ironman Hawaii in 2008, 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt in 2009 and three ITU Duathlon World Championship golds.
Van Vlerken’s greatest strength is her bike, witness her 4:40:20 split on her way to victory at Ironman Florida. Her 3:04:45 marathon time was 7 minutes slower than 3rd-place Ashley Clifford, but it was all she needed to finish 14 minutes ahead of the runner-up, Ironman Hawaii champion Mirinda Carfrae, by 14 minutes. Van Vlerken is capable of throwing down a sub-3 hour run when called upon – witness her 2:54:22 split at Roth in 2008.
Natascha Badmann (SUI), 46
This 6-time Ironman World champion, 2-time Kona runner-up, and ITU duathlon world champion suffered severe, career-threatening injures in a 2007 crash at Kona and the metal that it took to patch her back together has been ringing the bells at airport security gates ever since. It was a miracle that she even got back on her bike and that she could run for two years after the crash. But amazingly, the elfin, irrepressible Badmann is tearing up the professional ranks the past two year – at the age of 46. In 2011, she won the Asia-Pacific Championship half Ironman at Laguna Phuket. In 2012, Badmann was a badass, a relevant contender in big races once again. She won Ironman South Africa and finished 6th at the Ironman World championship, posting the fastest pro bike split (5:06:07) against the likes of Leanda Cave, Caroline Steffen and Rachel Joyce. To top it off, she ran 3:09:18 – her second fastest ever marathon split at Kona.
Nikki Butterfield (AUS), 31
Butterfield, the Under 23 ITU World Champion a decade ago, became a world class cyclist who returned to triathlon with a vengeance a few years ago. In 2011, she posted 2nd place finishes at three 5150 Olympic distance races but hit her stride with a win at Syracuse 70.3 and an impressive 4th place finish at the big money Hy-Vee Triathlon. Last year she used a dominant bike on the 200 kilometer autobahn-style bike course to forge a lead and held off Steffen and Melissa Hauschildt to win the prestigious, big money Abu Dhabi Triathlon, then followed that up with 3rd place finishes at Ironman 70.ss in Syracuse and Boise. This excursion into the Ironman distance should suit her bike skills but sorely test her on the final miles of the marathon.
Bree Wee (USA), 33
Hawaii’s favorite daughter and loving single mother Bree Wee realized one dream when she won Ironman Louisville last year. Wee’s 4th place finishes at Cozumel 70.3 and Hawaii 70.3 and 2nd place performances at Philippines 70.3, and Rev 3 Costa Rica proved she was no flash in the pan.
Carrie Lester (AUS), 31
This Australian did not finish Ironman New Zealand earlier this month and perhaps she was saving herself for bigger things at Melbourne. Lester certainly has shown promise. Last year she was 8th at Ironman Melbourne, 6th at Ironman Florida and Ironman 70.3 Cozumel, 2nd at Rev3 Cedar Point and Half Challenge Vichy – and she won Ironman Cairns.
Anna Cleaver (NZL), 31
In 2012, the promising career of Anna Cleaver hit a pothole when she was hit by a car and lost quite a bit of time in recovery. Still, she managed 4th at Syracuse 70.3, a 2nd at the Port Of Tauranga half and a win at the Port Macquarie 70.3. This year Cleaver has a good start with a 3rd at Geelong long course. Still, she faces a challenge as she us contending in one of her first Ironman distance events against a stacked field.
Dede Griesbauer (USA), 42
Griesbauer, one of Karen Smyers’ Massachusetts neighbors and favorite training partners, suffered injuries in a bike crash at 2011 Ironman Germany. But now, at 42, she seems to be rolling in similar fashion to her wins at Ironman UK in 2006 and at Ironman Brazil in 2009. Last year she was 10th at Ironman 70.3 Panama, 4th at Rhode Island 70.3 and 2nd at Racine 70.3 capped off by a 21st at Kona.
Tenille Hoogland (CAN), 34
Hoogland, an accomplished 70.3 competitor, made her Ironman debut last November at Cozumel. She had the fastest swim and a 7th-best 5:06 bike before nutrition problems led her to fade to a 3:56 run, a 10:02 finish and 19th overall. Hoogland is looking for redemption at Melbourne. Since turning pro in 2010, she won a Pan American Cup race in San Francisco in 2010. In 2011, she finished 4th at Wildflower and Eagleman, won Calgary 70.3, and was 7th at ITU long distance Worlds, and was forced to drop out of 70.3 Worlds because of an asthma attack. Last year she got more consistent, finishing 2nd at Lake Stevens 70.3, Muskoka 70.3 and at the Rev3 Anderson (S.C.) half and capped off her season with a win at the Pocono Mountains 70.3. Hoogland’s instincts are that her best days will be had at the Ironman distance. Taking on the deep and fast Melbourne field in her second try at the Ironman distance will be like diving into the deep end – which is right up this fearless Canadian’s alley.